Visiting Poland: Birkenau, Krakow, Auschwitz

    October 2010            
Search the Jewish Magazine Site: Google

Visiting the Past in Poland


Search our Archives:

» Home
» History
» Holidays
» Humor
» Places
» Thought
» Opinion & Society
» Writings
» Customs
» Misc.


Visit To Poland's Concentration Camps, 2009

By Michelle Matthews

My trip to Poland has had such a profound effect on me that I found it necessary to write my thoughts and feelings down, to try and make sense of all I saw and experienced.

12th April -

We had a surprisingly, straightforward and easy journey to Krakow. No delays at all! We got a taxi straight to our hotel- Novotel Central Krakow. We were greeted by friendly and helpful staff, who gave us maps and a tourist guide immediately. Our room was spacious, massive king size bed, long dresser, tea and coffee facilities (thankfully). Our view was fabulous, overlooking the Wisna River and Wawel Castle. The castle stood impressively overlooking the banks of the river, full of history, so many tales of old enveloped in its walls. What would they say if they could talk?

We went to visit Wawel Castle straight away, Mark was very proud of our new camera. We took lots of shots the whole day, beginning with me sat on a wall with the Wawel behind me. We walked along the river, then up to the castle, symbolising national pride and patriotism. We saw a statue of Smok the dragon, who breathes smoke if you text a certain number on your phone! It was believed that he lived under the castle and ate local sheep. The cave became a famous tavern and brothel in Medieval times! The first Polish king crowned at Wawel was in 1319, followed by 35 other rulers, who all used the castle as a residence. It has since been used as a military hospital (for the Austrians) and even headquarters for the Nazi government.

Visiting an Old Synagogue in Krakow

The castle with its very heavily fortified walls and Renaissance and Gothic architecture was striking to the eye. The inner courtyard had many colonnades and was very pretty to see. We walked around the castle, then down the hill onto the Old Town. As we looked out onto the street below us, it was lovely to see and to hear the many horses and carriages clip clopping along the cobbles. At the bottom of the hill was a smiling Polish man, in traditional dress playing tunes on an accordion. We stopped for coffee in a quaint, dark coffee shop, then continued on our way to the main square, called Rynek Glowny. In the very centre of the square is The Cloth Hall. It sprang up in the 14th century as traders sheltered their carts along its two walls, then King Casimir the Great allowed it to take the form of a huge hall. From there it became the centre of trade for Krakow's merchants, technically seen as the world's first shopping mall!

The square looked so beautiful as it had wooden stalls all around the Cloth Hall, which were decorated with pretty ribbons and streamers. We sauntered along the stalls, (I was obviously enjoying myself thoroughly!) I bought 2 small rabbits, hand-woven out of grass, one for us and one for Mum. There was a lovely atmosphere all around, with families making the most of the bank holiday by spending time together. Around the square were lots of horses with carriages for the tourists. They looked very pretty. We had food from one of the stalls for lunch - very tasty vegetables, fried potatoes and mushrooms.

13th April

We were picked up around 9.30am for our tour to Auschwitz- Birkenau, known as Oswiecim to the locals, pronounced Oshvyenchim. A disturbing video was played on the bus as we travelled to our destination. We arrived and firstly looked at pictures of the maps of the area, hard to imagine the scale from the maps, until seen later. We walked through a building built for tourist with toilets and a small shop, then walked suddenly out into the camp of Auschwitz. There ahead of us was the symbol of hate the world knows so well: Arbeit Mein Frei (Work Makes You Free). I couldn’t believe I was walking under the same gates that hundreds of thousands, if not millions of desperate unfortunates had trod before me. It was very unnerving. Our tour guide was a Polish man, very articulate and sensitive, who later told us that his own grandfather had been prisoner there himself and that was why he did the job, taking tours. His grandmother had also worked there as a tour guide for over 30 years.

The author visiting Auschwitz

He led us slowly deeper into the camp, yet I was surprised at how small the whole complex was. Rows of orderly red brick buildings were spaced equally apart. Hard to imagine they had once housed the prisoners. The camp looked almost like a European housing estate, one you could see today. Yet it was so much more than that. I found it so difficult to conceive the unbelievable horrors that had taken place here. Such frightening efficiency.

