by Emily Fraser
The horrors of WWII and the Holocaust are still fresh in the minds of many. Whilst some may ask why they would go to such a tragic place on a holiday, the former concentration camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau attract over 1 million visitors a year.
Under Nazi occupation during World War II, some of the most horrific crimes were committed here. Today, the preserved buildings house displays of photographs and articles that evoke the personal tragedy of individuals, as well as the grand scale of the horrors that occurred between 1940 and 1945, when an estimated 4 million people lost their lives in these camps.
The aim of the museum and memorial here is to both create awareness of what took place and pay tribute to the lives that were taken. So whilst a visit to Auschwitz may be fascinating for some, it is also quite an emotional and confronting experience for others.
Here’s what an experience at Auschwitz might entail.
Travelling to Auschwitz
The concentration camps are located just outside of the Polish town of Oświęcim, and the name ‘Auschwitz’ is its German derivation. Situated in Southern Poland, 50 kilometres west of Krakow, you can expect around a 1 to 1.5 hour travel time from the centre of town. There are different ways of getting there – regular buses, trains and day tours run from Krakow – and Bunnik Tours visit the site on our Moscow to Prague and Eastern Europe itineraries.
You will generally need a full day to visit, allowing travel time and approximately 4 hours at the site (guided tours take 3 hours with a 20-minute break around halfway).
At the Memorial and Museum
The site comprises of 3 main areas:
- The Main Building & Museum – has a theatre where a graphic 15 minute film is shown, shot by the Ukrainian troops the day after the camp was liberated. The film has showings between 11 and 5 on the hour in English. Whilst it can be disturbing, this is highly recommended as part of the experience.
- Auschwitz I – old Polish military barracks and the first camp to be used. Here you’ll find the only remaining gas chamber and photos and personal belongings illustrating the life and cruelties of the camp.
- Auschwitz II – Birkenau – the second camp, located approximately 3 km from Auschwitz I. Here you’ll see the railway track, old barracks, gas chamber ruins and ponds where the ashes of thousands were dumped.
A visit generally begins at the main building and museum, before you head through to Auschwitz I. You’ll notice the ironic ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ in wrought iron over the entrance gate – ‘work will set you free’. The exhibits here provide so many stories and so much information that it could take days if you were to thoroughly read and cover everything.
The infamous block housing the evidence of those who died is also here. This is perhaps one of the most confronting parts of the visit, given the piles of shoes, hair, glasses and other belongings on display.
A free shuttle bus runs between Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II & Birkenau. You’ll notice that Auschwitz II is completely different to Auschwitz I, even purely on scale. Its open expanses and large, simple barracks were built purely on need and for efficiency, rather than the previous barracks adaptation of Auschwitz I.
The notorious gate tower, the ‘Gate of Death’ (named by prisoners in the camp), is visible as you enter. The moving prisoners’ sleeping quarters can also be seen here, along with eerie railway tracks leading to the crematoriums. A large memorial to the victims is located at the end of the tracks.
A day at Auschwitz will understandably be confronting and may be emotionally exhausting, but it is well worth the effort and the visit if you can make it.
Whilst not a pleasant experience, it is important. It helps us recognise the cruelty and understand just how important it is to never let this happen again.
You can find more information, such as entry prices and times, on the museum and memorial’s official website here: http://auschwitz.org/en/