Why we should visit Auschwitz-Birkenau | Poland

by Vanessa Wanders Miles

On your list of unmissable things to do in Krakow, I urge you not to leave out the tour of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest Nazi German concentration and death camp. It is an emotional day to see this dark chapter in our history firsthand but there are so many reasons why we should visit Auschwitz-Birkenau when we visit Poland as a tourist.

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About the Auschwitz-Birkenau Tour

Basic facts of Auschwitz-Birkenau

In the years 1939 to 1945, the Nazis deported at least 1.3 million people to Auschwitz, of which 1.1 million were Jews and the rest were either Poles, Roma gypsies, Soviet prisoners of war, or prisoners from other ethnic groups. The shocking truth is approximately 1.1 million people died in Auschwitz, approximately 90% of them were Jews, and the majority were murdered by the SS in gas chambers.

A haunting visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau

Once all guests were collected from their hotels, we headed to Auschwitz, one of the most prolific landmarks in Poland.  On the bus journey, ‘The liberation of Auschwitz’ film was played which was footage by Vorontzov, a Soviet cameraman who documented events throughout the war but he was not prepared for what he found at Auschwitz. This video in itself was shocking and the emotional mood was set for the day ahead.

Beginning at Auschwitz, we walked underneath the infamous signage “ARBEIT MACH FREIT” meaning ‘Work will set you free’. How wrong can this statement be?

Blocks 1-10 at Auschwitz

We were led through Blocks 1-10 where women were housed. Some were kept upstairs to be injected with Typhus and used for various medical experiments conducted by Josef Mengele.

The scale of the ‘Extermination’ plan becomes apparent as the museum shows piles and piles of shoes (15-16 million pairs of shoes were found in the ledgers) and personal belongings.

A total of 293 sacks of human hair were found at Auschwitz human hair was used to make felt for socks given to the forces in the submarines. Just shocking!

Sounds strange but Auschwitz isn’t a bad-looking place if you ignore the barbed wire and high fences. It has tree-lined streets and little brick buildings which isn’t what I was expecting. The complex of Auschwitz began its history before the German Occupation as a Polish military barracks hence why a little more care was taken to the construction. 

The harsh reality is there is nothing lovely about it. You are shown the living conditions which were pretty awful. Some were given better rooms as they had responsibilities to watch over prisoners.

The torture chambers were horrific. One cell is now a shrine to Father Kolbe who is hailed as a martyr. When the Nazi guards selected 10 people to be starved to death as punishment, Kolbe volunteered to die in place of a stranger. He survived 2 weeks in the cell which was not considered a satisfactory outcome so he was finished off with a lethal injection.

Death Wall at Auschwitz

Between blocks 10 and 11, you will find the ‘Death Wall’ where prisoners were shot against the purpose-built wall so the bullets didn’t ricochet. This was punishment for political prisoners or those who were charged with offences such as attempting to escape or sabotage the Auschwitz factories.

Gas chambers at Auschwitz I

The final part of Auschwitz I was the ‘Death Block’ where people were gassed. Quite rightly so, no photos are allowed here to show respect to those that perished in such an inhumane way. My body froze in this block knowing what happened there. It seems unfathomable to think how each and every person must have been feeling as they walked to their demise. You are shown the ovens where the bodies were cremated, as well as the additional ovens that were installed to keep up with the number of deaths.

I left Auschwitz feeling numb, shocked, disgusted, horrified… so many words to describe the emotions but it was time to catch my thoughts and head to the horrors of Birkenau, Auschwitz II.

Chilling experience of Birkenau

We were transported by bus to the Birkenau camp where we saw the iconic and horrific view of the train tracks which immediately sent chills down my spine. The sheer enormity of this operation is mind-blowing. This place was far bigger than Auschwitz I, the reality sinks into the sheer scale of death.

The selection process at Birkenau

Transport your mind to imagine the Jews who were deported to Auschwitz and arrived at this special railway ramp at Birkenau. Two queues were formed, men in one, women and children in the other. SS doctors carried out a selection process for each deportee taking a few seconds to decide if they were fit for work – only 25% made it.

To avoid panic, the rest were assured they were going to shower, so they were led naked to their death in the gas chambers where fake shower heads were fixed to the ceiling. Pregnant women or women holding children were not considered desirable but sometimes whole trainloads went straight to the gas chamber without any selection process.

Living conditions at Birkenau

Those that made it through the selection process, were not blessed by any means. The living conditions at Birkenau were more primitive. The barracks were originally built to be stables, some with no proper floor, just straw. People slept 6 or more in a bunk, some without mattresses.

Most could only last up to 3 months in these conditions, the deportees became emaciated. In this state, they were no good for work and were led to their death only to be replaced with new deportees. These barracks were really just a place to exist until you were sent to death, the Nazis would not even enter these barracks as the disease was rife.

Crematoriums at Birkenau

There were 4 crematoriums at Birkenau which have been destroyed with dynamite by the fleeing Nazis as they abandoned the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex.

