We started our day very early, because we had a tour of Auschwitz scheduled for 8am. So, breakfast at 6.30, then onto the bus!
We visited two of the concentration camps – Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II, Birkenau. The first was the smaller of the two, and also older. The guide took us through the complex, explaining what the buildings were used for, and the general daily happenings in the camp – buildings where prisoners slept, the square where role-call was carried out in all weather conditions (hot sun, freezing snow, heavy rain…), the jail and punishment buildings, the execution wall. The buildings were very simple, and the living conditions would have been terrible. Hundreds of people were crammed into each building, with three people sharing a single bed (with the beds stacked as three-level bunks).
Apart from the living areas, there was also a museum-like display showing clothes, luggage and other items taken from prisoners and kept by the Nazis. Seeing the enormous piles of shoes and glasses (which were only a small sample of the total amount of goods that would have been taken, because most were burnt just before the allies raided the camps) really helped to visualise just how many people fell victim to the Nazis. Nothing from the prisoners was ‘wasted’. Their belongings were sorted and used by the army, their hair used to make blankets.
At the end of the Auschwitz tour we visited one of the remaining gas chambers. It was eery to think about what had happened in that very place. Two of the furnaces remained, where hundreds of bodies could be cremated a day. Close to the gas chamber was a building slightly apart from the main complex of buildings. It was where one of the head guards lived, with his wife and child! It’s hard to imagine how anyone could live so close to such terror, especially with a family.
After visiting the first camp we went to Birkenau which was built once Auschwitz I was no longer large enough. This camp was far bigger than Auschwitz I, and we were able to climb the guard tower and look out over the grounds. It really was enormous. Some of the buildings were brick, but most were wooden. Here there was one toilet block for about 10 living buildings, and we were told that the prisoners were given 5 minutes at the start and end of each day to use the toilet and shower. That was 5 minutes for everyone, not per person, which meant that hundreds of people were converging on one building to make the most of the 5 minutes allocated.
Both camps were very sad places, and made for a much more subdued start to the day than usual. It was very interesting and well worth the visit.
After Aushwitz we stopped for lunch (which took longer than expected, making for a late arrival at the hostel). The rest of the drive was quite long as we headed to Prague.
The hostel in Prague was really nice. There were six of us in a room which didn’t sound too good, but the room was big enough for eight (four single beds and two bunks) with little divider walls breaking the room up into almost separate rooms. Very clean and very spacious – perfect! We had dinner at the hostel, then headed into the city for a walking tour. Everything happened pretty late though because of lunch, so we didn’t get into town until 11, and then after our wander the trams had stopped so we had to share a taxi home. Half the group stayed in town (Bud included) but I was just too tired so headed back to the hostel.
Halfway through the night I woke up and there was a soft beeping noise and a female voice. It was light (because the sun seems to come up about 5:00 in the morning here) so I thought maybe it was time to get up. It turned out to be a fire alarm! It wasn’t a very good alarm, because the beeping was very loud or shrill (it was almost soothing…and was only enough to wake 2 out of the 6 people in our room!) We staggered into the corridor a bit confused (the evacuation message was only in Czech). Some people were saying it was a drill (at 5:30 am?!) others said it was a false alarm. We got to the stairs and it stopped. Enough people said it was a false alarm to convince us so we went back to bed. There was no ‘it’s safe to go to bed’ message afterwards, or anyone from the hostel saying things were safe either, which wasn’t good. Bud and the others came back then as well – what a night!