Travelblogs usually write about travel-destinations which are beautiful, exotic and fun. Todays destination is none of these things and can better be described with words like impressive and confronting. Concentration camp Auschwitz remembers us of a piece of history which must not be forgotten. It should make its visitors realise that the freedom we experience nowadays is not something to take for granted.
During Corona, the Auschwitz concentration camp will be closed at least till the end of June 2020. If you are planning to visit Auschwitz in the summer of 2020, we recommend visiting the official website first.
From Oświęcim to Auschwitz
Before World War II, Oświęcim was a peaceful and unknown town in the south of Poland. Nobody could’ve expected that this town would be the home for the largest German concentration camp during World War II. After the Germans invaded Poland in 1939, they needed concentration camps to keep the political enemies locked up. It was in April 1940 that the German leaders decided that the Oświęcim would be a suitable location. Short after that decision, the Polish name Oświęcim was changed into the German Auschwitz. Nowadays, the name Auschwitz is still symbol for the horror and terrifying events during World War II.
The first camp: Auschwitz I
When you take a guided tour in Auschwitz, which we definitely recommend, you will most likely start with Auschwitz I. Although it was only built to resident around 10.000 prisoners more than 70.000 people died here during the war. In June 1940, the first transport of prisoners arrived in Auschwitz. The first organised kills in gas chambers took place in August 1941.
Interesting fact: A Polish man called Wiesław Kielar was in the very first group of prisoners of Auschwitz. Wiesław ended up being one of the only prisoners who survived 5 years in Auschwitz and he wrote a book about it “
Auschwitz – Arbeit macht Frei
Arbeit macht frei
The tour in Auschwitz I starts at the famous entrance with the words Arbeit Macht Frei above it. This is the proof of one of the many lies the prisoners were told. Most prisoners arrived in Auschwitz with a suitcase: They were told that they were going to build a new life. The Auschwitz-museum shows the confronting evidence of thousands of suitcases, cutlery and toothbrushes of prisoners.
Auschwitz II – Birkenau
In August 1940, two months after the first arrival of prisoners in Auschwitz, the concentration camp already kept more than 8000 prisoners locked up. Daily executions were already taking place but the capacity of Auschwitz I was not sufficient for the plans of the German leaders. For that reason Auschwitz II – Birkenau, a camp with a capacity of 100.000 prisoners, was build and opened in 1942. During World War 2, almost one million people died in this concentration camp.
Auschwitz II – Birkenau is located about 3km from Auschwitz I. Free shuttle-busses drive up and down between both concentration camps on a regular basis.
In the camp prison you see cells which are only one square meter large. In these cells up to 4 people were locked up. After working for 11 hours visitors were locked up here and could not even lay down because of the lack of space. Many of these prisoners died of exhaustion.Example of the horror in Auschwitz
How to reach Auschwitz from Berlin
Back in the war Auschwitz was chosen as a location because the town was very easy to reach. Auschwitz was located between Katowice and Krakau and the train station was not far from the concentration camp. Nowadays you can reach Auschwitz from Berlin by car, train or bus.
It is still easy to reach Auschwitz by train. The ride is long (10-11 hours) but it is a beautiful ride and you can always stop on some stations along the way. The train to Auschwitz drives through Berlin Ostkreuz, Katowice, and ends in Oświęcim. The prices for the train differ between 50-75€ for a return-trip-
Reaching Auschwitz by car is attractive because it’s the most flexible way. It will take you about 5,5 hours to reach Auschwitz – Birkenau. On the way you could also make some stops in cities like Stettin and Poznan. The costs will depend on the fuel-prices but it should cost between 50-60€ for a one-way trip. Guess it’s best to carpool and share the costs.
A third way to reach Auschwitz would be taking the bus. This will take you about 12 hours but it will only cost you about 30€. There are also overnight buses so if you manage to sleep the time will fly by.
Selection process and gas chambers
During the tour in Auschwitz II you walk past a large memorial place, several gas chambers and the exact spot where the prisoners arrived and had to participate in the selection process. This process was used to examine the prisoners and select only the strong men because they could work for the Germans. Most of the prisoners who arrived in Auschwitz, were send to the gas chambers immediately.
The small train on the image below transported about 70 prisoners and obviously there were no toilets aboard. The prisoners who survived the ride, had been travelling between dead corpses and faeces for a few days and then had to participate in a selection process which would decide about their faith.Example of the horror in Auschwitz
Life in a concentration camp
During the trip in Auschwitz, it is very impressive and confronting to get an image of the life in a concentration camp. You get to see the barracks, the beds and the toilets the prisoners were using. It is not hard to imagine how hard it must have been for families to be ripped apart after arrival. Visiting Auschwitz will make you realise that the life most of us have is a big blessing which we should be very thankful for.
Tips for your trip to Auschwitz
- When you decide to visit Auschwitz, I would recommend to pay for a guide. In Auschwitz it is not about the sights or the beautiful buildings, it is about the background-stories and the history.
- Only a guide can give you all the information you need to experience Auschwitz the right way. The prices of guides are very reasonable by the way (check the paragraph Prices and Opening Hours)
- If you still prefer to visit Auschwitz without a guide, you are only allowed to do so at certain hours. During the main season you are not allowed to visit the camps without a guide between 10.00 and 15.00.
- Visit Auschwitz in a chronological order. It sound obvious, but some people decide to visit Birkenau first because it is not so busy in the morning. Still, the whole history and chronological order gets lost.
- Personally I would advice to visit Krakau the day before you want to travel to Auschwitz and leave to Oświęcim early in the morning.
- Auschwitz is least busy at the end of the afternoon so if you do not want to take too long to walk around, you can also decide to arrive around 15.00.
Auschwitz is open 7 days a week and 362 days a year. The only days it is closed is the first of January, December 25th and Easter Sunday. The concentration camp opens everyday at 07.30 and closes at different hours depending on the month of the year (e.g. December 2PM and June till August 7PM). For a full list of the opening hours of Auschwitz, you can check the official website.
As mentioned we recommend taking a guided tour. The stories you will hear will have an extreme added value. You can choose between guided tours starting at 2,5 hours and going as long as 8 hours. You have to make a reservation for a guided tour at least one month in advance. The prices for guided tours depend on the amount of people who will join but you can already get a guide with 10 people for 2,5 hours for around 10€ per person.
No entrance fees are charged in the Auschwitz Memorial Site. You only pay for the guided tours, audio-guide headphones or watching the documentary. It is possible though, that only people with a guided tour are allowed inside the camps (to avoid too much people).
Summary – A confronting experience
During World War II, about 1,3 million people got deported to concentration camp Auschwitz. Almost all of them, 1,1 million to be precise, never returned back to their family, friends and hometown. Partly because of these numbers, walking around in Auschwitz is something confronting. I visited with 5 friends after a week of partying all over Europe and I have never seen my friends so silent for 8 hours. Every European citizen should visit Auschwitz at least once in his life.