A Brief History Of Auschwitz

Auschwitz II - Birkenau
Auschwitz II – Birkenau

Auschwitz, the largest of the Nazi concentration and death camps, opened in 1940. It began as a detention centre for political prisoners. However, the base soon evolved into a network of centres where Jewish people and other enemies of the Nazi state were used as slave labour or exterminated, often in gas chambers.

Some of the prisoners were also subjected to barbaric medical experiments led by Josef Mengele, the so-called Angel of Death.

During the Second World War, it is believed that between 1.1 million to 1.5 million people, the vast majority of them Jews, died at Auschwitz. It is estimated that 70,000 -80,000 Poles also perished at the camp, and approximately 20,000 Romas and some Soviet prisoners of war.

In January 1945, with news of the Soviet army approaching, Nazi officials ordered the abandonment of the Auschwitz camp and an estimated 60,000 prisoners were forced to march to the Polish towns of Gliwice or Wodzislaw, some 30 miles away. Countless prisoners died during this journey.

Artificial Limbs
Artificial Limbs

When the Soviet army entered the Auschwitz Camp on January 27, 1945, they found approximately 7,500 sick or severely emaciated detainees, who had been abandoned and left behind. The liberators also discovered huge mounds of dead bodies; many thousands of pieces of clothing and pairs of shoes, and seven tons of human hair.

Auschwitz Today

Today, the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum is open to all. It depicts the terrible history of what happened on this site. Plus it serves as a memorial to all those that died there.

Taking The Guided Tour Of Auschwitz I

 ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ (‘Work Makes You Free’) entrance gate.
‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ (‘Work Makes You Free’) entrance gate.

The first part of the guided tour begins by passing beneath a replica of the infamous ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ (‘Work Makes You Free’) entrance gate.

 From the entrance gate, the tour route takes you past the kitchens, where the concentration camp orchestra used to play as the prisoners marched to work.

You’ll then visit Block 4. Inside are exhibits that include mugshots of the inmates, the original architectural sketches for the gas chambers, plus tins of Zyklon B used for extermination. The most disturbing is the seven tons of human hair that were once destined for German factories to be used as raw material for haircloth and felt.

Personal property was taken from all the newly arrived prisoners. In Block 5, you’ll see large piles of artificial limbs, labelled suitcases, glasses, shaving kits and shoes, thousands of shoes. As so many guided tours are taking place, you’ll actually pass through this site quite quickly so, at the time, it’s quite hard to reflect on the enormity of what you’re seeing.

Block 6 illustrates the daily life of the prisoners. Here you will see photographs, artists’ drawings and tools that were used for hard labour. Some of the former barracks recreate the harsh living conditions that prisoners endured.

Poison Gas Cannisters
Poison Gas Cannisters

Outside Block 11 is the ‘Wall of Death’ where the SS shot thousands of prisoners. Inside Block 11 are the claustrophobic cellars where, in 1941, the Nazi’s conducted their experiments with poisonous gas on the prisoners. The tiny ‘standing cells’ that measure just 90 x 90 cm remain intact; this is where up to four prisoners would be held for indefinite amounts of time.

The tour concludes at the horrifying gas chamber and crematoria. The two furnaces were able to burn 350 corpses daily.

This point is the end of part one of the tour. After almost two hours, there is a short 10-15 minute break, an opportunity to reflect, use the facilities or grab some refreshments.

Guided Tour of Auschwitz II – Birkenau

Path Between The Barracks At Auschwitz
Path Between The Barracks At Auschwitz

The second part of the tour begins with a short bus ride Auschwitz II – Birkenau. This second camp was added in 1942. Although, very little remains here, at one time there were 300 barracks and buildings on this 175-hectare site.

The purpose-built train tracks that lead directly into the concentration camp still remain. It was here that the grisly selection process took place. 70% of those who arrived here by train were herded directly into the gas chambers.

