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.
(This is the second and final posting on visiting the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum. For part 1 on the Auschwitz I camp, click here.)
Address: 32-600 Oświęcim, Poland
The entrance to the Birkenau (also known as Auschwitz II-Birkenau) part of the memorial is less than a 5 minute drive from the first Auschwitz (Auschwitz I) camp.
There is a parking lot and bookstore near the entrance at Czernichowska 57, 32-600 Brzezinka, Poland.
Hours: Open every day of the year except Jan.1, Dec. 25, and Easter Sunday. Both sites are open at 7:30am and officially close 90 minutes after the listed closing time.
I visited both Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau on a cold, rainy fall day. It was befitting of my mood, as I walked through the camp, feeling somber, angry, and incredibly sad. My small group of people with me visited Auschwitz II-Birkenau without a guide; however most people visiting were part of a large group. If you are interested in a guided walk-through of Auschwitz II-Birkenau, book your guided tour online or head to the Auschwitz I visitor’s center/admission building. Nothing is here at Birkenau but the empty camp.
Auschwitz II-Birkenau was the largest concentration camp with over 300 rudimentary prisoner barracks, as well as gas chambers and crematoriums. When most people think about the atrocious living conditions and treatment of Jews during the Holocaust,this is the camp that they think of. This camp eventually became extremely overcrowded which made the already atrocious living conditions even worse.
When you walk into Birkenau, you walk through the infamous gate house archway (also known as the “Gate of Death”) where trains once came to drop off prisoners, most to their immediate death. Once through the gate house, everything your eye can see is the camp. Ahead and to the right, you can see only the remains of the foundations and brick stoves that once warmed prisoners’ barracks; these wooden buildings were all burned to the ground when the Nazis fled the camp in January 1945, covering up their crimes. A few of these wooden barracks have been reconstructed for visitors and educational purposes.
To your left, you can see what remains of the brick barrack buildings. These barracks, built in 1941, were in the older part of the camp. Officers jammed each of these barracks with approximately 700 people, leaving 4 people to one single sleeping space. Upon seeing row after row of identical buildings, all surrounded by fencing, you can begin to understand just how big this camp is. It’s hard to imagine hundreds of thousands of people imprisoned here, but when you see the size of this camp (425 acres), simply imagining the number of people imprisoned here becomes overwhelming.
Still standing at the entrance, Immediately in front of you, you see the train tracks that carried the victims into the death camp. The tracks continue as far as your eye can see and stop at the International Holocaust Monument at the end of the tracks (more on that later). There is even a memorial of a railroad car that stands next to the ramp of the unloading platform. The train here was manufactured in Germany before WWII and has been restored with Auschwitz museum specialists to correctly portray how the prisoners were transported.
Visitors can walk into the few wooden barracks that were reconstructed to look exactly as they did in 1942-1945. These wooden buildings were actually prefabricated horse barns that Nazis used because they were easy to construct as well as take down. You can see the three-tiered wooden bunks and the small iron stoves to heat the building; heating the barracks was ineffective as most buildings had only a cold dirt floor and plenty of gaps where warm air could leak out. There were no windows in these buildings; only a few skylights at the ceiling allowed in natural light.
It wasn’t until 1944 that a few bath houses were added to the camp. Prior to this, prisoners had to use outdoor, unscreened toilets. Water wasn’t readily available and as a result, disease was common. Even after adding the few bath houses, due to the extremely high number of prisoners, empty space in the bath house was not always available. The barracks with concrete toilets were unisex facilities. Prisoners were frequently tasked in cleaning out the toilets themselves as the toilets were only as deep as the height of the seat (there was no pit underneath). No toilet paper was provided and sinks/water facilities were in another area.
As you walk to the back of the camp, you can see the ruins of a brick building. These ruins are the remains of one of 4 large crematoriums, called Krema. The remains of two crematoriums flank both sides of the International Monument at the back of the camp. Those sent here to be killed, got off the trains at the end of the tracks and were immediately sent into one of these buildings. Prisoners were escorted into the underground undressing room and were told they were going to take a disinfecting shower. After undressing, the people were marched into a concrete room where they were gassed with Zyklon-B, an insecticide. One open can with Zyklon-B pellets was lowered down into each of four wire mesh columns through openings in the roof. After several hours, the corpses were carried to the ovens within the building.
These photos show the underground areas where innocent victims were undressed and gassed. There are also ruins to crematorium/Krema III just across from the International Monument.
At the end of the railroad tracks, between Krema II and Krema III, sits the International Monument, dedicated to those that lost their lives in the Holocaust. Erected in 1967, this monument contains large display stones that are meant to represent the victims. This area is a very large open space with small steps, ideal for large gatherings and memorial services. There are several granite slabs on the ground, with metal plaques upon them, that state, in different languages the following: For ever let this place be a cry of despair and a 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
I’m sure there are more things to see at the Birkenau camp, as I did not see it all (I walked around self-guided, without an informative guide). There are only a few informational signs here at the camp so if you want to get a full experience, you should opt for the guided tour.
By the end of our day of touring Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau, I felt spent. My group and I ate nothing the whole day (no one had an appetite) and we all were quiet on the way home. Nothing can prepare you for seeing the size and scale of this camp, built to kill all people who didn’t fit in the Nazi’s ideal Aryan race.
Everyone will experience a different personal journey when visiting Auschwitz II-Birkenau. Standing in the place where over a million people were killed, obviously brings out sadness, despair, and anger. It’s an incredibly somber and humbling place.
Here are a few tips for visiting:
For more information on touring the entire Auschwitz complex, click here to go to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum’s website.
To read my previous post on Auschwitz I, click here.