There has been a lot of debate about so-called dark tourism and Auschwitz certainly falls into that category. Is it acceptable to visit a place where so many suffered so miserably and died so pitifully? I’ve long been of the thinking that it is important for people to visit such places as we should never forget the unfortunate souls who toiled and died within them. Donations from tourists also help to keep the sites properly maintained and it would be nothing short of a disaster if places like Auschwitz were allowed to fall into disrepair. Dark tourism might not appeal to everyone and visits might sound morbid, but places such as this death camp serve as a reminder of past atrocities and a warning against repeating those mistakes in the future. Visiting Auschwitz is a difficult, powerful experience. Is it pleasant? Not at all. Is it worthwhile? Absolutely.
Tickets can be booked in advance from the Auschwitz-Birkenau website. Entry to the museum is free but you must pay between 35 and 70 zloty (depending on tour choice) to hire a guide. These tickets enable you to join a tour group complete with a museum guide who will talk you through the grim history of the camp. It is possible to discover Auschwitz at your own pace without a tour guide but you must arrive before 10:00am to ensure this is possible.
We left Krakow first thing in the morning and got to Aucshwitz at around 9:00am using public transportation. The crowds on the day of our visit were negligible due to the torrential downpour we found ourselves in so, after a brief wait at the ticket booth, we were admitted to the camp and were able to wander to and fro at our own leisure. During busy periods the wait time to obtain a ticket for this kind of entry can vary greatly. If possible, I would highly recommend getting to the site just before opening time to beat the crowds.
The Auschwitz Museum is actually split between two locations: the smaller Auschwitz I site and the larger Auschwitz II or Birkenau site. Aushcwitz is infamous for its ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ gates and Birkenau for its oft photographed rail tracks leading to an intimidating brick archway. Between these two locations somewhere between 1.1 and 1.5 million people were murdered, 90% of them Jews. There is a free shuttle bus that links both parts of the camp. The times for this shuttle vary depending on the time of year you visit so it is worth checking the official Auschwitz website for further information.
At Auschwitz, gravel paths and basic walkways bordered by tall barbed wire fences snake around the entire complex. These footpaths can become muddy and quite slippery during bad weather so be sure to bring suitable footwear. Warning signs decorated with skulls and crossbones are placed with alarming regularity along these pathways, a blunt reminder to those who dared chance a thought of escape. Watchtowers are dotted frequently about the site allowing guards to keep a watchful eye over every inch of the camp. All of these artefacts impose a claustrophobic feel to your visit; I can scarcely imagine how much worse it must have been for the prisoners interred here during the war.
The original Auschwitz site has a number of points of interest. Many countries have converted the prison blocks into dedicated exhibitions that document their losses during the Holocaust and the effect it had on their populations. These range from the artistic to the exhaustively informative – allow yourself plenty of time if you wish to digest everything these memorials have to offer. Many of the buildings contain mugshots of the inhabitants that resided here during the war. It is heart-breaking to see the faces of the innocents murdered here and, as if memory of photographs from kinder times had kicked in, a minority of the victims grin cheerfully for the camera. A reconstruction of the gallows used to hang Rudolph Hoess, former commandant of Auschwitz, stands at the rear of the camp’s gas chamber where thousands were herded to their deaths. Hoess was the last man publically executed in Poland.
One of the buildings within the camp is dedicated to the items confiscated from the inmates before they were admitted to their cells. The rooms within this block contain vast sealed areas full of luggage, glasses, shoes, artificial limbs, Zyklon B canisters and, most shockingly, mountains of hair, shorn from the prisoners in an attempt to stem typhus outbreaks. The prisoners were asked to mark their belongings with their names and the suitcases still bear the scrawled names of their long departed owners. Many of the bags have the word orphan emblazoned on them, a distressing reminder that children were not exempt from the Nazi’s inexplicable cruelty. The most shocking thing about the displays is that what is on show is only a fraction of what was discovered when Soviets liberated the camp. The sights within this building are so traumatic that it is not uncommon to witness visitors on their knees, wailing uncontrollably at the impact of these grim collections.
For me, the most harrowing exhibit in the entire camp is the shooting wall. At this spot incalculable souls were lined up at gunpoint and executed. The pockmarks formed by gunfire seemed to far outnumber the blemishes caused by raindrops, even considering the terrible weather. It is chilling to observe this wall and consider those who stood before it, terrified, knowing that their lives had ticked into their final seconds. The foul weather we were caught up in only compounded the fact that a visit to Auschwitz is to be felt, endured even, rather than enjoyed.
Before you leave Auschwitz there is a small shop which sells literature and documentaries about the camp and its bleak history should you wish to further educate yourself.
The Birkenau site is much larger than Auschwitz I but many of its exhibits are in poorer shape than those at its sister site. This is the location where the majority of the murders in the surrounding areas took place. It houses the remnants of the basic sleeping sheds the prisoners were forced to inhabit, the ruins of four gas chambers with crematoria, and a memorial to the victims of the Holocaust. Only the foundations remain of many of the 300 structures that once stood at this site and the gas chambers/crematoria – which were blown up by the fleeing Nazis as their defeat grew increasingly more obvious – have been intentionally left in their demolished states. Despite many of the structures having long since disappeared, the vastness of the site (175 hectares) acts as an awful reminder of the scale of the Nazis’ ‘Final Solution’.