Auschwitz – Birkenau The saddest place I have ever been.

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It was a place we both thought was important to see for ourselves, to see exactly what had happened there and to try to understand the horrors that had been committed.

Our 2013 journey into Poland gave us the chance to tick off this major bucket list destination ( we returned to visit again in 2019). 

Auschwitz is one of those places that is forever etched into history and the actions that took place there will never be forgotten or should never be forgotten.

Fences at Auschwitz
The Cell Blocks at Auschwitz

Auschwitz  – Birkenau is a stark reminder of what one person who controls an army can do, and what other humans are capable of doing to each other.

As we had visited Dachau Concentration Camp just out of Munich in 2003 we thought we were ready for an Auschwitz visit. Neither of us was prepared for the emotional roller coaster the day had in store for us.

When we first arrived, we bought our tickets and waited just out the front…when our time was called, we went through the building into an open area to wait for our guide.

The remains of the gas chamber at Auschwitz Poland
What remains of the Gas Chambers at Auschwitz

That is when you felt it. It wasn’t a bad feeling, for me, it just felt like there was something on my skin (Bec)…it just made me feel uncomfortable, a little uneasy.

Maybe it was just coming to the realization that what we thought was bad was going to be a thousand times worse than we could ever have imagined.

Doing a Guided Tour at Auschwitz

We chose to go on a guided tour through both camps that would last around the 3-hour mark. We both felt that this would give us the best chance of trying to understand what had happened in the most respectful way we could.

Having the guide with you will, the majority of the time, give you information and insights into things that you would not have known if you went there by yourself. 

I am so glad we opted for the tour. I would hate to think what information we would have missed if we had of opted for the independent tour.

We returned to Auschwitz in 2019 and did an independent tour. Our 2013 assumption was correct, you need to do a tour to find all the information.

While waiting in an open area just across from the main gate, I had a chance to look around, and I was stunned by what I saw. I had pictured a desolate, gloomy, barren place completely void of any niceness, of anything that resembled a decent place.

Now we mean no disrespect at all when we say this, but it was pretty. It looked like a quaint little village.

A reconstructed train carriage at Auschwitz
A reconstructed train carriage at Birkenau.

It was so green, and the trees were everywhere. In the back of your mind, you thought of why it would be so green, and you knew the answer.

The red brick barracks looked so strong and neat. It completely blindsided me how I felt seeing it and knowing what happened there. How could it look so nice with all the horror and atrocities it had seen?

If you took away the barbed wire and guardhouses, it could have been ‘picture perfect’. It was peaceful, quiet and nothing we were ready for.

Our guide met us and went through how the camp had first come about. He also strongly emphasised that this was a place that needed the utmost respect for the people who had been there and who had lost their lives in the most horrific of ways.

He led us through the gate where most of the prisoners would have also had to walk. As we walked under it we just looked at each other and took a deep breath. A lump had formed in my throat.

In 2019, on our second visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau, we brought our 11-year-old and 14-year-old along with us. Read about Visiting Auschwitz with kids.

At Auschwitz, The Nazi’s opened their first camp for both men and women. This is where they perfected their use of the gas that went on to kill so many innocent people.

You were able to view the rooms where the prisoners were housed and the offices where they were documented on entry to the camp. There was one corridor where you walked past hundreds of people’s photographs who had been at the camp.

There were two photo’s of the person and underneath was stated their name, date of entry into the camp, what trade they had and the date they died within the camp. It broke my heart that most only lasted a couple of months.

Cell Block 11 at Auschwitz

You got to see Cell Block 11 where some horrendous experiments were carried out on people and where the first gas chamber was developed. The gas chamber at Auschwitz was relatively small compared to the ones that were at Birkenau.

They used to rev motorbikes so the other prisoners in the camp could not hear their death cries. We got time to reflect while looking at the Wall of Death where thousands of prisoners were marched into the courtyard and executed by firing squads.

All of the displays were very confronting and moving. At one stage looking at the displays I was brought to tears for the first but not the last time of the day.

Auschwitz gate house
The remains at Auschwitz are still quite extensive

The displays were just so confronting, not only because of what they were displaying but the sheer amount on display. There was clothing, glasses, saucepans, luggage, kids dolls, shoes and people’s hair.

