Visiting Auschwitz is a difficult experience. You feel tightness in your chest, your hands shake, your eyes get wet.
Everybody experiences it differently, I don’t know how you will. I can say one thing for sure – you will leave full of thoughts and reflection. Visiting Auschwitz will change a part of you. And it will be a valuable change.
If you plan a trip to Auschwitz, this post will help you prepare. Polish version is available here.
Table of Contents
- Visiting Auschwitz
- Historical facts in a nutshell
- Visiting Auschwitz – what is it like?
- Visiting Auschwitz – practical information
- Visiting Auschwitz – is it worth it?
Historical facts in a nutshell
Parts of the camp
The concentration camp existed from 1940 till 1945. At first only political prisoners and opposition were supposed to be here. Then it became an extermination camp where over a million people died.
The camp consisted of three parts – Auschwitz I, the original camp from which the whole complex was managed, Auschwitz II-Birkenau – taking an area of 140 ha, a place of mass extermination with five big crematoria and Auschwitz III Monowitz – a labour camp.
Today you can visit the museum in the two first parts.
Number of victims
We don’t know for sure how many people died in Auschwitz-Birkenau. The Nazis destroyed a lot of documentation and they often didn’t even take notes of all people who got killed in Auschwitz II-Birkenau.
Different sources mention numbers between 2 and 5 million people. Now the historians say that in the camp there was at least 1,3 million people – including 1,1 million of Jews and 150 thousand Poles. Heinrich Himmler – one of the most powerful people in Nazi Germany wanted to make Auschwitz the place of his “final solution to the Jewish question” – extermination of the whole nation.
Extermination methods and prisoners’ life
The prisoners were dying in gas chambers suffocated with poisonous gas Zyklon B. They were told they go to take a shower – gas chambers looked like baths, they even had showers. When everybody was inside, the SS dumped the gas through holes in the ceiling. Weaker people died immediately but the young and strong – after up to 20 minutes.
Some prisoners after interrogation and torture were shot by the Death Wall.
The prisoners who didn’t go to gas chambers were forced to labour. Many died of exhaustion and starvation. The Nazis expected the labourers to live three months with the amount of food they got.
Doctors conducted medical experiments on living prisoners in Auschwitz too. They tested sterilization methods, the results of infectious diseases or starvation on human body.
Transportations of prisoners
Prisoners arrived to the camp by trains, often in freight wagons. After their arrival SS officers conducted “selection” – they divided people into the ones going straight to gas chambers and to the labourers. They took personal belongings from everybody. From that moment they belonged to Nazi Germany. New prisoners got a number tattooed on their body and in the camp it replaced their name and surname.
Visiting Auschwitz – what is it like?
You start the trip by passing the famous gate of the original camp. It says “Arbeit macht frei” – work sets you free. The prisoners passed it on their way to work.
Then you see camp barracks. Today you can find museum exhibitions in them. In each of them you learn about the history of the camp and about prisoners’ lives.
You can see prisoners’ personal belongings – pots, crutches, shaving brushes, hair…
Pictures of some prisoners hang on the walls. You will see a huge book with names of people who died in Auschwitz.
You can see the Death Wall – a place where people were executed by shooting. It’s located between block 10 and 11 – where the SS tortured prisoners.
You can enter a gas chamber where you notice nail scratches marked on the walls. You can’t help but imagine panicked people looking for a way out…
The most touching part of the trip for me was an exhibition of kids’ drawings found in the camp after liberation. I don’t remember it from my first visit so I’m not sure if it’s a permanent exhibition.
It touched me more than passing an empty gas chamber…
After seeing the main camp, go to Auschwitz II-Birkenau. That’s where prisoners arrived by trains from many parts of Europe.
The majority of prisoners lived here and the biggest crematoria were here too. It’s a huge area to see, here you will learn how the prisoners lived, you will see the crematoria ruins.
This place is a little less overwhelming for visitors than Auschwitz I – even though historically it’s where the biggest tragedies took place.
