WARNING: This post contains images and information that some people might find distressing.
The term concentration camp conjures up a thousand distressing and horrifying images. Emaciated bodies, gas chambers, barbed wire fences, railway tracks and swastika-clad SS officers among them.
I’ve always been fascinated by history, and studied it at university for my undergraduate degree. As you’d expect, Nazi Germany and the ‘Final Solution’ to the ‘Jewish Question‘ came up regularly. As such, I’ve always been interested in the prospect of seeing the camps first hand. I got the chance to see my first camp during a trip to Berlin back in 2010. This was Sachsenhausen, a forced labour camp, which I will write about in Part II. (Coming soon)
It was during a trip to Krakow in March this year that I finally got to make the journey to the most notorious site of Nazi brutality, Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Most people only think of Auschwitz when it comes to concentration camps, but the Nazi regime constructed scores of labour and extermination camps across Occupied Europe. Camps weren’t confined to rural Poland, they also existed within Germany’s own borders. Among them were Treblinka, Bergen-Belson, Dachau, Sachsenhausen, Sobibor and Chelmno.
However, Auschwitz-Birkenau easily outstrips the others in terms of visitor numbers and infamy. It’s also one of the most accessible, located just an hour and a half away from the amazing Polish city of Krakow, in the Polish town of Oświęcim. (Check out my post on things to do in Krakow here.)
I’m writing this post for people who are interested in visiting the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp, and would like to know a little more about what such a visit involves. I am not going to go into the ethical considerations of whether or not such visits are appropriate, although I think they serve an extremely important purpose and would encourage anyone with an interest in Nazi Germany, World War II or Jewish history -or just humanity, to make the journey.
Tips for visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau
1) Auschwitz-Birkenau – What is it?
Auschwitz-Birkenau is actually comprised of two separate camps. The first Auschwitz I, contained a crematorium, and also housed the camp commander. It is also home to the infamous Arbeit Macht Frei sign. This site is now a museum. Visitors can pay 40 zloty (£8 GBP) for a guided tour of the camp. Tickets can be bought on arrival. During summer English-language tours leave every 30 minutes. Tours in other languages are also available.
Auchwitz II, also known as Birkenau, is located a couple of minutes away by bus. This site is much larger, and contains the railway tracks which feature so prominently in any Holocaust film. It takes several hours to walk around this site, and it might be unsuitable for those with disabilities. This is where the Nazis sent the majority of the camp’s victims to be gassed. The gas chambers have since been dismantled, but the barracks which the camp’s inmates lived in and the rubble from the chambers are still here.
2) Getting There
Getting to Auschwitz-Birkenau is very straightforward. Tickets for a day trip can be bought in advance at most hostels. Greg and Tom Party Hostel offered this. I travelled to the camp with Cracow City Tours – which I would recommend. Tickets can also be bought at at the office in Matejki Square.
A trip with Cracow City Tours cost me 90 Zloty, (£18 GBP) which was a student price. (Most tours in Poland give considerable discounts to students, so remember to bring your student ID.)
The tours leave daily at 8.15am from Matejki Square. English-speaking tours are the most popular. Tours in other languages exist too, but run less frequently.
It’s possible (and cheaper) to travel to the camp independently using the local bus or train service. Catch the bus with Oświęcim or Auschwitz on the front. They will take you to the front of the camp. The train station is located a little further away.
3) Don’t try to cram this and another trip into one day
It’s tempting, especially if you’re only in Krakow for a short period of time, to attempt to fit a visit to the camp and a trip to the Wieliczka Salt Mines into one day. Don’t do it.
Any visit to the camp is going to be emotionally draining. The last thing you’ll want afterwards is to be led around the salt mines being fed jokes about pit ponies. These two-stop tours do exist, but don’t go on one.
Bear in mind that any trip to the camp takes between 6-8 hours to complete. Even if you leave early you will struggle to fit anything else into your day in a worthwhile way. Dedicate a full day for this, you’ll need it.
4) Decide whether you want to see the camp guided or alone
Entrance to the camp is free, but I would recommend a guided tour to give you a better understanding of the horrors that were perpetrated here. Despite thinking that I knew a large amount about the camp’s history already, I ended up gaining a great deal of knowledge from my tour-guide.
That said, tours can feel a little rushed and mechanical, and if you’re someone who prefers taking their time, it might be best to go alone.
Note: between April-October 2013 there are restrictions in place on the times that those wishing to explore Auschwitz I alone can do so. Entry to the site is exclusively for guided groups between 10am-3pm. This does not apply to Birkenau.
A guided tour includes the use of headphones – do not lose them, as you will be fined.
5) Be prepared for noisy inconsiderate groups
The one thing I wasn’t expecting during my visit to Auschwitz was to hear people laughing. The day I visited several coachloads of Israeli schoolchildren descended upon the site and spent the majority of their time there messing about, shouting, laughing and generally being painfully insensitive and inconsiderate to their fellow visitors. Unfortunately this appears to be a regular occurrence. I also saw a tour group of Chinese women who thought it was completely appropriate to line up against a wall where prisoners were executed and hug, laugh and pull funny faces in front of it. Try not to get too riled by it.
6) Travelling to Birkenau
As I was on a day tour, our coach transported us to Birkenau, a very quick journey. If you’re travelling to the site alone, there is a frequent free shuttle bus to transfer you, or alternatively, you can walk. All buses back to Krakow leave from Auschwitz I.
7) Taking photographs
Taking photographs is permitted almost everywhere in both parts of the camps. Flash photography and the use of tripods are not allowed inside buildings. Photography and filming are not allowed in the room containing the victims’ hair or in the cellars of block 11.
As much as the thought of food might seem insensitive, people need to eat. Birkenau doesn’t have any food options, but Auschwitz I has an on-site canteen, and there is a food stand a couple of minutes away. You cannot eat or drink alcohol in the museum’s grounds. Regular drinks are allowed.
For more information on opening times and further detail click here for Auschwitz’s official website.
Have you been to Auschwitz-Birkenau? How did you find the experience?