The children’s belongings really struck a sad chord with me. How could someone do this to poor defenceless children? What posses’s someone to think that this is normal behaviour?

 How could this have been allowed to happen? All these thoughts and emotions run through your mind while you are there and it is all right there in front of you.

terror auschwitz
One of the courtyards where prisoners were shot

As you go from room to room of people’s belongings all you can do is shake your head at the sheer waste of human life, the madness. I inadvertently felt tears running down my checks at these thoughts and images I was thinking and seeing.

Each room brought a new horror, a new feeling of dread for the people who lived there.

Birkenua (Auschwitz 2)

The Auschwitz Camp and The Birkenau Camp (or Auschwitz 2 ) are about a kilometre apart. Auschwitz is nearly fully intact from what it was like in the 1940s. Birkenau, on the other hand, was nearly totally destroyed with only a few buildings remaining.

This does not in any way diminish the feelings you get there. There are foundations, for as far as the eye can see, of buildings that used to be there. Then there are thousands upon thousands of meters of barbed wire fences.

To get to Birkenau, there are buses running between the two sites that you will take with your tour group. You arrive at Birkenau to see another iconic symbol of the camps.

Birkenau gate
The iconic train station building at Birkenua.

The sheer size of Birkenau (Auschwitz 2) is just incomprehensible. Auschwitz in itself was relatively small, but this camp housed hundreds of thousands of people at one time. This place is where the real tragedy and misery unfolded on a massive scale.

There is not a lot of Birkenau left, but you can still get a sense of what was here because they still have the wire fences up and ruins of where the buildings. The majority of the buildings have been destroyed, but you get a sense, with the few buildings left intact, of the conditions that people suffered through here.

On the day we went it was overcast and slightly windy, imagine what it would have been like in the middle of winter.

The remains of barracks at Birkenau

We visited Auschwitz Birkenau with 2 friends. One was Polish and one was German. They were both touched and sad for different reasons. Our Polish friend’s grandfather was imprisoned in Auschwitz, luckily he survived.

He told us the story of his grandfather and remembered that every time he spoke of the camp, he would cry. He had never been to the camp, and we were honoured to be the ones he chose to share his experience with.

Our German friend said this to me and I will never forget this, “My country did this for glory but only bought shame”.

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We walked the train platform that stretched for over a kilometre, where the prisoners were unloaded from the trains. At that point, all I could hear was the crunching of the compressed gravel underneath my feet.

The end of the line at Auschwitz

Our guide showed us the spot where people were most likely sorted into people worth keeping and the ones who weren’t. This was the bit where it completely hit home for me (Bec). Right there would have been the end for my family.

I am fiercely protective of them, and right there, I would have come to the realisation that there was just nothing, absolutely nothing I could do to save us. How many mothers of the most wonderful children in the world felt that right there?

How many of them scrambled ideas in their heads to just give them a chance? As I looked at Mark I knew he was thinking the same thing.  Near the end of the platform are the remains of the two gas chambers that were on-site there and a pond where they emptied the ashes.

Our tour guide could not stress enough that Birkenau is just one massive cemetery and that ashes were scattered everywhere around us.

As you reach the end, you will see a Holocaust memorial that sits at the end of the train line. A plaque reads, “Forever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity where the Nazis murdered about one and a half million men, women, and children, mainly Jews from various countries of Europe. Auschwitz-Birkenau 1940-1945″. 

The tour guide explained that this was literally the end of the line for over a million people who got off here and never returned. Some marched straight into the adjacent gas chambers, never to see the light of another day.

Flowers on the platform

Auschwitz truly is the saddest place on earth.

We hope this article from Wyld Family Travel has inspired you to visit Auschwitz. There is so much from our past that we should know to help shape our future,

More travel inspiration for Poland

24 thoughts on “Auschwitz – Birkenau The saddest place I have ever been.”

  1. What a insightful post. I feel emotional just reading it – the last photo ‘the end of the line’ brought a lump to my throat. It’s sometimes good to confront the atrocities of the past- it reminds you of what it is to be human.

