Auschwitz and Birkenau Camps
We started our day by waking up at around 5am. We got ready and did the checkout routine at our hostel. Since we were going on a day tour, we left our bags in the hostel. We anticipated coming back from the tour by 7pm, leaving us enough time to grab some dinner and collecting the bags before boarding our night train at 10:30pm to Budapest. We had some breakfast and went downstairs to await our pick up for the tour. While we waited we witnessed the small vendors (mainly elderly ladies) setting up shop in the market which gathers below our hostel building. It was interesting to see how they had small amounts of goods like flowers, fruits, few tablets etc and were displaying them. Many customers were already buying flowers etc. We did some people watching and at roughly 8am our driver presented himself. He informed us that he will do one more pick up and then take us to our mini bus where others will be waiting. And so we did.This is our first organised tour in the trip till date. We did all other day trips by ourselves. Since this visit was very important and we would like to know the complete facts and not half guess things, we decided to do this day trip with a guided tour. The other reason was that we wanted to do a salt mine visit as well and since the mines are on the other side of the city, it was only possible to cover it within a tour.
Anyways, we took our seats in the bus and the driver informed us that we will be going to 2 major camps in aushwitz – aushwitz mother camp and berkonala. They are a few minutes away and we will be guided by a tour guide. On our way to aushwitz, in the 1 hour 20 min journey, we were shown a documentary which prepared us for the tour and gave us some background information on the camps.
We reached at aushwitz at approx 9:50am and after 10 minutes to freshen up each of the tour members were given receivers and headphones. We went through security and the tour commenced. They took us into different buildings which were originally barracks for prisoners and Jews. Different barracks had different exhibitions which explained about the life at the camp to the lifecycle of someone entering the camp until crematory. It was very confronting and some sections were very offensive as well. Like, for example, one room had on display 2 tons of hair from 40,000 women! The Nazis used these cut hair to make a fabric which they used for the army’s uniform. The other most offensive part was pictures of children who were used as guinea pigs for various experimentation – medical and other. In this process they mutilated their bodies etc. Items like shoe polish tins, hairbrushes, shaving brushes, shoes, suitcases, clothes etc were showcased too! The shoe display showed the thousands of shoes for men, women and children. Poor man’s shoes and highly fashionable shoes all in one pile – a strong message showing that everyone was treated equally no matter where they came from, what gender, what education and what status they held.
The next section was the punishment chambers. This was block 10 and 11. This is where the nazi’s used gas to kill people for the first time. They had gassed approx 600 Russian soldiers who were amongst the first residents of aushwitz. Everything we saw here was very depressing and heart wrenching. The worse was yet to come.
Then we were taken to the gas chambers and the crematorium. The one is aushwitz or aushwitz I is the smallest and the oldest one. It’s called Gas Camber one. There were a total of 5 in the overall complex, 2-5 were in berenakal. Each gas chamber first had an entrance hall. In the next room, they had hangers with numbers and each person was asked to remove their clothes and hang their shoes with the shoelaces tied. They were then transferred to the actual gas chamber which was a big hall with openings in the roof – some also had shower heads to give an illusion that they were going to receive a bath. As soon as the chamber is jam packed, they would close the door and release 10kgs of hydrogen cynide (5 tins) to kill everyone. It takes 20-30 mins before you hear the last scream. A nazi doctor would look through the small window for any signs of movement before opening the doors. The corpses were then transferred to the ground floor from he basement by means of an electric elevator. The chamber also had a crematory with 6 furnaces which had a capacity of burning 1500 corpses a day. The gas chamber could kill 2000 persons a day. The bones remains were then grounded and the ashes were collected in 2 pits outside before using them as fertilisers in the nearby farms or dumping them in nearby rivers.
The whole experience had two sides. One, you see hell on earth and monsters in disguise of human and the other side was the story of hope and human survival spirit.
Wieliczka Salt Mine
The salt mine was the second half of the tour. We left Birkenau with a heavy heart and wanted to lighten up a little. The best stop was Wieliczka Salt Mine which was about 1 1/2 hrs. It was nearly 1:30pm so we were provided lunch. We were provided salads (as we opted for vegetarian option) and some fruits by the tour operator. So after finishing the lunch in the bus we got a little time to rest the eyes and we reached the mines.
It is one of the oldest working salt mine in the world. It has been in operation for approx 700 years. We were taken to 3 different levels. Each on was deeper than the previous. The maximum depth we went to was 135 meters and a descent of 800 steps. Due to non access of any sea water, salt was mined in olden times. It was a very precious common duty and some kingdoms also paid wages in form of salt.
Our guide was very witty and gave us excellent information of history etc.
After the descent of 400steps through narrow winding passage, we entered the first hall where we saw first of the many beautiful sculpture carved from salt rocks. The walls and the floors of the mines were 95% salt and 5% soil. You could actually lick salt and be healthy. There is also an indoor spa as the healthy air with minerals is great for good health and in our guides’ words, a perfect place to practice some tai-chi or yoga.
Some of the stops inside the mines were as follows:
- church – a fully functional church which holds service every Sunday. You can even get married here. Great sculptures and chandeliers made out of rock salt.
- display on process of mining: great display of how mining was done in the olden times.
- horses: the significance of horses during the early mining days. Realistic sculptures told us the story of how they were an important part.
- lake: there is a lake which has the fully saturated salt water. If you drop a coin, it won’t sink straight away. Also humans would float in this lake. A diver has to carry an extra 60kgs to go the bottom. We dropped a coin too and made a wish.
Overall, the experience of visiting the mines was very unique and something we will always remember.