auschwitz-birkenau: one of the emotionally toughest places we have ever visited

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Leisure travel can be associated with feel-good moments, adventure and lots of photographs for memories! But it’s not always that. There are times when travel is not a joyous experience but a valuable one all the same.

Being in Poland and witnessing with our own eyes the sites of the major concentration/extermination camps added a whole new dimension to what we already knew.

At the beginning of the guided tour of Auschwitz, we took a few photographs but upon entering the buildings, it simply didn’t feel right. Photos are allowed in most areas but we couldn’t bring ourselves to photograph for reasons we can’t quite explain, maybe out of respect(?), we just don’t know! So this post contains only 2.

Translates to "Work will set you free"
Translates to “Work will set you free”
One of our few photos of the camps - the train tracks leading into Birkeneau
One of our few photos of the camps – the train tracks leading into Birkenau

“Despite everything, I believe people are really good at heart” – Anne Frank

After visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, we have to say that it was VERY hard to believe that some of those who ran those camps had a heart at all.

What words can we use to describe seeing and walking through the camps? Confronting, heartbreaking, gut-wrenching…. The thought of such atrocities still brings tears to our eyes.

Seeing the tons of hair that had been shaved from heads, the pile of thousands of shoes and mountain of suitcases of those sent to the concentration camps was very overwhelming. The 1.3 million people murdered at these camps became “individuals” right before our eyes. All these images we have seen before in reference books or in other museums but seeing the actual items seemed to hit home a lot harder!

To hear about the medical tests inflicted on individuals, witness the living conditions and walk through the gas chambers and crematorium, it certainly stirred up a lot of emotions. We felt so sad but also felt sick in the stomach at those who were able to commit such crime upon others.

Visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau is not a “tourist attraction”, it educates! It teaches us that we should never let such horrendous acts happen again to anybody on this Earth.

Auschwitz-Birkenau holds so much significance that everyone should visit at least once in their lifetime to pay respect to those who died in concentration camps.

“To forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time” – Elie Wiesel (a holocaust survivor) 

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53 thoughts on “auschwitz-birkenau: one of the emotionally toughest places we have ever visited

    roses store hope mills nc said:
    August 29, 2014 at 5:23 am

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    Jaspa said:
    August 27, 2014 at 5:05 am

    I used to live in Weimar, Germany. From our apartment window we could see the monument to Buchenwald concentration camp on the hill outside town. Although it wasn’t an actual extermination camp like Auschwitz, conditions at Buchenwald were still appalling, with thousands of people dying or being killed there. And yet I found it a horribly fascinating place to visit, mainly because you can’t get your head around what went on there.

      wisemonkeysabroad responded:
      August 27, 2014 at 5:16 am

      Thanks for sharing your experiences!! They are certainly places that we can’t get our heads around either … Just unfathomable how people can treat one another like this.

    thebritishberliner said:
    August 25, 2014 at 8:03 pm

    You have approached the topic in a most sensitive manner. Thank you.
    I live in Germany. In fact, half of my family is German….and it’s an edgy topic that needs to be remembered and respected in both Germany and Poland.

      wisemonkeysabroad responded:
      August 26, 2014 at 2:08 am

      Thank you for acknowledging our approach. In all honesty, we were speaking straight from the heart with that post. We can imagine it is a sensitive subject in certain parts of the world as is any major tragedy that are “man-caused” (so to speak). Thank you also for reading.

    ifollowislands said:
    August 24, 2014 at 9:53 am

    I am German but have never been. I definitely want to, but I’m afraid that it might be too emotional. Most people in Germany I know still feel guilty for what happened many decades ago, don’t really know how to deal with it and hope that no one brings it up in a conversation. I don’t think I would have taken any photos, it doesn’t seem right.

      wisemonkeysabroad responded:
      August 24, 2014 at 3:18 pm

      Thank you so much for your honest and candid comment. All countries have their histories that they are not proud of – we all need to move past (although not forget) and accept that it has happened and work towards not letting it happen again.

        ifollowislands said:
        August 24, 2014 at 10:00 pm

        I completely agree! And I must say I have been lucky. No one has ever brought up this topic in a bad way or has called me a nazi (apart from in America a couple of times). It actually seems that everyone apart from the Germans learn about this topic much more and are able to deal with this better than us. This shouldn’t be the case. We cannot allow this tragedy to be forgotten. I remember though that we almost skipped the second world war in history class at my school which is completely unacceptable especially in the region where I’m from – Dresden (Saxony) which has a big problem with right-wing extremist. Sometimes I’m ashamed to be German 😦

          wisemonkeysabroad responded:
          August 25, 2014 at 2:34 am

          Oh dear! That is really tough but we can’t let our surroundings affect what we believe in, right? What we as individuals need to do is be true to ourselves and stand up for what is right and just 🙂 We are saddened to read that you sometimes feel ashamed. It is a shame that certain things are avoided as sometimes people think digging up the past is worse! Guess everyone has something in their past that they would rather forget!

