Poland, Part 2. Learning history at Auschwitz, Birkenau, and the wieliczka salt mine.
A Quick Overview
If you spend more than a brisk afternoon in Krakow, or spend any amount of up-front time researching things to do when you get there, you will come across the obligatory Concentration Camp/Salt Mine Day Trip. It is absolutely guaranteed.
I think I first stumbled across it in Prague when searching for things to do after I made it to Krakow. It seemed to be somewhere in every top-ten-things-to-do-when list. I admit, that at first, I couldn’t quite get my head around the idea. The two things seemingly had nothing to do with each other. And where, in truth, they certainly do not, they are the prefect compliment to one another. Why you ask? Simple. The salt mine tour allows you to decompress after the heavy emotional journey through the concentration camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau. It’s a lot to take in and process. The salt mine allow you to get your head around it, before being dropped off back in the city. I didn’t get it, until I got it. and then, it made all the sense in the world.
If you choose to take a day trip to visit the concentration camps and the salt mine, you will have many options to pick from. I utilized a group called Krakow Shuttle, from the look of the lanyard in the picture. ( I confess that I kept the invoice so that I might have the information for this blog post, but deleted it off my phone at some point. What are you going to do?) I have no affiliation with Krakow Shuttle, other than to say that they were a fine company to take a tour with. I handled the entire purchase online and they picked me up promptly from my hotel. The shuttles were clean and well-maintained. The staff was great to talk with, and knowledgeable. Like I said before, there are a bunch of options to choose from. Just look around and pick the one that strikes you as a good deal.
Auschwitz Concentration Camp
Our first stop of the three was the Concentration Camp of Auschwitz. The camp is amazingly intact and maintained. The tour of the facility, from the detention buildings, to the killing house, to the gas chambers, is a slow emotional decent into despair. You will start the tour with a feeling about how you think you are going to feel at the end, and end with a completely deeper and stronger one.
I am not going to explain the feeling that the tour leaves you with, as it took me some time to process for myself. I believe that it is individual to each person, based upon their own life situation and beliefs. I will say that it’s profound.
Both the exhibits and the staff/tour guides do their best to present the material on a very human level. It is an experience that should be mandatory for all real travelers. History is repeated, as soon as it’s forgotten about (my opinion).
A tour of the various buildings at Auschwitz includes numerous displays of the events that took place at the camp. There are piles of clothes and suit cases, various room reconstructions, and the like. This picture shows one of the hallways that was lines with pictures of individuals who were sentenced to the camp. The Nazis meticulously documented everything that took place, including photographing every inmate.
Sadly, the wealth of recordkeeping shows both the level of horror, and the system inefficiency. The Nazis found that the starvation and cruel treatment made inmates almost unrecognizable only weeks or months after coming to the camp. The inefficiency of the pictures was one of the things that led to tattooing serial numbers on each individual.
The perimeter of the Auschwitz compound, along the rear end of the compound, with its fortified walls and guard towers. The open areas between the fence lines and the buildings is an obvious field of fire. The signs demarcating the unauthorized areas are labeled with a skull and crossed bones. Even today, the eeriness of the situation is palpable.
Here you can see the stark and functional interior of the gas chamber that was used to kill those deemed as unnecessary. Though the chamber itself seems huge in this picture, it was quickly deemed too small to be effective. The limited killing capacity of the unit was one reason that the larger Birkenau Camp was built.
Directly adjacent to the gas chamber is the oven complex, used to dispose of the bodies afterward. A large steel door separated the inside of the gas chamber from the oven room. This helped with efficient movement of the corpses.
The whole of the system, gas chamber and oven room, is covered by a large mound of earth. From the outside, it looks like an ammunition bunker or big earthen mound. The exterior gives little indication of its intended evil. It’s not until you step inside that you see and feel it for yourself.
There is only a short bus ride between the Auschwitz Camp and the Birkenau Camp, so you get to carry your thoughts with you from one place to the next.
Birkenau Concentration Camp
When the Nazis decided that Auschwitz was just too small to be properly effective, they moved a little distance away and built Birkenau. And, where you start the Auschwitz tour at a visitors center with gift shop and snack bar, You drive up and walk straight into Birkenau. There is little to distract you in this location from the purpose that it was built for.
