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Auschwitz

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Main gate of Auschwitz I concentration camp

Auschwitz is the generic name given to the cluster of concentration, labour and extermination camps built by the Germans during the Second World War and located outside the town of Oswiecim (Polish Oświęcim) in southern Poland, some 60 km from Krakow. The camps have become a place of pilgrimage for survivors, their families and all who wish to travel to remember the Holocaust.

Understand

Although not the only (or, indeed, the first) Nazi concentration and extermination camp, Auschwitz has become a widespread symbol of terror, genocide and the Holocaust in the global consciousness.

A concentration camp was established by the Nazis in the suburbs of the Polish city of Oswiecim which - like the rest of Poland - was occupied by the Germans from the beginning of the Second World War (1939-1945). The name of the city of Oswiecim was changed ('Germanized') to Auschwitz, which became the name of the camp as well.

The camp was continually expanded over the next 5 years and ultimately consisted of 3 main parts: Auschwitz I, Auschwitz II-Birkenau, and Auschwitz III-Monowitz. Auschwitz also had over 40 sub-camps in the neighboring cities and in the surrounding area. Initially, only Poles and Jews were imprisoned and died in the camp. Subsequently, Soviet prisoners of war ('POWs'), gypsies, and prisoners of other nationalities and minorities were also incarcerated there.

From 1942 onwards the camp became the site of one of the greatest mass murders in the history of humanity, committed against the European Jews as part of Hitler's plan for the complete destruction of that people ('the Final Solution'). The vast majority of the Jewish men, women and children deported from their homes all over occupied Europe to Auschwitz were sent immediately to their deaths in the Birkenau gas chambers upon arrival, usually trained in in overcrowded cattle wagons. Their bodies were afterwards cremated in industrial furnaces in the crematoria.

At the end of the war, in an effort to remove the traces of the crimes they had committed, the SS began dismantling and razing the gas chambers, crematoria, and other buildings, as well as burning documents. Prisoners capable of marching were evacuated into the depths of the German Reich. Those who remained behind in the camp were liberated by Red Army soldiers on 27 January 1945.

A 2 July 1947 Act of the post-war 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.

The site was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1979.

Get in

There are quite frequent and inexpensive buses (about 7 to 8 zl each way) to and from the main bus station in Krakow, or guided tours are available from most hotels or tourist information centres. Also, trains regularly run to Oswiecim. A bus can then be caught to Auschwitz, or you can walk there in about 25 minutes. There is a shuttle bus between Auschwitz and Birkenau, leaving Auschwitz at half past the hour and leaving Birkenkau on the hour. It costs 3 zl, or you can just walk the two miles between the camps (although it isn't a very nice walk as it is along the roads). If you've just missed a bus, a taxi between the sites will cost about 15 zl.

Local (Krakow - 1hr30m) and international (e.g. Vienna) trains also stop at the nearby town of Oświęcim (3km).

Entrance is free, without a ticket, though donations are encouraged.

Tour buses from Krakow

Several companies provide tours from Krakow for around 100 zl. This will involve a minibus pick-up from anywhere in Krakow, and being given a guided tour from about 11 a.m. tp 2.30 p.m.

Get around

The Auschwitz Memorial and Museum is navigated on foot.

Tours are provided by the museum but you can get a pretty good feel for the site by buying a guidebook and map (10 zl covering Auschwitz and Birkenau) and wandering round yourself. Each exhibit is described in Polish with other language translations but you can gain a much better understanding if you join a tour with a guide. The scope of the evil and terror that occurred here is almost unimaginable and a guide will help to put in context what a room full of human hair or what a thousand pairs of infant shoes means.

See

  • Auschwitz I was the first camp to be used (therefore called Stammlager). It consist of old Polish military barracks. Inside some of them you will find information material, boards, photos and personal belongings to illustrate the life and cruelties of this camp. The only remaining gas chamber is here but note that, as indicated in the chamber, it was reconstructed to its wartime layout after the war.
  • Main Building The entrance to Auschwitz I has a museum with a theater where a 17 minute film is shown, shot by Ukrainian troops the day after the camp was liberated. It's too graphic for children, and costs 3.5 zl. Showings at 11, 11:30, 1:00, 1:30, 3, & 5. Bookstores and bathrooms are here, consider buying a 3 zl guidebook or 5 zl map.
  • Auschwitz-Birkenau was the second camp and is around 3km from Auschwitz I. You can still see the entrance gate, the railway track and ramp and many old barracks. The site is huge. You can also see the buildings where incoming prisoners were shaved and given their "new" clothing, the ruins of the five gas chambers, ponds where the ashes of thousands of people were dumped without ceremony, and a memorial site. Note that walking through the whole site may take several hours. Some visitors find the experience harrowing.
  • Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum [1]

Do

  • Participate in one of the guided tours of the site
  • Visit on your own a day or two after a guided tour. A guided tour may be a bit rushed to fully experience the emotions of the place.

Please respect the fate of the many hundreds of thousands of people (at last count 1.1-1.6 million) who died here. Do NOT make jokes about it, do NOT take photos of the inside of gas chambers just to "show them around at home" and do NOT destroy the site itself or scratch your name in somewhere. Do NOT pose smiling in pictures. There are a great number of Israeli youth groups that tour the site as well, so please give those who lost family during the Holocaust proper respect. Auschwitz-Birkenau is essentially a graveyard and should be treated as such.


Sleep

Eat

There's a basic cafe and cafeteria in the main visitors' centre of Auschwitz 1 and a coffee machine in the bookshop at Birkenau. More options are in a commercial complex across the street from Auschwitz 1, although the quality of one (the Art Hamburger) is rather poor, but a cheap and quick eat. There are hot dog stalls and similar outlets outside the main museum at the end of the bus/car park.



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