This past weekend was an important milestone in the history of Expat Club. Only few hours ago I returned from Poland with a group of 30 international people. With pure tourist visits to the Old Town of Krakow and the stunning UNESCO-protected salt mines of Wieliczka, our main destination was Auschwitz, the former nazi concentration and extermination camps 50km West of the city. It is said that visiting Auschwitz is something different, that it gives an experience you cannot get anywhere else. In other camps like Treblinka, Sobibor, Chelmno and Belzec also hundreds of thousands of Jews, Roma, homosexuals, POWs, political prisoners and various other groups/nationalities were brutally murdered. However, the sheer size of Auschwitz and the fact that much still remains visible despite efforts of the Nazi regime to wipe out all traces of their horrendous war crimes, makes it the ultimate symbol of the Holocaust. Visiting them can only make your heart and soul cry.
During the Expat Club trips I normally never pay full attention to the guides, simply because I always have other things on my mind, such as keeping track of time, ensuring everyone follows the guide, making some last-minute calls for changes with the lunch, or because I have already seen the place myself before. For this trip I decided to already visit Auschwitz mid April, so I flew back-and-forth to Krakow in one day to check out the hotel and the main destination of the group trip this early June.
As I often do with museums, castles and such, is to go through it in high-speed tempo. Just to see whether or what exactly is interesting, where we should spend relatively more time, what to skip, what not to forget, or how much time we should spend there. It also provides an opportunity to talk to the staff or guides, inspect lunch places, and maybe pick up some maps, brochures or booklets.
For my preparation visit to Auschwitz I had booked a tour in German, the last available spot that morning as it was fully booked in every other language (not a problem for me of course). Booking a tour is more or less obligatory, so I had no choice but to be part of this German group. I may have followed about 5 minutes of the tour before I decided to break away from the group and visit everything on my own. Without rushing through it I had the chance to visit almost all main barracks, as well the expositions of the Roma and Sinti and the Soviet POWs. Most of the things you read and see are simply heartbreaking. Even if you have dived into many books about the holocaust, or even if you have seen a dozen documentaries about the camps, nothing can prepare you emotionally for a real-life visit to Auschwitz. Seeing with your own eyes the watch towers, the electrified barbed-wired fences with the typical curved lamp posts, the red-bricked barracks, the chimneys, the fire squad wall and that awful entrance gate, it’s a history lesson from a different dimension.
One of the participants this weekend told me she had prepared so well for this visit, for months even, but when she walked around there it was as if all that knowledge was just gone. Stunned, overwhelmed, in a daze, call it what you want… I had exactly the same experience when I went there myself 6-7 weeks ago. As if my intellect had switched off and only my soul remained. Everything became unbelievable until the point that I could just stammer something like “Oh my god, it really does exists, it really exists.”
Auschwitz is visited by thousands of people from all over the world every single day. This constant stream of visitors reduces the chance to reflect on your own, to stand still from time to time and feel the heavy energy of the place without being disturbed by yet another tour group. Yet, there is also something powerful about this if you take a different perspective. The more people visit this historic place and the more people are educated by knowledgeable official guides, the better. It’s a powerful way to spread the message of peace and understanding. Still, in all this coming and going of groups I suddenly found myself all alone in the gas chamber and adjacent crematorium. For several minutes I could stand there all by myself in total silence. An incredibly humbling experience, which forced me to sit down for a some time on the curb-stones opposite the entrance, sharing my sadness over Whatsapp with my wife, my father and my two best friends in Holland.
Although it was never my intention to go with the same speed through the Auschwitz museum as I would do with for instance a scouting visit to a castle, simply because of time constraints, it was clear that I had to slow down. One cannot rush, not even on a quick orientation trip. One needs to reserve much time. Normally a visit to Auschwitz takes 3 to 3,5 hours, in total for both camps. On Saturday our guide told me that the longer 6 hours extended tour was sporadically booked, let alone the 8 hours tour. It was the the right decision to offer the best possible and longest experience for the approaching Expat Club visit, not in the least place because one can instinctively guess that only the best guides are allowed to take groups around for a full day.
The Expat Club trip from 8 to 10 June
Our group met on Friday morning at Zaventem. As usual the group was highly diverse in age, professional background and nationality: Belgian, Dutch, American, Canadian, Italian, Romanian, Swedish, Finnish, Portuguese and several more.
This weekend’s trip was titled “Krakow & Auschwitz”, and so our trip started in this beautiful city in Southern Poland. We travelled with a direct flight from Brussels. Despite a piece of suitcase that didn’t join us on the same flight, we managed to arrive almost on time in the city center for our guided tour through the Old Town.
After a short break at the main square, we headed back to the bus for a early-evening visit to the Schindler factory. Although the factory itself has already long gone, the recognisable main gate from the office building is still there, and so are many original artefacts, like his office and documents. The museum itself is more focused on nazism and holocaust in general than on Schindler’s story. Yet it is quite special to be there, knowing it was Spielberg’s masterpiece that made this place famous forever and gave the city another top tourist attraction. But the movie’s main contribution was that a very large audience around the world, from young to old, learned more about the fate of the jews in the Polish ghettos and the holocaust in general.
