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Photo Friday: Auschwitz, Poland

“The one who does not remember history is bound to live through it again” George Santayana

Auschwitz

Does anyone else have a morbid fascination with World War II and the Holocaust, or is it just me?

Maybe I was exposed to Schindler’s List at too early an age. Maybe I was dragged to the Holocaust museum in DC on one too many field trips. Maybe it’s my Polish heritage and the fact that I grew up next door neighbors with one of the original Band of Brothers, Patty O’Keefe. Who knows? But for whatever reason, I developed a strong interest in WWII, and WWI for that matter.

This tumultuous period of European history has encouraged and inspired some of my more off the beaten track trips in Europe, like to bunkers in Belgium to Nazi secret police headquarters in Hungary. Owing to my odd obsession with history, one of my favorite things to do why traveling is to visit historic places, especially ones I have researched and read about.

And the one place that has been the notorious epicenter for the Holocaust and disturbingly at the top of WWII haunts I’ve wanted to visit: Auschwitz, the infamous concentration camp in Poland.

I finally journeyed out to Krakow, land of my ancestors, and to Auschwitz during Easter week in 2008.

It was a gray, overcast day with intermittent snow flurries when I arrived at the camp in Oświęcim, Poland. The ground was soggy and the mud squished around my sneakers as I walked from barrack to barrack. I can still remember thinking that it was April, how on earth did anyone survive that hellhole in the dead of winter wearing those terrible striped pajamas? Most didn’t.

Without a doubt Auschwitz is the saddest, most depressing place I have ever been. The whole place smells like death. It’s truly horrible. Trodding amongst the ruins of the gas chamber and crematorium, I felt a deep disgust with humanity. How could something like this happen?

It is one thing to read about the Holocaust and see it in films, but to walk around the grounds of a place like Auschwitz, is a whole other matter entirely. To see a room filled with shoes of prisoners, then another room filled with suitcases, one filled with hairbrushes, another with eye glasses, and finally a room filled with hair, I mean, how do you even begin to digest that?

You can’t help but leave a place like Auschwitz in tears.

I hardly took any pictures that day, and I was angry at all the tourists that did. I just felt…wrong.

I took this shot as we entered the camp, following the footsteps of millions unlucky souls before me, I passed underneath the poignant wrought-iron sign Arbeit Macht Frei, “Work will set you free.” This photo is of the original sign. It was eventually stolen and replaced with a replica in 2009.

Why would I visit somewhere like this on vacation? Why write about something so deeply and utterly sad? Because we have to remember. Things like this need to be faced and not forgotten. Auschwitz was a good reality check, and I reminder of not only how precious life should be, but of my own fleeting humanity.

Ok, I have waxed poetic enough for the day. I’ll end on a lighter note, here are my six favorite, epic World War II films.

1. Saving Private Ryan

2. Casablanca

3. The Thin Red Line

4. Enemy at the Gates

5. The Pianist

6. Schindler’s List

Have you ever been to Auschwitz or another concentration camp? Would you go had you the opportunity? Are you interested in historical travels?  What’s your favorite WWII movie?

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27 Responses to Photo Friday: Auschwitz, Poland

  1. Cat of Sunshine and Siestas November 23, 2012 at 9:56 am #

    I’ve never been to Auschwitz, but because I read the Diary of A Young girl at age eight, I’ve also been interested in the Holocaust. I just read both “In the Garden of Beasts” and “Defying Hitler” and watch all of the documentaries on TVE2. Going to Berlin and seeing all of the monuments was incredible, but seeing the camp outside of the city with my German friend was an experience I’ll never forget.

    • Liz November 23, 2012 at 5:57 pm #

      It’s definitely an interesting time period, and so recent too. I want to go to some of the places around Germany, I haven’t been to Berlin still…

  2. Alex @ ifs ands & Butts November 23, 2012 at 10:17 am #

    I love Saving Private Ryan!

    I really hope to make it to Auschwitz someday. I’ve been to Dachau in Germany and seeing the extermination rooms was shocking. What continues to schock me is how recent this history still is.

    • Liz November 23, 2012 at 5:58 pm #

      it’s such a good movie!!!!

      Dachau is on my list in Germany. It is so shocking how recent it happened, still in living memory. Just horrible

      • Sophia Jaso April 13, 2015 at 11:07 am #

        If you like WWII movies then you should see Life Is Beautiful. It is such an amazing movie, it really shows the horrors of the holocaust but it is not quite as sad as the other movies on the list.

