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WHS #580: Auschwitz Birkenau

Hardly two weeks after the WHC meeting of 2015 that gave me no less than 9 'new' sites, I hit the road again for my 580th WHS. The start of daily KLM flights to Cracow drew me to a revisit of Southern Poland. I had been to Cracow in 2005, visiting the Old Town, the Wieliczka Salt Mine and Kalwaria Zebrzydowska. At that time I decided to skip Auschwitz, as I wasn’t really in the mood for what I knew would be a very moving visit. This time around I started with Auschwitz Birkenau, staying overnight in Oswiecim. I had reserved entry for 8 a.m. on Saturday morning. Visitor numbers are limited to 100-200 an hour depending on the hour, so it’s best to pre-book a spot. Later in the day places fill up quickly, as after 10 a.m. these include guided tours in German, English, Russian, Spanish or Polish.

Original wooden barracks in Birkenau

When I arrived at about 7.50, already some 100 people were queuing to get in. The doors do not open until 8 a.m., and then you have to pass security first. You’re allowed to bring in hardly nothing, and I even was turned away on my first try because of my tiny backpack! So bring only a camera. Or an umbrella. Or nothing.

Auschwitz I Camp lies in the urban area of the Polish town of Oswiecim, it really isn’t on the outskirts as it is sometimes described. Its very urban setting came as a surprise to me. And also its looks: it reminded me of those 19th century company towns, with neat rows of brick buildings. This was the administrative center of the Auschwitz Camp system , and it had offices and hospitals. Behind closed doors terrible things happened of course, and sometimes even in plain sight as with the public hanging of prisoners (which were mostly Polish and Russians incarcerated here). Most of the buildings now contain exhibition rooms, telling about different aspects of the camp and the fate of prisoners from various nations.

Brick buildings of Auschwitz I

Auschwitz II or Birkenau lies 3 km away, in a rural area. This was the largest extermination camp of the Nazi’s, which could house 100,000 prisoners at the time. Over one million people were killed here, in what was like an industrialized process. Its 175 hectare terrain held more than 300 brick and wooden buildings, of which 67 are still intact. It's a long walk to cross the terrain, but it does give you a sense of the scale of this camp. The barracks lie in long rows next to the main track and the railway. Most are not accessible and located behind barbed wire. At the very end there are the collapsed gas chambers, which were blown up at the end of the war by the SS to cover up their actions.

In the woods behind it still stands the building where the prisoners were ‘introduced’ to the camp, and were stripped of their possessions and clothing. This ’dehumanization’ is again presented soberly (mostly bare spaces with an information sign), but I found it the most moving part of my visit. Besides the enormous size of it all, it struck me that Camp Birkenau lies in a wooded, almost idyllic environment. Any moment you expect a fox running across. I thought that the Polish had let nature return to this area, but also at photos dating from WWII itself you can see that there was a forest here then. There is a very painful picture on display of prisoners among the trees, waiting for their turn to go into the gas chambers.

'Haarschneideraum' in Birkenau

Dark Tourism may be a relatively new trend (the phrase was coined in 1996), but Auschwitz already entered the WH list in 1979 (after having even been proposed for the first list ever in 1978, but then neigbouring Cracow and Wieliczka Salt Mine were given preference). Visiting ‘dark heritage’ is sometimes described as an uneasy mix of disaster tourism and memorial. Auschwitz tends to lean to the latter, it is not as blood heavy as other dark sites that I have visited such as the former Tuol Sleng prison in Cambodia or Saddam’s Red Prison in Iraqi Kurdistan. The displays here are sober, and the total has an understated subtlety. I also appreciate that entrance is free, and there is very little commercial activity around the site.

Els - 19 July 2015

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