It felt inappropriate to include our visit to Auschwitz as a section of another post which would likely contain light-hearted topics and frivolousness, so we decided to write about it separately. We have included some practicalities about visiting at the very end, the main body of the post is about our experience.
This will not be a long post, a few short paragraphs at most, partly because so much has already been written about Auschwitz and the horrors that unfolded there and partly because it is extremely difficult to convey what it is like to stand on the ground where so many perished. There is also only one photograph in this post; it is place that you need to experience in person and anyway, in all honesty, we didn’t have the desire or inclination to take more than one. We share that picture here; the infamous gates which chill the blood even on a hot June day like the one on which we visited.
The best way to describe our state of mind as we waited for our tour to begin was very apprehensive and nervous. We didn’t know what to expect or how we would react once we got inside. The first thing that we will say is that the official tour, run by the museum itself not tour groups from Kraków, is absolutely excellent and we would highly recommend it. It is an incredibly difficult thing to lend the appropriate weight to a topic whilst also remaining informative, being unemotional without seeming dismissive. Our guide conducted herself with a poise and empathy that we found admirable. We would also gently advise that studying the Second World War and the Holocaust does not particularly prepare you for the impact of visiting the camps themselves.
The word that we finally settled on to describe the experience was harrowing; at times we couldn’t actually absorb the scale of the horror and at times we were brought to tears by the pointless, brutal cruelty of it all. There were three camps in the area but only Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II Birkenau remain. It’s important that you visit both camps. Auschwitz I is almost entirely intact and includes a vast number of exhibits, all of which are upsetting and shocking but also very detailed and informative. The tour of Auschwitz I includes walking through the only remaining gas chamber, which is awful. Auschwitz II Birkenau was partially destroyed by the SS as they retreated and was partly deconstructed after the war but still looks eerily like the pictures from its time of operation, you can imagine all too clearly what it must have been like, the unloading platforms for the trains are exactly as they were. Auschwitz II Birkenau also hosts the memorial, between the ruins of two gas chambers and crematoria. It bears the inscription:
FOR EVER LET THIS PLACE BE
A CRY OF DESPAIR
AND A WARNING TO HUMANITY,
WHERE THE NAZIS MURDERED ABOUT ONE AND A HALF
MEN, WOMEN AND CHILDREN,
FROM VARIOUS COUNTRIES OF EUROPE.
Before we went to Auschwitz-Birkenau we had said that we felt that it was something that you should do, even if you don’t particularly want to. We stand by that; it’s important to come face to face with the very worst that we are capable of, it’s how we make sure that it never happens again. Now that we have been we can say that if you have any interest in the history you will want to go, because it is a phenomenal museum and a moving tribute to the millions who died there.
- You can self-guide Auschwitz-Birkenau for free but to do this you need to arrive outside of the core hours (these change depending on season so make sure to look it up beforehand)
- Despite the above we would highly recommend going on the tour, it is excellent and well worth the cost.
- The ticket office and main entrance are at Auschwitz I.
- Online it tells you to book in advance on the portal, but unless you have very specific dates this is a little bit tricky as it books out months in advance with tour operators gobbling up all the spaces. We turned up on the day in June and there were lots of spaces for different tours throughout the day in a variety languages. If you have time to wait for a tour you should be able to get on one ,although the wait will likely be longer during July & August. We had just over an hour wait before the tour in English left.
- Alternatively, you can get a tour from Kraków and not worry about any of the above. We looked at this option when we googled the ticketing process the night before to see if we needed to pre-book (poor planning we know). The upshot is that we had a wide variety of operators to choose from if we wanted, although you will be paying a premium for this.
- When we visited in June it was extremely hot, take plenty of water and sun cream. There is almost no shade at Auschwitz II Birkenau
- The tour lasts about 3 hours with a 15- minute break between the two camps.
- There is a free bus that runs between the two camps and it goes every 10-15 minutes.
- There are food and drinks available but they are priced as you would expect. No food is allowed inside the camps unless you are diabetic.
- Before you enter the tour, you have to pay to use the bathrooms, once inside there are some free ones at the start.
- It is advised that children younger than 14 do not visit the camps, having been we agree that this is a very sensible suggestion.