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Arbeit macht frei: Day trip to the Auschwitz concentration camps

I took a day trip to Auschwitz today, the site of several of the most important German Nazi concentration camps.

The ride there from Krakow was not pleasant. When I arrived at the bus depot, the woman at the ticket window advised me to go board a bus immediately and buy a ticket from the driver. Because I had left early to avoid crowds, I broke one of my rules of traveling, which is “eat first”. About an hour into my ride through winding roads in Polish countryside, I was seriously thinking I had to puke. Fortunately I was able to put my head down and choke it back.

Upon arriving at the first Auschwitz camp, I put off the visit for a while so I could have some food and just relax. A restaurant at the site was just starting to serve lunch, and not having had any breakfast, I decided to have a big, hearty Polish meal of pork cutlet, boiled potatoes, some kind of slaw, and something vaguely resembling beets. Frankly, I have no idea what I was eating or if it was even Polish, but I just about licked the plate clean I was so hungry. Then I had a coffee and a bottle of water.

As I entered the camp, I walked through the visitors center where there’s a display of last words left by prisoners, often scratched in pencil on prison walls. I read about two of them and had to leave the room because I thought I was going to burst into tears. The displays about the camp’s officers were considerably less emotional.

Arbeit macht frei sign at Auschwitz camp in Poland.

Arbeit macht frei sign at Auschwitz camp in Poland.

Then I entered the camp itself through the main gate, above which reads “Arbeit macht frei”, which translates roughly “Work makes one free”. One often sees the gate depicted in movies. You saw where prisoners were unloaded and processed and got a look at their living conditions. The camp looked very orderly. Buildings were laid out methodically in rows. In fact, the Germans did not build this camp. It had been a Polish army barracks, and it was abandoned when Poland was defeated.

I won’t go into too many details of the camp. There were a number of exhibits of prisoners’ daily lives, and details of how they died. It was all quite gruesome.

I later took a shuttle bus to the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp, which the Germans did build later when it was determined that existing camps were insufficient. It was built with its own railway siding that led prisoners straight to the gas chambers. Its efficiency was noteworthy, but so too was its size. It had over 300 buildings spread out over 425 acres. At its peak it held 100,000 prisoners.

It’s been a very warm and humid day here, and after walking around both camps, I was exhausted and drenched with sweat. The bus ride back to Krakow was every bit as uncomfortable as the ride out, but somehow I caught some sleep. Before I knew it, the trip was over. I just got out of a nice, cool shower. I’m ready to feel human again.