It is hard to put into words my experience while visiting the site where millions of innocent people were murdered. As a result, I approach this posting with great delicacy as it is not a place to tour but rather a place to mourn, reflect, and remember. There are many areas around Auschwitz where photos are not allowed, out of respect for the deceased. Everything that I post here today I do as a sign of utmost respect for those men and women whose lives were mercilessly taken away by a brutal force that had no compassion or value for human life.
Address: Więźniów Oświęcimia 20, 32-603 Oświęcim, Poland
The parking lot is at Stanisławy Leszczyńskiej Str. no. 11. The museum is about 2 km. from the local train station and also can be reached by the local buses.
Hours: Open every day of the year except Jan.1, Dec. 25, and Easter Sunday. The museum/memorial is open at 7:30am and officially closes 90 minutes after the listed closing time.
Admission: It is free to visit the museum on your own. However, you do need to schedule your visit. Click here for more info.
Last fall, I was fortunate enough to visit Krakow, Poland, one of the oldest cities in Poland. About an hour’s drive away are the remains of the worst genocide ever to have occurred and now a memorial stands in its place – the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum in Oświęcim.
We drove to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum on a cold, autumn day and joined many tourists at the entrance. Most people visiting here do so with organized tour groups. These large, organized group visits require a guide. My group of 5 decided against the guided tour; we chose to walk through on our own. There is no fee for admission but there is a fee for guided tours. Guided tours in various languages are available throughout the day. Check out the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum website for more information about visiting.
Luckily, one visitor in my group had already visited Auschwitz before and another in our group was an expat temporarily living in Poland. Despite this, even we had issues just trying to figure out that we needed to have a ticket to get in, but didn’t know where to get one. The whole entry process here for individual visitors is a bit flawed and confusing for those that don’t understand Polish. It didn’t help that we were outside, it was raining, and we were cold. If the weather is nice, I’d recommend a guided tour to get the most out of your visit. If you’re visiting from another country and want an educational visit with minimal effort, I’d recommend a tour group that organizes the entire visit both at Auschwitz and Birkenau.
After exiting the entry building, I first came upon the infamous sign that tens of thousands of prisoners marched under, promising “work sets you free.” The original sign of “Arbeit Macht Frei,” was stolen in 2009, recovered in three pieces, and now sits in protected storage at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum. A replica was put in its place.
After passing under the sign, I saw two barbed wire fences, with train tracks running through the middle of the fenced area. Immediately, you can’t help but feel a chill, imagining the feelings of the thousands of people sent to this camp – getting off a train and being escorted inside the walls of imposing fences, not knowing your own fate. You think of the thousands of lives that were lost here, while walking through the camp as a free person.
All I can see to my right, left, and straight ahead are brick buildings. These brick buildings are all identical to each other, in rows and columns, creating a grid pattern. Guard towers still stand in place and the environment still gives off a somber feeling. For me, it was fitting that while I visited the weather was miserable, wet, and cold; and yet, while walking around with an umbrella, a warm jacket, and soaking wet feet, I easily forgot about my discomfort while walking through the former camp.
Not every building in the camp is open. There is no map; there are only signs on some buildings which invite visitors. One of the first buildings I walked into was a museum. Not only were there exhibits with items from the Holocaust, but also words and photos displayed on large walls, graphically telling the story of the Holocaust. Newspaper articles, quotes from Hitler and his officers, and photos of the horrific acts done by the Nazis cover these walls. No detail, photo, or truth was held back. This moving exhibit appears to be original, due to the age of some of the signs. Nevertheless, the despair and numbness I felt crept further and further into me after visiting the museum.
Every building that is open tells a story about the camp. Block 5 was probably the hardest building to walk through. Here, you will see: heaps of eyeglasses that were stripped from prisoners’ faces; their worn and labeled luggage; precious cups, bowls, and teapots that were brought with; thousands of dark colored shoes with red shoes and children’s shoes standing out in the heap; and tragically, you can see the hair that was cut from the prisoners’ heads.
Prisoners who were allowed to live and worked at the camp had their heads shaved to prevent the spread of typhus. So it has been deduced that the hair in the exhibit is presumably from those people who went straight to the gas chamber after the selection process. Further studies have concluded that hydrogen cyanide, part of Zyklon-B, can be found in this hair, indicating these victims were gassed. (The hair in this exhibit is deteriorating and is all dark grey or black in color, further exhibiting the effects of the gas on human cells, since human hair normally doesn’t deteriorate.) The hair that remains here is only a portion of what was cut. A great portion of the hair was sent to factories to be made into fabrics and felts.
