Auschwitz is the generic name given to the cluster of concentration, labour and extermination camps built by the Germans during the Second World War, located outside the town of Oświęcim in Lesser Poland Voivodeship, southern Poland, 65 km (40 mi) east of Kraków. The camps have become a place of pilgrimage for survivors, their families, and all who wish to remember and contemplate the Holocaust. The grounds are a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Although not the only (or, indeed, the first) German concentration and extermination camp, Auschwitz has become the foremost symbol of the Holocaust in global consciousness, representing terror, genocide, and the destruction of peoples. During the war, the camp complex became the largest ever operated by the Nazi regime.
Originally an Austro-Hungarian and later a Polish Army barracks before the start of the Second World War, the invading Nazis assumed authority over the military facility following the region's annexation by the Third Reich in 1939. The neighboring town's name of Oświęcim was Germanized to Auschwitz, which also became the name of the camp. Beginning in 1940, all Polish and Jewish residents of Oświęcim were expelled, replaced by German settlers, whom the Third Reich planned to make a model community. The camp began operations on 14 June 1940, originally housing Polish political prisoners, who made up a majority of the camp's population until 1942. Poles were treated with extreme brutality, with more than half of the 130-150,000 Polish inmates dying.
As the number of prisoners grew, the camp expanded from the original barracks facility. Auschwitz II-Birkenau, in the nearby village in Brzezinka, underwent construction in October 1941 with the original purpose to house Soviet prisoners of war. Together with Polish inmates, Soviet soldiers were subjected to Zyklon B tests by the camp's SS commanders towards the end of 1941. Beginning in 1942, Jews in massive numbers began to be sent to the camp complex, along with thousands of Roma prisoners. The complex later expanded to include Auschwitz III-Monowitz in October 1942, a slave labor camp providing work for the I.G. Farben industrial complex nearby. By the middle of the war, Auschwitz had grown to include 40 sub-camps in neighboring towns in the region.
From 1942 onwards, Auschwitz became one of the greatest scenes of mass murder in recorded history. The vast majority of the camp's 1.1 million Jewish men, women, and children, deported from their homes across occupied Europe to Auschwitz, were sent immediately to their deaths in the Birkenau gas chambers upon arrival, usually transported into the camp by overcrowded cattle wagons. Their bodies were afterwards cremated in industrial furnaces in the crematoria. Those who were not killed in the gas chambers often died of disease, starvation, medical experiments, forced labor, or execution.
Towards the war's end, in an effort to remove all traces of the crimes they had committed, the SS began to dismantle and raze the gas chambers, crematoria, and other buildings, as well as burning documents. Prisoners capable of moving were forced into death marches to other remaining areas of the Third Reich. Those who remained behind in the camp were liberated by Red Army soldiers on 27 January 1945. An estimated 1.3 million Jews, Poles, Soviet POWs, Roma, homosexuals, and Jehovah's Witnesses had been murdered within the camps by the time of liberation.
The Polish Parliament established the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum on the grounds of the two extant parts of the camp, Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau in 1947. Auschwitz became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979. Today, the memorial attracts normally a million visitors annually.
The closest airport to the site is John Paul II International Airport (IATA: KRK), better known as Balice Airport by locals, and is 54 km (34 mi) to the west next to Kraków on the A4 motorway. Among the airlines serving Balice are Air Berlin, AlItalia, Austrian Airlines, British Airways, Brussels Airlines, KLM, LOT, Lufthansa, Norwegian Air, SprintAir, Swiss International Air Lines, SAS Scandinavian Airlines, Air France, Iberia, Aegean Airlines, and Finnair. Additionally, a number of low cost airlines also service the city, includeing easyJet, Ryanair, Jet2.com, Eurowings, and Vueling.
Alternatively, visitors to Auschwitz can use Katowice Airport (IATA: KTW) in Katowice, located 62 km (39 mi) north of the site. Known locally as Pyrzowice Airport, Katowice has direct connections with over 30 destinations across Europe and Asia, with numerous discount, charter, and normal flights in operation. Pyrzowice is a major hub for Wizzair, with additional services provided by Aegean Airlines, Bulgaria Air, El Al, Eurowings, Lufthansa, Ryanair, and TUIfly.
Both national carrier PKP Intercity and regional line PolRegio provide rail service to Oświęcim station, with a travel time usually of an hour and 45 minutes from Kraków, and fifty minutes from Katowice. A bus can then be caught to Auschwitz I where the state museum is located (as there is a bus stop in front of the railway station), or you can walk there (approx 1.5 km) in about 20-25 minutes. If visitors decide to walk, leave the station, turn immediately right, and follow ul. Wyzwolenia for five minutes. At the first roundabout, follow the signs to the Muzeum Auschwitz, and turn left on ul. Stanisławy Leszczyńskiej.
From Kraków, visitors by car can take the A4 motorway (E40) west towards Katowice. Take the Oświęcim Balin exit, and follow the signs to Oświęcim. Once in the town, follow provincial highway DW933 and look for the signs pointing towards Muzeum Auschwitz.
From Katowice, follow the A4 motorway towards Kraków and take the S1 expressway south towards Cieszyn. Drive southwards and take the DW934 highway at the Bieruń Nowy Imielin exit. At the intersection of DK44, turn left and follow the signs to Oświęcim. At the roundabout with DW933, take the first right and follow ul. Powstańców Śląskich, which will run past railway tracks and the town's railway station. From there, follow the signs to Muzeum Auschwitz.
