The name Auschwitz is synonymous with the worst of human history. The Nazis murdered at least 1.1 million people at this concentration camp, around 90% of them Jewish, between May 1940 and liberation by Soviet forces on 27 January 1945. The crimes committed against humanity at Auschwitz are notorious the world over, but as a tourist, how on earth do you go about visiting such a terrible place?
With visitor numbers peaking at 1.5 million annually, Auschwitz is now a major tourist attraction – a point of contention in itself. Some survivors and historians think that the site is rightly a museum to remember its victims and to serve as a warning to humanity. Others feel that day trips with five-star TripAdvisor ratings and package deals for stag-dos trivialise the Holocaust, or are symbolic of a post-war ‘Holocaust industry’. I personally think the good outweighs the bad with such ‘dark tourism’; like many visitors, I felt compelled to go, to remember, and to pass on the memory.
So, in May 2016, I visited. Driving there from nearby Krakow, I knew that we were getting close because I saw that we were following railway tracks. The town, Oświęcim, was chosen for its accessibility in the heart of Nazi-occupied Europe, and a camp was initially intended for Polish political prisoners. Local villages were emptied and the Nazis moved in. Today, the surrounding countryside is irreconcilably beautiful.
Auschwitz I: the original camp
The tour starts at Auschwitz I, the original camp, where the first prisoners arrived from May 1940. The notorious sign ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’, Work Sets You Free, still marks the entrance, and every tourist entering the camp walks beneath it (though the vast majority of Auschwitz prisoners never actually saw it, as they landed at Birkenau and went straight to the gas chambers). Inside, the brick buildings and neat streets, surrounded by grass and some trees, are jarring – if you didn’t know what it was, you might think that it looks like an ordinary barracks or a house.
Several of these barracks, where the prisoners slept, contain museum displays. Described as ‘evidence of crimes’, they try to give you a sense of what happened here. Glass cases display former prisoners’ possessions in piles, taken from them when they arrived at Auschwitz. Trivial things that belonged to ordinary people – pairs of glasses, shoe polish, cooking pots and pans. There are piles of shoes, suitcases, children’s clothes and toys. Even prosthetic limbs.
Most famous is the hall of human hair. The Soviets found 7.7 tonnes of human hair when they liberated the camp. There’s a display showing how the hair was re-used by the Nazis to create textiles. It gives you an idea of how viciously efficient the system was: any part of a human being that could be used in the Nazi war effort was used. Efficient in murder, too, as shown in the display of empty canisters of Zyklon B pellets, the cyanide-based pesticide used in Auschwitz’s gas chambers. It is, needless to say, deeply sinister and unsettling.
The displays of prisoners’ belongings serve only as a sample of the over one million victims. I found myself torn between the vast numbers, the sheer statistics of Auschwitz, and the individual stories – the names on the suitcases, or the individual shoes that somebody once chose. Another barrack is lined with brutal bureaucracy, showing photographs of inmates, with their names, occupations, and dates of arrival and death. Again, the images go on and on, but occasionally an individual strikes you – a teacher, for example.
But for me, one of the most disturbing things was four clandestine photographs, taken secretly within Auschwitz. The photographer was a member of the Sonderkommando, an inmate working in the gas chambers. One image shows naked women in the forest on their way to the gas chamber. Another shows the cremation of corpses. The images were taken in August 1944, and smuggled out by the Polish resistance. An attempt to tell the world that the unimaginable was happening. I found that act of unfathomable courage incredibly moving.
As the tour is conducted through headphones, it is a solitary experience for the visitor, each lost in their own thoughts and feelings.
After these displays, we visited the camp prison. Outside is a small courtyard known as the ‘death wall’, where many were shot and where wreaths are now laid. Then there’s the area where inmates stood for roll call – the longest of which, our guide explained, lasted for 19 straight hours after a prisoner escaped. There’s a small hut, which sheltered the guards from the weather.
From here, we walked to the gas chamber. Just before we reached it, our guide pointed out the house of Rudolf Höss, where he and his family lived while he was commandant at Auschwitz. It’s a 2-minute walk from the gas chambers. In between stand the gallows where, after a trial in Warsaw, Höss was hanged in 1947.
The gas chamber below is the only one in Auschwitz I, and the only one you enter on the tour. Four larger gas chambers were later constructed in Auschwitz II – Birkenau, which were destroyed by the Nazis at the end of the war. Here, the gas chamber did not have fake shower heads like those at Birkenau, and the chamber leads straight to the cremation room next door. I really don’t know how to describe it, but I went through and out again pretty fast.
