Auschwitz-Birkenau is the generic name given to the cluster of concentration, labour and extermination camps established by the Nazis during the Second World War and located near the towns of Oświęcim and Brzezinka in southern Poland, some 60 km from Kraków. The camps have become a place of pilgrimage for survivors, their families and all who wish to travel to remember the Holocaust.
Auschwitz I has a lot of exhibitions in the historical buildings - many hours are required to see it all. Auschwitz II has a bigger area, but a much smaller amount of historical information. It is possible to do justice to both camps in one very long and difficult day.
Although not the first or only Nazi concentration and extermination camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau 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 towns of Oświęcim and Brzezinka which - like the rest of Poland - were occupied by the Germans from the beginning of the Second World War (1939) till it was liberated in 1945 near the war's end. The name of the city of Oświęcim was changed ('germanized') to Auschwitz, as well as the name of Brzezinka - Birkenau; which became the name of the camp as well.
The camp was continually expanded over the next five years and ultimately consisted of three main parts: Auschwitz I, Auschwitz II-Birkenau, and Auschwitz III-Monowitz. Auschwitz-Birkenau also had over 40 sub-camps in the neighboring cities and in the surrounding area. Initially, only Poles and Jews were imprisoned, enslaved and murdered in the camp. Subsequently, Soviet prisoners of war (POWs), Romani/Sinti (Gypsies), and prisoners of other nationalities and minorities were also incarcerated, enslaved and murdered 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). An estimated 1.1 million people were killed or died at Auschwitz-Birkenau, the vast majority of whom were Jewish men, women and children deported from their homes all over occupied Europe. They were transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau in overcrowded cattle wagons, and upon arrival sent immediately to their deaths in the Birkenau gas chambers. 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, and thousands of marchers died of hunger, exhaustion and exposure. Those who remained behind in the camp and survived long enough 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.
There are quite frequent and inexpensive buses (14 złoty each way) to and from the main bus station in Kraków and minibuses (12 zł each way) that depart from the basement level of the main bus station. The bus takes about one and a half hours; it is usually busy and stops locally along the way. After 19:00 there are no more minivans back to Krakow. The last bus returns at 19:45 to Kraków. Trains also stop running early. If you plan to stay until closing time make arrangements regarding your return beforehand.
Driving from Kraków takes about one hour and you have to leave the A4 motorway at the Oświęcim/Balin exit. There is a big parking lot in Auschwitz I that costs 8 zł for the whole day. 200 metres from Auschwitz II there is another parking lot that costs 2 zł per hour, but also free space for around 40 cars near the main door. As of 2017, it is possible to find legal free parking within 1 km from Auschwitz I.
The train station of Oświęcim is about 2 km from the museum and there are public town buses connecting them (2.70 zł). There are several local trains each day, both from Kraków and from Katowice, about each 1.5-2 hours. The trip to or from Kraków central station takes a leisurely 2 hours, as the train goes slowly and stops frequently. It costs 9.50 zł. The last train to Kraków leaves at 8:19pm, you have to switch at Trzebinia.
Several companies provide tours from Kraków and Katowice. Prices range from 60 zł to 100 zł. They advertise heavily so you'll have no problem finding one. These tours involve a minibus pick-up from many spots in Kraków and Katowice, a lunch break, and a few hours' guided tour.
You absolutely need a ticket for Auschwitz I, even if you opt for the free entry.
There is no admission to Auschwitz I without a ticket and you can only get in at the time you booked. It is best to book tickets online in advance. If you don't see any available tickets online, you can still go and get a ticket at the booth. You will then have to wait for free spots.
Because of the large numbers of visitors entry to the Auschwitz I site is exclusively on a guided group basis during the middle part of the day - as of 2019, between 10:00 and 12:00 during December, between 10:00 and 13:00 in November, January, February and March, between 10:00 and 16:00 in April, May, September and October, and between 09:00 and 17:00 in June, July and August. Visiting the site on your own before or after rush hours is highly recommended. You can go at your own pace, see what you want to see and have a much more meaningful experience.
If you have to wait for your time at Auschwitz I you can visit the Auschwitz II Birkenau site first and then return after the guided tours finish to the first camp to avoid having to use the tour. The Auschwitz II Birkenau site is open for visitors without the guide during the opening hours of the Memorial. It can be visited at any time without booking a ticket. Donations are encouraged.
