Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, near the Polish city of Oswiecim, opened in 1940 and was the largest of its kind. The camps here were used for mass murder, torture and exploitation of its prisoners for slave labour until their liberation in 1945. This post will explore my experience of taking a half-day tour to visit these death camps, and what to expect from your visit there.
If you’re staying in Kraków, it’s easy to organise to go and experience the Auschwitz concentration camps for yourself. As mentioned in my post about why Shaun and I loved Kraków, we pre-booked our tour before arriving in the city through Viator. We figured that, since we would be visiting a place with so much history and so much to learn about, it would be best to go as part of a tour group where we would have our own guide. On our tour, we were picked up at our hotel in Kraków and, as it’s around a 1.5 hour drive to the Auschwitz-Birkenau museum, we were shown an extremely informative DVD on the bus on the way there which explained some of the history of the camps to prepare us for our visit.
Once we arrived, our tour guide explained that because of how cramped it may be in some of the buildings, and for security purposes, any bags/backpacks we wanted to bring into the museums had to be the size of an A4 piece of paper or smaller. For the majority of people this meant leaving our bags on the tour bus, or making use of the lockers provided at the reception area of the museum. It was also explained to us that there is a level of respect that is expected from tourists here, and due to this we were not permitted to take photographs in some of the buildings. Once we were off the bus, we had to empty our pockets and put our bags and electronic devices through security scanners before we were allowed to enter.
Our first stop was the Auschwitz I part of the tour, which involved exploring the prison dorms, gas chambers and exhibitions of the prisoners’ personal items.
The first thing you will see before entering Auschwitz I, is the steel sign which says “Arbeit Macht Frei“, ironically meaning “Work Makes You Free“. You will then begin to walk down the “village” of the buildings where the prisoners stayed, each building containing a different type of exhibition, or photographs and information about what was happening to the prisoners during their time at the camp.
In the first building we entered, there was a large chart on the wall that informed us about the types of people who were forced to come here. The exact number of prisoners is unknown – but it is known that there were at least 1,300,000 people who had been brought here against their will. Among them were:
- 1,100,000 Jews
- 140,000 – 150,000 Polish people
- 23,000 Romanian gypsies
- 15,000 Soviet prisoners of war
- 25,000 people of other ethnicities.
Undoubtedly, the most intense and scarring part of the tour was when we were taken into the rooms which stored the prisoners’ belongings and personal items. One of the rooms had enormous containers that were literally filled with the female prisoners’ hair which had been shaved off. It was then sold by the German soldiers and made into rugs and socks. Another room contained stacks upon stacks of prisoners’ luggage, which was marked with their names and dates of birth, as they were under the impression that they would be receiving it back at some point. Understandably, we were not permitted to take pictures in these rooms. The prisoners at Auschwitz I underwent massive amounts of unimaginable torture; those with gold fillings in their teeth had them forced out of their mouth for the gold to then be sold on to be made into jewellery.
Auschwitz I also possesses the “shooting wall” where some prisoners were killed publicly, as well as the grounds where prisoners were hanged. The soldiers in charge of these camps had ensured they boarded up the windows of prisoners’ cells so that they were unable to see the torturous occurrences happening merely on the opposite side of the wall to them. The prison cells were also a hard-hitting part of this tour, as we were able to see the rooms that prisoners were sent to if they had been sentenced to death by starvation, and rooms filled with the uniforms that the prisoners were forced to wear. We also saw the rooms where the prisoners were forced to live day in, day out; it was here where we were informed that, because the camp guards still had to comply with heating regulations, they made a point of only switching it on during the blazing hot days of the summer.
I found it sickening how the soldiers and guards of the camps did literally everything in their power to try and make every aspect of the prisoners’ lives just that bit worse.
Our last stop on the first part of the tour was going into a gas chamber. Unsurprisingly, while we were waiting to enter the chamber, we could see that many of the people leaving the building were crying. This gas chamber was located in a short, stone building which was partially submerged in a grass mound. Emerging from the top of the building were large chimneys and pipes. It was through these pipes that the gas was thrown down upon the people who were crammed in here in their masses. It was here, where we were standing, where an unfathomable number of people were murdered.
Once we had finished observing the evidence of the horrors that went on at the Auschwitz I camp, next on our tour was a visit to the Auschwitz II (Birkenau) camp.
The area where the Birkenau camp was located was absolutely huge – it once contained the majority of the gas chambers where many Jews were murdered. We were informed that the gas chambers here were destroyed by German soldiers just prior to the liberation of the camps in 1945 in attempt to eliminate any evidence of the cruel practices that went on here.
It was at Birkenau where our guide explained how the prisoners’ fate was decided immediately after alighting the train that brought them in. A “doctor” would go around a look at the prisoners briefly, and he would decide whether or not they were fit enough to work at the camp. Those who were deemed fit enough – mostly men and young boys – were sent to be “labourers” at the camp, where they would endure extreme torture and cruel, unmanageable workloads. These people would eventually die from exhaustion, or would be sent to be executed if they stepped out of line in any way which the guards deemed inappropriate. Those who were not deemed fit enough to work – mostly women, small children and the elderly – were sent straight to the gas chambers to be murdered.
We were standing in the very footsteps of the prisoners who were brought here in the early 1940’s and told to wait while their fate was decided for them.
At Birkenau, we were able to see the watchtowers and fences of the camp as well as being permitted to go inside one of the buildings containing the barracks where the prisoners were made to sleep. The barracks were made of brick and the “beds” in the barracks were all made of hard wood – they looked cold, hard and unwelcoming. Our guide told us that between 700 – 1000 people were made to share each barrack, which was absolutely astonishing as the building we were in was tiny – it’s hard to imagine how the prisoners who were crammed in would have been able to breathe, let alone move.
It is completely impossible to try and comprehend what these prisoners’ lives were like.
I would definitely urge you to take a tour of Auschwitz-Birkenau if you are ever travelling in Poland.
However, at some points throughout our visit, it was rather difficult to really focus on the horrors that happened at these camps due to the sheer number of tour groups there were, and the lack of respect of some visitors. Don’t get me wrong – I think it’s great that people visit Auschwitz to learn more about the holocaust – it’s always encouraging to see so many people looking to expand their minds and put themselves in the shoes of those who endured a horrific part of history. At times, though, it was hard to really attach myself to the atmosphere of the place when there were people shoving each other around trying to be first to enter a certain room, or people who were enthusiastically taking pictures of each other smiling and posing in front of the buildings. It seemed that, unfortunately, a very small number of people didn’t seem to grasp the seriousness of the place with the respect that it deserved.
However, I will reiterate that it is definitely worth coming to visit these concentration camps if you have the chance. Auschwitz-Birkenau truly is a place that you need to experience for yourself in order to get a real grasp of the atrocities that occurred here.
Have you been to Auschwitz? What were your thoughts? Do you find that other tourists occasionally ruin your experience of a place?