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Auschwitz Birkenau | A travel guide to Poland

Auschwitz Birkenau

Close your eyes and you will see what we have seen at night – endless nocturnal processions are converging here at night and here it is always night. Close your eyes and you will see that here heaven and earth are on fire. Close your eyes, my friends, and listen, listen to the silent screams of terrified mothers, listen to the prayers of anguished old men and women, listen to the tears of children, Jewish children, beautiful looking girls among them, with golden hair, whose vulnerable tenderness never left me. Look and listen as the victims quietly walk towards dark flames so gigantic that the planet itself seemed in danger – Elie Wiesel

Auschwitz is actually the German name for the Polish town of Oswiecim (during the German occupation many Polish towns were “Germani-ised in this way).

auschwitzAuschwitz comprises of two main camps (although there were other sub-camps). Auschwitz I was the earlier of the two and was established on the grounds of pre-war Polish barracks. Today, it is a museum and serves as an emotional memorial to those who lost their lives here.

The entrance gate still carries the sardonic sign the Nazis erected “Arbeit Macht Frei” which means “work makes you free”.

Many of the exhibits are upsetting and poignant such as the mountain of suitcases, rooms full of shoes, children’s clothes and a tangled pile of spectacles.

Birkenau (or in Polish Brzezinka) is the larger of the two and unlike the main camp at Auschwitz, is more or less in the same state it was found was when it was liberated in 1945.

It is at the Birkenau camp where you can still sense the enormous scale of these killing fields. The remains of the crematoria can still be seen even though the Nazis blew them up in a desperate “cover-up” attempt. The surviving barracks, the communal & primitive toilets, the absurdly cramped sleeping quarters, the rail track all convey a sense of how the Nazis’ killing process had evolved into an industrial process. Instead of mass production the Nazis had created an assembly line for mass destruction.

The name “Auschwitz” was, and still is, an extremely emotive word. Even today it invokes memories of arguably humanity’s darkest crimes against one another.

Approximately 1.5 million people died here and although history revisionists will argue about the exact numbers who perished the unassailable fact is every death at the camp was one death too many.

The Jews suffered the heaviest losses but large numbers of Poles, Hungarians, Romany gipsies and more were also victims.

children at AuschwitzThe legacy of Auschwitz still haunts many families both in Poland and around the world. Even today many Polish survivors and historians regularly confront newspaper editors whose papers refer to Auschwitz as a “Polish” concentration camp. What may seem as an insignificant description to many is seen by Poles as an insult as the implication is that the Poles were somehow responsible for the existence of such camps. With today’s youth having less and less interest in this period in history Poles feel it is essential that they do not grow up believing Poland had any part to play in the construction and running of these death camps.

When looking for things to do in Krakow Auschwitz often appears on the list. A visit to the concentration camps is an uncomfortable experience and some people who have visited would not recommend the trip to their friends and colleagues. However, for that very reason I would recommend visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau. It serves to remind us what humanity can do to itself when racism and evil are allowed to flourish. Even though it is uncomfortable viewing at times a trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau will linger in the memory longer than any other part of your holiday.

The Auschwitz Birkenau Museum is approximately a two hour train journey away from Krakow with the fare being around 13 zloty one way. Don’t forget that Auschwitz-Birkenau are the Germanised names of the Polish towns known as Oswiecim and Brzezinka so when travelling to Auschwitz you should be looking for signs for Oswiecim.

There are also numerous mini buses that run from Krakow to Auschwitz and these will take you direct to the camp itself.

A mini bus journey tends to be faster than rail and is marginally cheaper. The train station at Auschwitz is about a 1km walk from the main camp although there are plentiful taxis outside the station and they should only charge you around 10-15 zloty one way.

Please note that admission to the Auschwitz Birkenau Museum is free of charge. Individuals may choose to hire a guide whilst large groups of people are obliged to hire a guide if they wish to tour the Museum. Please visit the official Auschwitz Birkenau Museum website.

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