Visiting Auschwitz is a harrowing experience. The final resting place of millions of people murdered by the Nazi’s during World War Two is a popular day trip from Krakow. I debated over whether to write a post about it site for some time. For me, travel isn’t just about experiencing amazing cultures, delicious foods or famous sights. It’s about learning. I have long been interested in world history. In another life, I would have liked to have completed a Bachelors in History, and gone on to do my Masters. I will always love history. And history isn’t always made up of good things.
Whatever your opinion on the ethics of dark tourism, I decided I would publish my account of a trip to Auschwitz. Whether or not this will appeal to many people, I am not sure. One thing I have been made aware of, though, is that a good portion of society do not know much about Auschwitz. Many know the name, but few understand what happened there. For this reason, I’ll start by providing a background on why this site is so important.
Forever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity, where the Nazi’s murdered about one and a half million men, women, and children, mainly Jews from various countries of Europe.
What was Auschwitz?
Before World War Two
The assembly of land which we know today as Auschwitz was originally a factory located in the Polish town of Oświęcim. The town, located around 50km from Krakow, was a typical Polish community, and had a sizable Jewish population. When World War II broke out, nearly half of Oświęcim’s population of 14,000 were Jewish.
In the 1930s, the factory was purchased by US Senator Prescott Bush, grand-father of George W. Bush. The factory employed Polish workmen who made shoes for export to middle-class Europe and America. The factory was later sold to the Nazi Party, who had invaded Poland in the late 1930s. Oświęcim was within the limits of the Third Reich, and was given the German name Auschwitz.
Why did the Nazi’s choose the site?
The site was chosen by the administrators of the Third Reich for its excellent transport links in Germany, as well as transport within Poland and to Austria, Czechoslovakia and other central European countries. Like most decisions made by the Nazi’s, logistics played a huge role. Next to Dachau, Sachsenhausen, Buchenwald, Flossenbürg, Mauthausen and the women’s camp of Ravensbrück, Auschwitz was the seventh Nazi concentration camp.
Why did the Nazi’s want to exterminate the Jewish people?
The chancellor of Germany, Adolf Hitler, developed and implemented a range of policies that were jointly known as the ‘Final Solution’. Hitler wasn’t satisfied in isolating Jewish people in Germany (and the countries annexed by Germany). Instead, he became convinced that his “Jewish problem” would be solved only with the elimination of every Jew in his domain. While he was predominantly occupied with destroying jewry, he also sought to destroy certain educators, Gypsies, communists, homosexuals, the mentally and physically handicapped and others deemed unfit for survival in Nazi Germany.
There are various theories as to why Hitler hated the Jewish people so much, ranging from his years as a struggling artist in Vienna to anti-semitism after World War I. When Hitler was jailed in the 1920s, he wrote Mein Kampf (My Struggle). The book is full of anti-Jewish passages and theories about the superiority of the German race. Hitler expresses his support for race theories and more “Lebensraum” (living space) for the German people. According to this racial doctrine, Jews were an inferior race that was poisoning Germany, and so did not belong in the community.
When was the site developed?
The first prisoners in Auschwitz were Polish people, sent there in June 1940. It was initially a transit camp, but eventually was made permanent. By 1942 it held prisoners from all over Europe. The first prisoners of Auschwitz were not systematically killed, but many died of disease or malnutrition. Food and clothing were inadequate, and prisoners were made to do hard labor, with overwork resulting in many deaths.
Most prisoners were sent as slave labour to local factories. Over time, a whole complex of camps was built to utilise slave labour, and eventually there were more than 40 ‘satellite’ camps around the central concentration camp at Auschwitz.
How were the people at Auschwitz killed?
During the 1930s, German scientists had been developing various poisons and methods of destroying human life en masse. After initial forays into carbon monoxide poisoning using gas vans, the Nazi’s began to refine the use of more elaborate, ‘humane’ methods of mass murder.
When the Nazi’s decided to destroy European Jewry, they determined that Zyklon-B was the best way to do it.
Zyklon-B was an insecticide used in Germany to disinfect ships, barracks, clothing, warehouses, factories, and granaries. It was produced in crystal form, creating amethyst-blue pellets. Zyklon-B pellets turned into a highly poisonous gas (hydrocyanic or prussic acid) when exposed to the air.
The Nazis first tested the use of Zyklon-B on a group of 850 prisoners in the basement of Block 11 at Auschwitz I, known as the “death block,”, in September 1941. All died within minutes.
Why is Auschwitz so famous?
Besides being the biggest Nazi-German concentration and extermination camp, has become a symbol for the Holocaust in general, and for the “Final Solution” in particular.
More Jewish people died at Auschwitz than at any other single camp. It was a demonstration of the brutally efficient bureaucratic and industrial systems of the Holocaust at their most effective. However, people survived Auschwitz. The tales of many survivors have been written into books, made into movies, and have stamped their place in history.
How many people died at Auschwitz?
It is extremely difficult to determine the exact number of victims. It is estimated that roughly five million people were deported to concentration camps during the war, and that very few survived.
Upon their arrival in Auschwitz, only those who were deemed fit enough were used as labourers in the camp. Most people, especially the elderly, sick, women and small children, were directly and without prior registration driven into the gas chambers and murdered. This makes it hard to determine how many people were never even counted as entering the camp grounds.
According to the Auschwitz museum, approximately 1.1 million people were killed in the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp. Ninety percent of the victims were Jews from Hungary, Poland, Italy, Belgium, France, the Netherlands, Greece, Croatia, Russia, Austria and Germany.
The end of Auschwitz
Late in 1944, it became obvious that the Nazis were losing the war. They began to try and hide the evidence of their crimes. In November 1944, the gassing of Jewish people ceased. In addition, the Nazi’s attempted to destroy the gas chambers and crematoria.
