Poland is a huge country and requires a long visit. We only had a couple of days this time, but also only a single goal. To see the nazi extermination camp – Auschwitz.
As mentioned above our only goal was to see Auschwitz. That changed though after meeting a nice Danish couple in Slovakia. They made us add the Wieliczka Salt Mine to the list. Thank you for that.
From Slovakia we drove straight to Krakow. Found a place to stay and drove to the Wieliczka Salt Mine. We had never heard about the mine before meeting a nice Danish couple in Slovakia. They spoke so passionately about the mine that we decided to check it out.
And it definitely is worth a visit. The mine is enormous with more than 300 km below ground. 2km is accessible to the public through a 2-3hour guided tour. The tour starts by having to go down 380 steps. The tourist part of the mine lies 65-130m below ground, but the mine is much deeper than that. It is incredible to imagine, that none of this is natural caves, but excavations made by humans.
Beside the actual size of the mine what’s special about it is “carvings” made by miners in their spare time. All through the mine there are statues depicting holy figures – especially saints protecting miners. There are chapels in the mine where services could be held. Everything is carved in salt – even the crystals in the chandeliers above!
The mine was started in the 15th century. Back the salt was a very valuable commodity, so much that in periods the Wieliczka mine together with another min provided 30% of Poland’s revenue. Today the mine “only produces 60 tons of salt per day” the guide told us. The main reason that there is any production is, that enormous quantities of water floods into the mine every day. This water needs to be pumped out of the mine in order to avoid a collapse. In this process salt is taken from the water.
Saw some of the old hoisting gear used to get salt and water out of the mine. The gear was driven by both humans and horses.
The by far most impressive room in the mine is a large cathedral 130m below the ground. Beautiful chandeliers, and large alter, carvings on the wall depicting “the last supper” etc. Very beautiful. The floor was carved so that it looked like tiles. It took 3 miners close to 70 years to finish the cathedral. Well done to them!
The cathedral is still used for weddings and concerts.
There are some really huge rooms in the mine. The highest room on the tourist route is 65m, but the guide told us, that the highest room in the mine is 140m Unbelievable.
In one of the rooms there were a beautiful light show, and in another an orchestra provided some (loud) atmosphere.
Even deeper in the mine there is a health resort. Apparently the climate in the mine is very good for people with asthma.
All in all a very interesting place. If you want to know more about the mine you can read about it here.
It is difficult to describe a visit to Auschwitz. What you see and hear is absolutely horrifying and it is incomprehensible that these atrocities have taken place only 60 years ago. It is a saddening experience but still something that everybody should do at least once. It is important that we remember – and know – what happened in the concentration camps during WWII, so that we can help prevent something like it from ever happening again. The human nature can be evil!
The camps (there are three main camps) are best seen on a guided tour. Including a half hour movie a visit takes almost 4 hours. The guides are good and the visit is carried out in a very respectful manner.
Auschwitz consisted of three main camps: Auschwitz I, Auschwitz II – Birkenau and Auschwitz III – Monowitz. In addition to these main camps there were more than forty smaller sub-camps. Auschwitz I was establish in 1939 in a Polish military camp. In the beginning it was meant for Polish political prisoners but it was quickly expanded and soon both Jews, Gypsies and homosexuals were sent to the camp.
The capacity of Auschwitz I was approximately 30,000 people. That number of prisoners was reach fairly fast, and the nazis therefore needed additional space. They levelled 7 villages in the area with the ground and built Auschwitz II Birkenau with a capacity of almost 100,000 people. Birkenau was the extermination camp. After the Wansee conference in January 1942 the execution of prisoners gathered speed. Shortly after the first trainload of people were gassed in Auschwitz II Birkenau. The gas used was called Zyklon B.
The first gas chamber was located in Auschwitz I. It held 800 people which was not nearly enough for the nazis purposes. This chamber was replaced by 4 chambers in Birkenau each with a capacity of 2000 people.
Auschwitz I and III were so-called work camps. The prisoners were used as slaves and mainly produced munitions and other war material. People were lured to the camps, being told that they would get a place for them selves and be given a possibility to start over. They would pack all their valuables and were then sent to a camp by train. The conditions in a train like that were horrendous. The prisoners didn’t get food or water and didn’t have access to sanitary conditions. At Auschwitz the train would stop right in the middle of the Birkenau camp. Here men and women were divided and a couple of doctors sorted out the people they meant were fit for work. After an often long train ride that didn’t amount to many. The rest were sent directly to the gas chambers.
At the height of the extermination campaign the nazis killed 20,000 people a day in Auschwitz alone! 2000 prisoners at a time, stripped to the skin, were led into a gas chamber, gassed with the Zyklon B gas, and then brought to the the cremation facilities next door by special groups of prisoners. These special groups were themselves gassed every three months. The bodies were cremated and the ashes spread over nearby fields. It is estimated that 1,300,000 people were executed in Auschwitz.
People were also killed in the work camps. If they “didn’t follow camp rules”, they would be punished – and punished in Auschwitz, more often than not, meant killed. The cell to the left is called “the starvation cell”. People were placed here until they died of starvation. The small cell shown to the right was meant for four people. After having worked all day four people would be placed in the cell. That way they weren’t able to sit down, but had to stand up all night. The next day they would have to work all day – and so on.
Some of the barracks in Auschwitz I now contains exhibitions. It is possible to see how the prisoners lived and then there are the terrible displays with mountains of hair, suitcases, toothbrushes, glasses etc. Tons of it. We couldn’t believe how much stuff there was, and then we were told that this amount corresponded to about three days of arrivals to Auschwitz!
The nazis took all the prisoners belongings, and even shaved their hair of after they had been killed. Everything – including the hair – was sent back to Germany to be used by the Germans.
The visit starts in Auschwitz I and then continues in Auschwitz II – Birkenau. The latter lies about 3km from camp I. A bus takes visitors between the camps. In Birkenau we saw the barracks in which the prisoners lived under terrible conditions. We also saw the remains of two gas chambers. The nazis tried to destroy evidence of their atrocities when they realized that they had lost the war. The blew up the gas chambers but didn’t have time to really destroy everything.
Auschwitz was not the only extermination camp – by far. This site describes all the camps.