We were taken into different blocks, each telling their own harrowing tale. The first held rooms with the possessions of mostly Jewish prisoners who had been murdered. A room with a case about 20m long and 10m wide held women’s hair, from floor to ceiling. Hair of all colours, some with beautiful, silky, long plaits. Another held artificial limbs- imagine how many people would have to be killed to find just one person who had an artificial limb! Many were used again for German soldiers returning form the Eastern Front. Another held thousands of spectacles, another brushes, combs and shaving brushes. One of the most poignant was the case holding the children’s shoes. Someone had left a single tulip in front of the case.

A huge room was filled absolutely top to bottom on both sides with thousands of shoes. A black pair with a bright red heel kept holding my attention. Shoes that I would have been happy to wear today, so smart and fashionable. I could imagine the Jewish lady wearing them. She would have been so proud to have such fashionable shoes, was probably full of life and fun. The shoes - a symbol of life, burning once so brightly, encapsulating light, love and laughter, yet suddenly, despicably, that light was distinguished so cruelly and horrifically.

Dust naturally fell over my shoes as I walked around the grounds. I believe it was no ordinary dust, but the ashes of so many unfortunates, now gently gracing my own shoes. I became upset at this thought. Ashes from the crematoria had once covered the area, including the trees, which still stood there today. Imagine the tales the trees hold within their barks! Even the floors I walked on were made out of the victims’ ashes. How could one not imagine the suffering, horrors and evil. The Nazi death machine was truly horrifically efficient. Everything was used, from hair and artificial limbs, to ashes for roads and even fat used to make soap! Numerous German companies benefited from the suffering of millions and became rich. In fact a well known mobile phone company today used body fat sent to them from the camp and information on people from the medical experiments. I know I will never purchase their phones or goods.

I felt physically sick walking past Block 10, the medical testing block, where Dr Josf Mengele was so active. The two upper floors were where the women would be sterilized - most dying in agony, such incomprehensible cruelty. Block 11 was the Death Block. The first experiments with poison gas were conducted in 1941 on Soviet men. The standing cell was a cruel form of torture where men had to stand the whole night, four next to each other in a 90 x 90 cm cell, then go straight to work the next day. Manacles, whipping posts and gallows were all here too. We saw the despicable starvation cells and were told the story of Father Maximilian Kolbe. Ten men were chosen to starve to death because a prisoner in their block had escaped. One man kept crying he didn’t want to die, so Father Kolbe took his place, saying he was old, had lived a long life and didn’t have a family to miss him. The man whose place he took survived the war, had a family and lived until the 1990’s.

Outside was the Wall of Death, against which thousands of prisoners were shot by the SS. Now it is a memorial, full of flowers. The windows of blocks adjacent to Block 11 were boarded up, yet prisoners could still hear the shots, as well as the screams, moans and cries of the tortured. One block also told the tale of daily camp life, with photos that showed such tragic faces, full of despair, so many photos lined the walls.

The door to the gas chamber

We walked to the outside perimeter of the camp and saw the SS pub, exactly opposite the blocks and gas chamber! Rudolf Hess’s house could clearly be seen overlooking the whole camp and gas chambers. The gallows that hung him have also been preserved. It was very difficult to believe that the insignificant looking building ahead of me, looking a bit like a shed was the most infamous building in the whole of history. I found it so hard to conceive that hundreds of thousands of innocents had been gassed inside. The door gave me a chill as I could imagine it closing behind me. The chamber itself was quite small and I could only guess and imagine the horrors that the walls held. The carts where the bodies were taken out by the Jewish Sondercommand were also in there. 350 bodies could be burned daily. Auschwitz had two and Birkenau three gas chambers, so one can only imagine how busy these worked during the war.

