Visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau

Visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau

Auschwitz-Birkenau, also simply called Auschwitz is the largest of the Nazi German concentration and death camps. After visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau we were filled with sadness, anger, and hope. We think that everyone should visit Auschwitz at least once in their lifetime! It’s not about remembering what happened, it’s about never forgetting it! 

In this post, you will find everything you need to know for a visit to Auschwitz. 

How to get there from Krakow

The Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum is located around 65 km outside of Krakow, on the edge of the town of Oswiecim. The site is open from 7.30 am every day. The site is free to enter but you need an entry card. You can visit Auschwitz by yourself or with a guide. It’s helpful to have a guide. You can join a small group tour when you get to Auschwitz which takes around 4 hours and is run in lots of different languages. They cost 50 ZL and you need to book well in advance. You can book tickets on this website. 

If you want to visit Auschwitz independently, you can catch the train from Krakow Glowny to Oswiecim, which takes around 1 hour 40 minutes and costs 15. 60 ZL. The station is located 2 km from the camp so it’s a 25 minutes walk to the camp or you can take a local bus. 

Another option to get there is by bus from Krakow’s main bus station, Dworzec MDA. The bus takes around 2 hours and costs 12 ZL each way.

Or you can take a tour from Krakow which we did. You can book a tour which includes transportation and a guided tour. You can book a tour in Krakow’s old town or at your hotel. 

History 

Auschwitz-Birkenau is made up of three parts; Auschwitz l, Auschwitz ll – Birkenau, and Auschwitz lll – Monowitz. 

Auschwitz l, the buildings of which were part of a former military base, opened in 1940 as a detention center to hold Polish political prisoners. The role quickly changed and Auschwitz l became a concentration camp and the site where mass exterminations were carried out.

Auschwitz ll – Birkenau was opened in 1941 to keep up with the large numbers of political prisoners and Jews that were being deported to Auschwitz. 

Auschwitz – Birkenau became the primary site of the Nazi’s “final solution to the Jewish problem”. 

from 1939-1945, the Nazis deported at least 1.3 million people to Auschwitz, of which 1.1 million were Jews and the rest were either Poles, Roma gypsies, Soviet prisoners of war, or prisoners from other ethnic groups. The shocking truth is approximately 1.1 million people died in Auschwitz, approximately 90% of them were Jews, the majority were murdered by the SS in gas chambers. Those who did not die in the gas chambers died of other causes; starvation, infections, medical experimentations, and forced labor. 

In January 1945 Auschwitz was liberated with the arrival of Soviet troops. 

Auschwitz

Once all guests were collected from their hotels, ‘The liberation of Auschwitz’ film was played which was footage by Vorontsov, a Soviet cameraman who documented events throughout the war. The video itself was shocking and the emotional mood was set for the day ahead. 

Once we’d arrived at the Auschwitz museum, we were all given headphones and a pack where we all were on a channel-specific to our tour guide, who spoke to us through her microphone. 

The tour started at the main gate to the Auschwitz concentration camp. The gate reads “Arbeit Macht Frei” which means “Work will set you free”.

Transported from all over Europe during World War II, people were told many different stories about where they were going. Some were told they were going to work elsewhere. Some were told they were going east for a better life.

Upon arrival men, women, and children were separated. All belongings were taken from the prisoners; clothes, glasses, suitcases, shoes,… 

Pregnant women, the elderly, the young, and the ill were taken straight to gas chambers and killed as they were considered unfit to work. 

They were told they were being disinfected and cleaned before being housed and fed. But that was just a lie, they were led into gas. 

Those that survived this stage were given rags to wear and were distinguished only by marks and a number. The number was tattooed on their left forearm and represented their prisoner number. For children, the number was tattooed on their legs as their arms were too small. From this point, they no longer had a name or an identity. 

The first building we entered was Block 4 which contained information, photos, maps, and various models of both Auschwitz l and ll. There was also a display of Zyklon B pellet canisters which were used in the gas chambers as well as an urn containing some of the ashes that were found of the victims. In this block, you can even see human hair that had been shaved and collected. 

In block 5 there are displays of the belongings that were taken from the prisoners as soon as they arrived at Auschwitz. It was horrifying to know that they had brought all their possessions with them as they believed they were going to be starting a new life. 

We next visited Block 6 where we saw walls of photos with the faces of only a handful of the prisoners that entered Auschwitz. Each photo had their name, their date of birth, the date they entered the camp as well as the date they died. Some survived only a few days, some a few months, some a little longer. 

The next building we visited was Block 11 which was also known as the “Death Block”. This block was where prisoners were tortured and punished for attempting to escape or other various offenses. It was also in one of the cells here where they first experimented with killing people using Zyklon B. 

Between Blocks 10 and 11, you will see the “Death Wall” where prisoners were shot against the wall so the bullets didn’t ricochet. 

Prisoners were publicly hung. Officers believed that showing the prisoners the hangings, it would scare them. And by scaring the prisoners with their fate, it allowed them to control them more.

Our next stop was the bunker which had been converted into a gas chamber after the experiments with Zyklon B in Block 11. You can still see the scratches on the walls from those trying to escape. We could not stop thinking about how all this could have happened. Next to the gas chamber was the crematorium where the bodies were burned. 

This was the end of our tour of Auschwitz l. We had a little break and catched the free bus to Auschwitz ll-Birkenau. 

Auschwitz ll -Birkenau 

 A few minutes later we arrived in Birkenau and the first thing we saw was the gatehouse with the train track running through it. Auschwitz ll-Birkenau was built as an extermination camp when Auschwitz became too crowded. The first thing that shocked us was the size of this place! Birkenau was much, much bigger than we thought it would be. Although most of the barracks were destroyed, you can see where they used to be. There were rows upon rows. 

We walked along the train tracks towards the selection ramp. There we saw cars that transported the Jews. They were originally meant for cattle, if you were standing shoulder to shoulder in a cattle car of this size, maybe 20 people could squeeze in. The Nazis packed in a minimum of 80 people in these cars. They were held captive in these cars for sometimes an entire week while they were being transported. They had no access to food, water, or toilets during the trip. Most did not even survive the trip to the camp.  

From the selection ramp, we walked to where the remains of the gas chambers are located. They were destroyed by the Nazis in an attempt to hide the evidence of their crimes. 

Between the remains of the gas chambers and at the end of the train decks is a memorial to all those who lost their lives at Auschwitz as this would have been where their ashes were dumped. 

Our last stop at Birkenau was one of the primitive barracks where the prisoners lived. The prisoners slept on these three-layer bunks. The bunks are just hard wooden shelves with no mattresses. The bottom bunk is just dirt and brick. Each bunk is about the size of a queen-size bed. So two people could fit on each level. But no, a minimum of eight people were crammed on each level. We cannot imagine sleeping on bricks and then having to get up the next morning and do hard labor all day. 

Visiting Auschwitz is depressing and not a fun day out that you would usually plan but we think that everyone should visit Auschwitz once in their lifetime. 

Witnessing the ground on which millions of people’s freedom was completely taken, made us realize and appreciate the freedom we are so lucky to have today. The freedom to walk, the freedom to love, the freedom to sing, the freedom to travel, the freedom to eat, the freedom to even just walk out of our front door. 

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