Here our tour of Auschwitz I ended, followed by a 15-minute drive to Birkenau. This is the only time in the day to eat lunch – a weird, unappetising idea.
Auschwitz II: Birkenau, a plan for systematic murder
My first impression of Birkenau was how much larger it was than Auschwitz I. Immediately, it’s clear that it was designed for an entirely different purpose. It is an extermination camp. About 90% of those who died at Auschwitz died here: around one million people, the vast majority them Jewish, as well as Poles, Gypsies, Soviet POWs and other captives of various nationalities.
Many were killed almost immediately after arriving at the camp. The railway tracks run through the notorious gate (in the picture above), and the platforms were approximately where I was standing to take that photo. Here, trains packed with prisoners from all over Nazi-occupied Europe were unloaded. People travelled for days on end crammed into cattle carts so tightly that they could only stand. Some were dead on arrival.
From July 1942, after unloading the prisoners, the SS began conducting “selections”. Those seen as fit to work were sent to the right and into the camp. Anyone deemed unfit to work after a quick glance, especially women, the elderly and children, were sent to the left and straight to the gas chambers, which were just a few hundred metres away. Photographs show prisoners walking calmly, having been told they had to undergo de-lousing and a shower. The proximity of the entrance, platforms and gas chambers show just how systematic, deliberate, and calculated the mass murder was.
The four gas chambers at Birkenau were blown up by the Nazis before they fled the advancing Red Army, in an attempt to hide their crimes. In the image below, the cordoned-off area in the background was the underground gas chamber.
Finally on our tour, we visited the barracks of the women’s camp in Birkenau. My mind turned to the women I knew had been here, including Anne Frank, her sister Margot and mother Edith. The conditions were of course appalling, unheated in the freezing Polish winter and boiling hot in summer, and with terrible sanitation facilities that led to the outbreak of disease. It was hugely overcrowded, as prisoners slept 3 per bunk in each of the 3 bunks on top of one another.
It is also well known that criminal medical experiments took place at Auschwitz, most notoriously but not solely by Josef Mengele. One of his primary interests was twins, as the plaque in the photo below highlights: “On this site stood a wooden barrack where in 1944 more than 200 Jewish children between the ages of 2 and 16 were kept as prisoners. These children, the majority of them twins, were used for criminal medical experiments by the SS doctor Josef Mengele”. Other Nazi experiments were conducted as part of their racial ideology and ideas about human populations, such as mass sterilisations.
Here we ended our tour. During a day trip to Auschwitz, it is impossible to really understand what happened there – and we shouldn’t pretend that we can. But it does provide a glimpse into a hell that humans created. As Primo Levi, an Auschwitz survivor, said, and as our guide reminded us as the end of our tour, “It happened, therefore it can happen again… It can happen anywhere”. Auschwitz also reminds us the price of ignorance, silence and indifference to suffering anywhere. Below is a poem that’s always stuck with me, written by a former Nazi prisoner, Martin Niemöller:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.
Advice for visiting Auschwitz
- We took a bus tour from Krakow, which was easily arranged the day before at an information point in the city centre (near the main square). You can also go yourself, by train, bus or taxi, which is cheaper, and also gives you more time. One downside of the organised tour, I think, is that we missed various displays and exhibitions.
- The most important rule is to remain respectful of the victims. I wasn’t, and still am not, sure if I should have taken photos (but for god’s sake leave your selfie sticks at home!)
- There is a small cafe in Auschwitz I and none in Birkenau, but it is easiest to bring your own lunch or snack. Some people don’t feel that it’s appropriate to eat, while others do.
- The guided tour is a good idea in terms of the information you get, as not all of it is signposted. Our guide was a young Polish lady, and she was very good, humble and respectful. But as I said above, we did go a little too fast.
- You can’t visit Auschwitz III, Monowitz. This was one of the main camps during the war and used slave labour for industrial purposes, including for companies such as IG Farben, Krupp and Siemens. Both Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel were there.
- Visiting Auschwitz is far from the only way to learn about the Holocaust and to remember its victims; perhaps it’s not even the best way. Among survivors’ testimonies, Elie Wiesel’s Night affected me deeply when I read it as a young teenager, as did Anne Frank’s Diary. I also remember reading her friend’s account, Hannah Goslar Remembers, and at school I read Primo Levi’s If This is a Man. There are, of course, many other accounts. In terms of Auschwitz specifically, the museum website has much more detail, plus online lessons.
- If you are staying in Krakow I really recommend visiting Schindler’s factory, in the part of town that used to be the Jewish ghetto. Arrive early as the queues are immense; it’s a tiny but fantastic and really well thought-through museum, which focuses on Krakow’s experience during the war.