We learned that some children from the experiments had survived the war, especially the twins that Mengele had been so keen to research. Most of these children after leaving the camp and even years later would have four main fears of the camp. These fears were often heightened and exaggerated, even when the children themselves had vague or no recollections of the camp, as they were too young to explain any discernible memories. Those poor children who were too young to explain their thoughts still would have these huge, terrifying fears of the camp years later. The four main fears were:-

· German being spoken,
· dogs,
· shouting
· seeing people in white coats.

We left Auschwitz for the short coach journey to Birkenau, three miles away, not short if you had to trudge the road in pain and despair each day to work and back, not knowing if that day would be your last, if you would somehow survive that day, or be humiliated, tortured or killed before the day’s end. It was known as Auschwitz 2 during the war, it was even deprived of its name.

Birkenau - how can I put my feelings into words. As soon as I stepped off the bus, before even entering the camp with its infamous guard towers, the misery and suffering of the thousands, millions overwhelmed me completely. I could feel the despair all around me, everywhere I looked and everywhere my feet softly trod. The train tracks bringing cattle trucks with the prisoners in ran though the middle of the camp, past the watch tower and outside the once electrified fence to Osweiem.

We walked to the right and I was astounded at the size of the camp- absolutely huge, with rows upon rows of barracks, housing 1000-3000 people in each. As far as the eye could see along the horizon, were rows of barracks and even remains of barracks which the Nazis had destroyed to try and conceal their crimes. Once 300 barracks were on this vast site covering 175 hectares. In 1944 up to 100,000 prisoners were held here, surely the most savage and largest of all the death factories. We entered one of the male barracks a despicable place with rows of boards for the men to lie if they could, huddled, squashed and crammed together in the most squalid of conditions. We saw the barracks with the delousing area and toilets- boards with 180 holes, where each prisoner had just 40 seconds. These were later seen as a luxury as before them toilets consisted of a ditch with huge vats that the prisoners had to squat over- many fainted with exhaustion and drowned in the vilest of ways.

Walking through both camps we saw various posts which prisoners would be tied to for punishment and hanging posts, where public hangings regularly took place, to instill further fear into an already subordinated prisoner population. Often men would be strung up by their arms, which were then tied behind their backs and left for indiscriminate lengths of time.

Birkenau Camp

Mark and I climbed the steps of the hateful watch tower and had a frightening view of the whole of Birkenau. The area was just so vast. Such misery!

I had decided before I went to Poland that I would take a momento from my home town of Llanelli and place it somewhere in the camp to say that I remember the millions of innocents killed. Throughout Auschwitz I didn’t really feel l should place it there, I didn’t feel called or compelled to do so. Instead I felt I should find a place somewhere at Birkenau. I have no idea why I felt this way, only that I did feel it very strongly. As Mark and I began our tour through Birkenau I realized with sadness that I had left my little piece of Llanelli on the bus in my bag. I had to have this so I ran quickly back to retrieve it form the bus. Sadly I realized the bus had gone to the car park, which wasn’t near me. Rather than miss the tour I returned to my tour group, listening intently to the guide as we walked around barracks that men had once built and occupied. I felt very upset that I didn’t have my memento with me and felt a strong calling to leave it somewhere at Birkenau.

After the tour was completed and we had just five minutes free time to wander the site. I saw our female guide and asked where the bus was. It was in the car park, quite a distance from where we were. She told me that I only had five minutes, but I knew I just had to get it. I left Mark to his photography of the train tracks and raced back to the coach. Frantically I searched for the coach in the car park, filled with many other coaches, then managed to thankfully find it. I quickly grabbed what I needed, then raced back. I realised that I would never have time to return to the barracks we’d been in earlier. Ahead of me, near the bus, was another gate and entrance into Birkenau. This had two guards on it, so I just walked purposefully forwards and past them into the camp. Surprisingly I wasn’t stopped or questioned at all - it was surprising to me as nobody else was near me in this part of the camp.