    traveladdictuk said:
    August 24, 2014 at 6:00 am

    Thank you for your post – this is some where I feel I can not visit – it would upset me too much – I do agree with its a learning experience but thank you again for sharing !

      wisemonkeysabroad responded:
      August 24, 2014 at 6:03 am

      We can completely understand! These places will affect us all differently. Thank you for leaving us your thoughts!

    alexraphael said:
    August 23, 2014 at 1:11 am

    I can’t begin to imagine. I wouldn’t feel comfortable taking many photographs either. I went to the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington and that was so haunting.

      wisemonkeysabroad responded:
      August 23, 2014 at 1:45 am

      Yes, you are right in saying you cannot begin to imagine – because we didn’t imagine “correctly” – we thought we were somewhat mentally and emotional prepared before going in. To be honest, we had a feeling it would be tough and upon arriving, the exterior is bustling with visitors and there isn’t a sombre mood around, so then we thought, “maybe it isn’t as harrowing as we anticipated.” But boy, does it change the minute you walk through those gates. Haunting is a good choice of words! Thank you for your comment!

    LaMochilera said:
    August 23, 2014 at 12:54 am

    Well Justine pretty much took the words out of my mouth (fingers?) but since I haven’t been to Auschwitz myself the closest comparison I have of that feeling myself is the Killing Fields memorial in Cambodia. I didn’t take any photos either, and even just seeing other tourists taking photos made me feel uncomfortable. I found a Holocaust memorial when I was in Portland recently, and it was incredibly moving and emotional to see, and in such and unexpected part of the world. I took a few photos there, but that’s quite different as it’s not actually a site where horrific acts took place. It IS so important that we don’t forget these events, thought it doesn’t seem like it has prevented them from reoccurring as far as I can tell.

      wisemonkeysabroad responded:
      August 23, 2014 at 1:53 am

      Thank you for sharing your experiences. It seems the Killing Fields of Cambodia stirs up similar emotions in other travellers. We have never been there ourselves but can extrapolate the feelings. We respect (although not necessarily agree that it’s always appropriate) others for wanting to photograph as everyone is entitled to do as they please if it is allowed. What we can’t understand is people rushing around, shoving one another, for that “perfect” photo at a place such as Auschwitz!
      And you are right, every time we turn on the TV nowadays, similar stories are not far away.

    worldjourneysdiscover said:
    August 22, 2014 at 10:58 pm

    its haunting but presented so well. everyone should visit great post

      wisemonkeysabroad responded:
      August 23, 2014 at 1:42 am

      Yes, it was very respectful and so informative, so you are right in saying that it was presented well. Thanks for your comment!

    joylovestravel said:
    August 22, 2014 at 8:29 pm

    I visited Dachau over 20 years ago and still remember it vividly. It’s true, travel is full of feel good moments, but it is important not to overlook places like this. We recently took our 10 year old to Belgium and the battlefields of World War 1 – again a very sobering experience, but something we just can’t allow to be forgotten. Totally agree with your last comment that everyone should visit a place like this at least once in their lifetime.

      wisemonkeysabroad responded:
      August 23, 2014 at 1:57 am

      Thanks Joy for sharing your thoughts and experiences. Travel is so much more than just seeing “famous” places, right? It is about experiencing everything, including good and bad history!

    Ayla said:
    August 22, 2014 at 7:00 pm

    It was heartbreaking but also so interesting visiting here. You’re right when you say it isn’t a tourist attraction but I truly think everyone should visit and schools should do trips there so that everyone can see and learn about what attrocities went on so that something like this never happens again.

      wisemonkeysabroad responded:
      August 23, 2014 at 1:41 am

      Thanks Ayla for reading and for sharing your thoughts! Everyone definitely should experience it for themselves. This is one of many types of places – and it’s just not about the holocaust but it’s about all the other atrocities/tragedies that happen around the round!

    CrazyChineseFamily said:
    August 22, 2014 at 6:35 pm

    We had a school trip to the concentration camp in Neuengamme near Hamburg. This camp even had been used after the war as a prison for rather long time…
    It was sickening to be at such as place because you could see on what has been build there and due to pictures how the people had suffered. However the worst for me is that there are still too many people denying what happened at those camps and call those propaganda 😦

      wisemonkeysabroad responded:
      August 23, 2014 at 2:03 am

      Thanks for leaving this comment – we had no idea that people are denying it still to this day?? And calling it propaganda? Wow! It is rather sad that humans can continue to do such things to one another…. Guess it has been going on for centuries now – affecting different communities around the world! And none is more significant than the other! We can only await and hope for the day when all this type of hatred and acts of hatred are a thing of the past….

