A “one-way” ticket to Auschwitz
Poland is famous for many things, although unfortunately, not many of them are good. Vodka is probably the first thing that comes to mind, as does painfully freezing temperatures and being invaded by neighbouring countries. But more than anything else, Poland is perhaps best known for being the unfortunate site of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp.
The camp is now a museum which attracts nearly one and a half million visitors each year but despite the camp’s popularity with Western tourists, it is surprisingly difficult place to get to. I know this because I experienced it first-hand.
I recently visited Krakow with my wife, and since we were in the neighbourhood, we decided to visit the infamous camp that put Poland on the map. Having put exactly zero thought into the trip we thought that we would ask the friendly staff at our hostel for directions. We were told that we had just missed the free guided tour tat woud have taken us straight there. Cursing our bad timing, we decided to make our own way to the camp and headed towards Krakow Główny (the main train station) to try and find our way.
“How hard could it be” we thought, confident that we already knew the answer. According to Google Maps, Auschwitz – or Oświęcim as they call it – is only 68km away from Krakow which should only take an hour or so to drive. “We should be there in no time” we said to ourselves foolishly.
At Krakow Główny we stood in various lines hoping to buy our tickets, only to be informed in a polite yet curt manner, that we were in the wrong line (this is something that I seem to be good at). After asking around for a while, we were pointed to a small booth that did not seem affiliated with the main train station in any way. Since the person had insisted that it was the correct place to go, we did as we were told and stood in yet another line.
After standing outside in the cold for a while, wishing we had woken up in time for the guided tour, the lady in the booth called out to us: “proszę” she said. Using a combination of sign language and broken English we managed to get our message across. “Can we have two tickets to Oświęcim please?” we asked, holding up two fingers indicating how many we wanted to buy. Without changing the bored expression on her face, the lady in the booth just shook her head and said “No, only one way”.
Understandably, we were rather concerned at this statement. My wife and I looked at each other in a panic, “Only one way?” we said to each other silently. We had heard stories of one-way trips to Auschwitz before and they did not turn out so well.
We were about to run away and hide somewhere (maybe Switzerland) when the lady in the booth followed up her statement by telling us that we could buy return tickets at Oświęcim if we chose to. I loved her choice of words “If” we chose to! Who would decide to stay at a concentration camp voluntarily?
So, with our one-way tickets in hand, we timidly made our way to the platform that would take us to Auschwitz. After sitting at the station for a few minutes, I couldn’t help but notice that the sign on our platform no longer read “Oświęcim” but now bore the name of another unpronounceable Polish town. Quickly we made our way to the correct platform but, sure enough, after a few minutes the sign changed again!
Panicked, my wife and I ran from platform to platform Benny Hill-style, until eventually the right train pulled into the station. We knew it was the right train since we could read “Oświęcim” on the front very clearly from where we were standing: two platforms away. The train stopped and opened its doors for the whole of five seconds before closing them and speeding off.
We made it onto the train, narrowly avoiding being de-limbed by the ancient train doors. I had heard that while Auschwitz was in operation they used cattle trucks to transport victims to the camp. I can verify this as the train that we caught had clearly not been upgraded since 1945.
For a brief moment I thought that maybe this was all part of the “Holocaust experience”: that the one-way tickets and the rickety old trains with doors that refuse to stay closed for long would serve as a lesson to visitors, like in the Apartheid Museum in South Africa. However, as the train slowly rattled over the greyest landscape known to man I came to realise that this was no act.
After an almost three hour journey on that freezing train, we eventually pulled into Oświęcim, which seemed to be an abandoned industrial town (not quite how I had pictured it). Lost, we walked around that station for some time until we managed to find a sign that gave us directions to the Museum. This sign was extremely detailed, containing useful information about the formation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, an easy to read map and opening hours. In summer, the museum was open from 8:00am – 7:00pm. “Good to know” we thought. Unfortunately we were there during winter so the hours were much shorter, being 8:00am – 3:00pm. Checking our watches, we noted that the time was exactly 3:05pm.
Since we were not going to be able to see the museum, we decided it was time to start heading back. We walked to the train station to buy our one-way tickets to Krakow and – alarmingly – found the station completely deserted. Evidently the train station also closed at 3pm winter. Poland starts to get dark very early during the middle of winter and Auschwitz is not the type of place that we wanted to be hanging around at night.
Franticly we ran around looking for a sign of life but there seemed to be none. As it grew darker, it seemed that our greatest fears had come true. It seemed more and more likely that we would be spending the night – and perhaps far longer – in Oświęcim. We could practically hear the jackboots coming.
After all that, we never did get to see the camp, although we did manage to get out. After what felt like an eternity, a train came (much newer this time) to take us back to Krakow. I have never been so happy to leave a place in my life. I hear visiting the museum is a terribly moving experience but it looks like I will never know. I can’t imagine what It must have been like to have been an inmate of that camp. This experience was enough for me.