While it’s not exactly the kind of destination a traveler would normally choose for a holiday, when in Poland, this painful part of human history is a must. One ticket provides two heart-wrenching experiences.
When most Jews entered Birkenau Concentration Camp and were unloaded from the train, they had about two hours to live. They were separated at their train cars, where they had been packed in like cattle. The weak, the young, and the old walked down the stone road towards the gas chambers and crematorium. Visitors in the 21st century enter this site the same way, tracing their very footsteps.
There’s a catch pond that has human ashes in it. These ashes were often spread on the fields as fertilizer. Some Jews had to work those fields, tilling soil with their comrades remains. Hair was sent away to be made into cloth that looks like linen, and was then sewn into garments. The Nazis thought of and treated the Jews as animals.
Birkenau was Auschwitz II, and is located a short drive away. It was a much larger complex which housed more than 90,000 prisoners as compared to Auschwitz, which had 12-20,000.
The women’s barracks at Birkenau has sixty open latrine holes, where visits were timed to no longer than just five seconds. No one could visit the latrine again until the next day. Prisoners slept in bunk beds with seven bodies squished across. Rats were a problem here, chewing on the prisoners during the night.
The ruins of the gas chambers and crematorium lie in shambles on the grounds, quickly detonated and destroyed when the war was over. Re-bar sticks out of the rubble like ribs. Birkenau looks as though its inhabitants left just a month ago. The only difference now is that the grass is green and lush. Years ago, it was dirt, and some starving Jews were reduced to eating it.
Auschwitz has been turned into a museum where each barrack holds a different display. Towering collections of suitcases have names and addresses written on them in white paint - their owners believed that they were going to a better place. Visitors to this site also see stacks of shoes, cut hair, combs and shaving brushes. The volume of these items is staggering, and provides a visual of how many people were exterminated (7 million). Today, you can walk right through the gas chambers and the furnace, which is excruciatingly sad. The reason we visit these types of places is to be reminded of what atrocities humans are capable of doing to one another, and to make sure they are never, ever repeated.
After this emotional visit, visitors should head to the south of Poland to experience the beauty and peace of the High Tatra Mountains. It is a place to rejuvenate your soul while you hike amongst towering rocky mountains and penetrate deep lush forests. The gorgeous picture-book mountain town of Zakopane is the kick-off place for starting an adventure. Make sure you take in the town’s log building tour to better acquaint you with the unique construction found in this part of Poland.
A wonderful series of huts are located throughout the range, offering beds and meals, and enabling the walker to hike unencumbered without a heavy pack. Poles are avid hikers and it is great fun to mingle with them after a day on the trail, relaxing in the historic stone and log huts drinking beer, eating hearty soup, and playing cards. Beds are made with thick wool plaid blankets and cozy down comforters, ensuring a restful night’s sleep.
Another not-to-be-missed site is Morskie Oko - a gem of a lake nestled high in the eastern side of the Tatra Mountain range. A horse drawn wagon can take travelers the seven kilometers up and reduce the amount of walking. If you are able, walk around the lake and climb the short distance to the next mountain tarn above it, Czarny Staw. Here, the reflection of the surrounding mountains is so exquisitely beautiful, and the land at its outlet seems to drop off into eternity. It is the ideal location to reflect on your personal place on this planet.
Being immersed in nature can heal even the most disquieted soul. Poland can take you from the depths of despair to the heights of joy. Sometimes, we need to travel to a place to be reminded of who we are, and who we want to be.