I’m running through Kraków’s bus station, spinning around to see coaches lined up behind me and smaller trams rattling through the concrete space below. My eyes jump around, searching for D8, for Oświȩcim.
A stocky man strides towards me, gesticulating.
“Proszę,” I say, please, before my supply of Polish dries up. I’m suddenly embarrassed, flushed and ashamed to say to the face of a stranger one of the most emotionally charged words in the world.
“Auschwitz.” He says it first.
In fact, he grabs my coat and drags me to the grey staircase that leads to the underground car park. “Dziękuję,” I reply in thanks but he smiles and waves me on my way.
In Kraków’s central streets, posters brandish the name in lime green or fuscia pink against a sunflower yellow background. I’m already feeling uneasy. I’m definitely not taking a tour for this and I’m not here to research an article. So, I ask myself, what am I here for? What do I expect to find?
In the hour that spans the gap between Kraków and Oświȩcim, our minibus fills to the brim and then empties again with shoppers, mothers, children, workers and chattering pensioners. By the time Oświȩcim appears on the roadsigns, there’s only the four of us left. One couple, two strangers. All British, as it turns out, each alone with our thoughts.
The Auschwitz camps – I, II and III – starved, tortured and executed over a million people during World War II. Prison camps became concentration camps and then ultimately death camps. History lessons at school, the Red Cross Museum in Geneva, the books of Frankl, Levi & Frank and even the film Schindler’s List have provided enough images to haunt me for a lifetime. Will seeing the place with my own eyes change anything?
We pull up against a slushy, ashen pavement, a high metallic fence stretching off into the distance. The girl to my left trembles and tries to get up.
“Nie, no, no!” cries the driver and the minubus continues on, passing by the industrial landscape of an out of town shopping centre.
When the bus stops the next time, no-one moves. “Muzeum Auschwitz!” calls the driver. “Muzeum Auschwitz!”
I take a deep breath and stumble out into the cold, but not before the driver thrusts a square piece of paper into my hand.
Tarmac, wire, snow and an empty sky fork out in each direction and once again we are lost.
“Muzeum jest w ten sposób,” says our driver, gesturing to one of the three pathways. We nod our gratitude and begin the walk.
Entry to Auschwitz feels like a macabre blend between a Saturday afternoon football crush, a communist toilet block and the road to hell itself. After the empty path along snow and wire, my senses struggle to register the line of tour coaches and hundreds, yes hundreds, of happy-go-lucky teenagers.
As it happens, I’m travelling alone and therefore do not fit neatly into the Auschwitz programme. I am pushed, shoved, battered and crushed into grey walls and turnstiles as hormone-ridden faces text, tweet and talk about who got up to what last night.
The set-up funnels the crowd towards the cinema, but I make my escape. Admission is free and with a thudding clunk from another turnstile, I find myself alone on the mud and ice, granted a moment’s peace.
I hurry along, cold and self-conscious of the crunch of each footstep.
Then, just like that, I see it. Small, curling letters, wedged between a few trees.
Arbeit Macht Frei. Work sets you free.
I can’t remember how young I was when I first read about this, first saw these letters. But now, to see it for real…it’s dizzying. The words are smaller than my childhood eyes pictured them and winter branches smother the edges. Yet something still chokes my throat, forcing me to check my surroundings. About 50 yards away a group of German tourists are approaching, about 100 paces ahead a couple takes photos. The watchtowers stand empty.
I walk underneath.
And then I really am inside.
Auschwitz I consists of several rows of brick barracks, each labelled with white paint on a dark chocolate sign, a jarring home-made touch. A few sober posters, with tight white words on black, tell of prisoners doused in water and left to freeze to death, of escapees’ families tied here to serve as a warning.
A horrible recognition sets in. These buildings, all rust and burnt-ochre with a central tree-lined thoroughfare and gently uneven pavements…
They remind me of my first school, where the ground was used for hopscotch and there was a different kind of roll call.
