Auschwitz-Birkenau: memorial and state museum of holocaust

Auschwitz Birkenau Museum

Auschwitz concentration camp is known worldwide as a symbol of terror, genocide and the Holocaust. It was the largest concentration camp in former Nazi Germany, that took lives of from 1.1 million people during the 1940-1945 time period. There were three main camps built in the area that created a network. The first concentration camp in Auschwitz was complemented by concentration and extermination camps in Birkenau and Monowitz.

Concentration camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau became the major site of Nazi Germany plan to exterminate Jewish people. Around 90% of deaths in the camps were those of Jews. Today the Auschwitz camp stands a symbol of one of the darkest chapters in the 20th century history. The number of its victims and the level of atrocities that took place there are beyond what anyone can imagine. That’s why remembrance and holocaust education are so important. And these are exact reasons for why the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum was established. Every year the Holocaust memorial site is visited by 1-2 million of people from all over the world who want to commemorate the victims of imperial war and cruel Nazi ideology.

Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp

Entrance to the Auschwitz concentration camp

Entrance to the Auschwitz concentration camp

Founding the concentration camp in Auschwitz followed the Nazi propaganda and became a site of so-called Final Solution to the Jewish Question. After the Nazi seizure of power in Germany in 1933, the Jewish people were deprived of personal laws, rights to run a business or hold an office. Jewish businesses were to be „Aryanized” which meant confiscation and handing over to Germans. It was an element of the Nazism ideology that combined antisemitism, racial purity, and eugenics with territorial expansionism.

Jews living in Germany were forced to emigrate and that was supposed to be the natural solution to rid Germany of Jews. But with the invasion of Poland in 1939 and the beginning of World War II, about 3.5 million of Polish Jews were brought under the Nazi Germany rule.

Poland was a country with the biggest number of Jewish inhabitants in Europe. The Final Solution to the Jewish Question was a plan for extermination Jewish population across Nazi-occupied Europe. It was formulated by Nazi Germany leadership and its assumption was a systematic genocide of Jews that was to result in purifying the humankind.

The extermination camps built across Poland were to be the main site of implementing the Nazi policy. The most horrific site of the extermination was Auschwitz concentration camp. Approximately one in six Jews killed in the Holocaust died at that camp. Among other victims were Ethnic Poles, Roma, Sinti, Soviet prisoners of war, Czechs, Yugoslavs, Russians, Ukrainians, and Byelorussians. The total number of prisoners and deaths is unknown. Some sources state that it could have been as much as 1.5 million people who died in the former nazi concentration camp.

Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration and Extermination Camp

The camp was established in 1940 in Auschwitz, a town formerly known as Oświęcim (in Polish), annexed by Germany after the invasion. At first, it was supposed to be a prison for polish political prisoners, following Hitler’s orders to exterminate Polish leadership and intelligentsia. The reason However, it soon became a primary concentration camp for Jews. It was the largest of the German nazi death and concentration camps. The inmates were living in horrible sanitary conditions. They were starved, forced to excruciating labor, beaten, humiliated, and tortured. Many prisoners were even subjected to barbaric medial experiments conducted by doctor Josef Mengele.

Chimneys of former gas chamber in Auschwitz Birkenau

Chimneys of former gas chamber in Auschwitz Birkenau

The camp was established on 2 grounds, in 2 separate towns around 70 km from Kraków – Oświęcim and Brzezinka. The main camp, Auschwitz, was the administrative quarter of the KL Auschwitz-Birkenau complex. The first mass transport of prisoners arrived in June, 1940. Among the inmates were over 700 Polish men, including Catholic priests and Jews. Upon arriving, they were given a serial number, tattooed, shaved, disinfected, and forced to change into a striped uniform.

It was around that time when the first crematorium and gas chambers were built, too. At first, they were not intended for mass murder, but rather for disposing of bodies of prisoners who died naturally at the site of the camp. However, they soon were used to kill the inmates who were unable to work. The morgue was later converted into gas chambers that could hold around 700-800 people at once.

The first mass transport of Jews arrived to the Oświęcim in 1942. They arrived there due to deportation from Bytom and Beuthen Jewish Community. Many of them never even got registered as prisoners. They were murdered on spot in gas chambers, which used poisonous Zyklon B to kill hundred of people in a matter of couple minutes.

In 1941 Heinrich Himmler order the expansion of the main camp. Thus began construction on Auschwitz II (or Birkenau). Located in a small town around 3 km from Oświęcim, Birkenau was a huge complex of barracks and crematoria. Unlike in the main camp, which consisted of actual buildings, the prisoners of Auschwitz II were living solely in wooden, poorly constructed bunkhouses they had to build themselves. Their living conditions were horrifying, which is why many prisoners died of hypothermia, starvation, and exhaustion. The barracks were especially dangerous to live in during cold winter months. Birkenau was not only the largest part of the camp complex, but it also held a greater part of mass murder apparatus.

