You can be forgiven for never having heard of Oświęcim in Poland, and yet it’s one of the most visited towns in the eastern bloc today. And if it wasn’t for the boost to tourism that the continuous flow of pilgrims brings to this out-of-the-way town, the locals would probably prefer us not to have heard of them as well, for Oświęcim is the home of Auschwitz, the most dreaded killing camp the world has ever seen.
To the west of the town centre, regimented rows of red brick buildings fill vast tracts of land, ostracized behind long stretches of towering wire fences. This was Auschwitz II, one of several locations for this concentration camp, and the site of those four redoubtable gas chambers responsible for dispatching millions of Germany’s prisoners in the early 1940’s. It is a dreary and oppressive place, yet a steady stream of visitors flock to see it, traveling by train from Krakow like those destitute men and women before us, and filled with a strange mixture of dread and fascination.
The concentration camp remains largely as it was when it was in use during the war. The gas chambers themselves are no longer there, torn down in the final months of the war to remove all evidence of mass killings as allied troops approached, but bedrooms and latrines, food halls and Nazi experimenting chambers all still exist. The Death Wall, where prisoners were executed by firing squad, is still there too, between blocks 10 and 11 of Auschwitz I in the centre of Oświęcim and easy to spot by the occasional bullet holes in its brickwork.
There’s not much to the rest of the town, and in fact many visitors don’t spend more than a day here. It is worn and old, a war-survivor with too many stories to tell and not enough energy to speak, but look beneath its tired facade and you’ll find a flicker of spirit to prove the town hasn’t completely succumbed to its wartime communist oppression.
The town is built around the Sola, a pretty river that originates in the mountains at the Slovakian border and winds its way through the countryside to flow through the town.
Verdant parks line the river banks, bringing life to the once sterile landscape, and the old market square attracts visitors to view its spire-topped buildings and dine in its cafes.
Every June the Life Festival comes to Oświęcim–what better place for a music and events festival that celebrates human rights? The festival has only been running for three years, but it has already hit the headlines with acts from Sting to Katie Melua. And once again, masses of people from every walk of life converge on this tiny, once-feared town, except this time they’re here for all the right reasons.
Accommodations in Oświęcim are far from extravagant–it seems wrong to recognize a marred past with five star hotels and spa resorts – but the self-catering Apartament Modern on Marchlewskiego Street is worth a stay from €35 a night.