To my left were rows and rows of barracks. Many were run down and most had their doors boarded up so entry was impossible. I half skipped half ran along the lengths of these barracks and around the perimeter of many, knowing I had very little time, yet still trying to find an entrance. I was completely by myself, without anyone near by. I wasn’t sure if I should have been there, but I was driven on, as I couldn’t leave without finding just one open. By now an eerie silence had enveloped me and I could only hear the patter of my own feet over the grass and gravel. Suddenly, two barrack rows ahead of me, I spied an opening in a door. I quickly dashed over to it. It was only partially open so I carefully pushed it to allow me to tiptoe inside, expecting all the time for someone to stop me or to question my motives for being in this deserted part of the camp. The sun shone through holes in the roof, so I could see quite clearly inside. To my immediate left was a tiny room with a table in it. Beyond that ahead of me was another very long room, with the usual rows and rows of boards used for beds ( called koys by the prisoners).

Birkenau Men's Barrack

A chill suddenly came over me and all the hairs on my arm stood fully erect. As I stepped gingerly forwards into this room full of bed boards, on the topmost bunk, just to the right, I swear I could see a group of women huddled closely together. They were dressed in raggedy striped tops, some with short sleeves, while others had long sleeves. Most of their heads were shaved, yet just a few had what can only be described as a greyish/white handkerchief, kind of hat. Their faces were so pale and thin, eyes almost sunken into their heads and all looked racked with pain. I stopped abruptly and could neither go forwards or backwards. I turned to dash out, but something called me back. I once again took steps forward, but couldn’t quite bring myself to enter the room where I could still see the women so visibly huddled on the bare boards. I closed my eyes, then turned and left my remembrance on the table of the side room, next to the entrance, saying a prayer as I did so. After that I ran outside, despite the sunshine I still felt chilled, with the eeriness all over me. Honestly I felt really freaked, not in a scared way of the women, just that my heart was pounding at the shock of seeing such a painful scene.

Birkenau Women's Barrack

I quickly dashed back along the rows of barracks, still alone with no-one in sight, then back past the guards. I found Mark then we returned to the bus. I could barely speak all of the journey back- so profound was the effect on me of my visit. It was only a few days later while reading a book called ‘Smoke Over Birkenau’ by Seweryna Szmaglewska I bought from a Jewish bookshop in Kazimierz that I read something that was truly startling to me. At the time when I had the experience in the barracks I had no way of knowing who had once lived a pitiful existence there. I had been with the guide in the other part where men had once lived, but I really didn’t know who had lived in the barracks on the left. According to the book, the men’s camp was to the right of the watch tower and the women’s to the left, exactly where I had been by myself. Plus many of the women wore handkerchiefs to cover their shaved heads. Strange or just my imagination running away with me I’ll never know for definite, but in my head I feel I was called there to remember the dead. Who knows perhaps in has brought just one tortured soul some peace, knowing that they are not forgotten and are remembered over 60 years on since those heinous crimes.

Back on the bus I could still clearly feel the pain and suffering from that terrible place, far more in fact than I had felt at Auschwitz, for some reason. I could also clearly see the faces of those women and every day since they have been with me, day and night, even now while I write this, safe at home. On the way back on the coach I felt very upset and unnerved at the harrowing place I had visited. Yet I also believe that it is so important to visit this place if you can. Yes, it is truly horrific, far more than can probably be imagined, yet it must surely be our duty as respectable citizens of today NOT EVER to forget what happened only a generation ago. What I am certain of is that an evil force tried to eradicate a whole sector of people, yet they were not successful, for many did survive and for those who perished, their suffering is not forgotten by us now and by future generations to come. So we can say is that the Nazis failed with their evil.

Back in Krakow we decided to go for a walk into the Old Town. It was enjoyable to browse around in the sunshine and to see normal activities, to hear happy laughter of families enjoying the holiday. We went for a lovely coffee in a beautiful coffee shop, just off the main square, then headed back to our hotel. However Mark had the map and somehow, we took a wrong turn which led us miles from our intended route. An easy mistake to make, yet my poor feet were already tired from the day’s tour. By the time we’d made it home we’d walked about 16km! (I know as I had my pedometer on.)