Block 6 had prisoners’ photos displayed on the wall. Prisoners who were to work were initially photographed, numbered, and kept track of in the earlier days of the camps. These dehumanized people, both men and women, were photographed in dirty, striped prison uniforms, with bald heads, thin faces, and empty eyes. As I looked into their eyes in the photos, I was pained. Some look devoid of life; others looked pained, mad, or sorrowful. I felt such heartache and sadness.
During your visit, you can see the prisoners’ living conditions, bathrooms, how the prisoners were processed upon registration, who the prisoners were and where they came from, how they were dressed, as well as dealing with famine and starvation.
Other exhibits within the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum contain information and memorials to victims from other European countries or ethnic groups that were killed at Auschwitz.
Between Blocks 10 and 11 is a walled courtyard where thousands of prisoners were shot and killed. At the end of the courtyard is the “death wall,” which has been reconstructed. Most of those killed here were Polish political prisoners, those who helped escapees, or had contacts with the outside world. Other forms of torture also occurred in this courtyard, including floggings and hanging prisoners by their wrists with their arms tied behind their backs. This courtyard conveniently became the area of killing, as the prisoners were kept in Block 11 and officers wanted their prisoners to hear the execution and torture of others.
Block 11 was primarily the central camp jail. Nearly all prisoners kept here were convicted and executed at the death wall in the courtyard next door. In the basement, you can see chambers where prisoners were kept and tortured. Some were locked in a dark, small concrete room. Others were forced into a dark, tiny, brick standing cell, often with other prisoners and only one tiny 2 inch hole for air. These standing cells measured approximately 1 yard square and punishments usually consisted of 10 days in the standing cell.
Currently, inside one of the buildings at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum is an exhibit about Topf & Söhne (Topf & Sons), the oven company that made crematoriums for most of the concentration camps. Included in the exhibit is how the company applied for a patent for a “continually operating corpse incinerator for mass use.” (spiegel.de) They also designed ventilation equipment to rid the gas chambers of poison gas after use. The company essentially became a business partner with the Nazis and many have called this company the “technicians of mass murder.” If it weren’t for this company’s expertise and assistance, the Nazis would not have been able to murder millions so efficiently. This exhibit covers the manufacturers of the crematoriums and expresses distaste in the amount of people who were complicit in the Nazis plan.
The last area I visited was the hardest to see – the gas chamber and crematorium. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I walked in, but I imagine it looked the same way it did when the Nazis fled from Auschwitz in January 1945. You can walk into the very chamber where gas was pumped into the windowless, concrete room. A few overhead lights illuminate the area. Sadly, you can still see many scratch marks on the dirty concrete walls.
In the next room are the ovens, once used to burn hundreds of bodies a day. The four brown brick ovens have their thick black doors open, and one of them even has the long, wheeled, metal stretcher attached, that once pushed bodies into the oven. It’s definitely a place to stop and take a moment, and wonder how this happened only 75 years ago.
To reiterate, out of respect for those that suffered such atrocities, I opted not to post sensitive photos. In many areas of the camp, there are ‘no photography’ signs. Photos of the human hair, as well as the prisoners’ cells in Block 11 are off-limits. In other places you can take photos, yet they are not ones that you’d want to share with others. There are plenty other websites where you can see these images.
There are no words to adequately express how visiting here will make you feel. For me, a tremendous sense of humility set in, nothing I have ever experienced until now. You will likely not need any food breaks as your stomach will be tied in knots or you’ll likely be nauseous. For me, the whole day was terribly sad; I have never experienced such a somber and humbling place. To see it, in its entirety, made it become all too real.
Here are a few tips for visiting:
Each person will experience their own journey of sorts here – be it a journey of reflection, a historical journey, or a personal one. It has to cross the mind of many tourists as to why this camp was even left standing. Obviously when the Nazis left, they destroyed what they could, but these brick buildings remained. The point of leaving the camp and not destroying every piece of it was to serve as a reminder to all people, about the atrocities of the past. It was George Santayana that once wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Leaving Auschwitz standing, as it was when the Nazis left, does just that.
Follow this link to read about the Auschwitz II – Birkenau Camp.
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