If you are traveling from Ostrava in the Czech Republic, follow the A1 motorway until the intersection with A4, where you will follow the signs to Katowice. Once on A4, drive past Katowice and follow the Katowice instructions as stated in the previous paragraph.
From Kraków, there are frequent and inexpensive buses offered by bus carrier Lajkonik (13PLN each way online or 14PLN in person), as well as a slew of smaller, family-owned buses and coaches (14-16PLN each way). A good website for timetables and prices for bus connections is e-podroznik.pl.
Tours from Kraków
Several companies provide tours from Kraków for around 130-150PLN. These companies advertise heavily around the city, so visitors will have no problem finding one. These tours can involve a minibus pick-up from anywhere in Kraków, or a full bus with a guided tour. Perhaps the best-known companies are Cracow City Tours and Cracow Tours, who offer a full tour of the museum and sites. Other tours are available from most hotels or tourist information centres. An average bus journey between Kraków to Auschwitz is 90 minutes, with usually some stops along the way. Minibuses run every 20 minutes during the morning hours, returning from Auschwitz at 13:16, 15:36, and 16:01 (as of 2012). A larger bus also leaves from Auschwitz at 14:20, 15:15, 16:00, 16:30, 17:00, 17:30, 18:30 and 19:30 (as of 2015). The larger bus leaves from the museum area, while the mini bus leaves from across the street from where you are let off. The minibus can be very crowded and won't manage to fit everyone at the busstop. There is a bus connection with Katowice city too, the buses leave Katowice from Plac Korfantego and arrive at the Oswiecim bus stop, from which one can catch a bus to Auschwitz. The ride normally takes and hour.
Entrance is free without a ticket, but only after 15:00. Be aware that because of the large numbers of visitors, entry to the Auschwitz I site is done exclusively on a guided (yet unfortunately rather rushed) tour between 10:00 to 15:00 during the period from 1 April to 31 October. You can visit the site on your own (which is highly recommended, as visitors can go at their own pace, see what they want to see, and have a much more meaningful experience) if you arrive before 10:00 or after 15:00 (depending on the season. This is recommended if you're staying nearby in Katowice or Kraków and don't have your own car, with some trains from Kraków and Katowice Główny arriving between 8-10. Guided tours cost 45PLN (discounted price for students up to 24 years of age is 30PLN). Students with an ISIC card are granted free entrance during tour hours. If you're a small group (~4 or less), it's not too hard to buy tickets on site (but depending on the season, you might have to wait depending on availability), but larger groups should book tickets in advance.
The tour takes 3 hours with a 20 minute break after about 1.5 hours. Tours run every 15 minutes or every 30 minutes depending on the tour language.
The Auschwitz II-Birkenau site is open for visitors without the guide during the opening hours of the Memorial. You can also book a private tour guide from the museum for a 6 hour study tour (400PLN).
Days of operation
The museum is open all year long, seven days a week, except January 1, December 25, and Easter Sunday. The hours the entire memorial follow those of the museum.
The Auschwitz Memorial and Museum is easily navigated on foot. There is a free shuttle bus between the Auschwitz I and Birkenau sites, leaving every half hour at the top of the hour from Auschwitz I to Birkenau, and going the opposite way every 15 minutes of the hour at half hourly intervals. Please check the timetable at the bus stop as intervals and shuttle operation hours may change depending on the season, or you can walk the two miles between the camps. If you've just missed a bus, a taxi between the sites will cost about 15PLN.
Tours are provided by the museum for a fee in various languages, and are recommended if you want a deeper understanding of the site, but they are unfortunately somewhat rushed, and you can get a pretty good feel by buying a guidebook and map (a small, simple guide for 5PLN; more detailed "souvenir" guides are around 12PLN) and wandering around on your own left to contemplate the site. Each exhibit is described in Polish with other language translations. The scope of the evil and terror that occurred here is almost unimaginable, and a guide can help to put in context what a room full of human hair or what a thousand pairs of infant shoes means. They'll also tell you about former prisoners who have returned to see the museum.
There's a basic cafe and cafeteria in the main visitors' center of Auschwitz I, with more options in a small commercial complex across the street. Additionally, there is a coffee machine in the Birkenau bookshop. Several small stalls selling drinks and food are close to the main museum at the end of the Auschwitz I bus/car park.
You cannot sleep at the camps. The closest accommodation options are in nearby Oświęcim.
Please remember that you are essentially visiting a mass grave site, as well as a site that has an almost incalculable meaning to a significant portion of the world's population. There are still many men and women alive today who survived their internment here, and many more who had loved ones murdered on these grounds, Jews and non-Jews alike. Please treat the site with the dignity and respect it solemnly deserves. Do not make jokes about the Holocaust or the Nazis. Do not deface the site by marking or scratching graffiti into structures. Pictures are permitted in outdoor areas, but remember this is a memorial rather than a tourist attraction, and there will undoubtedly be visitors who have a personal connection with the site, so be discreet with cameras.
Holocaust denial is a criminal offense in Poland, with penalties ranging from heavy fines to a three-year prison sentence.