Inside is even more disturbing. The industrial green-grey walls remind me of old hospitals I’ve both worked in and recovered in. I wait for white-coated officials to greet me absent-mindedly, the squeak of trainers and rattle of hospital trolleys to echo from some far off place.
It’s a frightening similarity, but what did I expect? Architecture delivered straight from Hannibal Lecter’s sketchbook or mundane institutional buildings from a particular period in time?
When I turn the corner, I want to throw up. I’ve entered, with little warning, the collection of human hair. There follows suitcases, brushes, photos and shoes. Heaps upon heaps of shoes.
Of all the artefacts, the shoes haunt me the most. The photos look detached, from another age, almost unreal. I needed the museum’s sign to identify the hair as human.
But the shoes.
They look worn, lived in, personal – and modern. There are scarlet espadrilles, leather Sunday bests, polished bank manager shoes and sturdy nurse footwear. Even shoes for tiny tots. Of all the clothes we ever possess, our shoes – moulded with every step until they’re no good for anyone else – feel like the closest thing to human expression through an everyday object.
It’s a reality check, alright. Throughout the holocaust memorials, I’ve read the following, unconditional message:
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” by Santayana.
Perhaps it’s time to add some caveats, though, and to realise that not everyone should come here. Some are too young, some too ignorant and there will always be some who get a sick pleasure from the death camps.
I watch the boys laugh at another photo. Should any of us be here at all? I brush past the sniggering young men and stumble out into the cold.
From the personal property barracks, small arrows point to the medical centre, the execution block and the cells where prisoners were gassed for the first time. The second row of barracks feature memorials from countries where Jews were rounded up and sent here, from as far away as Holland, France and Greece.
I am completely alone in these chambers, although the sound of slamming doors and muffled voices is never far away. It is a dark and frightening experience.
At the gate, I am desperate to leave but first I need to fight my way through the next onslaught of visitors. Shrouded in the smell of disinfectant, I finally reach the information desk.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “I came to see Birkenau as well. How do I get there?”
“In winter,” the woman says, “the shuttle is closed.”
“So how far is it to walk?” I ask, the sway of the crowd pulling me away from her desk.
“Three kilometres,” she replies. “In the snow.”
The name may not carry as much horror as the word Auschwitz, but it should.
Unlike Auschwitz I, the red-brick camp with the infamous Arbeit Macht Frei sign, I saw the entrance to this second camp, Birkenau, from a long way away.
Converging railway tracks glint under the cloud-covered sky and race up to the watchtower’s mouth, pulsing right on into the heart of the camp. Architects designed Birkenau for incarceration and then extermination on a colossal scale, to ease the congestion at Auschwitz I.
A few people mill around the entrance, taking photos and waiting for their friends.
I step over the tracks that brought Jews here from France, Holland, Hungary and beyond and go in. After a brief spell of confusion, I’m waved up a staircase and am thankful that the crowds have gone.
Over my left shoulder, a few tourbuses are idling, but to the right, line upon line of chimneys rise out of the wasteland like burnt stalks at the end of a harvest. Railway tracks shoot straight down the centre, scars with no end in sight.
Back on the ground, I feel lost. Birkenau is preserved, not restored, and there’s no such thing as a visitors’ guide or a recommended route. It is what it is, the place seems to say.
So I wander in a clockwise direction, the icy water and mud introducing me to new leaks in my boots and my feet soon become numb to ease the pain. Each row of blocks looks the same, stout chimney, barrack space, snow and barbed wire. On and on and on they go without further explanation. But then, can there really be any further explanation?
Apart from two men in dark jackets who peer into the wreck of one building, I am alone. Eventually a small sign tells me that the collapsed pile of bricks used to be the gas chamber and that the next pile of rubble was a crematorium. Dynamite destroyed them both before the Soviet army arrived.
