Besides the salt mine, the main market square, and the Wawel castle, Krakow guidebooks and tourist kiosks feature one more excursion: to Auschwitz and Birkenau, which are located approximately an hour outside the city. On Thursday, I took a city bus to the camps. I decided against an organized tour—I wasn’t sure how long I’d want to stay—and had a minor adventure not only finding the city’s main bus station but also finding the bus itself. Nothing was in English, no one spoke English, and like a true tourist I bumbled for a while around what I thought was the bus station, only to finally be informed that it was the train station.
The ride to the camps was deceptively pleasant, and even the town where the camps are located—Oswiecim—is deceptively charming. It’s difficult to imagine living in such close proximity to history—yet there were houses and apartment buildings, cars and shops, within close walking distance. I joined a guided tour when I got to Auschwitz, and suddenly I was standing in front of the famous “Work will set you free” gate—which, in real life, is quite small and, today, surrounded by green grass and leafy trees. Most of the barracks have been converted into museum space, though some original interiors remain—bunks and cells. Everything seemed so small, and so harmless—packed with tourists on a hot, sunny, verdant afternoon.
Birkenau, a short shuttle bus ride away, was more in line with what I’d imagined the camps to be. Though most of the barracks have been destroyed, some remain, and inside were the wooden bunks where prisoners slept twelve to a bed. A gas chamber and crematorium have been preserved as well, and these were horrifying. But a second later, our group filed out and another group filed in, and we were back out in the sunlight, sipping from water bottles and snapping pictures.
The enormity of what happened there doesn’t seem to match the physical remnants. There were surprisingly few human stories to accompany the sights at the camp museums; the tour focused on facts, figures, and explanations of how prisoners were housed and processed, rather than on the thousands of tales that haunt stories, novels, essays, historical accounts, and poems. Perhaps the physical remnants—concrete, unambiguous—simply make the whole thing more incomprehensible. In this small town, in these simple brick and wood buildings—here is where it happened. The setting was too normal, too banal, too sunny. It made the facts more staggering.
The next day, I took a guided walking tour through the Jewish quarter of Krakow, Kazimierz—it ended up being just me and the guide, and we walked through the now-trendy quarter as well as the former Jewish ghetto, ending the tour at Oskar Schindler’s factory. The guide had brought with him a mini-DVD player, and he showed me a few scenes from Spielberg’s movie that were filmed in places we walked—an entryway in the Jewish quarter, a stairwell at the factory. There isn’t much to see at the factory, other than that stairwell and Schindler’s office, now empty; the factory is empty too, except, my guide told me, for a few avant-garde theater performances. But again, here was a physical place, a remnant, where so much history happened; and it was little more than an abandoned building, stuffy on the hot day. We walked through empty, overgrown lots on our way back to the main street.