    • Its a reminder not to repeat the mistakes of the past. Its definitely somewhere everyone should visit just to see what what as humans we are capable of at our worst.
      Thanks for taking time to comment we appreciate it cheers

  2. We went in March 2013. Birkenau is the one that really hits you. As you said, the foundations with their chimneys go on to the horizon in all directions. The wind was bitter and there were snow flurries. It would have been an ordeal for us to survive just a few hours outside in the weather. We imagined trying to cope with everything that was going on in the camp back then.

    • thanks for taking the time to comment we appreciate it. Its had to imagine how people where lucky enough to survive. I think its a place everyone should visit reminds us what our race is capable of when one person has too much power

  3. we visited in July 2015 and I struggled to find the words to describe it – thank you for providing the words

    • Its certainly a moving experience something we will never forget
      Thank you for taking the time to comment we appreciate it

  4. It must be very emotional to visit this place, an experience you won’t forget. I’m not sure I’ll be able to do it (I’m a bit sensitive), but I enjoyed reading this post !

  5. The display cases full of possessions was the most confronting for me, by far. It’s so hard to imagine such horrors but that all makes it such a difficult reality. I’m glad to have visited but will never understand how humans could have done as they did to one another not so long ago.

  6. I visited Dachau 20 odd years ago and the images and the eeriness have stayed with since. I can’t even imagine how Aushwitz would feel. I think it’s important that these places are preserved and turned into museum to ensure such horrors never happen again.

  7. Auschwitz is definitely on my bucket list.
    Living in Germany, it’s impossible not to feel involved with this part of history.
    I have also visited Dachau… which is actually not far from my house, and it was something very sad and strong. I can only imagine how it must be in Auschwitz.
    I will make sure to go with a guide too, as I don’t want to miss anything!

  8. Such an incredibly important place to visit. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, it is for sure on our list.

    • thanks for commenting we appreciate you took the time to read it. It was a moving experience

  9. That was beautifully written! I went to Dachau last year and I expected it to be more like Auschwitz. And Im sad to admit this, but it just felt like a tourist trap. While I learned a lot and knew I should be sad because of the atrocities that happened there, it didn’t quite leave me with feelings you had from Auschwitz. The only thing that made it seem real on the day we went was it was an extremely cold, gloomy and rainy day. Had it been sunny I don’t know if it would have been the same.

  10. It’s somewhere where I would like to visit to feel the history and scale. Even reading this brought me to tears. I cannot imagine what it would actually feel like to be there.

  11. This reminds me of another article I read recently.. a mum and dad visited The Killing Fields at Cambodia Phnom Pheng, where Pol Pot had massacred many.. they couldn’t bear to bring the kids in, because it was just too overwhelming. I am glad for the relative peace the world is at today. The keyword I suppose, is “relative”.

    I enjoyed the article. Thank you.

  12. It is very eerie I agree, but a must see to understand history and make sure it doesn’t happen again. Thanks for sharing.

  13. Oh my, so very very sad, it made me cry. How can any human do this to another, and how can people try to say it never happened. You can see the despair and pain from the photos. I once watched a programme on Auschwitz, I cant describe how it left me feeling. You have presented it in such a respectful manner, I just hope humanity has learnt a lesson from these truly horrific events x

  14. Beautifully written, what an emotional experience. I’ve been to Dachau, and that was emotionally destroying. I can’t even imagine going here.

  15. What a wonderful article. I can only imagine the emotions that your visit invoked. I live about 2 hours from the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC. I have never been there, but everyone who has visited said that it is gut wrenching.

  16. Thank you for sharing this. Your article made me feel like I was there with you guys, feeling the same emotions.

  17. Your story could not have been written better, so moving and sympathetic. My main regret from our travels last year was to not go there. We would have been visiting at the same time as you. It is still on my list as an important place to see and respect. Thank you.

  18. My (now ex) boyfriend, my sister and her boyfriend visited both camps on our trip to Poland in 2012, it was a very humbling, saddening experience. We had a very knowledgeable Polish tour guide – she spoke perfect English – takes us around both camps. I cried seeing the personal items and hair, and that wasn’t the first time I cried that day. My ex is Polish and was very emotional. It was an honour to share the experience with him.

    • Kim i must admit i am also not bought to tears often but as i said i cried a few times that day the horrors those poor people must hav suffered.
      Thanks for commenting

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