Kraków, Poland….. Auschwitz-Birkenau and its gardening connections

Thursday, 1 November 2018  |  Alison


Kraków, Poland….. Auschwitz-Birkenau and its gardening connections

Organising a city break for two, who have differing interests, can be downright tricky, so when Kraków was mentioned recently and discovering there was a sizeable botanical garden to explore, I was keen.

Kraków, in southern Poland, is a modern-looking and clean city teeming with university students, quirky shops and markets, great restaurants serving Polish and international cuisine, and it has a vibrant café culture centred round the huge main square and the nearby Jewish quarter.

However, Kraków is perhaps better known for its sad connection to Auschwitz during World War 2.

Just the name, Auschwitz, sends a shiver down the spine but for anyone interested in world and modern social history, a tour of Auschwitz-Birkenau – Former German Nazi Concentration and Extermination Camp, is a must, to take in the full gravity of what went on there in the, not so long ago, war years from 1939-1945.

Since my visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau and doing my own research into any garden related information about Auschwitz, I found much of interest, so this article focuses on my discoveries. The wonderful botanical gardens will be featured in another piece.


Originally run as a Polish army barracks before WW2, woodlands with oaks, birches, chestnuts and poplar trees surrounded the Auschwitz site. However, once it was turned into a concentration and extermination camp, many more trees including weeping willows and rows of thick vegetation were planted by prisoners around the perimeters, under Nazi orders, in an effort to try and camouflage goings on at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

If you visit, you will see mature ‘Lombardy’ (black) poplar trees that line the two long avenues of the prison blocks at Auschwitz, some original trees and some trees that have been replanted since the war as they have naturally died.  A large oak tree is at the entrance to the gates but that is about all. You can see the poplar trees from my photograph.

Someone mentioned to me before I went to Auschwitz that no birds flew over the area of the camps and although I kept my eyes open, I too found this to be the case. None were visible, not even the tell-tale signs of disused crow’s nests high up in the poplar trees. It was indeed an eerily quiet place, despite the many tourists. (Most groups being shown round have headphones on to hear their tour guide, so noise is kept to the minimum). It all adds to the solemnity of the place.

Birkenau, a mile or so away, built to house more prisoners, gas chambers and crematoria buildings, is a largely bleak and desolate area.  The site was a village with orchards growing fruit trees including apples, pears and cherries before the Nazis took over, expelling the residents.  This chilling excerpt from the autobiography of the Commandant at Auschwitz-Birkenau, Rudolf Hoess, paints a vivid picture that reveals the gas chambers were built very close to these orchards.

He says:

“Hundreds of men and women in the full bloom of life walked all unsuspecting to their death in the gas chambers under the blossom-laden fruit trees of the orchard.”

At nearby Raisko, turned into a sub-camp, some 300 workers and prisoners from Auschwitz were assigned to clear vast areas of land with two main purposes. One area had many workers who had orders to build a series of large greenhouses and hothouses on the land and these, along with the cleared land, were used to grow vegetables, fruits and flowers for the, up to 4,500, men and women stationed at the Auschwitz garrison. There was a sales outlet for SS* officers where they and their families could purchase the fresh vegetables, fruits and flowers. It is unthinkable really, when the majority of the prisoners, who numbered in their thousands, (at its peak in 1944, over 135,000 prisoners) so close by, were starving to death from malnutrition, overwork and disease.                               

*SS – Schutzstaffel meaning “Protection Squadron”.    

The other area of land was used for the experimental growing, under European weather conditions, of the Kazakh dandelion, Taraxacum kok-saghyz, or Russian Dandelion.  Many women worked here, especially if they had degrees in biology, chemistry or agronomy (soil science) - the study of producing and using plants for food, fuel, fibre and land reclamation.

It was cultivated extensively when the Southeast Asian rubber plant, Hevea brasiliensis was in short supply during the war. The roots contained caoutchouc, which when extracted and cooked in the large kitchens, produced small amounts of rubber.

Today, researchers in the U.S. are trying to scale up this particular type of dandelion cultivation to establish a sustainable and cost-effective way to harness the properties of this common weed. 

The now infamous sign above the entrance to Auschwitz reads:

Arbeit macht frei -Work Makes You Free

It was made by prisoners, under orders of the SS, but they deliberately made the letter B upside down, as a signal to others that the sign was a cynical lie.

How incredible that with all the horror that was Auschwitz, the human capacity for immense courage through adversity shines through for all to see.

Brookside Nursery