While studying abroad in Europe I knew there were two places I wanted to visit: Germany and Poland. I knew I wanted to visit Germany to meet up with my friends Steffon & his brother Jan. Seven years ago Steffon did an exchange and stayed with my family for three weeks. I also knew I wanted to go to Poland to see Auschwitz-Birkenau.
For me World War II has always been one of the most interesting events in history. Specifically the horrendous imprisonment of those in concentration camps. I have always been interested in survivors stories. Learning what they had to do to survive, what horrible psychological tools the Third Reich used, and the events leading up to and after the war.
Leading up to visiting the museum I knew it would be a hard, emotionally heavy day. I have seen multiple movies and read endless books on the subject. While I feel they did help me, nothing can fully prepare you for what you will see and experience while visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau.
In this post I will share pictures and facts that I learned during my visit to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp and museum. The facts in this post come directly from the museums website along with my memory of the tour. Due to the length of this post I have organized it into topics. Below are the topics I will talk about:
- History & Guided Tour
- Closing Thoughts
- Visitor Suggestions
HISTORY & GUIDED TOUR
Located approximately 37 miles west of Krakow, the Auschwitz concentration camp complex was the largest of it’s kind established by the Nazi regime (Auschwitz). The word complex is used because Auschwitz is actually made up of three camps; Auschwitz I, Auschwitz II, and Auschwitz III. This is the first of many new things I learned during the approximately four hour tour. The tour only takes you to Auschwitz I & Auschwitz II so that is what will be covered in this post.
All of the camps used the prisoners for forced labor. The first place you visit on the tour is the original camp, Auschwitz I. The barracks of Auschwitz I are not what you typically picture when thinking about Auschwitz as these are three story, red brick buildings. Auschwitz I was established in 1940 in a repurposed military barracks located in the suburb of Oswiecim, Poland (Auschwitz). Now the barracks are used as the main exhibition spaces for the museum. Each barrack is set up with a topic which a guide leads you through. The exhibition is simple but powerful, showcasing pictures and facts about the war and concentration camp.
Auschwitz I is where the famous entrance sign is located. The sign is a symbol of the Nazi’s cruelty. In iron letters it reads “arbeit macht frei” which translates to “Work will make you free”. The phrase is cruel because the work and environment at Auschwitz was specifically designed to kill. Meaning you are only free once you die. This phrase was on the gates of several Nazi ghettos and concentration camps. Including Dachau concentration camp, Gross-Rosen concentration camp, and the Theresienstadt Ghetto-camp. In December of 2009 the sign at Auschwitz I was stolen. It was later recovered in three pieces by authorities. A replica sign has been put over the gate in its place while the original is kept in storage. The original may be displayed in a future exhibition at the museum.
Auschwitz I was constructed for three purposes:
- to incarcerate real and perceived enemies of the Nazi regime and the German occupation authorities in Poland for an indefinite period of time (Auschwitz).
- to provide a supply of forced laborers for deployment in SS-owned construction-related enterprises (and, later, armaments and other war-related production) (Auschwitz).
- to serve as a site to kill small, targeted groups of the population whose death was determined by the SS and police authorities to be essential to the security of Nazi Germany (Auschwitz).
Touring the sole remaining gas chamber at Auschwitz I was one of the hardest parts of the visit. Entering into the space where so many people died fills the space with an unexplained, heavy air. In this gas chamber there were no fake shower heads that spewed the gas. Instead there were four openings in the ceiling in which the poisonous gas, Zyklon B, would be dropped. This gas was a pesticide that reacted to the air. It was originally intended to be used as rat poison. Immediately in the next room is the crematorium where the bodies were burned. This space was harder to see than the actual gas chamber. Here you could see how systematic the Nazi’s were with their mass killings. Out of respect for those that lost their lives the museum asks that no pictures be taken of the interior of the gas chamber and crematorium.
While the Nazi’s are famous for their meticulous accounts of their prisoners, they did not have any files or information of those sent immediately to the gas chamber. For this reason historians can only estimate the number of victims at the Auschwitz concentration camp complex. According to the museum’s website, “It is estimated that the SS and police deported at least 1.3 million people to the Auschwitz complex between 1940 and 1945. Of these, the camp authorities murdered approximately 1.1 million”. The break down of these deaths by group at Auschwitz between 1940 and 19445 is listed below:
- Jews: 1,095,000 deported to Auschwitz, of whom 960,000 died
- Poles: 147,000 deported, of whom 74,000 died)
- Roma: 23,000 deported, of whom 21,000 died
- Soviet prisoners of war: 15,000 deported and died
- Other nationalities: 25,000 deported, of whom 12,000 died
While in Poland I bought two books about Auschwitz. Each book gave a new perspective to the concentration camp that I had not heard before. The first, titled “I was Doctor Mengele’s Assistant”, is the first hand written account by the Hungarian doctor Miklos Nyiszil. His memoir is an eyewitness account to the mass murders that occured within the crematoria and gas chambers. From this book I learned for the first time about the Sonderkommando. Meaning “special unit” the Sonderkommando were prisoners, typically Jews, who were forced to aid in the disposal of gas chamber victims. They were forced to do this on the threat of their own deaths. This lead me to purchase the second book, “Inside the Gas Chambers: Eight Months in the Sonderkommando of Auschwitz” by Shlomo Venezia. Sholomo is a rare eye witness to what happened within the gas chambers. Every four months or so the Sonderkommando were killed in order to keep the secret of what went on within. The place was so shrouded with secrecy that even SS officers were not allowed within the fenced area around the gas chambers. This book is structured as a written interview. It also includes drawings by David Olere, another Sonderkommando who documented his experiences with wash and China ink on paper. I would highly recommend these books to anyone wanting to learn more about the topic.
