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. But you will be full of thoughts and reflection after this tour. 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.
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 there. 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 historians say that in the camp there were at least 1,3 million people – including 1,1 million Jews and 150 thousand of 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” – the extermination of the whole nation.
Extermination methods and prisoners’ lives
The prisoners were dying in gas chambers suffocating with the poisonous gas Zyklon B. They were told they go to take a shower – gas chambers looked like baths, and 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 labor. Many died of exhaustion and starvation. The Nazis expected the laborers to live for three months with the amount of food they got.
Doctors conducted medical experiments on living prisoners in Auschwitz too. They tested sterilization methods and the results of infectious diseases or starvation in the human body.
Transportations of prisoners
Prisoners arrived at 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 the laborers. They took personal belongings from everybody. From that moment they belonged to Nazi Germany. New prisoners got a number tattooed on their bodies 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 there. In each of them, you learn about the history of the camp and 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 the 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 blocks 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 it could’ve been a temporary 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, and 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 you like more and how much 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 that 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 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 >>
Links to tours in this post are affiliate links. If you book a tour using them, I will get a small commission with no difference in price for you. Thank you in advance for using them!dorota
You can visit the camp with a guide in two options:
- Study tour of 6 hours (available languages: Polish, English, German) price: 125 zł in foreign languages, 115 zł in Polish (January 2023)
- General tour 3,5 hours (available languages: Polish, English, Russian, French, German, Spanish, Italian and also Czech and Slovak in summer months). Price: 85 zł in foreign languages, 75 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 to 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 the unforgettable tours.
I think you should visit such place at least once in your life. To learn facts, and realize how a 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 a 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.
Polish version of this post is available here.
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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Very well done Dorota. The photos really convey the mood and you tell about your experience in a way that shares the immensity of this tragic place, and the emotions it stirs. I have not visited Auschwitz yet, bt I know that I must. It scares me though. I have visited Natzweiller-Struthoff in France, which is much smaller. It has been over a year now, and I am still unable to write about it. Thank you for sharing your experience.
Thanks for your comment Roxanna. It is a scary place indeed and visiting it is a tough experience, I’m not surprised you still can’t write about what you saw in France. 10 years passed between my first visit in Auschwitz till this second one and memories of the first experience were still clearly visible in my mind. But everybody should experience such place and learn from it, that’s for sure.
Dora, I found your information so useful and helpful and will keep in mind on our recent visit to Poland and Auschwitz. I know if will be very upsetting and emotional but I cannot visit Poland and not visit Auschwitz as feel I owe it to those who died there. We should never forget.
Thank you for your comment, I’m glad it helped you. Visiting Auschwitz is a tough experience but it’s something everybody should see at least once. Hopefully this way it will never happen again.
I hope you will enjoy the trip to my beautiful country!
But these internet memesters convinced me that “Arbeit macht frei” means “it’s just a prank bro.”
Unfortunately it was as far from a prank as it could be. Good you’re moving from memes to actual information and I’m glad I could help 😉
I visited Auschwitz-Birkenau this summer with my family. The day before I was very terry and anxious. On arrival, I felt numb. I saw the rails and the platform and remembered movies and books and what happened there. I started to feel tension and fought back tears seeing the suitcases with their names written so neatly and carefully. The shoes. I struggled to hold back tears, the human hair, finally the tears came but there was no relief with the tears. I tried to tell myself to be strong for the dear souls that suffered here. Each room worse than before. Am I glad I went.? I think so only to honour the people who suffered and died here. I still feel depressed as I frequently have depressive episode. It is one of the most difficult things I have done. Even Pearl Harbor did not hit me as hard. I felt more anger there until I went to the actual ship the Arizona, then I was Geary. I hope his will help someone make up their mind. I have a close friend who is often suicidal and depressed. I have suggested she not go. The evil and horror is unbearable on walking thru those famous gates. It also leave you wondering with any German you meet, ‘was your Father here torturing Jews, was your Grandfather. It leave many questions and no answers. There is no answer for what occurred here.
Thank you for sharing Ellie. Yes, it is a difficult visit and experience. Seeing all this, realizing what happened there is tough and you are right to discourage your depressed friend from going. I hope you will recover soon. For me, I just hope we will always remember what happened and never let it happen again. I don’t look at Germans this way – after all, we aren’t guilty of who our ancestors were and we can be completely different. Let’s just learn the lesson and never hate another human being because he/she is different.
Thank you. I am visiting today not really knowing what to expect.