With that in the back of my mind I found it appropriate to also visit the site of the former concentration camp Plaszów, where the Schindler inmates lived. Not many traces can be found anymore beyond the SS house and the Camp Commander’s house, unless one really looks well for them. Our group walked through the park and visited the place where mass burnings of exhumed bodies took place (to hide the evidence of what happened there), followed by the main monument from a hill that overlooks not only the camp site itself, but also the city of Krakow.
The sun was going down leaving behind a beautiful sky, while our tummies were rumbling, it was time for dinner… This time I choose not some cool restaurant downtown, but one in the Jewish district Kazimierz. It proved to be exactly the right one according to two amazing testimonials on the wall. The dinner was a great way to get to know each other while enjoying fantastic Jewish food in a most authentic place. A must-go while in Krakow.
Our Auschwitz visit
The next morning started early because our guided tour at Auschwitz was supposed to start by 9h30. Our visit was roughly split into two parts. In the morning we visited Auschwitz I, the “Stammlager” or original concentration camp with the red brick buildings and the gate with the infamous welcome text “ARBEIT MACHT FREI”, and in the afternoon Auschwitz II – Birkenau, a concentration and extermination camp where over 1 million men, women and children lost their lives, the great majority jews, but also many thousands of Roma, Poles, Soviet POWs and many other nationalities.
We first met with our guide for the day, Marta. After a quick security check the group joined her for a 3h15 tour in the original camp, virtually the same time regular tours need to see both camps plus transfers. I had decided to leave it to my April visit and so I stayed outside this time. I normally don’t mind seeing a place twice or hear the stories again, but my earlier experience was so profound and moving that I didn’t want to risk forgetting the feeling of that first impression.
While waiting for the group on the gras right next to the exit I again was amazed with the number of groups going through this historic site. In just 20 minutes I must have seen at least a dozen guides come out, speaking in a same number of languages (a similar impression one gets seeing where the cars and coaches come from). This makes one realise how important Auschwitz is in Holocaust education.
After a good lunch we continued our way to the second camp, Auschwitz II – Birkenau. Although my intention was to also visit Auschwitz III – Monowitz, a camp a few kilometers to the East that was setup to provide slave labor for the IG Farben factory, as well as several smaller spots outside the main camp, a lack of time and a prohibition to enter several roads with a large coach (tonnage restriction) made us decide to stick only to both main camps. In hindsight a right decision, because with a good guide it is not a problem to spend more than a full day in Auschwitz. And we had “only” 8 hours…
Immediately after the first people exited the first camp I got the feedback that Marta was excellent. While entering Auschwitz-Birkenau, when I joined the group myself again, it became instantly clear that she was indeed highly knowledgeable. Without being repetitive or boring, she shared so many engaging stories about the history of the camp and the dire conditions of the people who lived there. None were positive. It was just one continuation of misery, horror and sadness. There was no hope at Birkenau. The gas chambers were eventually waiting for everyone.
The Auschwitz-Birkenau complex is shockingly large. During my trip in April I had no time to visit this camp. I also wanted to leave “the second part” for the upcoming trip with our group. Still, I did drive around it, especially to see the place of the “Red House” and the Soviet POW memorial. The hectometer wheel on my rental car’s odometer slowly but steadily made a full circle, for both the camp’s x-axis and y-axis. With 300 buildings it covered 175 hectares, whereas more enlargements were planned. For comparison, the Parc du Cinquantenaire is only 17 hectares, so 10 times smaller. And with 122 hectares, even Bois de la Cambre is still much smaller. All that space was used for implementing “Die Endlösung”, or the “Final solution”.
Even though we had Marta all for ourselves the entire day, we found ourselves almost out of time when we reached the “Canada section”, the place where all belongings of newly arrivals were sorted and prepared for transportation by train to Germany, passing loaded trains with more jews in the opposite direction. It was a long and exhausting day, not only emotionally. The temperature rose to almost 30 degrees and shade is generally hard to find in Auschwitz-Birkenau. Ironically it started to rain hard right before we entered the shower building (“Sauna”) where new arrivals had to shower, where their hair was cut off, and where they received a tattoo.
With more possible rain to come and our time running out, we decided to finish the tour and slowly walk back to the main gate where our bus was also parked. Very tired, emotionally drained, but with an unforgettable life experience and a moral obligation to share what we have seen and learned, we returned to our hotel in Krakow where we enjoyed a nice group dinner. Most of us called it a day right after dessert…
The next day we shifted gears completely and went to a top tourist attraction just outside of Krakow, the Wieliczka Salt Mines. Protected by UNESCO world-heritage status, these mines have been in operation for centuries and are absolutely magnificent. The main corridors, halls, decorations (carvings and statues), various forms of salt (, white cauli-flower, black, white, grey, flawlessly smooth like glass), it was beyond anything we expected. We stayed 3 hours underground, anywhere between 60 and 135 meters. Luckily we only went down as the tour progressed and we took a super fast lift up that just needed 45 seconds. After adding some bath salts and salty chocolate into our suitcases we returned to the airport for a straight flight back to Brussels.
What an amazing trip! Thank you all to those who took time from their busy schedule to join me to this very special destination. I hope more people will decide to join me there in the future. If you are also interested in a trip to Auschwitz, we are going there again from 19 to 21 October. Visit the special trip page for more information.