Travel that moves you: Auschwitz Concentration Camp, Poland

by Nicholas Bowditch

Daylight broke on an appropriately dismal day in Krakow, Poland. Against the backdrop of baroque style churches, vast plazas littered with an equal mix of cafes and pigeons, soft cool rain fell impossibly from an overcast yet cloudless sky.

It was as if the sun didn't want to get up today either. Today I was visiting Auschwitz.

"I just don't know if i should be going out there", I had explained to the pretty Polish girl at the reception of my hostel, "I'm not Jewish and I don't even really know anyone who is."

She looked up and silently urged me to protest further. "I'm worried I might seem a bit ghoulish or like I'm trivialising all that suffering by wandering around taking photos like some war tourist."

She shook her head deliberately. "You are the type of person that we want to go out there", she said slowly and in carefully selected English. "People from Australia or New Zealand or Asia - you cannot properly understand what happened in Europe all that time ago because you are too removed from it."

I had to agree with that. When I had visited Pearl Harbor, the whole experience was a lot more profound to me because it was the Japanese and not the Nazis who had presented such a threat to my country in World War II.

"Besides", she said, "the holocaust is too big to brush away or to just try to forget. We want the whole world to never forget what happened there."


"The air around the entrance to the camp
was thick with both dew and an almost
palpable sense of sadness."

So I went. With a strange mix of curiosity and impending sadness I got on the local bus and headed slowly out of the city and into the fertile Polish countryside.

If it wasn't the site of a concentration camp where up to 4,000,000 people had been killed in less than four years, it would be a pretty spot. Very green and very quiet. The air around the entrance to the camp was thick with both dew and an almost palpable sense of sadness.

I was hit with a real foreboding as I passed through the gates and I again wondered if the girl was wrong and I had no place being there.

Once inside, I was surprised how small the camp seemed. Even when the second camp, Birkenau (just down the rail tracks) is added to it, the sheer numbers of those who were killed here is unfathomable.

Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, transients were all transported here in box trains from all over Europe. In the beginning, they were processed, deloused, photographed and interned here for in some cases years, but at the height of the ethnic cleansing its believed that thousands were simply shipped in and exterminated.

Many of the buildings previously used as dormitories and infirmaries now house displays that attempt to give visitors a real insight into just how brutal this place was.

There are rooms literally filled to the ceiling with spectacles, shoes, even human hair that was unceremoniously taken from the corpses of the prisoners.

Rows and rows and rows of prisoners' photos, taken when they first arrived at the camp, all look desperately back at you as you walk solemnly through the corridors. There are hundreds of them - old women and men, young adults and most sadly small children, all having posed for the last photo of their short and tragic lives.

This was the venue of Dr. Josef Mengele's sadistic "medical and scientific experiments" on many of the prisoners including sets of twins as young as five years old. The twins were usually murdered after the experiment, if they survived it and their bodies were dissected.

I walked back into the compound and follow a large group of people shuffling through the rain towards the northern part of the camp where the shower blocks are, much like the prisoners would have naively done, I think to myself.

Standing outside the first of the rudimentary gas chambers I was frozen and suddenly sure I was not going inside. An old lady with a kind face and grand-motherly manner put her hand gently on my back.

"Is O.K." she says in English, which judging by her inflection was not her first language. I just nodded to her and, somehow reassured from the empathy of this stranger, I walked inside.

There were about forty people in a room that is about the size of a small motel room. There are six pipes in the roof that the prisoners believed were going to deliver them cleansing hot water as the guards had promised them.

Most of them believed this to be nothing more sinister than a communal shower block. When one group entered, the next group waited behind a row of idling trucks which the guards revved to drown out the noise of the group inside, screaming and dying.

The guide explained that there would have been at least twice as many people crammed into the room just before the Zyklon B gas fell from the roof, mixed with the ambient oxygen and surely killed them all.

Standing there, on the spot where so many people had died in such a gruesome fashion, I felt many emotions without being able to isolate just one. Fear, sadness, hopelessness, all mixed with nausea in a way that upset me like I don't think I had ever been upset before.

When I looked around the room, the mix of faces all said the same thing back to me, "How could they had done this?"

After leaving the gas chambers, the tour that I was on then moved on down the tracks to Birkenau where many more were killed. Our guide warned us that it became more graphic and more sad down there and suggested anyone who didn't want to go on should wait here in the pretty green parklands outside for the rest of the group to return.

I took him up on his invitation.

When they returned, the group recounted to me stories of even more horror with a sense of growing disbelief. One young German backpacker said to me, "How could they have done this?"

I am glad that I went. I am equally sure that I will never go back, nor will I ever go to another of the many camps spread all over eastern Europe.

Auschwitz is a solemn, reverent place. It is also a gruesome, disgusting place, but a place that I hope will always be visited by people like me, so that its unspeakable legacy will never be forgotten.

Nicholas has spent years away from his beloved Australia in a quest
to find the world's most deserted beach, best
dive site and cheapest
beer. He is still on the lookout. He
is an Independent Travel
Broker and editor of independent
travel news resource,
Aussie Escape and has his own blog Where Is Bowdo?