The second camp, Auschwitz II, is also called Auschwitz-Birkenau. It was established in October of 1941. Built specifically for holding prisoners it is made up of endless rows of wooden barracks and miles of electric barbed wire fences. Today the fences still stand but the majority of the barracks have been destroyed. All that remains of theses barracks are the chimneys.
These wooden barracks were originally designed as horse stables. Filled with the three story bunks they were intended to fit approximately 700 people at a time. But this amount was typically exceeded. According to the tour guide, the preferred spot was the top bunk and prisoners would have to lie on their sides. As stated above, the concentration camps were designed to kill those who worked there. Inmates were given between 800-1,500 calories a day through their meager rationings of food. This varied according to what group they were in and the overseers mood that day. Due to the amount of work and meager diet inmates were expected to live no longer than three months. It is amazing that people were able to survive. Some survivors lived at Auschwitz through the entire war. It is out of luck and chance that they were able to live.
For me the hardest part of the museum was seeing the evidence of the Kanada Kommando. The possession of those transported to Auschwitz were left in the train and on the ramp as their owners were swiftly taken through the selection process. Those to the right went to work, those to the left immediately went to the gas chambers. After completing the selection process a group of prisoners collected the belongings of the victims and took them to “Kanada”. This was a warehouse facility for sorting and transporting the belongings back to Germany. Canada was thought as the land of plenty by the Poles. Thus the warehouse filled with food, clothing, and other possessions was ironically named
The museum showcases a fraction of the belongings found at the Kanada Warehouse after the war. This was the most human part of the whole museum. Seeing the piles of possessions, the towering piles of suitcases with names and addresses, an entire room filled with a seemingly endless mountain of shoes collected. This was the hardest part for me. This broke down the immense numbers thrown around and acted as a reminder that those numbers where people. Real people who for no reason were sent to their death. Tricked into bringing their best items with the promise of resettlement.
“Forever let this place be a cry of despair and warning to humanity, where the Nazis murdered about one and a half million men, women, and children. Mainly Jews from various countries of Europe. Auschwitz-Birkenau 1940-1945.”
This quote is inscribed in 28 different languages as a part of the memorial at Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in Poland. The 28 languages are those that were spoken by the prisoners at the camp.
While this was a hard place to visit, I believe it is important for everyone who is able to visit this place. Words, even pictures cannot fully capture the immense feeling within the camp. Books and movies do their best to translate it but still fall short. One needs to visit this place themselves in order to fully learn and attempt to fully understand. By visiting this place we are witnesses to a horrible piece of history so that it may never happen again.
As I have said before, I believe it is important for everyone who is able to visit this place. To help make you experience easier I have listed a few suggestions as someone who has recently visited.
1. Sign up for a guided tour. As I naive, broke student I googled the museum’s website and saw you could get in for free without a tour guide. At first I thought this would be fine but then last minute decided to sign up for a private tour group. This was a great decision, well worth the money. Plus they had student pricing. The guided tour gives you much more in depth information and any questions you may have can be answered.
2. Auschwitz is located about an hour and a half outside of Krakow. Some guided tours provide documentaries to watch and prepare you for your visit.
3. Read the reviews of tour groups. This will help ensure you get the experience you want. Most will pick you up from your hotel in Krakow and take you into the city. Some hostels, our included, have tours you can book through them. As stated above some tours have documentaries they show on the way.
4. I highly encourage you to go with someone. Due to the emotionally heavy topic of this place I believe it is important to experience this place with someone. Specifically with someone whom you can then talk about and decompress the experience with you.
5. This is an exhausting experience. Plan for it to take up the majority of your day and allow for time to rest afterwards. You will need time to decompress.
6. There are small breaks throughout the tour. Use your time wisely to purchase a book in the bookstores or eat a snack. Also set an alarm on your watch so you don’t miss your bus between camps or home.
7.Eat a large meal before arriving. As stated above there are short breaks but these go by quickly and you most likely won’t want to eat much while there. Personally I ate a large breakfast, brought a bag of cheerios to snack on, then purchased a snack for the ride home.
Auschwitz. (n.d.). Retrieved March 09, 2018, from