Visiting the Auschwitz concentration camp is for many a must-do experience while their travel to Poland. Without a doubt, is is not an easy visit to the next tourist attraction – more like a disturbing experience that shows how cruel and inhumane people can be to each other. Auschwitz is today one of the most important historical monuments documenting World War II genocide – one of the greatest atrocities in our history. Altogether in the whole Auschwitz camp area over 1.1 million of people were killed – men, women and children.
What is Auschwitz?
The camp was established in April 1940 by the Nazis after overtaking Poland in 1939. Auschwitz location was chosen not without a reason – the camp was built in a small village Oświęcim (renamed by the Nazi „Auschwitz”) only 60 kilometers from Krakow city, a place that had one of the biggest densities of Jewish population in Europe. The camp was continuously expanded over the next 5 years to cover the demand of the nazi death industry. Initially designed to keep the Jewish and polish population in one place (to „concentrate”), soon became a death camp with the main aim to murder not only Poles and Jews, but also Gypsies, soviet Prisoners of War (POWs) and mentally or physically handicapped. They were surrounded by over 40 other sub-camps, located in neighboring cities in southern Poland.
Before you will decide to visit Auschwitz, it is good to know some fact about this place to be able to estimate its importance for polish and world history.
Firtst of all, term „Auschwitz” describes a concentration camp cluster, consisting of three camps: Auschwitz I, Auschwitz II – Birkenau and Auschwitz III – Monowitz. Each of the camps had different function: Auschwitz I served as an administration center, Aushwitz-Birkenau was the main concentration and extermination camp, while the Auschwitz III – Monowitz was the labor camp.
Due to many controversies regarding their nomenclature since 2007 all of them are listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites under the new name „Auschwitz-Birkenau: German Nazi Concentration & Extermination Camp (1940-1945)”.
In total, between 1940 and 1945 about 1.6 million of people were killed in Auschwitz, including 1.1 million Jews from all over Europe, 150 000 Poles and 23 000 Gypsies. Altogether – 27 nationalities from different countries were kept and intentionally starved to death here.
Where is Auschwitz?
Small city of Oświęcim, located only 60 km west from Krakow, is the place of Auschwitz concentration camp. You can get from Krakow to Auschwitz easily by one of many buses or minivans departing right from the city center. Almost every hour small local buses (up to 10 daily) depart from Krakow Main Bus station (at the Krakow Gallery mall, just outside the Krakow Main Railway station), costing about 11 PLN. It is a way more comfortable than travelling by train, since most of the buses drop you at the main parking lot at the Auschwitz entrance gate.
If you plan to get there by train, you will have to change at the Oświęcm Railway station and take any of the southbound local buses – such as 24, 25 and 28. It is not easy to get lost here, as upon the arrival in Oświęcim you will find lots of signs directing to the camp.
If you would like to drive there by car, you’d need to take the A4 highway nr and then 933 local route after Chrzanów. Getting to Oświęcim can take about 1.5 hours (by public transport) or 1 hour (if you drive by yourself). The camp – or rather a cluster of three Auschwitz camps – is located a little bit outside the city itself.
The Auschwitz concentration camp is opened between 8 am and 7 pm (Jul&Aug), 8 am- 6 pm (May&Sep), 8 am- 5pm (Apr&Oct), 8 am – 4pm (Mar-Nov) and 8am -3pm (Dec-Feb). The entrance to the Auschwitz – Birkenau Memory Place is free, but you need to book your entrance card online. Once you arrive the visitor’s center, which is located just after the main entrance gate, you can get here a brochure with plans and information about both Auschwitz and Auschwitz-Birkenau main sights.
It is advisable to plane here at least one full afternoon, to be able to visit Auschwitz and Birkenau death camp. You can join a guided tour (26 PLN, depart+ every hour, english-speaking ones are also available and start at 10.30 am, 11.30 am and 1.30 pm), run by guides that are very knowledgeable and provide lots of information, explaining both historical and social contexts of the camps. After the tour you can ask them any questions, they will be happy to explain you anything you’s like to know.
Visiting Auschwitz is not an easy tourist stroll – you will see here remains of human tragedy – hundreds of small-size shoes remaining hundreds of thousands of children that died here. Also, in Auschwitz-Birkenau, visitors can see the crematory stoves, where dead bodies were buried after being gassed to death by killing Cyclon-B. Most of the barracks and other buildings have been reconstructed and are not the original ones, but it certainly does not mean that they look less frightening.
Just after arriving Auschwitz main camp you will have to pass the infamous gate with cynical inscription Arbeit macht frei („Work makes one free”). Then you will enter the world of history’s greatest crime against the humanity. In Auschwitz itself only 13 of original 30 barrack remained. Most of them, together with many other buildings, was destroyed by retreating Nazis. You can watch here 17-minute documentary movie showing liberation of the camp by the Soviets on 27th January 1945 (movie with english subtitles is shown at 10 am, 11 am and 1 pm)
In many buildings you will be able to find out more about the victims of the Nazi crime – lots of their photographs are being exposed with adequate descriptions.
While for many tourists Auschwitz is now merely another historical monument, please do not treat is as next tourist attraction. It is a place of memory, every year visited by the last survivors (sadly, with every year less and less of them) and victim’s families. Also, every year, thousands of people from all over the world take part in „Memory March”, which commemorates the millions of people that lost their lives, not only in Auschwitz-Birkenau camps, but also in dozens of other Nazi camps in Europe.
Birkenau (polish original name is Brzezinka) is the actual place of crime and death of over 1.5 million people. The camp is located 2 km west of Auschwitz – and once you arrive you are struck by its size. 175 hectares of barracks, gas chambers and administration buildings – Birkenau was a perfectly planned place for extermination. About 300 barracks, that were initially built as a stables for 52 horses, hosted 300 prisoners each. Also, the camp had four huge gas chambers with crematoria attached – in each at one time about 2000 people were asphyxiated. At the camp itself over 200 000 people were held often in inhumane conditions, starved and tortured to death.
There are free shuttle buses that connect Auschwitz and Birkenau, but they are running only between mid-April and October. If you visit the place off-season, there are no scheduled buses that run between them. The only option is to walk a short, 2km distance between them, or take a taxi (if you share it, the cost will be really cheap).
To see the holocaust tragedy from a different angle it is advisable to visit the Auschwitz Jewish Center, which houses a permanent exhibition dedicated to the Jewish community that dwelled Oświęcim city before WWII. Excellent documentation of the Jewish traditional way of life – with photos, written documents and other Judaica take you back to the time, when this fascinating culture was an important part of Poland. A magnificent, fully- restored synagogue is especially worth visiting. Built originally in 1913, it was recently rebuilt with every single detail kept the way it was. Unfortunately, even after seeing all those documents and photos, one cannot forget about the tragedy that happened later…