Inmates Arrived In Station Wagons Like This One
Inmates Arrived In Station Wagons Like This One

Those remaining who were considered fit for slave labour lived in the squalid, unheated barracks where disease, exhaustion, and starvation, accounted for multitudinous lives.

At the far end of the camp lie the crumpled remains of the crematoria.

English Inscription On Granite Slab At The International Monument At Auschwitz
The International Monument At Auschwitz

 The tour finishes at the International Monument where you’ll see a row of granite slabs with an inscription in every major European Language.

The English inscription reads, “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.”

This part of the tour takes around an hour, after which, you are free to explore by yourself, take photos and reflect before catching the return bus to Auschwitz I.

Visiting Hours For Auschwitz

Entrance to Auscwitz-Birkenau Museum
Entrance to Auschwitz-Birkenau

The museum is open daily except for New Year’s Day, Christmas Day, and Easter Sunday.

07:30 – 14:00 December
 07:30 – 15:00 January, November
 07:30 – 16:00 February
 07:30 – 17:00 March, October
 07:30 – 18:00 April , May, September
 07:30 – 19:00 June, July, August

Visitors to the Auschwitz-Birkenau museum may stay until 90 minutes after the last entrance hour (i.e. 17:30 in February or 20:30 in July)

When visiting Auschwitz, you will see These two furnaces were able to burn up to 350 corpses daily
These two furnaces were able to burn up to 350 corpses daily

How Much Does It Cost To Visit Auschwitz?

Entrance to Auschwitz is free, but we would really recommend taking one of the guided tours to get a better understanding of the atrocities that took place here. Tickets can be booked at https://visit.auschwitz.org. It’s also a good idea to book in advance as the tours fill up quickly.

The price for the guided tour was 60 PLN (US$14.50/€13/£12)

When we visited in December, the museum was packed with guided tours, but everything was extremely well organised and ran very efficiently. Everyone wears headphones, so you won’t hear other groups shouting over each other. However, because of the large number of visitors, you move through some of the exhibits quite quickly, so don’t really have time to reflect on what you are witnessing.

Note: Visiting Auschwitz is not recommended for under -14s.

How Much Time Should I Allow For Visiting Auschwitz?

Visiting Auschwitz - Living Conditions Inside The Barracks
Living Conditions Inside The Barracks

Allow at least three and a half hours to see the museum. The first part of the tour takes around 1hour 50 minutes. Then there’s a short break before taking a bus transfer to the next site. You’ll be here for about an hour before returning to the main grounds. If you wish to stay longer exploring Auschwitz-Birkenau on your own, that’s possible at the end of the tour.

 How Far Is Auschwitz From Krakow?

The concentration camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau are located in the medieval city of Oswiecim which is about 66 kilometres west of Krakow. We actually spent the night in Oswiecim at the lovely 7th Room Guest House, so we could walk at leisure to the museum and then take a train later that day to Krakow.

How To Get To Auschwitz From Krakow

The easiest way to visit Auschwitz is by booking a tour in Krakow. They are available everywhere.

If you wish to travel independently to Auschwitz, there are various options.

Shuttle Bus – There’s a shuttle bus that runs from Krakow Bus station to the museum. The journey time takes around an hour and 30 minutes and costs €4 each way.

Local Bus – A little cheaper than the shuttle and involves a short ten-minute walk from the bus stop to the museum. Cost 10-12 PLN.

Train – Costs around 9PLN and takes about an hour and 50 minutes. From the station in Oswiecim, it’s about a twenty-minute walk to the museum.

Large Pile Of Shoes Taken From The Inmates
Shoes Taken From The Inmates

Would We Recommend Visiting Auschwitz?

Yes. We understand that it’s not for everyone, but we believe it’s essential to understand the horrors of the past and ensure that such atrocities are not repeated. The guides are excellent. They relay the facts, it’s not sensationalised, and they will answer any questions you may have.

Have you visited Auschwitz or other similar sites? We would love to hear about your experiences. Please tell us about them in the comments below.

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