  3. Fer November 23, 2012 at 5:13 pm #

    Great post!
    I went to Auschwitz about one year ago -yep, it was my 7th anniversary- and I felt more or less the same. There weren’t hardly any words to describe the horror and the pain that still remain in that place.
    I couldn’t say I liked Auschwitz. But anyone should go there at least one in his/her lifetime. And I’m sorry for your non-Spanish speaking readers, but I wasn’t sure about how to translate accurately what I wrote after being there:
    “Auschwitz es el horror más absoluto sobre la faz de la tierra. Pero Auschwitz es imprescindible para conocernos, para comprobar hasta dónde puede llegar el hombre para despojarse de su humanidad” (http://ferdiazgil.blogspot.com.es/2011/12/cracovia-diario-de-ruta.html).

    PS: I didn’t know your ancestors came from Krakow (such a lovely city). In fact your surname seems more Swedish than Polish.

    • Liz November 23, 2012 at 6:00 pm #

      Thanks Fer, very well put. and why the hell would you go there on your anniversary?!?!?!

      My last name is Swedish because my dad was adopted, though on his side of the family is part Scandinavian, otherwise I’m mostly Polish!

      • Fer November 23, 2012 at 6:42 pm #

        I explain it in the post I’ve linked: if my anniversary is on 1st November and Poland is SO catholic, the only place around Krakow open that day for visitors was Auschwitz. Truly romantic, I know.

      • Liz May 29, 2013 at 11:24 pm #

        Oh my gosh! What a pleasant coincidence, I’m Polish as well (sorry I’m snooping through your older posts lol). My father and his family are from Krakow too. It’s nice to know there’s another Polish Liz out there trying to conquer the world!

        I’m hoping (fingers crossed) that I’ll be back in Krakow by next month drinking a beer in an outdoor patio in the main town square as the carriage horses roll by.

  4. New Life in Spain November 23, 2012 at 7:02 pm #

    I will go one day. I dread it, and know it will be truly horrible, but I still want to do it. Thank you for sharing your experience there.
    Berlin shook me quite badly as well, it made such a deep impression on me with all the history.

  5. Claudia November 25, 2012 at 3:41 pm #

    I have only been in Sachsenhausen. Just horrible! Have you read the diary Anne Frank?

    • Liz November 26, 2012 at 12:32 am #

      Yes, in fact I read it while I was in Amsterdam before I flew to Poland. I visited the house and museum while I was there. Then I went to Auschwitz, put things in rather harsh perspective.

  6. Britt November 25, 2012 at 9:56 pm #

    I’m planning to visit Auschwitz over winter break. This trip will be especially heart wrenching for me because all my family on my mother’s side were Polish Jew. Most fled Poland just after WWI, but the ones who stayed behind we can only imagine were met with a different fate. It will be a glum time during my vacation, but I also think it’s important to not forget this sad time in history and recognize how precious our lives really are as you say.

    • Liz November 26, 2012 at 12:31 am #

      It’s rough, be prepared. I cried for about an hour when I got back to the hostel. It’s very important to visit places like this. we have to remember

  7. Amy November 26, 2012 at 10:50 am #

    I’m right there with you on this morbid fascination. My first time in Germany I hit up Sachsenhausen and Dachau, and a few years later Mauthausen in Austria with my parents because my mom knows a survivor from there. It’s so important to visit and remember these places.

  8. Joy November 28, 2012 at 3:01 am #

    I have been to Auschwitz and to S21 in Cambodia. At S21 you are free to wander in the school turned concentration camp. There is still blood in many of the cells. They were both difficult experiences.

  9. Kate June 12, 2013 at 2:01 am #

    I’m working on planning my trip to Europe for next spring and plan to visit Amsterdam and then Krakow and Auschwitz. I’ve also had a fascination with the Holocaust for awhile now and I am so glad that I’m going to be able to visit, but I’m nervous about how I will react. I am an emotional person, so it’ll be a difficult day for me, but I’ve always wanted to go. Thanks for this informative post.

    • Liz June 20, 2013 at 3:11 pm #

      I was the same, but it’s important to visit places like Auschwitz and you’d regret not going

  10. Camilla January 12, 2014 at 7:30 pm #

    Hi,
    I also visited Aushwitz around Easter in 2008! I went on a school history tour to various
    concentration camps in Eastern Europe but Aushwitz was definitely the most moving.
    I totally felt the same on how different it is being there in person and it really makes the Holocaust seem
    a lot more real and not just something you learn about at high school (which was one of the points of the trip).