Krema II was 210 square metres in size and is still partially intact. Mass murder was made much more efficient at Birkenau but the Nazis struggled to dispose of the bodies and the evidence.

As I stood here in -6 degrees in more layers than I wore to summit Kilimanjaro and still cold, I could not get the awful vision of the children out of my head that was ordered to stand from dusk until dawn in the snow with no shoes on, the severe frostbite caused irreparable damage.

So, why should we visit Auschwitz?

Following the liberation, some of the survivors went back to Auschwitz-Birkenau and agreed that it should be turned into a museum to tell the world what atrocities happened there, this opened in 1947 to the public.

I learned all about WWII history at school and found it shocking and interesting at the same time, especially considering it was fairly recent. However, going to visit the sites of Auschwitz was a harsh wake-up call and nothing that any schoolbook can teach you.

Whilst I have no family links that were affected by the concentration camps, the emotions I felt walking around the camps is one of disbelief and disgust, in fact, sick to the stomach and I just welled up constantly throughout the day as the stories unfolded… how was it actually possible that this Nazi regime was allowed to nearly wipe out a whole race.

The Nazi operation ‘The Last Solution’ was barbaric on an unimaginable scale. Whilst this is a form of dark tourism, it’s different than visiting Chernobyl as that was an accident, and the Holocaust was an act of pure evil.

I was interested to discover some of my friends who said they could never go through with visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau. Some people have told me that they wanted to visit the camps for personal reasons as a family was imprisoned there and some have vowed never to enter the sites as it is just too painful. Some have told me that they have visited twice as they couldn’t take in the information the first time.

I was horrified to see some people making light of it and taking selfies in the most inappropriate places, if this is you, I strongly recommend you do not go, it is massively disrespectful and you clearly do not feel the severity of what happened there.

Some may view this just as dark tourism but there is an important message to be conveyed. I truly believe that we have a moral duty to educate all generations, current and those to come, about the atrocities of Auschwitz – this racism on a grand scale is NOT OK and we need to ensure there is never a repeat of this. The roller coaster of emotions I had whilst visiting the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps is something that will never leave me.

Do comment below with your thoughts on whether we should visit Auschwitz-Birkenau. Have you visited? If so, how did you feel? If you haven’t been, would you avoid it at all costs? Or would be interested to go?

Auschwitz Tour Travel Essentials

When to visit Auschwitz

The tours run all year round, but bear in mind the Birkenau part of the tour is all outside and the weather in Poland will be minus degrees in the Winter months.

Organised tours from Krakow

I would recommend using Krakow Shuttle, I found them through Get My Guide. They were on time collecting from the hotel in Krakow at 8.30 am, super organised throughout the day, and supplied a packed lunch on the way to the Salt mine. The bus dropped us back at the hotel around 5.30 pm.

Making your own way to Auschwitz

Take a bus from Dworzec MDA (MDA Station) just behind the Main Railway Station of Krakow, to Oswiecim. The bus stop in Auschwitz is about a 10-minute walk from the museum. There is a free shuttle bus to the Birkenau complex.



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Elizabeth 6th June 2019 - 1:14 pm

The emotions I feel just from reading your post are overwhelming, I honestly don’t think I could handle visiting. I once started reading a fictional book about this time and I had to stop because it was so upsetting. I can’t believe people take selfies and have fun posting for photos here. There are so many places in the world to do that, this is definitely not one of them.

Vanessa 7th June 2019 - 5:27 pm

The day was totally overwhelming, I’m glad I went although it wasn’t the most comfortable of experiences. Thank you for your comment.

Shreya Saha 7th June 2019 - 8:56 am

I have visited Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp last year and I can totally relate to what you are trying to say here. I completely agree. I will also visit Auschwitz-Birkenau when I visit Poland.

Vanessa 7th June 2019 - 5:25 pm

It’s a memory that will never leave me, I’m sure Sachsenhausen was just as upsetting 🙁

Ben 7th June 2019 - 10:57 pm

I visited Dachau Memorial Site when in Munich, and can only imagine this to have the same emotional impact. So upsetting, but also such an important part of history for people to understand. I agree that as many people as possible should visit to truly understand.

Vanessa 7th June 2019 - 11:12 pm

I think you can only feel te severity when you visit a place like this, chilling experience!

Jas 8th June 2019 - 9:14 am

What a surreal visit this must’ve been. I can’t begin to imagine all the emotions you must’ve felt and how rude people were actually even taking selfies! Would defs love to do the tour if I ever visit Poland.

Vanessa 8th June 2019 - 9:21 am

Yes it’s an emotional one. I was furious watching the selfie-brigade… not the time or place!

Angela 4th July 2019 - 12:18 pm

Auschwitz-Birkenau is a chilling place to visit but I do believe it’s essential that we visit these places. Otherwise, they may fade into distant memory and something as terrible as this should never be forgotten.

Vanessa 5th July 2019 - 3:53 pm

I totally agree with your sentiment. We we it to future generations to ensure this is not forgotten.


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