(Images copyright of Hollie Borland)
We arrived in Kraków in Poland around 23:45. The instructions we had been given by the hostel was that we were to take tram 19. Well, the main crossroads in Kraków is busy and full of tram stops. After looking at a few we decided to ask two tram drivers who were having a smoke. They turned their backs on us and continued their conversation. We persisted.
“19? No.” Well that was helpful. And rude. That was all we got from them. They finished their conversation and walked away to their respective vehicles. At midnight it becomes tram central. They all move at once. After walking around a bit more we found a stop for tram 19, only the number had a cross through it. So our tram wasn’t running. As we were getting a little desperate, one of the funniest things happened.
An approaching tram was playing loud music and had flashing disco lights. As it passed us, we were greeted with drunken cheers, thumbs ups, waves and even a woman’s behind pressed up against the window. It was one of the infamous party trams we had heard of. It’s passing by was enough to restore our faith in Kraków and we walked to the hostel.
Atlantis Hostel has a decent kitchen, comfortable communal area, clean bathrooms and wifi throughout the hostel. And for around €6 a night in a dorm of 10, it was well worth the money. Upon arrival we were greeted with a complimentary shot “to help you sleep”. Between us we tried apple, cranberry, pineapple, toffee and nut flavoured vodka. In addition, they helped us book on to a tour to Auschwitz for the next day that picked us up right outside the hostel.
During the months of May and October it is only possible to visit Auschwitz on an organised tour. These tours include transport to the camps Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau, which are about 70 minutes away by coach. Our tour operators were See Kraków, who charged us 105 Polish Zloty (about £22) for a three and a half hour tour in English around the two camps, including our transport to, from and between the camps, picking us up and dropping us off outside our hostel.
We began our tour at Auschwitz I, which is made up of the old brick army barracks. We passed through the infamous gates that bears the sign ‘Arbeit macht frei‘, which translates as ‘Work makes freedom’. In all honesty, they do look like ordinary barracks. They look too new to be involved in such a large part of history. Some of the blocks have been converted into museums, displaying photos, documents and personal belongings that were confiscated and remained at the camp. The exhibition includes a huge display of surviving human hair, forcefully shaved from the heads of prisoners. The hair was sold to make carpets and socks for soldiers, but a large amount of packaged yet unsold hair remained at the liberation of the camp. Children’s plaited pigtails are at the top of the pile.
The museum is heaving at this time of year. We followed another group in front of us and were closely followed by another group behind us. Ironically, at times I felt like cattle being moved from one room to another. I wasn’t able to ponder at the exhibition but that is because they want to keep the traffic of tourists flowing. It did feel a little commercialised. But then we were shown around a gas chamber. We walked in silence in respect of the dead. The rooms were real, dried and stained with death. That hit home.
Visiting Auschwitz II-Birkenau was what was needed to force the realisation upon myself that I was where around three million people had been exterminated. We stood where the soldiers would herd the thousands of prisoners from across Europe off of the cattle carts, sort them into groups: men, women, children, the weak. This was the centre of the Holocaust.
To stand on the spot where some many people died is a very powerful thing and can only be understood through experiencing the feeling yourself.
Birkenau (copyright of Hollie Borland)