It was a grey and rainy day in Krakow, Poland when I decided to jump on a local bus and head to Auschwitz. It is a place I learned a lot about in books and history classes. I thought I was prepared for what I was going to see and feel because of how much I had heard about Auschwitz.
But nothing can really prepare you for visiting Auschwitz.
It is conceivably the most poignant image of suffering in World War II, and perhaps in the world itself. Standing there in the remains of this horrific piece of history is phenomenally thought-provoking. Auschwitz was the Nazi’s largest concentration camp and is the site where 1.1 million people lost their lives – a truly staggering number.
Experiencing Auschwitz is a hugely chilling, but important, thing to do.
Visiting a concentration camp should have a profound effect on anybody. It is important that we learn from history as to not repeat mistakes, and in my opinion, visiting the sites of such tragedy cements this understanding. In the hope of encouraging more people to visit Auschwitz and other concentration camps and learn from our history, I will discuss my time there.
Looking down a row of prison blocks in Auschwitz I
Getting to Oswiecim
Auschwitz is not in Krakow itself but in Oświęcim which about 75kms away, so visitors need to find a way to get there. I decided to save my pennies and not take a tour from Krakow but took the local bus instead. Buses leave from the main bus station in Krakow, take around 1.5hours and cost 12 zloty however it can be confusing.
Once you have arrived at the Auscwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum there are free shuttles allow transit between Auschwitz I and II.
Arriving at Auschwitz I feels somewhat conflicting. You feel oddly nervous about what you are about to witness, but then also annoyed about the touristy buzz that exists in the memorial carpark.
At certain times of the day, visitors must have a guided tour to explore Auschwitz I and II. You will join a guide at the entry centre with a group who also speak your language. You will receive a headset as well so you can properly listen to the guide. At first I was unsure why guides were necessary but in the end it is worthwhile because you learn an incredible amount.
Auschwitz I contains many buildings that were previously barracks for the Polish Army but transformed into the concentration camp in 1940. To arrive at the first section of prison blocks, visitors pass under the infamous sign “Arbeit Macht Frei” (“work sets you free”).
Several guided tour groups huddle underneath the sign “Arbeit Macht Frei” in rainy Auschwitz I
There are many awful areas to see within the prison blocks including Block 11 where many punishments were handed out by the SS. Different cell types were designed to punish prisoners. Some types of cells included: ‘standing cells’ where prisoners were forced to stand, ‘starvation cells’ where no food/drink was provided, and ‘suffocation cells’ where there is no way for air to enter the cell. People placed in these cells were often left there until they died.
As this is now the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum, many of the prison blocks have museum-like displays and information. The aim of many of the displays is to show the sheer amount of life that was lost at Auschwitz. Towering displays of victims’ shoes, hair and clothing are some of the things you will witness. There are walls full of pictures of the victims as well as rooms organised to show visitors what it would’ve been like at the time.
At Auschwitz I, visitors also have to opportunity to enter a gas chamber. Heading into the gas chamber is an awful feeling. Personally, it was being in the chamber when the true reality of what happened here hit me.
Signs, barbed wire and a guard tower in Auschwitz I
Barbed wire fences outside prison buildings
After finishing the guided tour of Auschwitz I, the group will hop on a transit bus and head to Auschwitz II. This portion of the complex is particularly chilling. This is where the majority of the killings took place. You can easily see that it was a clinically designed killing factory.
You arrive under a brick gateway where the train tracks run. These tracks are where millions of people were delivered to their deaths. It is absolutely surreal because your mind finds it difficult to comprehend the significance.
At Auschwitz II, visitors see the bunk beds in the prison buildings where prisoners were cramped in together. It is at Auschwitz II that the sheer enormity of the killings hits. The rows of prison buildings packed to the brim with bunk beds, which in turn would’ve been packed with people.
The gas chambers at Auschwitz II were largely blown up to destroy evidence in the final moments of German occupation. However, the scale of them can still be seen from the remains.
Buildings at Auschwitz II
Destroyed gas chambers at Auschwitz II
Bunks where prisoners slept, piled on top of each other in horrific conditions
Prison buildings at Auschwitz II
- Allow yourself around 3-4 hours to explore the complex because it is important not to rush. You really want to take time to absorb the history.
- Be respectful with photography because this is a memorial, not a tourist attraction. I saw a man taking selfies in the gas chamber and it was truly cringeworthy.
- Remember how many people died here and treat the experience with respect.
- Prepare yourself mentally before visiting Auschwitz because it is confronting
Lucy visited Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum in October 2014. Information may have changed so please visit the official website of the Memorial to confirm details, the link is provided here.
Have you or would you ever visit a concentration camp? Let me know in the comments below.