Perhaps no event in the 20th century had a bigger impact on the world than the Holocaust. Between 1941 and 1945, 11 million people, including 6 million Jews and 1.5 million children, were forcibly taken from their homes and shipped off to concentration camps in Germany and Poland. Dubbed The Final Solution, this massive, organized genocide was intended to exterminate the Jewish population in Europe. The Auschwitz-Birkenau camp was the biggest in the Nazi network; 1.1 million people lost their lives here. In order to preserve the memory of those who died in the camp, the Polish government transformed the site into a museum. In 1979 it was named as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Each year over one million visitors come to learn about the history of the camp, to get an intimate view of daily life at the site, and to pay their respects.
Deepen your understanding of the Holocaust
It’s fair to say that most visitors will have a basic understanding of the Nazi regime, the motivations for the genocide, and the atrocities that occurred in the concentration camps, however, there is so much information about this period that even the best history class couldn’t prepare you for everything you see at the museum. While visits to the site are free of charge, it is highly recommended to book a 3.5 hour guided tour. The museum’s guides go into great detail about the site, which enriches the visit.
The visit first takes visitors through camp blocks in Auschwitz I, the biggest section of the site. Camp blocks have been transformed into displays that show the mechanisms by which the Nazis transported Jews from all over Europe to the various camps. You’ll also see large collections of items that were confiscated from prisoners upon their arrival such as suitcases, dishes, and eyeglasses. The sheer number of objects contained in these cases truly highlights the magnitude of the camp.
View the inner workings of the camp
After the introductory section, the visit delves into what daily life in the camp was like. From toilet and wash facilities that were few and far between, to bunk beds in barely-lit barracks, it’s easy to imagine how tortuous even the most routine activities were in the camp. Seeing these deplorable conditions makes you reflect about how humans could commit such terrible atrocities.
Visitors are also able to step inside a former gas chamber. This is one of the most haunting parts of the tour. The concrete-walled room is dark except for a small hole in the ceiling where gas was released. It is remarkable how large the room is. The expansive chamber further highlights just how many people were killed at one time.
Pay your respects
After visiting Auschwitz I, visitors take a short bus ride to the Auschwitz II (better known as Birkenau) section of the camp. This is where trains carrying prisoners originally arrived; part of the track and the arrival gate still stands. There is also a reconstructed wagon that is used to illustrate how uncomfortable the journey to the camp was. At this site the scattered remains of demolished gas chambers are left in their original state to show how the German troops attempted to cover up the evidence of their crimes.
Despite the incredibly poignant images evoked during the tour, the visit ends on an optimistic note. You will have a chance to explore the International Monument, a statue composed of stones, meant to resemble the victims. On the steps of the monument there are also plaques written in English, Yiddish, and every other language spoken by the camp’s prisoners stating that the events in the camp should be thought of a warning to humanity to never let such acts be committed again.
Prepare your visit
The museum is open yearlong, seven days a week. It opens at 8.00 AM and closes between 3.00 PM and 7.00 PM depending on the season. Plan at least three hours for your visit, if not more. This amount of time is essential to truly gain a sense of the place. If you elect to do an individual tour, you still must register your intent online as the daily number of visitors is limited. Guides can be booked online as well but the easiest way to book is through your hotel or through a tourist agency in Krakow. Various tour companies exist, all providing transportation from Krakow to the camps as well as a guided tour. Prices are about 160 PLN (40.15 USD).
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