Day 5 – Day trip to Oswiecim (Aushwitz-Birkenau)

One word: “overwhelming”

The Polish countryside reminds me so much of Michigan. The same scenes, same plants (horticultural and industrial), and same hardiness evident throughout. Obviously there are differences, but I feel those are superficial. For example, there are many fewer historical objects and relics available in Michigan.

The death camp of Auchwitz-Birkenau is being ovrtaken by that same natural environment. From the birds, to plants, to frogs, nature has shown that what the Nazis did are but a blip in real time and overall scope of the universe.

This is a visit everyone should take. Like the Grand Canyon, the magnitude can’t be appreciated unless you see it in person and walk among the ruins of Birkenau.

There are actually three camps collectively known as Aushwitz, the German name for Oswiecim. Aushwitz I, Aushwitz II (Birkenau), and Auswitz III (Monowitz). Auschwitz I was our first stop. It is where the museum ticket offices are and most museum-type displays. Birkenau our second stop. We didn’t see Monwitz.

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We chose to pay the extra money for a guided tour (26 zlotys each). The tour put us on their schedule which was fast paced and didn’t give a chance to see everything. But it did get us over to see Birkenau. Most people we spoke to didn’t get around to seeing Birkenau and ran out of time to see it. They spent their day viewing exhibits.

We first toured Aushwitz I, walking through several of the many brick army barracks which were converted by the Nazis into prison buildings. When we were done there, we took a bus to Birkenau for the end of the tour.

Birkenau was the true death factory. It was designed for one purpose: to kill. Birkenau is the place where cattle cars pulled through the camp gate and prisoners were immediately sorted. Most were told they would recieve showers and were herded into the gas chambers. The few remaining were put to work. Birkenau was gigantic compared to Aushwitz. Except for a handful of brick buildings and wooden prison barracks maintained, the camp is now mostly ruins. Only the foundation shells and chimneys remain of the camp buildings.

The train there and back was super-bouncy. The train shook like a bowl of jelly. To the left and right, and up and down, and even in some round motions which made it seem as if it would bounce off the tracks every now and then.

Brett was right that we should buy a few ubiquitous bread rings before we left for Oscwiecim. There wasn’t much in the way of food or snacks that I could see. It is as if they don’t want to ruin the sanctity of the place. Even then, there are a dozen or so homes buildt close by (100m), slose enough to have a daily reminder of the camps. I havn’t seen or smelled lilacs in bloom since 1992. What a lovely fragrance.

Dinner? Pierogis, of couse. Also, golabki (stuffed cabbages) and cababage salad. We stuffed ourselves for 21.50 zloty (~$7). Piwo (beer) isn’t as ubiquitious as guidebooks make it seem and isn’t served at the type of places we like to eat at. We drank mineral water with most of our meals.

It seems the Polish habit and penchant I have for eating pierogis with sour cream is regional. Today’s restaurant serves them with bacon grease bacon grease poured over them, complete with a few itty-bitty bacon pieces (crumbs, really).

I ordered a second batch of “ruskie pierogi” but got a blank stare when I asked for sour cream and amazed look when I aksed for plain pierogi, without bacon grease, no butter (the substitute for bacon grease I was immediately offered). Afterwards, I emailed a coworker and his wife asking for the Polish word for sour cream; he’s from Ukraine and she’s from Poland. The word is “kwasna smietana.”
Eating like we have so far puts us on pace to return home 20 lbs heavier.

Thoughts:

  • Tour guides for Aushwitz are worth the price, however it is only worth it if exploring along afterwards. We ended our tour at Birkenau and then walked most of the remaining circumference.
  • I disagree with the Rick Steves guidebook aout using the train to reach the camps. It took us 1.5 hours exactly from Krakow Glowny to Oswiecim and another 20 minutes to walk there. Maybe in the dead of winter or dog days of summer would it be worse. It was a pleasant walk and the return journey from Birkenau to the station gave some time to contemplate, and for us several lilac bushes to admire.
  • I love the fragrance of lilac
  • Mmmmm… Polish food
  • Poland has a small but active nazi movement. So sad, after what the Nazis did to them. Some graffiti seen so far: “White Power” and “RAHOWA” (RAcial Holy WAr)