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Is there any real reason to go to Auschwitz-Birkenau? It isn't a place that a guide book will ever recommend with a cheery "definitely worth seeing" entry. Visitors to Krakow often say that they don't want to go because it would only depress them. Will it?
The feelings or emotions experienced will clearly vary from person to person, a visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau is a uniquely subjective experience, but perhaps the one thing that everyone feels is disbelief. When confronted by the exhibits at Auschwitz, or the sheer size of Birkenau, it's impossible to believe that the events described and documented could have happened, but they did happen, and for that very reason this is a place that people should make the effort to come and see.
Established by the Nazis in 1940, the camp was originally used to hold Polish political prisoners. Later, Soviet prisoners of war were imprisoned there, as well as prisoners of other nationalities. However, within two years it became the centrepiece of Hitler's mass extermination plan of European Jews.
The site at Auschwitz is known for its infamous gate "Arbeit macht frei", and consists of former prison blocks, as well as blocks used by the Germans. The blocks are used to hold permanent exhibitions to the victims of the Holocaust, but there is a distinct difference between what the Auschwitz museum calls the general exhibition and the exhibitions dealing with particular countries or ethnic groups where modern methods of art, light and audio-visuals are used.
For example, the exhibition which focuses on the fate of the Slovak Jews has an excellent documentary film lasting about 20 minutes entitled "Memories". As the title suggests, former survivors talk about Auschwitz, from arrival at the camp, the work they had to do and the inhuman cruelty of their day-to-day existence.
Maybe the most remarkable exhibition (in terms of design) is that on the Hungarian Jews. The exhibition has many aspects to its design, the subdued lighting makes the room feel quite claustrophobic, there's also the continuous sound of what seems to be the beating of a human heart.
One exhibit, focussing on the actual transportation of the Hungarian Jews, is particularly evocative and powerful. Three glass panels designed to look like part of a transport wagon have been placed on transparent flooring which has a piece of train track running underneath it - this enables visitors to walk through the display. Anyone doing so will see that broken glass has been used to fill in the gaps between the train tracks.
The exhibit serves as a reminder not only of the methods of transportation, but also the terror and suffering of those who were transported in this manner.
Any danger that the use of art or design might in some way overshadow the real message of the exhibition is very quickly dispelled. Most graphically there is a before and after picture of a survivor from the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. In the former we see a happy and healthy woman, in the latter an emaciated human being. A truly horrific picture, it speaks volumes on how prisoners were treated and the capacity of man's cruelty.
The general exhibition at Auschwitz has no design concepts, no use of audio visuals; the use of low level lighting is perhaps more to do with the need to preserve the exhibits.
The piles of human hair, children's clothes, shoes, suitcases and false limbs all belonged to people that were not just murdered, but were part of a programme of extermination. What makes this all the more unbelievable is the scale of the operation, its cold efficiency, the fact that nothing of any value was wasted (hair was sold for use in the textile industry), all in the name of a twisted ideology.
Visitors also have the opportunity to find out about how camp inmates lived. One room shows the straw mattresses that would have been used by inmates, another shows the washroom facilities, there is also a replica of the barracks that would have been found at Birkenau. Artwork from former prisoners depicting day to day life at the camp can be found, as well as information detailing camp life, from roll call to methods of torture.
In Block 11, also known as the "Death Block", it is still possible to see the original ground floor and underground cells. It was here that the first experiments in mass killing were conducted, when 600 Soviet prisoners of war and 250 inmates from the camp hospital were murdered using Cyclon B. The nature of the cells and the narrow corridors leading down to them make for a very unnerving experience.
The Birkenau part of the camp (also known as KL Auschwitz II) is very different from the site at Auschwitz. It was here, and not in Auschwitz, that the majority of exterminations took place. Whether approached by bus or on foot, the first thing you'll notice are watchtowers on the perimeter of the camp, you'll also then see the other infamous Auschwitz-Birkenau landmark, the main gate of the Birkenau camp with train tracks leading up to it and into the camp grounds.
Although the numbers of people who died at Auschwitz-Birkenau might never be known, estimates vary at between 1 100,000 and 1 500,000, the site at Birkenau gives every impression of being able to hold tens of thousands of people at any one time - the prison guidebook states that approximately 100,000 prisoners were held here in August 1944.
At Birkenau visitors can see the conditions in which prisoners were kept. It's impossible to believe that the barracks in which the inmates lived offered any kind of shelter against the cold Polish winter. All around the camp there are information boards that give information on camp life, or an explanation of what happened in that particular area of camp grounds.
Much of the site was destroyed by the retreating Nazis. At the far end of the camp there are the remains of the crematoria that were dynamited by the retreating Nazis in a crude attempt to hide the evidence of what happened there. Memorial plaques in a variety of languages at the International Monument to the Victims of Auschwitz-Birkenau can also be found at this part of the site.
Getting there & Opening times
Approximately 60km from Krakow, there are a variety of ways visitors can travel to Auschwitz-Birkenau.
There is a train service between Krakow and Auschwitz, although it is not as frequent as you might expect. It's worth checking the timetable both to and from Auschwitz to ensure you don't miss your train. The train station at Auschwitz is fairly large compared to others on the route so there isn't much chance of getting off at the wrong station.
Once in Auschwitz we'd suggest going to the Auschwitz camp first, rather than Birkenau. A bus stop is located immediately outside the train station at Auschwitz and the bus driver will be able to tell you if he's going in the direction of the museum. The museum is three stops from the station.
Another way of getting to Auschwitz is to take the bus from Krakow's bus station which is located behind Krakow's main railway station at ul. Bosacka. The bus will take you directly to the Auschwitz museum, although journey times are longer than by train. Organised tours might be the preferred option for those who don't wish to use, or don't feel confident in using, public transport.
The Auschwitz museum provides a shuttle bus service (free of charge) to Birkenau that operates all year round, however it run less frequently from November until March. If there are no convenient buses available it is possible to get a taxi to Birkenau.
From Birkenau a straight road leads back in the direction of the train station which takes about 20-30 minutes on foot. The local bus service is fairly infrequent to and from Birkenau so visitors may prefer to use a taxi to get back to the train station, or the shuttle bus can be used to get back to the Auschwitz camp if need be.
Admission to the Museum is free. The Museum is open seven days a week during the following hours apart from Christmas Day, New Yea's Day and Easter Sunday.
- 8:00 AM - 3:00 PM December, January, February
- 8:00 AM - 4:00 PM March and November
- 8:00 AM - 5:00 PM April and October
- 8:00 AM - 6:00 PM May and September
- 8:00 AM - 7:00 PM June, July, August