Visiting Auschwitz – practical information
Guided or individual tour?
It depends on what do you like more and how much do you already know about the camp’s history. I visited Auschwitz with a guide for the first time and on my own for the second time.
A guided tour was a difficult but interesting experience. I learned a lot and I won’t ever forget many of these facts. I couldn’t pull myself together for a few days after that.
For the second time I went there alone – I had more time to think, I could stay longer in places which touched me the most. I had time to look for frames – I wanted to show in the pictures how deeply touched I felt there for the first time.
I also went there early in the morning so other people didn’t disturb me.
Both visits were different. Both were valuable and touching. If you’re visiting Auschwitz for the first time, you don’t know much about it and you’re not patient enough to read all the information – take a guided tour. You’ll learn and benefit from the trip much more.
How to get to Auschwitz?
The museum is located in the city of Oświęcim. You can access the parking of the main museum from Leszczyńskiej street 16 . If you’re on a backpacking trip in Eastern Europe, a bus or train will be the best option for you. Oświęcim is well connected by buses and trains with Cracow and Katowice. I usually check the best connections on e-podroznik.pl. It shows you both buses and trains. For more details refer to this post on how to get to Auschwitz from Kraków.
You can also book a tour with a direct transfer from Cracow and even a hotel pick up. Check this option by clicking here >>
You can visit the camp with a guide in two options:
- Study tour of 6 hours (available languages: Polish, English, German) price: 110 zł in foreign languages, 100 zł in Polish (2020)
- General tour 3,5 hours (available languages: Polish, English, Russian, French, German, Spanish, Italian and also Czech and Slovak in summer months). Price: 70 zł in foreign languages, 60 zł in Polish. (2020)
You need to book your tour on the museum’s site here if you plan to get to Auschwitz on your own. If you want to book a guided tour and with a transfer from/to Cracow included, you can do it by clicking the button below.
Individual tour without a guide is free and you can spend as much time in the camp as you want. You still need to book your spot via the website and print your free ticket. Only a certain number of people can enter the camp at a time.
I recommend you to book your tour as early in the morning as possible. You’ll avoid the crowds and tours following each other’s steps.
How to get from Auschwitz I to Auschwitz II-Birkenau?
There is a free shuttle bus between the two museums, every 10 minutes from April till October and every 30 minutes during the other months. You will find parking lots next to both parts of the museum. Check the museum’s website for more details.
Visiting Auschwitz with kids?
I visited Auschwitz for the first time when I was 15 years old. It seems to me it’s the youngest age in which visiting Auschwitz makes sense. For younger kids and teenagers it might be too early – they either won’t understand or take it too hard emotionally.
I don’t say we should hide such events and historical facts from kids – but it is too early to see gas chambers and death walls.
The museum’s rules say it is not recommended to visit with kids under 14 years old.
Why do I write about it at all? I saw a couple with a kid who seemed to be 10 years old maximum and I was surprised and shocked.
Visiting Auschwitz – is it worth it?
Visiting Auschwitz is not a pleasant experience. You probably won’t feel like partying that night but you’d rather spend the evening alone under a blanket. But it will be one of unforgettable ones.
I think you should visit such place at least once in your life. To learn facts, realize how huge tragedy can happen if we hate another person due to his nationality and roots. This way I hope we’ll be able to prevent it from happening again. I believe that after seeing such place we all will think twice before saying or writing a hateful phrase to another person.
“It happened, therefore it can happen again”. It’s the most important lesson we all should learn from visiting Auschwitz.
Visiting Auschwitz is a difficult experience. You feel tightness in your chest, your hands shake, your eyes get wet. I am sure though, that a trip to Auschwitz will change a part of you. And it will be a valuable change.
If you need a rest after the trip to Auschwitz, go for a hike in one of the most beautiful trails in Polish mountains or go for a two days trekking in the Tatras. Mountains are a great place for reflexion – and you will also rest and relax there.
You can also consider visiting an interesting city of Katowice (my hometown!) nearby.
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