I finally visited Auschwitz. What an experience. My grandfather was in the US Counterintelligence for World War II. Concentration camps are part of my family’s history.
I’m not one to experience negative emotions. I very rarely get angry, upset or afraid. Four hours touring through Auschwitz Memorial Museum is enough to get to anyone, and certainly was humbling for me. By the end of the day, the magnitude of the Nazi atrocities had fully sunken in. I specifically use “Nazi” instead of “German” as it would be incorrect to classify all Germans as Nazi. But the Nazis sure gave Germany a bad reputation.
Auschwitz is closely located to Krakow, Poland, about an hour and a half away by bus or an hour with your own car. There are paid tours offered throughout Krakow, or you have the option of booking your own tour with the park at visit.auschwitz.org. I’d recommend the latter for two reasons.
First, tours from the city range from 68 to 150 PLN (4 Polish Zloty “PLN” = €1). If you book your own tour at visit.auschwitz.org, it will cost you 40 PLN (30 for students) with a guide, or it’s free without a guide. I HIGHLY recommend getting the guide. The city bus to Auschwitz is 14 PLN each way, and it’s easy to hitchhike back to Krakow from the park for free, as I did.
The second reason is the tour companies hire a commercial tour guide. The park offers museum guides. It’s the difference between a tour for tourists, and a heartfelt guide by a local, probably an old lady who has a personal connection to the history of Auschwitz. Believe me, the lady who guided us around the compounds giving the history with a passion heretofore unknown in my travels truly made the tour memorable.
A quick note on how to pack for the museum is important. The biggest bag allowed is 30x20x10 cm. Few backpacks are that small. My Kangatek was perfect, and perhaps you have something similar you could use. You’ll also want to bring some snacks, as there is little food available at the museum. There’s no eating in Auschwitz I, but you can eat between Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II (Birkenau). Nuts or dried fruit would be my suggestion, plus a bottle of water.
There are actually three compounds: Auschwitz I, II and III. They are all commonly referred to as Auschwitz. Auschwitz II is also called Birkenau and is probably about ten times the size of Auschwitz I. Although the Nazis destroyed most of it when they pulled out, some still exists. The expanse of the ruins itself is a sight to behold. Auschwitz III was called Monowitz, but nothing’s left of it after the Nazis obliterated it at the end of the war in an attempt to cover up their war crimes.
The tour through Auschwitz I primarily covers the barracks where prisoners were housed, rooms filled with possessions confiscated from Jews, “experiment” buildings (think V for Vendetta), execution grounds and the only intact crematorium in the museum. Birkenau shows more of the magnitude of the compound, as well as a cattle car used to transport prisoners, ruins of two more crematoriums, the children’s barracks and the International Memorial.
I have to admit, taking photos was not easy in the museum. There are two places where photos are forbidden (for obvious reasons). But even where they were allowed, it just didn’t seem right. This isn’t works of art or beautiful nature scenes you want to share with your friends. It’s not sacred ground per se. I don’t even know what to call it. Hallowed? Haunted? The museum doesn’t have a feel of “ghosts” to it as you might expect from a place where 1.3 million deaths occurred, but that doesn’t detract from the somber ambiance.
In short, this is a place that simply needs to be on everyone’s itinerary, especially if you are anywhere close to it in Europe. I was a little surprised at how many native Polish I meet who hadn’t been there. I know I encouraged several of them to go in the couple weeks I was in Krakow.
If you want to read more about Auschwitz before you go, I ran across a great blog post on Auschwitz recently. Clelia gives a great account about her own visit (only a few days after I went myself). It’s much longer than my post, but a good read nonetheless. But don’t let my post or hers substitute a trip in person. No amount of books, movies or rereads of The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank can replace experiencing the place itself. Off you go.