Auschwitz Birkenau, Poland
Warning: This blog may contain graphic or disturbing content, read at your own risk.
Auschwitz concentration camp and extermination (death) camp is the most known about camp within Poland. The mass murder of approximately 1.1 million prisoners sent there mainly Jews, but also Poles, Romani and Sinti, Soviet prisoner of war, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, and many more diverse nationalities were sent to Auschwitz during Nazi German rule of German-occupied Europe. It’s not until you get to Auschwitz and Birkenau that it really puts it into perspective what really happened in a place like this.
It is estimated that 1.3 million prisoners were sent to the camp from German-occupied Europe, it is estimated that 1.1 million of these died. Just prior to the liberation of Auschwitz and Birkenau, the Nazi Germans started destroying all evidence of the camp, such as paperwork and demolishing the crematoriums, therefore it is possible that this estimated number could be a considerable more. It is said there were three camps here, Auschwitz I was a concentration camp, Auschwitz II – Birkenau was a concentration camp and extermination camp, and Auschwitz III – Monowitz was a labour camp. The only two camps which are visited is Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II – Birkenau. Auschwitz I started taking on political prisoners in 1940, but it wasn’t until 1941 when the extermination started. Between 1942 and 1944 trains took many prisoners from around German-occupied Europe straight to Auschwitz to the gas chambers. The Nazi’s used a chemical called Zyklon B in the gas chambers, this is a cyanide-based chemical and took approximately 20 minutes to kill the people in the gas chambers. If you were not selected for the gas chamber, then you would more likely die from starvation, infectious diseases, execution, forced labour, or medical experimentation.
The camps needed officers to manage the prisoners, the gas chambers, and the crematoriums, for which German Schutzstaffel (SS) officers managed the camp. Many people did try to escape the concentration camp, but there wasn’t many that succeeded. If you were successful then you were lucky, but this would lead to punishment, torture, and execution to a selected number of prisoners left behind. If you were unlucky in escaping, then you were punished, tortured and executed.
Prior to the allied forces liberating the camp, the SS officers took the remaining and abled prisoners on a death march to the west. The remaining prisoners were finally liberated on 27th January 1945, and the camp became an important symbol of the Holocaust.
Process in the camp back in the 1940s
Many people who were Jewish, Poles, Romani etc from German-occupied Europe were sent to Auschwitz via train. The train would have many carriages attached, with prisoners all crammed into one train carriage unbeknown to them going to their potential deaths. On arrival at the camp, you would have been separated from your families. The males segregated from the females and children. If you were unfit, unwell, too young or too old you would have been directed immediately to the gas chambers. SS officers told them that they would be going to be disinfected and showered, to continue this facade the SS offices gave many of the people sent to their deaths bars of soap or a towel. They were made to remove their clothing and shoes and directed straight into the gas chamber. Many people packed a suitcase with their belongings which were never returned, the belongings were taken and sent to Germany in aid of the war efforts. The walls of the gas chambers were thick, but the cries of the dying prisoners inside could be heard from outside. It took approximately 20 minutes for the gas chamber to go quite before the bodies were taken to the crematorium to a room to be examined. The SS officers were examining the dead for any concealed valuables before being sent to the crematorium to be burnt, the ashes were just dumped in various locations.
If you were not sent to the gas chambers, you were sent into the camp to work. Your head was shaved, and the hair was made into fabrics for the war efforts, you were tattooed with a number on the arm. The poor conditions in the camp were unliveable. Many people are cramped into one bunk sleeping head to toe, very little food was given and sanitation was terrible. Disease was rife in the camp, which caused many deaths, life expectancy in the camp was very short.
If you were one of the unlucky ones, a doctor would select you for human experimentation and testing. Twins were very popular for this, as one twin would be experimented on, and the other would not. The doctor in charge at Auschwitz and Birkenau was Dr Josef Mengele who carried out these experiments.
When the camp was finally liberated the condition the prisoners were in was astonishing. The weight of the prisoners left behind in the camp was approximately 25-30kgs.
Cost: 50 Zloty per person - approximately £10.53 per person
We arrived at the first camp Auschwitz I about 30 minutes prior to our allotted time, but on the ticket, it tells you that you need to arrive 15 minutes prior to your allotted time, this is so you can get through security. If you have taken a bag larger than 30x20x10cm then these need to be stored in the baggage hut which costs 4 zloty. You are unable to take large suitcases into the camp! Once you have got through security and on your right is where you pick up a headset. We chose the English tour, and a tour guide takes us around the camp and explains each section in more detail. Not all of the buildings are open for tourists.