In the evening we took a taxi into town and ate food at a restaurant supposed to look like the interior of the Orient Express. Apart from a few battered old suitcases in one part of the restaurant, it was just like a normal restaurant. Afterwards we went to a great Polish cellar bar and drank Polish beer (completely organic and delicious) and also some Polish vodka. It had to be tried while in Poland. Mine was lovely – a cherry flavour and not too strong at all, unlike the potato one I had a few nights later!

Tuesday 14th April

After another early breakfast we took a taxi straight to Kazimierz (pronounced car-zi-mee-itch), the old Jewish district, of course all long gone since the round ups in WW2. We went to the old Isaac synagogue first, which is now a museum. Members of the committee were executed in the war for refusing to torch their beloved place of worship. It was interesting looking at old photos of life before the war and of reading the stories of prominent Jewish men and women, the majority of which were killed in the war. One particularly held my attention, that of a famous poet, who was put in the ghetto and was shot while was being liquidated. We went next to Remah Synagogue and Cemetery- a very small, yet beautiful synagogue, one of the most active in Kazimierz today. The cemetery had many old graves, saved because the gravestones had been buried in the 19th century.

From there we saw a small memorial in the centre of the square. We then crossed the street to the end of the road to see Long Ago In Kazimierz restaurant. It was here in the adjoining bookshop I bought Smoke Over Birkenau by Seweryna Szmaglewska. It was the area’s first Jewish bookshop. Along the side of the restaurant, it was as if the ghosts from the past greeted you, as the side was disguised to look like a row of shop fronts, from the 1930’s. The names of former traders were on the doorways: Holzer, Weinberg and Nowak. They even had articles that would have been used or sold back in the day, eg foodstuffs, weighing scales, carpenter’s tools. The whole area was used for the filming of Schindler’s List.

We picked up a tour with one guide in an open sided car. We listened to the history of the area on headphones and saw the old synagogue, a once beautiful place of worship, which the Nazis desecrated. The tour took us to the place of the former Jewish Ghetto. There was a very poignant memorial, which consisted of extremely large chairs, all empty, symbolic of so many lost lives. Part of the old ghetto wall still remains with a plaque put up by the relatives of a large family murdered at Auschwitz. While reading the memorial a drunken, dirty man stumbled past, shouting obscenities about the Jews and praising Hitler. How tragic that even today some vile people still hold these views against the Jews.

From there we went to the place which was one of my highlights - a place of refuge and of hope, the famous Schindler’s Factory. I was so excited to go inside. There were a few photos of him and Leopold Pfferberg, his Jewish assistant and some information retelling the story of his life and of how he saved his ‘Schindler Jews’, even managing to rescue those whose train had been diverted to Auschwitz! What began as a business venture, with the sole aim of making a profit, turned into daily heroics and led to the saving of more than 1100 Jews, men, women and children. I felt truly blessed to go to such a place and to walk in the footsteps of one who had done so much good in the face of so much evil. I also felt a sense of peace there, a sense of happiness almost, knowing it was a place of refuge for the hunted, so different to other places I’d visited that week. It was also interesting to walk around places in Krakow that had featured so heavily in the film, Schindler’s List.

We returned to the Old Town and wandered around in the sunshine. We ate our sandwiches opposite the Cloth Hall, then shopped inside enjoying looking at the lovely crafts on display. Next we climbed the steps of the tower to have a magnificent view of the square and its beautiful buildings. I really think that Krakow is one of the most beautiful cities in the whole of Europe. We also walked to Florain’s Gate where the old part of the city walls and the Barbican remain, again another beautiful area. It was lovely to see so many families and couples strolling around in the sunshine, making the most of the Bank Holiday. We visited Wawel Castle again. We did Lost Wawel, a route that took us underneath castle, to see ancient cave walls. It was rather disappointing and not how I had imagined it. From there we sat and ate a Magnum in the sunshine- yummy! Finally we took Smog the Dragon tour, following steps down into a cave, where Smog reputedly once lived, according to the myth.

A rest at the hotel, then out for food to a most delicious pizza restaurant, very small and quaint.