  11. Laura February 18, 2014 at 7:36 am #

    Hi Liz,
    You have a great blog. This post, although sad, is my favorite. My grandfather survived Dachau and Auschwitz. I have not had the chance to visit.. yet (I’m only 23). This reminds me of how lucky I am to be sitting at my desk typing and just breathing. Thanks for writing about your incredible experience and spreading the word. In Hebrew, the term is ye’zkor: remember.

  12. Elizabeth April 14, 2014 at 8:15 am #

    Ouf! I went to Poland last year and visited Auschwitz. Maybe it’s me being emotional, but when I saw all the hairs I suddenly understood (tears in my eyes) something like if before it was only a story, but it’s more than that. Being in a class learning about it and seeing in real life it’s totally different. great post 😉

  13. Simona September 7, 2014 at 9:33 am #

    Hi, I enjoyed reading your blog 🙂 just found this post about Auschwitz… and felt like it was me writing this, because I felt the same. You should watch the “Life is Beautiful” if you haven’t yet, one of my favorite movies about WWII.

  14. Jennifer from Krakow Adventure January 26, 2015 at 6:42 am #

    You are absolutely right in this post. People often do not realize how great tragedy was the Second World War. I think you should ever visit the Museum at Majdanek.

  15. Mia November 21, 2015 at 11:34 am #

    Hi Liz,

    I found your blog while researching Iceland, and stumbled upon this post.

    It’s quite the coincidence, you know! I just realized that I’ve been there around the same time, late April 2008. I visited Auschwitz with my school, when I was 16. We went on March of the Living, which is an international program consisting of a 1 week visit to Poland’s many WWII landmarks, ending with a very emotional march, together with all delegations from every corner of the world, from Auschwitz to Birkenau.

    We prepared for about a year before traveling there. We took history lessons as well as had meetings with survivors; we read stories from the time, we watched movies… We debated, we asked questions, tried to find answers… and for some reason I thought I was well prepared to see Auschwitz. Boy, was I wrong.

    No one is never prepared to see Auschwitz or walk Auschwitz. Nor will anyone ever be.
    As I walked inside and smelled that which you describe as the smell of death (if I close my eyes I can still feel it), everything I had learnt in the past made no sense anymore. Because the truth is that nothing makes sense inside that horrible place. My mind went blank in horror. I just stood there in silence and disbelief.

    Needless to say, it was a very emotional trip. It made me think not only about the times of the war (my great grandparents fled Poland as the war was starting) but it actually made me think about my life today, about what it would feel like if something like that ever happened to me or anyone I love. I started to look back on everyone I knew, everything I had lived so far…

    But what really touched me was the fact that I was for the first time, in my head, giving a face, a name, a life, to each person who died in there, or anywhere during the war (or any war) for that matter. We hear numbers and statistics all the time, but never really stop and think about the people behind those numbers. When in Auschwitz, deaths stopped feeling like a number. When I saw those pieces of luggage, I didn’t just see bags and suitcases. I saw names. I saw hands carrying those belongings. I saw people dreaming of a better life.

    When I saw those gigantic piles of hair I didn’t just see hair. I saw identities being stolen… I saw women combing their hair, preparing for some important dinner, for flirting with some handsome man, teaching their kids how to do their hair… and then saw death.

    But being in Poland was not only about death. We also got to see what life was like before the war. See how people lived, what they ate, what they enjoyed, what made their lives worthwhile. And to think most of those towns don’t even exist anymore…

    And you’re right. The only way to stop this from happening again is remembering. Remembering and teaching the next generations! reading, asking, visiting, exploring.

    Hope all is well!

    M

  16. Anica/Anika from Moldavia December 9, 2015 at 4:49 pm #

    Congratulations, Liz for yours posts !
    I remember, many years ago under the Soviet occupation,
    visiting Tallinn in Estonia, on one of the old walls of the Toompea Castle,
    somebody made a graffiti in English –
    “The only way is Love” !

  17. Tatjana April 7, 2016 at 2:28 am #

    I was in Krakow recently. Didn’t make it to Auschwitz though. I lacked braveness.
    Cheers,
    T.

  18. Anna Heiser December 17, 2016 at 6:55 am #

    I, too have a fascination with WWII, WWI and even Soviet history. Auschwitz is on my list as well as what is left of Treblinka. There is a really great documentary on Treblinka on Netflix.

    It’s hard to got o these places, of course, but I agree that it is important. It is important to not forget those that lost their lives and their families, but to also remember that above all they were human. We are all human! It is difficult for me as much of my father’s family was still in Germany during this time and I don’t know what I would do if I discovered something.

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