The first part we are shown is the famous sign found as you enter every concentration and death camp which is ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ which means in English ‘Work sets you free’. We were then lead from building to building. We missed the beginning part of the tour as we had to put our bags into the baggage hut. When we caught up with our tour, the tour guide was about to take us into the museums which held the belongings from the prisoners which the Germans took. These consisted of prisoners shaved hair, glasses, false limbs and crutches, shoes, suitcases, pots and pans, toothbrushes, brushes and combs and any other belongings inside the suitcases. It is astonishing to see all the things which once belonged to someone and taken away prior to their deaths. This is the real realisation of how people were treated and made to be nothing but a number.
The following buildings we were led into was the living space for the prisoners at the camp, the bedding was a simple mat on the floor which was meant for you to sleep, with a large number of you sleeping in one room. The toilet facilities where such that a number of the toilets are in one room with no ability for privacy, and next door to the toilet would be the washroom with sinks to have a small wash. As we walked through one of the building, there were photographs of prisoners who went into the camp. Between 1940-1943 prisoners would have been dated and photographed on when they entered the camp along with when they died, surprisingly enough we noticed not many of them lasted any longer than 6 months, at best maybe a year in the camp. At the end of one building is the punishment section. One of the punishments was to stand in a pitch black square bricked up block, and the only way in and out was crawling through a little opening at the bottom before the opening is closed up. Between two of the building is the firing wall. On one side of the building, all the window are covered so the prisoners are unable to hear or witness what happens in the courtyard, and what did happen in the courtyard is firing squad. Prisoners which would be subjected to stripping off their clothing, showered and then taken to the yard lined up and shot.
On the way to the exit of the first camp, we were taken into one of the gas chambers to really get the feel of what it must have been like. The feeling we got from entering the gas chamber was how quiet it was inside, no sound from the outside enters, but it gave us a real claustrophobic feeling knowing that only a small group of us walked into this chamber knowing that we would be walking out, yet it would have been very different for the prisoners, they would have all been packed into the gas chamber and would not have walked out of there alive.
As we exited the camp we had 15 minutes to have food and drink before catching the shuttle bus to Auschwitz Birkenau. There is a restaurant selling hot and cold food and drinks, yet there is just a small selection. We personally brought a sandwich in Krakow before we left for Auschwitz. It would be a good idea also to take plenty of fluids with you.
We had left our food in the bag which we left in the bag hut, we asked our tour guide if we could get the food but she didn’t give much of a response and with only 15 minutes it was a bit tight to eat and catch the bus. We chose anyway to go get the food out of our bag eat and then catch the bus. We went to the bag hut, and the guy gave us our bags to get the food but was also advised that we could take the bag with us to Birkenau as there is no checkpoint. We were a little unsure but took the bags, went to the bus stop and waited for our group and the tour guide to meet us. Whilst waiting we ate our food, and when the tour guide arrived and the bus turned up soon after, we jumped abroad and headed to Birkenau. The bus service between Auschwitz and Birkenau is free. We arrived at Birkenau and the guide led us through the largest of the camp. We started at the main gates, before being walked up the side of the train tracks. Halfway up we stop at a point where an original train carriage sits on the tracks. This is a carriage which would have brought many of the prisoners to the camp. The tour guide explained what happened to the prisoners as they exited the carriage. We were then lead further up the tracks to where a memorial is in place for the many millions who lost their lives. To the right and to the left is the crematoriums. In the crematoriums was the gas chambers, the sorting room and then the fires to burn the dead bodies. What is left of the crematoriums is just rubble. Prior to liberation, the SS officers demolished many of the buildings including the crematoriums as this was evidence of what happened in the camps.
We were then taken into the camp and shown to where the surviving prisoners would have slept. The conditions here were considerably worst that Auschwitz I, they had bunks consisting of 3 tier bunk beds which would have slept more than 4 people in a bed. The toilet facilities were considerably worst. A building would house a large number of concrete blocks with holes in the top. This would have to be cleaned out by a worker in the camp. We could not imagine using these facilities with no privacy, the smell must have been rancid, but also there would have been queues to use the toilet facilities. We were then taken back to the start, at which point we were able to wander around Birkenau at our leisure. This was the only time that we had the chance to really take in the horrors of what happened here. After a little exploring at our own leisure, we caught the bus back to Auschwitz I to catch our bus back to Krakow.
It takes approximately 1.5 hours in Auschwitz I and about the same in Birkenau, but when the tour guide leaves you at Birkenau you can take your own time to explore the camp at your own pace.
It was an experience we would never forget, and one which will stay in our memory forever. We personally think that this is a place that must be visited in your lifetime, it really puts things into perspective about the trials and tribulations in your own life, most certainly does not compare to what it must have really been like living in the conditions. This is definitely an education which should be on every school curriculum to visit Auschwitz and Birkenau. You would think the world would learn from something like this, but sadly they have not as in many war-torn countries mass murder is still rife but is there any end to this?