Wednesday 15th April

Yet another very early start to catch the train from Krakow to Warsaw. The train was fabulous very much in the style of the Orient Express (though not as plush), or like ones seen in James Bond movies with the small carriages, fitting six people. The journey was wonderful, so smooth, peaceful, efficient and punctual. There was also a young man who immediately stood up when we entered and helped us to put our luggage up on the rack. How polite! We had a cup of coffee each and just enjoyed the journey, looking at the lovely scenery in the sunshine or passing the time reading. We arrived in Warsaw then got an exorbitant taxi to our hotel. We were foolishly ripped off and could even see the train station form our hotel window, Novotel Central Warsaw. My first impressions of Warsaw were therefore not very favourable. Aside from the taxi journey, the receptionist wasn’t very friendly, quite the opposite to the Krakow hotel staff, plus our view just looked over a concrete jungle, with so much traffic.

We took a walk along the main road of the Royal Route, Nowy Swiat, so called, because kings and queens would travel along it to be crowned. We walked past numerous beautiful and important buildings, and monuments including Warsaw University, St Mary’s Church, Adam Mickiewicz Monument (the poet who inspired Romanticism in Poland), Nichloas Copernicus Monument ( the founder of modern astronomy, who worked a century before the telescope was invented), Le Meridien Bristol Hotel (one of Warsaw’s most expensive and exclusive hotels). Our feet led us into Plac Zamkowy, the square. Here we saw King Sigismund’s Column, built to honour the man who made Warsaw the capital of Poland and is 22m high. The statue was bombed during the war, taking a direct hit from a tank shell and poor Sigismund came crashing down, but somehow survived the carnage that befell his city. Opposite here we saw the Royal Castle. It was quite small, but was amazingly rebuilt completely from rubble after it was razed to the ground by the Nazis in 1944. The forward thinking mayor at the time predicted that the Nazis would destroy it so he gathered people and they saved as much of the interior as they could, placing the furnishings and artworks in the vaults of another museum. When it was rebuilt these treasures were then brought back home.

We walked to the Old Square, it was so beautiful, full of picturesque buildings. The area was completely destroyed by the Nazis, as was 85% of Warsaw in retaliation for the 1944 Warsaw Uprising. Hard to believe that the buildings have been painstakingly rebuilt, using pre-war photos and paintings. It took until 1962. Such a tribute to the suffering of those who stood up in their own small way to the Nazi death machine. The quaint cobbled stones led to Stare Miastro, statue of the mermaid, one of many seen over the city as Warsaw has various tales about mermaids, including one of when the king was lost in a marsh area and a mermaid helped him to find his way by shooting fire arrows. After a short walk to the Barbican we saw the old city walls and artists selling their wares. Another drink sat in the square in the sunshine helped us to relax our tired feet. I tried Polish mead, but it was far too sweet and strong for me!

Thursday 16th April

We took another tour today on another coach. We wanted to make the most of our time in Warsaw and to see as much as we could in a short space of time. Our first stop was Lazienki Park and Palace. It was most pleasant to walk through the park in the sunshine, seeing all the greenery. We saw the spectacular monument to Chopin, the pretty Palace on the Water, where Poland’s last monarch Stanislaw August Poniatowski resided. We also saw the amphitheatre, inspired by Hercules and lots of strutting peacocks, some with their wings in full span.

We spent some time seeing the Jewish part of Warsaw, also Zamenhofa, the Ghetto area, including the Monument to the Heroes of the Ghetto, remembering those who fell while trying to stand up against the Nazis, knowing they wouldn’t succeed, but not wanting to die passively. It was here the heaviest fighting took place. Ironically the stone cladding on the monument was originally ordered from Sweden by Hitler for a victory arch! Surrounding the area of the ghetto now are various flats and high rises- how strange to live in a place where such suffering once took place. We drove onto Umschlagplatz- a monument marking the spot where 300,000 Jews were loaded onto cattle wagons sent to the extermination camp of Treblinka. Symbolically the names of certain Jewish families adorn the walls of the memorial. Directly opposite here once lived the Nazi commandant in charge of the depotations. How strange it was to later see a photo of this place from 1944 when it showed hundreds of Jews sat forlornly, surrounded by their belongings and Nazis guards standing ominously over them. Quite difficult to relate the two different timescales together.