    jacksonjc9 said:
    August 22, 2014 at 4:46 pm

    Traveling is learning, it’s just a reminder what humans can turn into 😔so emotional

      wisemonkeysabroad responded:
      August 23, 2014 at 1:38 am

      Travelling is definitely learning both good and bad! Thanks for your comment!

    thetravellush said:
    August 22, 2014 at 3:00 pm

    It’s emotional to even read about so I imagine being there is pretty overwhelming and eye-opening. As tourists I think it’s important to educate ourselves about the history of the places we visit, including the bad parts. I completely understand not wanting to take pictures. When I visited the killing fields in Cambodia the idea of snapping a photo just felt wrong. I suppose that just being there is something I’ll remember forever and pictures just weren’t necessary. And, this is just my personal opinion, I don’t feel like it would have been very respectful.

      wisemonkeysabroad responded:
      August 23, 2014 at 2:09 am

      Thanks for these thoughts! We were the same – we felt like it was disrespectful to those who died there. And the experience will live with us forever – no photo could help us relive it more than our memories.
      As we said – we don’t see visiting Auschwitz as being a tourist thing (i.e. go there, take some photos and say you’ve been there)… we see it as a learning experience! A tough reminder it was of everything we knew but it was something we had to do.

    Shelley @Travel-Stained said:
    August 22, 2014 at 11:13 am

    Thanks for sharing your experience…I wasn’t able to bring myself to visit the Killing Fields in Cambodia because I felt afraid of all the emotions and sadness it would bring up, but I agree that it’s incredibly important to see these things in person, to feel and remember all that has happened. We haven’t made it to Poland yet, but when we do, I will make the effort to visit, no matter how difficult.

      wisemonkeysabroad responded:
      August 22, 2014 at 3:12 pm

      Thanks Shelley for reading and sharing your experiences! Yes, feeling what has happened in person is such a powerful experience compared to learning about it through other methods. We knew visiting these camps would be difficult but we walked away understanding the past events in completely a different light.

    Expat Eye said:
    August 22, 2014 at 9:42 am

    Totally agree. I felt the same way on visiting a concentration camp in Poland – and the rest of the day was very sombre. It takes a while to shake that awful oppressive feeling. I found the whole experience horribly upsetting but I’m still glad that I did it for the exact reasons that you mentioned.

      wisemonkeysabroad responded:
      August 22, 2014 at 3:00 pm

      Thank you for reading and for sharing your experiences! It is an important journey that we need to all do once – it is just so raw and definitely added a completely new dimension to what we had learnt back in school about the holocaust.

        Expat Eye said:
        August 22, 2014 at 5:15 pm

        Yeah, it’s one thing reading about it, quite another actually being there.

    Jess Carey said:
    August 22, 2014 at 8:49 am

    The picture you did take speak volumes I think… I’ve read a lot of books about WWII, and books like “The Diary of Anne Frank” and “Night” by Elie Wiesel had an enormous impact on me growing up, having read them as a teenager.. I think it would be very other-worldly being there, and I really have a lot of respect for you guys not tearing through the sites with cameras… it must have been a really incredible experience.

      wisemonkeysabroad responded:
      August 22, 2014 at 2:58 pm

      Thanks Jess! Some experiences don’t need to be photographed to reminisce about later because those memories tend to have had such an impact already that they will forever be in our hearts and mind. But in the same token, the feeling was so natural, after walking closer to the buildings and then through the buildings, we had to put our camera way. We did not want to be distracted or feel removed by being mere “tourists”.

    Quan said:
    August 22, 2014 at 7:05 am

    We, too, did the same tour – and felt it was incredibly educational and depressing. I was glad I went… but it wasn’t easy.

      wisemonkeysabroad responded:
      August 22, 2014 at 2:53 pm

      Thank you for reading and leaving us your comment! It certainly was not easy! When we travel, although depressing sometimes, it is so important to experience things like this, isn’t it?

        Quan said:
        August 23, 2014 at 12:48 am

        Yeah, in order to appreciate the sunshine you have to know the night.

    Shikha (whywasteannualleave) said:
    August 22, 2014 at 6:58 am

    I remember seeing the site of Holocaust atrocities during a school trip to Berlin when I was only about 14 and at the end of the day, the whole group was so sombre – so many of us were emotional but even though many years have gone by, I imagine I would feel exactly the same way if I have visited Auschwitz or Bireknau. Must have been so moving.

      wisemonkeysabroad responded:
      August 22, 2014 at 2:50 pm

      Thanks for sharing your experience! It was so emotional. We felt similar when we were in Hiroshima Museum. The thought of all these innocent people being killed simply broke our hearts. But it’s an experience we wouldn’t trade in because it taught us so much more than textbooks ever can.