We would highly recommend arriving between 30 minutes and 45 minutes before your allotted time to enter the camps, this is so you can get your bearings, find the restaurant/café, toilets and the bag hut. There are no signs to say if your bag is too big, so if you have taken a bag we would highly recommend dropping it at the baggage hut and paying 4 zloty. There is often a queue at the baggage drop so make sure you drop off the bags once you arrive so you are prepared for your allotted time to enter the camp, as we are sure you do not wish to miss out on some of the tour. Your bag can be collected once you have finished your tour of Auschwitz I and can be taken into Birkenau. The size of the bag allowed into the camp is 30x20x10cm.
Prior to 9 am and after 3 pm a guide is not required, some say this is advisable, we are not really sure it is. We took a tour guide as we arrived after 9 am, but felt we could have done the camp on our own. There is plenty of written communication in the museum to explain each section we were in and would have been nice to really take in what we were seeing in our own time. We felt that we had been rushed through the camp, and no time to really take everything in. We had done research on visiting the camp prior to the visit and we noticed everyone else was saying the same thing, the tour guide rushes you through the camp. Although they say that you have to have a guide between 9am-3pm but because we were late, we were still let through and no one was there to say where to go, we could have just wandered off at our own leisure without being noticed.
Once you have gone around Auschwitz I, if you have dropped your bags off at the bag hut, then collect your bag and head to the bus stop and take the free shuttle bus to Birkenau as there are no restrictions on bags and no security at the second camp.
There is a free shuttle bus which takes you from Auschwitz I to Birkenau and back to Auschwitz I again. The bus stop is in the main car park in front of the camp and should pick you and drop you at the same place. The buses arrive every 10 minutes, so you don’t have to wait too long for the next bus.
It is not permitted to take photographs or video footage in Auschwitz I, this we could understand as it is respecting the dead. Having said this many tourists still took photographs and videos, which the guide didn’t stop.
It takes approximately 3 hours to complete both camps, however, we could quite easily take 2-3 hours in Auschwitz I and about the same in Birkenau. We also noticed that when you are trying to take a picture that everyone just walks in front of you whilst trying to get the picture, or there is always a group in the background, so to really take good pictures we would have to stay longer. We are also slow travellers and really like to take in the area we have visited and can spend many hours in one place.
Tickets to the camps will need to be purchased in advance via their website directly. To purchase the tickets please click the following link. To order the tickets click Reservation. If you are travelling as an individual then click ‘visit for individuals’, if you are a group then select ‘visit for groups’. We were travelling as individuals so clicked ‘visit for individuals’. You are then directed to a calendar for which you select the date you wish to visit. This will lead you to a time to visit and how many places are left. It is free before 9 am and after 3 pm. For a guided tour between 9am-3pm, you can select the language you would like the tour to be in and then select the time. The next options will be ‘Reg entry pass-guided Tours for individuals + GTS or you can select ‘Red entry pass-guided tours for individuals + GTS, this latter option is for students with a valid student pass. We selected the first option put the number of tickets we needed and clicked next and then followed the on screens prompts.
You still need a ticket for entry to the camps before 9 am and after 3 pm. The would-be purchased the same way as above, but by not selecting a language.
Getting to Auschwitz
We travelled to Auschwitz I via bus, but there are other ways to get to and from Auschwitz and Birkenau:
Cost: Approximately £6 – we ordered the tickets online before we arrived in Krakow
The best way to get to Auschwitz is by bus from Krakow bus station which is called MDA Krakow bus station. This is located at Krakow Glowny train station and will take you straight from Krakow to Auschwitz. The journey is approximately 1.5 hours to Auschwitz and the same back to Krakow. We booked our tickets online in advance for which we had to provide specific times on when we would be catching the bus, and the time we are to return. You can walk onto the bus and pay as you go, this is more convenient, as you set the time to leave and arrive not to be stipulated by a time. There was plenty of seating on the bus, so walk on passenger will have various seating available.
At Auschwitz it was only advertised that there was a bus service to Krakow, there didn’t seem to be any signage for services to other areas of Poland.
There are many tour buses which will include the bus, the tickets to the camps which is something to consider too. But our honest opinion is it isn’t worth it, it works out cheaper to catch a bus and purchase the camp tickets online.
It is possible to catch a train but is said to take longer, this would be caught from Krakow Glowny train station to Oswiecim station. Oswiecim station is the closest to the camps and would have to walk about 1.6km to the first camp.
It is possible to drive to Auschwitz, but there are very limited parking spaces, and therefore may find difficulty finding somewhere to park.
Food and drink
At the camp is one restaurant/café, which serves limited hot and cold food. We often found there is a queue for the food, and with the limited time between our tour from Auschwitz and Birkenau, it might be an advantage to bring a packed lunch with you.
If you didn’t bring lunch with you, then the price of food and drink is a bit overpriced for what it is, but it isn’t that expensive when converting the currency.
There is no restaurant/café in Birkenau, but there is a small gift shop.
If you would like any help or advise with visiting Auschwitz and Birkenau, then please do not hesitate to contact us.