Our tour took us into the Old Town, where it ended. After leaving the tour we walked into the New Town (which was really old, built in the 15th century) and ate our sandwiches again in glorious sunshine. We visited the Monument to the Warsaw Uprising. It had two parts, the first depicting a group of insurgents in battle and the second part showing a faction retreating into the sewers.

Ghetto Wall in Krakow

After another lovely coffee in the sunshine as by now I think Mark was somewhat overloaded with history, we decided to visit the Uprising Museum. An extremely LONG walk took us past the banking and shopping districts of Warsaw. We saw various buildings which still bore the price of the war, distinctly showing bullet holes. It was strange seeing such old dilapidated buildings, next to the gleaming new. Our seemingly endless journey was very much worth it. This museum is undoubtedly one of the best I have ever seen. It appealed to all ages, having many interactive parts, showing original video footage, photographs, hall of remembrance, replica radio station, chapel, before and after shots of Warsaw, an allied plane shot down after dropping supplies and even a mock sewer. I especially liked opening many drawers to find the story and photo of a local, ordinary person. This was all set against the backdrop of sounds of machine guns, bombs and a poignant thumping heartbeat.

We were both engrossed in this museum, easily spending a few hours here. I was so pleased that history was brought alive for Mark. I was happily amazed and surprised at the wealth of primary evidence so readily available. There was just so much to see, read and to take in. Down in the basement we clambered through a mock sewer in the pitch darkness. It was quite scary not being able to see anything at all in there. It was only when we came out we saw a laughing guide who showed us that there was a light to switch on! I guess it made the experience more realistic. We had a rest and a break in the lovely tea-rooms, which looked like a pre-war sitting room. The cheese cake was absolutely delicious and makes my mouth water now just thinking of it.

After coming out of the sewer there was a room with a wall full of pictures of SS troops. As I approached the wall a cold chill came over me. In the dozens of photos my eyes were immediately drawn to one in particular. I knew who the man was, even before reading his name. There in front of my eyes was the picture of one SS man I’d read about. He was a despicable SS man who had committed some truly heinous crimes. I was so glad to know that after the war the local Poles got hold of him and beat him to death, though the Polish books stated that he had disappeared mysteriously.

We walked back to our hotel, though I wish I’d got a taxi as by now I was exhausted and felt like my feet were going to drop off! Our day ended with a meal at a delightful Polish restaurant, with traditional wooden style furniture and beams. Wholesome bread and the roasted duck were delicious!

Friday 17th April

On the way to the station we took a tour of the Jewish district again. I just felt the need to see it for a final time, to remember and to pay my respects for the lost people. We then caught the fabulous train back to lovely Krakow and were provided with FREE tea and oaty biscuits. Can you just imagine such a thing happening back home?!

With an hour or so to kill we visited the shopping centre next to the train station. Another lovely latte and I had a quick scoot around, but didn’t buy anything. Prices were surprisingly similar to home. A straightforward journey led us home and there ended our highly enjoyable and memorial trip to Poland.

Since returning home, I felt compelled to do something with the shoes I wore to Auschwitz-Birkenau, to remember the dust was the ashes of people, ordinary people like you or I. Mark and I drove to Burry Port Harbour and I said a prayer as I tossed my shoes out to sea, wishing peace was brought to the departed souls as they floated freely on the waves, making their way unhindered out to sea.

Reflecting on my time in Poland since coming home has left me with unanswered questions. I never will know if what I saw at Birkenau was a figment of my imagination, perhaps because my emotions were so heightened at what I’d experienced. Perhaps it was something more, perhaps I really did witness the souls of those suffering women. I only hope that by my remembering these poor tortured souls that it brings some very small comfort to them. They are not forgotten and never will be. This most hateful crime will be remembered, for remembering all those lost is the way that we can honour them today and hopefully never see a repeat of this dark episode from history.


from the October 2010 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

Please let us know if you see something unsavory on the Google Ads and we will have them removed. Email us with the offensive URL (