Millions of people were imprisoned in Auschwitz during World War II and very few people survived the atrocities of the Nazis. Built in 1940, this hell on earth saw the murders of over 1.3 million Jews, Gypsies, prisoners of war, and others. Ever since Auschwitz was established as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979, people from around the world have traveled to there to pay their respects to the victims of the Holocaust.
How To Get to Auschwitz
Auschwitz is located roughly 50 kilometers outside of Krakow in southwest Poland. The closest city is Oswiecim, which is where few visitors choose to stay. Others arrive in Oswiecim via train or choose to drive. The majority stay in Krakow and either take day trips or use tour companies to avoid navigating the roads. There are a variety of tours to choose from on sites such as Viator.com and tripadvisor.com.
If you do choose to go through a tour company, research how much time you will have at each of the camps. There is a lot of ground to cover and some tours may not provide as much time as you would like or need.
Busses run from Krakow fairly regularly and take around 1.5 hours. For those who don’t want to wait as long for the busses, taking the train is also an option. However, the busses will stop closer to the Auschwitz museum, whereas the train station is around two kilometers away.
When I visited Auschwitz, I arrived after taking an overnight train from Vienna. The trip was long, exhausting, and involves getting off the train at three in the morning at a tiny station to transfer. If you choose to arrive at Oswiecim by train, you can either walk the distance to the camp or take a taxi if you already have Polish Zlotys. When I first visited Auschwitz, I had arrived from a night train that I took from Vienna, Austria. I had no zlotys and there was only one shady-looking ATM that I didn’t want to risk my debit card with. I bit the bullet and withdrew enough to get me a taxi to the camp, and never had any problems with my card. Glad I took that risk!
For further information on traveling from a distance by train, visit the Eurail website for the most up-to-date schedules and routes.
Lots of airlines fly into Krakow from all over Europe because it is one of the largest cities in Poland. Flights can be found on many sites, and I find that Skyscanner is one of the best search engine sites to discover the cheapest flights.
Important Things to Know
Before visiting Auschwitz, there are a few important things to know. Everything will be explained in detail once you arrive but knowing a little bit beforehand can save you lots of confusion.
There are two Auschwitz camps. Auschwitz I was the original camp. Auschwitz II, which is also known as Auschwitz-Birkenau, was built later and is the death camp that is the most well known. The two camps are not far apart and a free shuttle runs between them. I did not fully understand this until I visited, which helped clarify things that I learned there and before my visit.
Visiting without a tour is not only wise, but also can be done for free if you plan accordingly. The museum has a rule that if you are there during peak season (April 1 – October 31) you must enter before 10 am or after 3 pm. This allows you to walk through the camps uninhibited. You have the option to sign up for a guided tour but the museum is structured so well that there is no need for a guide. However, the guides that work there are extraordinary and provide powerful tours. With or without a guided tour, there isn’t a wrong way to experience the camp.
Some ways to see the camp are better than others though. Most people arrive at Auschwitz in the early morning and tour Auschwitz I, then eat lunch and visit Auschwitz-Birkenau in the afternoon. In order to beat the crowds, I went the reverse direction and visited Auschwitz-Birkenau first. There were maybe only five other people in the whole Birkenau compound, which allowed me to really experience the camp for what it was. Consequently, when I visited Auschwitz I in the afternoon, there were drastically fewer people because they had all gone to see Auschwitz-Birkenau. Arriving early and staying late provides a very unique experience when you have the camp all to yourself.
All in all, plan to devote an entire day to visiting Auschwitz. It is an experience that shouldn’t be rushed and if you plan other things the same day it will be difficult to appreciate the site.
What to See
The infamous sign “Arbeit Macht Frei” hauntingly welcomes every visitor to Auschwitz. It has become a symbol around the world for the oppression that the prisoners faced. Translated from German, it reads, “Work makes you free.” A twisted irony for the prisoners because no amount of work would ever make them free from the horrors of the Nazis.
Auschwitz I still houses the original brick barracks and they are standing. The barracks are open to walk through and many of them are museums that display artifacts from the camp. Some of the buildings are memorials. When the site was converted into a museum, buildings were allocated to the countries of the victims. For example, Poland has an entire building that they have designed a memorial for, the Netherlands has an entire building that they customized to honor their victims, France has one, etc. This provides a very unique way to see how each country chose to remember its victims.
The gas chambers of Auschwitz I are still intact and visitors are able to see firsthand the place where thousands of innocent people were mercilessly murdered. On the walls, fingernail marks from the victims clawing to the top of the chamber can still be distinctly seen. The air in the gas chambers is so heavy with emotion and suffering that happened in that small room.
Block 10 was home to Dr. Josef Mengele’s horrific crimes in the name of science. His favorite victims were twins and he carried out all sorts of experiments. The atrocities didn’t stop at twins, however. Mengele attempted all sorts of sterilization techniques, tried to change eye color with injections into the eye, and tormented pregnant women to name a few. To top it all off, Mengele was able to escape and did not die until the year 1979.
In between blocks 10 and 11 lays the Black Wall. The windows surrounding the wall have been boarded up so that nobody from the outside could see what was happening. The Black Wall was the site of many executions by the firing squad and today is one of the deadliest places in the camp.
Block 11 was the “prison within a prison” and saw many intense interrogations as well as cells for solitary confinement. Very few people who entered Block 11 emerged alive. It is very moving and emotional to walk through and envision the tragedies that occurred there decades ago.
Contrastingly, Auschwitz-Birkenau resembles a ghost town. The rows of barracks have been destroyed and all that remains are the skeletons of chimneys stretching literally as far as the eye can see. Auschwitz-Birkenau was built in 1942 after Auschwitz I ran out of room for the prisoners. From that point on, it changed from a concentration camp for prisoners into an extermination camp for murders. As the Allied forces drew closer to the camp, the SS guards blew up the gas chambers and many buildings in a feeble attempt to destroy the evidence of their crimes. You cannot walk into the gas chambers and some buildings are in ruins but that doesn’t detract from the overall experience.
The sorting platform lays dead center in the camp. It is where families were torn apart forever under the merciless hands of the Nazis. Being sent left meant immediate death in the gas chambers. Going right meant you were forced into slave labor with little chance for survival. Today, nothing is left but the dirt and railroad tracks that saw so much pain and suffering.
Towards the back of the camp, near the forest, lies an inconspicuous grassy field. It looks peaceful today but it once saw the murders of thousands of people who were burned alive. Few people knew what occurred within the camps. Until this picture was released to the public, much of the world had turned a blind eye. This photograph is one of the few taken inside the camp and shows a field as a horrific murder scene. Officials at the camp had ordered certain prisoners, known as Sonderkommandos, to burn the bodies and dispose of them. Alberto Errera, one such Sonderkommandos, took these pictures that shocked the world.
Some visitors to the Krakow area choose to not visit Auschwitz because they are afraid of the high emotions. Although their reasoning is logical, I firmly believe that everybody needs to visit a concentration camp in their travels. It will be emotionally exhausting but it is something that needs to be seen. Concentration camps are a solemn reminder of the atrocities committed. As human beings, we can’t let the stories of the victims go unheard. So go, visit a concentration camp and learn as much as you can from it. After all,
“Those who refuse to learn from history are condemned to repeat it.”