    Travelling Macs said:
    August 22, 2014 at 6:54 am

    I went to Dachau in Germany just recently. I wasn’t sure I wanted to go , I wasn’t sure I’d cope with the situation ( I’m one of those that don’t contain sadness well). Nothing could have prepared me for the intense emotion. I took a photo of the entrance but that was it. There was a feeling of somber respect while walking through except something at the crematorium shocked me beyond belief. I was standing at the door of the ‘shower block’ when a man asked me to move out of his photo. There behind me was a woman late 20s doing the fish pout kiss selfie type pose pointing to the sign. Sigh

      wisemonkeysabroad responded:
      August 22, 2014 at 2:46 pm

      Oh dear!! We did see a few people snapping photos of everything they could – even the replica wall where people were executed and of the personal items. It didn’t feel right to us but each to their own, right? There are certain things we want photos to look back and reminisce while there are other memories that will stay in our hearts and minds forever regardless! Thank you for reading and leaving us a comment!

        Mrs Hicks said:
        November 4, 2014 at 8:59 am

        I get the impression that, for some people, photographs prove they have had an ‘experience’ without really having to experience it. I have never been to Auschwitz, I can only imagine how it made you feel. Some things are bigger than we can ever fully understand. I have been to the Peace Memorial Museum in Hiroshima. There I saw two grown men pointing and laughing at the human remains on display. Some people lack empathy, I guess. Or don’t know how to face the frailty of humanity.

          wisemonkeysabroad responded:
          November 4, 2014 at 9:23 am

          Being at Auschwitz was as hard as being at the Peace Memorial Museum in Hiroshima for us. They are such moving experiences that make the events so much more raw. We read about them in history books and watch documentaries but being there takes it to a completely different level.
          To think humans can do such things to one another is just unfathomable and worse is that it continues….Where does it end?
          Thank you for taking the time to share your insights.

            Mrs Hicks said:
            November 4, 2014 at 9:49 am

            I work as an archivist and one thing I have learnt from caring for the sources of history is that mankind very rarely learns from the past. At one of the places I’ve worked, we received the papers of a man who had helped liberate Belsen. He took photographs as a record of what they found. Harrowing. Until then I had only read about the Holocaust as part of my history studies. Reading his diaries, seeing his photographs was a sobering experience. I imagine being in a place where the vdeeds took place was 1000 times that.

            We met an A Bomb survivor in Hiroshima last year. She was the most gracious person I have ever met. We stayed at the World Friendship Center, which works to share the story of A Bomb survivors and spread a message of peace. They facilitated the session and Kiyoko-san was telling her story for the first time. It was a real privilege to meet her. If you go back to Hiroshima, I wholeheartedly recommend it as a place to stay, whether you choose to meet with a Hibakusha or not.

            Thank you for sharing your travels and reflections.

            wisemonkeysabroad responded:
            November 4, 2014 at 3:35 pm

            That is so interesting – you are an archivist?! All things related to history fascinates us so much. There is just so much out there to read, learn and absorb. Human history spans a long time and as you say, we see itself constantly repeating!
            How very fascinating about HIroshima – if or when we get back there, we will be sure to keep that in mind. Thank you so much for sharing what you have here. We are so appreciative to always be able to learn from others!

    Jen, Your Fellow Traveler said:
    August 22, 2014 at 5:34 am

    Thanks for sharing your experience. I went to Dachau in Germany a few years ago and, like you, I couldn’t bear to take any pictures. The sites are certainly important to see, but so emotionally draining.

      wisemonkeysabroad responded:
      August 22, 2014 at 5:36 am

      Hi Jen – It definitely was emotionally draining. We were a little dumb-founded for the rest of the day. Found it very hard to think about much else. Thanks for reading and sharing with us your experiences!

    Helene said:
    August 22, 2014 at 5:12 am

    Great article, thank you. I went to Poland and could not bring myself to visit Auschwitz as I was worried it would be too emotional but I will definitely go one day.

      wisemonkeysabroad responded:
      August 22, 2014 at 5:14 am

      Thanks for your comment Helene. We had gone to the museum in Hiroshima and that broke our hearts and so we were a bit nervous about going to Auschwitz. And although it was hard…. it was something, in our hearts, now know, we had to do!

    Wendy DeChambeau - Life Unmapped said:
    August 22, 2014 at 5:08 am

    You’re right. Travel is often fun, but it should be a learning experience and one that improves us as people. I can’t imagine how overwhelming this visit was for you, but thanks for sharing. It’s a sad reminder of what humans can be. 😦

      wisemonkeysabroad responded:
      August 22, 2014 at 5:10 am

      Oh Wendy, you are so very right! It makes us so sad to see that humans are capable of treating one another like this! Our simple-minded question is “Why can’t we all just get along?”

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