On 17 January 1945, the Germans decided to evacuate the Jewish prisoners of Birkenau before the Russians arrived. Most of the prisoners were forced to march westwards, and anyone who could not keep up or tried to escape was shot. About 15,000 prisoners died during this death march. The Russians captured Auschwitz on 27 January 1945.
In 1947, it was made into a memorial. More than 45 million people from all over the world have visited the memorial and museum of the former Nazi extermination camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau in southern Poland since it opened.
Visiting Auschwitz today
What is it like?
On a busy day, over 30,000 tourists will visit the grounds of Auschwitz. Many tours run simultaneously through Auschwitz I and Birkenau (Auschwitz II). It is not a quiet place to visit.
The thing is, when we passed under the famous Arbeit Mach Frei (work makes you free) sign, I didn’t feel an awful lot. I don’t think this makes me a sociopath. I had spent so many years learning about Auschwitz and the Holocaust that I sort of knew what to expect. However, as we wandered through the various exhibits of the site, I did start to feel very sad. Auschwitz is a melancholy place. The testimony of survivors, and information on what happened to people in the camps, is very depressing. It’s obviously not the kind of place you visit for a pick me up, but its hard to describe how bleak the entire place felt.
I found Auschwitz I more interesting than Birkenau, although I am not sure why. Birkenau is where the famous train tracks ran straight to the crematoria, and it contains the imagery you typically see in movies depicting the Holocaust. Seeing it was bizarre, and again, quite harrowing. But at Birkenau, we simply wandered around the grounds. There is very little there to show you what life was like for inmates. Auschwitz I, on the other hand, remains quite intact. It was eventually used as headquarters for the SS.
The weirdest thing about Auschwitz I? If I didn’t know what had happened there, and it wasn’t surrounded by electric fences and guard towers, the camp could have passed for a decrepit holiday village. It was creepy.
The museum of Auschwitz I is really a series of buildings, and you follow a set path to visit each one. It is very busy, and it can be quite overwhelming being crammed into the buildings with hundreds of other people. It feels very strange to shuffle past huge display cases of the goods confiscated from victims – hairbrushes, razors, shoes, toys, even the hair shorn from their heads. The suitcases were the worst, with victims having written their names on them – expecting to get them back one day.
It is hard to describe why I didn’t feel much as Auschwitz II. Well, to be fair, it wasn’t that I didn’t feel much – I felt something. But it was hard to place. The area felt empty, and hollow, and sad. Staring at the crematoria, it was exceedingly hard to imagine how many people died there. I think some things are, frankly, beyond human comprehension. I think this quote sums it up best.
The close streets and heaviness of Auschwitz I are replaced by acres of grass, clear skies and two parallel railway tracks that come to an ominous, and very final, stop. There’s a warped tranquillity in Birkenau. Yellow wildflowers grow beneath the guard towers. You can see nearby villages and rolling hills. There’s the warble of distant birdsong. It’s hard to imagine that up to 20,000 people per day were killed and burned here. Apparently the nearby residents, the ones who hadn’t been rounded up in the first few years of Nazi occupation, could see and smell the smoke for miles. They slept with the distant glow of the ovens outside their window. (Intrepid Journeys)
Ways to visit
I visited as part of a bus tour, which I wouldn’t recommend. As I visited Poland by myself, hiring a private guide was too expensive. However, I think if I was to have my chance again, I would have just paid for the guide.
The tour that I went on consisted of 85% British people, half of whom got drunk after lunch. They showed very little respect for the site, and many didn’t even seem to know what they were visiting. They complained about the cold, the crowds, the walking. Seriously, it was a bad time.
This was in stark contrast to my visit to Sachenhausen Concentration Camp in 2008, where we took part in a small group tour. We asked questions, and had the flexibility to explore the site. I learnt infinitely more with a private guide. In saying that, our guide at Auschwitz did her best. I could see she was frustrated with the disinterest of her British crowd.
You cannot take bags with you into Auschwitz, so pack lightly.
Remember, if you do decide to book the tour option, it takes nearly one and a half hours to get to the camps, which are spread across two sites. Most visits will be split into two. You can read lots of useful information on different transport options at this blog.
You can also visit independently, but there are restrictions on the times of the day you can enter the camps.
There is no specific dress policy for Auschwitz, but dress respectfully for the location. It is a place for many people lost their lives. Wear comfortable footwear as you will be walking around a lot, particularly on uneven ground. Be sure to also dress season and weather appropriately as you will be outdoors much of the time, and it does rain a lot.
My final thoughts
Visiting Auschwitz isn’t for everyone. Although huge numbers of people visit the site, I got the distinct feeling that many of them did not know what happened there, or did not care. Yes, there were people taking smiling selfies. They photographed things they weren’t supposed to, and made crude jokes. Some complained about having to walk the two or three kilometers around the complex, which was, frankly, cruelly ironic when you consider what the poor inhabitants of the camp had to withstand.
Perhaps I took this personally, because I had spent so many years wanting to visit and try to understand the site. However, visiting doesn’t really help you understand anything. To me, however, it does acknowledge that humankind should try to learn from its mistakes.
The thing is, there is so much I could write about the history of Auschwitz, or the Nazi’s, or visiting the place. However, you’ll know whether its the kind of place you want to see. Some people wouldn’t want to visit it, and that is fine. There is no point pretending you are interested if you are not.
My advice is – only visit a site like Auschwitz if you truly are interested in respecting it. It’s not a place to joke and laugh, or to sit snacking on sandwiches. It’s a place to learn, to reflect, and to remember. If you don’t think you will be able to do this, don’t go. If you think that you will find a visit harrowing but meaningful, I would highly recommend you take the time to see Auschwitz.
Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. George Santayana