Since most of Birkenau was destroyed or dismantled after World War II, a large part of the complex is now open fields surrounded by concrete post supported perimeter fencing. It is at this point that the knowledge of the tour guides comes into full use. Our guide was completely knowledgeable about the history and use of the complex, and presented the information in a humanizing way.
The entrance to the Birkenau Camp. The railroad ran straight into the center of the camp and terminated at a large unloading platform. Looking down the rail line at the entrance, you don’t get a real sense for what is awaiting on the other side of the brick entrance building.
You can get a sense of Birkenau’s size from the fence lines. The concrete fence posts and chain-linked/barbed wire fencing are all that remains in many sections of the camp. The numerous buildings were either destroyed by the Russians or dismantled by the Polish people who came in and rebuilt after the war.
When the Nazis arrived, they dismantled the existing polish town and used the materials to build the camp. When they ran out of building materials, they had to import the remainder by rail. after the fighting had ceased, the Polish community that was there previously had to dismantle the camp, so that they might rebuild the town.
An interior shot from one of the existing structure. The shelves visible in the picture are sleeping areas. It was estimated that six people would fit on each shelf. With almost no heat in the building, it was a desperate existence during the winter months.
A handful of brick buildings exist from the WW 2 time period. they survived because the Russian army used them for prisoner cells. This kept them from being torn down.
I think most people walk out of Birkenau just wanting to go have a drink. It’s a natural reaction to the overwhelming amount of travesty that you’ve just experienced. The ride from Birkenau to the Salt Mine was a quiet and reflective affair, to say the least.
Wieliczka Salt Mine
You arrive at the salt mine and it’s like a completely different planet. The large open parking area gives way to a well-maintained green space with paths that lead to the ticket area. You are surrounded by shady seating areas and iced cream stands or little snack stands. And, everybody there seems to be happy.
The ticket line isn’t long, and our tour guide fashioned us into a group quite quickly. The tour is lead by a guide from the mines, our guide for the day hung out at the bus. Our mine guide was young and quite funny, baring the English-as-a-second-language effect.
stepping into the long descending stairwell that lowers you down into the upper reaches of the mine, the natural air conditioning takes over. The cool air was a refreshing change from the June heat, and signaled the beginning of a wonderful tour.
Petrified timber beams hold up the passageways inside the salt mine. As the timber ages inside the mine, it absorbs salt from the surrounding stone until it is almost completely given over to it.
The miners used a vast amount of timber to shore up the interior spaces of the mine. In the larger chambers, timber scaffolds were constructed to brace the roof and walls. The wooden constructions are absolutely massive.
One of the most famous interior spaces in the salt mine is the cathedral. A working cathedral to this day, the entire space was chiseled out of the rock, as the salt was extracted. The interior of the cathedral is covered by statues of saints and carved reliefs on the walls. There is a carving of The Last Supper that is amazing (Sadly, I didn’t get a good-enough picture of it). The cathedral is still booked out for weddings and services.
The miners of the day weren’t uneducated individuals, per se. They stayed up with the events of the times and carved them into statues inside the mine. My favorite, a statue of Nicholas Copernicus, is displayed here. They were found of their Polish heroes, scholars, scientists, and theologians. There are a couple statues of Saint John Paul II inside the mine.
Daylighting out the other end of the tour, you will find yourself a little ways from your starting point. This turns the tour into a bit of a scavenger hunt to find the entry parking lot again. I noticed as our group walked back to the parking lot, stopping to inspect each street sign we came across for useful information, that most everyone in our group was smiling and happy. Our time underground had allowed them to decompress.
I have a great respect for history. That statement explains a lot about my travel habits. I like churches and cemeteries. I like ancient temples and museums. I like context, when I can find it. It is my belief that if your not seeking out a solid connection with wherever you are traveling to, then you aren’t a real traveler. You’re probably not even a real tourist. You’re simply on vacation. What is it Rick Steves says about travel “you come home with a broader perspective.” Or something like that. I firmly believe this is true.
That being said, The experience of the day trip was impressive. It took several days to process the thoughts generated by the concentration camps. I took way too many pictures in the salt mine. It was a great pairing of events that I recommend to anyone going to the Krakow area. The old city is great. It has a lot to offer any traveler, but there is more to the area than just the city. Take the time to explore further. You will be rewarded for you efforts.
Now get out there (after COVID, of course) and learn a little history!