After around forty-five minutes, or maybe more, I reach the end of the railway track. A previously bright bouquet of flowers lies there, shivering and shuddering in the wind, with melting ice drowning its petals. The watchtower that loomed over me at the entrance is barely visible, such is the size of the place, the length of the track. On these platforms, a sign says, “selections” were made: workers on one side of the camp, the rest to the chambers.
This section is busier, and a group of teenagers pass by, led by their teacher and carrying Israeli flags. The blue stars burn bright against the whiteness, making the snow look drab, though while the adults look earnest, their students look bored and cold.
The same unease creeps over me as it did in Aushwitz I, perhaps more so here where there are fewer exhibits or references to tie together history with the reality of a waterlogged field. What makes this place meaningful? These bricks and these chimneys or the stories we carry with us, burned into our past?
Just then, I reach a low-ceilinged building, one that stands out because it still has both walls and doors. I find two other solo travellers inside and we follow one other self-consciously through the echoing chambers. A reflective wall bears photos of the missing and the dead. Furnaces make me flinch until I read that they were used for sterilising equipment. A grim concrete shower block… that was used for showers.
Then I’m back into the snow, where tall pine forests stretch into the skies. In memory of Anne Frank, I search around for a sign of beauty, for something to pin hope upon, despite the torment that rages around. But I fail. The barbed wire is everywhere, the snow a tainted, filthy brown, and the bone-seeping cold makes me want to cry out with pain.
I stumble on, slipping and sliding on the uncertain ground and catch a glimpse of the candy-pink houses that line the edge of the camp and overlook this monstrous swamp.
My misery is interrupted by the waves and shouts of a man beyond the fence.
“Are you the girl I’m waiting for?”
“Er, probably not,” I say as I get closer.
“Well, I dropped a girl at the watchtower but I’m supposed to meet her here,” he pats the side of his car. “I’m a taxi driver. You can call me Jan.”
My eyes still stream from the cold and I weigh up the reality of the distance between me and the original bus stop, several miles away.
“You have seen Auschwitz?” he asks.
“Then you have seen all you came for, you are finished, yes?”
I look across the vast expanse of endless snow and wire, twisted remains and dark history. “I suppose so.”
“I’ll drive you back then,” he offers. “And then I’ll come back for her. It’s a very long way otherwise. I learned my English in America you know, we left when the communists were here but then we came back to Oświȩcim…”
I climb in, grateful, oh so grateful for the warmth.
“Here’s a picture of my family,” we swerve across the road as he stabs at a photo, “they have a house just over there as well.”
I don’t want to seem rude but I can’t help but ask, “Why? Why here?”
He shrugs. “Why not? It is good land and it is cheap. After I came from America, you are not American, no? Australian? Ah, English. Here have a sweet, no? An apple…” and he continues merrily to himself until we screech to a halt in front of the minibus, blocking its departure.
He calls out in Polish and the driver opens the door.
“One more, eh?” Jan says to me. “I said there’s always room for one more. So, then, now you are back and now you have seen everything.”
He hands me his card. “For you or your friends the next time you are here.”
I don’t really know what to say. “Thank you,” I mumble. “Dziękujȩ.”
And that’s it. Ninety minutes later I’m back in Krakow, in the rush hour stream of21st century life. Beyonce’s Beautiful Nightmare accompanies the commuters and shoppers, while fluorescent lights shine over the latest Zara collection and women sell salt-encrusted Obwarzanki from kiosks sheltered from the wind.
I go to buy one and find two pieces of paper in my pocket. Jan’s card and the square cut-out from the first bus driver. It lists the departure times from Auschwitz back to the modern world.
It’s only small, but perhaps this was the sliver of beauty and hope that I was searching for.
Abigail King is a writer and photographer who swapped a career as a doctor for a life on the road. Now published by Lonely Planet, the BBC, CNN, National Geographic Traveler & more, she feels most at home experimenting here: covering unusual journeys, thoughtful travel and luxury on www.insidethetravellab.com