The museum is open all year long, seven days a week, except January 1, December 25, and Easter Sunday. The museum is open during the following hours:
- 07:30–16:00 December through February
- 07:30–16:00 March, November
- 07:30–17:00 April, October
- 07:30–18:00 May, September
- 07:30–19:00 June, July, August
Visitors may stay for 90 minutes on the site after the closing time.
The Auschwitz Memorial and Museum is easily navigated on foot. In order to acquire a proper sense of the place it is essential to visit both parts of the camp.
Tours provided by the museum in various languages cost 60 zł (discounted price for students up to 26 years of age is 55 zł) 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 (small simple guide costs 5 zł) and wandering around on your own.
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 are toilets at the Auschwitz-I site which cost 2.0 zł to use (as of 2017). At Auschwitz II-Birkenau, the toilets at the entrance cost 1.5 zł (as of 2017). There are free toilets at the back of the camp.
- There is a free shuttle bus between Auschwitz and Birkenau. In the summer, it runs every 10 minutes, and during winter, every 20 minutes.
- You can just walk the 2.2 km (1.4 miles) between the camp entrances (although it isn't a very nice walk as it is along the roads).
- A taxi between the sites will cost about 15 zł.
- 1 Auschwitz I. The first camp to be used (therefore called Stammlager, 'main camp' in German). It is in a far more complete state than Birkenau, but is also much smaller. The camp consists of former Polish military barracks, which were requisitioned by the Nazis in 1940. Near the entrance, you will see the wrought iron gate bearing the infamous and mocking camp slogan, Arbeit macht frei - "work sets you free." 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. As indicated in the chamber, it was reconstructed to its wartime layout after the war. Other sights include solitary confinement cells used as punishment, the death wall memorial where several thousands of people were shot by firing squad, and a reconstruction of the gallows used in 1947 to execute camp commandant Rudolf Höss, on the site of the camp's Gestapo office.
- 2 Main Building. The entrance to Auschwitz I has a museum with a cinema where a 15-minute film is shown, shot by Ukrainian troops the day after the camp was liberated. It's too graphic for children (if indeed you bring them to Auschwitz-Birkenau at all), and costs 3.5 zł, included in the price of a guided tour. Showings between 11:00 and 17:00, in English on the hour and Polish on the half hour. Informative and disturbing. The bookstores and public conveniences are here. Consider buying a 5 zł guidebook or 5 zł map.
- 3 Auschwitz II-Birkenau. The second camp, built after Operation Barbarossa to accommodate the influx of captured Slavs from the Soviet Union, and is around 3 km from Auschwitz I. You can still see the entrance gate, the railway track and ramp and a single row of preserved barracks; the rest were destroyed. Many of the fences, chimneys and watchtowers are still standing, which illustrate the camp's bewildering size. You can also see the buildings where incoming prisoners were shaved and given their "new" clothing, the ruins of the four crematoria and gas chamber complexes, ponds where the ashes of thousands of people were dumped without ceremony, and a memorial site. Walking through the whole site may take several hours, and the sheer scale of the site may be harrowing to visitors. If visiting during cooler months, be aware that in the evening (which comes early during the winter months), the temperature drops very quickly across such a flat open space.
- 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.
- March of the Living — Silent march of thousands of people from around the world from Auschwitz to Birkenau each year on Holocaust Memorial Day (Yom HaShoah, after Passover).
- Anniversary of Liberation of Auschwitz. January 27 (International Holocaust Remembrance Day). Official commemoration with Auschwitz survivors and Israeli, Polish and other officials.
There's a basic cafe and cafeteria in the main visitors' centre of Auschwitz I and a coffee machine in the bookshop at Birkenau. More options are in a commercial complex across the street from Auschwitz I, 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, with food and drink combinations costing 10-12 zł. The car park outside Auschwitz I also has picnic tables for visitors.
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 who survived their time here, and many more who had loved ones who were murdered or worked to death there, Jews and non-Jews alike. Please treat the site with all of the dignity, solemnity and respect it deserves. Do not make jokes about the Holocaust or Nazis. Do not deface the site by marking or scratching graffiti into structures. Do not take anything from the camp area with you "as a souvenir", and do not make Nazi salutes, even jokingly — these are considered offences under Polish law, and if you commit them, you will be placed before the court and could be subjected to a prison sentence of up to two years for propagating fascism. 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 camps, so be discreet with cameras.