 

By 1941 almost all of Polish Jews were either in the camps or living in ghettos. In the next two years, the extermination of those unfit to labor had increased to a horrific extent. In 1942 and 1943 an overwhelming majority of the prisoners delivered by an average of 1.5 trains a day were transported directly to gas chambers in Birkenau. The camp in Birkenau was called “the death factory”.

Most of the people killed in gas chambers were Jews transported from liquidated ghettos from all over Poland. In 1944, when the War was coming to an end, gas chambers and crematoria in Birkenau were blown up by SS officials to destroy any evidence of the annihilation. The concentration camp in Auschwitz was operating until the end of War.

Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum

Ramp in Auschwitz concentration camp

Ramp in Auschwitz concentration camp

It was decided in 1947 that the Museum and Memorial honoring the victims of Nazism should be established on the sites of camps. The originators of Auschwitz-Birkenau memorial and museum were Tadeusz Wąsowicz and other other former Auschwitz prisoners, acting under the direction of Poland’s Ministry of Culture and Art

The Museum is dedicated to those who died in Auschwitz and Birkenau. Camp’s barracks served as the first exhibition. In 1955 a new exhibition was planned to include inmates mug shots, shoes taken from murdered prisoners, Zyklon B canisters and other objects found in the camps. In general, this is the main exhibition still in use today.

In 1959 every nation who had victims in Auschwitz received a possibility to install their own exhibition. The “national exhibition” has been on display ever since and some parts are being renewed from time to time, for example, those of the former Soviet Union.

In 1979 Auschwitz Birkenau concentration camps were listed as UNESCO World Heritage Site. There has been controversy around the naming convention of the place. Due to its location, the Nazi death camps in Poland were called in international media as Polish concentration camp or even Polish death camp. It was strongly expressed by Polish, Jewish, American and many more associations and politicians that using such term is not only misleading and untrue but also harmful and disrespectful.

UNESCO, therefore, added a subheading to the name on the list – Auschwitz Birkenau, German Nazi Concentration and Extermination Camp (1940–1945). It was an important step in focusing on using appropriate nomenclature even though the mentioned term was only meant as a geographic reference.

Established on 2 July 1947, to this day the Museum has been visited by around 30 million people from all over the world. Many of them were holocaust survivors or people who lost their loved ones in the former concentration camp. Today the exhibitions include abandoned barracks where the inmates used to live, gas chambers, camp records, and belongings of the former prisoners.

Every year there’s a special celebration to mark the anniversary of the liberation of camp Auschwitz-Birkenau. In the past years it used to be attended by many former prisoners. The Auschwitz Birkenau memorial and museum is without doubts one of the most important places dedicated to holocaust remembrance. Next to other institutions, which include Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington or the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, this area of the former concentration camp has invaluable historical and cultural significance.

Explore the Auschwitz – Holocaust Museum

Today, the former camp, with its ruins of gas chambers and abandoned barracks, serves as a memorial site for victims of the holocaust and everyone else who lost their lives in the concentration camps of Auschwitz. The museum was established on 2 extant parts of the Auschwitz Birkenau camp, with sites in both Oświęcim and Brzezinka.

A visit to the Auschwitz Museum is not an easy experience. The camp complex, even though partially destroyed by the Nazis following Soviet liberation, still holds many important memorabilia of its victims. Among the Museum’s holdings are personal items of the prisoners, including thousands pairs of shoes, over 3000 suitcases, kitchen utensils, almost 500 prostheses and orthoses, artwork, or even clumps of hair.

All of this awaits tourists in the first part of the museum, in town of Oświęcim. That’s also where they can see the infamous Arbeit Macht Frei sign, which used to ‘greet’ prisoners first coming to the camp with a false hope of liberation through hard work.

Barracks, buildings, and memorabilia, paired with stories told by museum tour guides, leave a huge, often devastating impression on tourists. Despite it not being the most pleasant excursion, there are many reasons to visit the ruins of the Auschwitz camp and grounds of two extant parts of the museum. It’s one of the most invaluable ways to honor the memory of Nazi’s victims, as well as learn about the Holocaust and its frightening ideology.

The events that took place there are beyond what most people can imagine. It’s important to see the remains of those atrocities with one’s own eyes, if only to believe that something like this could ever happen. That’s why the museum was created.

How to prepare for Auschwitz-Birkenau visit?

Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum is unlike any other museum you’ll ever see. It’s not a typical ‘tourist attraction’, yet to be in Kraków and not plan a visit there, is to miss out on a very important experience. Having said that, due to the nature of the site, there are certain rules that need to be followed while visiting. Here are some guidelines and tips, as well as practical information, that you should keep in mind:

  • Admission to the the grounds of Museum is free of charge.
  • The entire visit can be as short or as long as you’d like, but it’s advisable to reserve at least 3 hours for the tour – 90 minutes for Auschwitz I and 90 minutes for Auschwitz II-Birkenau. It is essential to visit both parts to get a sense of the cruelty that took place there.
  • Since the Museum is a site of death of many people, you should come properly clothed and act with proper solemnity and respect for the Victims.
  • Taking pictures on the grounds of the State Museum for your own purposes, without using a flash and stands, is allowed with the exceptions of hall with the hair of Victims (block nr 4) and the basements of Block 11.
  • The maximum size of backpacks or handbags allowed on the site is 30x20x10 cm.
  • For anybody who needs extra help with preparing for the visit to the former camp, the Museum has prepared a special guidebook available here.

Auschwitz location

Auschwitz is located around 70 km from Krakow. It lies on the outskirts of Oświęcim, by the national road no. 933. Two international airports: Krakow-Balice and Katowice-Pyrzowice are situated within several dozen km of the Museum.

Both Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau have paid car parks for visitors. You can enter them from Stanislawa Leszczynska 16 street. There are free buses that shuttle from Auschwitz I to Auschwitz II-Birkenau, as they are located 3,5 km apart. Also, taxi transportation operated by HELO TAXI company are available in front of the Museum entrance. It is also possible to walk between the two objects. By choosing this option, you’ll see the original loading ramp and – Alte Judenrampe, where prisoners’ transport and selection took place.

How to get from Krakow to Auschwitz

  • Private tours: Private tours from Krakow to Auschwitz are provided by many travel companies in the city and are very popular among Krakow visitors (example: https://krakowdirect.com/auschwitz-tours/). They offer direct transport to the Museum, a private car, entry pass to the Museum and a guide. This type of tour usually includes hotel pick up and drop off as well. A ride from Krakow to Auschwitz takes about 1 hour 15 minutes. Prices vary depending on the company.
  • A train departs each hour from Krakow Glowny (Main Station) to Oswiecim. A train ride from Krakow takes up to 2 hours and costs around 20 PLN one-way. Tickets are available to purchase at the train station or in advance via online system. You can search connection on: https://rozklad-pkp.pl/en. Auschwitz Museum is located about 2 km from the railway station in Oswiecim, from where you can take a public bus.
  • Several bus carriers operate between Krakow Glowny (Main Station) and Oswiecim. You can search connection on website: http://rozklady.mda.malopolska.pl/?lang=eng#krk. The ride takes around 5 hours and costs up to 15 PLN one-way. Minibus and PKS stops are located in the vicinity of Museum.

Auschwitz tour

The Museum organizes daily guided tours that individual visitors can join. There are different types of tours that vary in character and length:

  • General tours (2,5 h),
  • General tours (3,5 h),
  • One-day study tours (6 h),
  • Two-day study tours (2×4 h)
  • Guided tours for individual visitors (3,5 h)

As the sites in Auschwitz and Birkenau are very well posted, it is also possible to walk on your own. However, it is recommended to visit the place with a guide for getting more valuable knowledge of Auschwitz history.

Admission to the Auschwitz Museum is free of charge.
Entrance tickets should be booked in advance.
Due to large numbers of visitors, daily limits apply.

There is very well-presented system of plaques with historical information. Some of the plaques has QR codes – by scanning them, you can download and listen to testimonies of former prisoners who talk about particular locations.

Because of a large number of visitors guides should be reserved at least one month before a planned visit.

Guided tour with an educator may be reserved:

  • on the visit.auschwitz.org (up to 5 days before the visit)
  • by e-mail (2-5 days before the visit – private tour with an educator)

Ticket prices for guided groups:

Guided service + general tour 2.5 h

  • for 10 people – 550 PLN
  • for 20 people – 650 PLN
  • for 30 people – 700 PLN

Guided service + general tour 3.5 h

  • for 10 people – 550 PLN
  • for 20 people – 650 PLN
  • for 30 people – 750 PLN

Guided service + general tour 6 h

  • for 10 people – 730 PLN
  • for 20 people – 830 PLN
  • for 30 people – 880 PLN

Guided service + two-day tour 4h/4h

  • for 10 people – 820 PLN
  • for 20 people – 920 PLN
  • for 30 people – 970 PLN

Regular Entry Pass for individual visit for Guided Tours

  • in Polish – 75 PLN
  • in other language – 85 PLN

Only the right to visit the Museum with an educator, the renting of headphones and online guided tour is subject to a charge. Students below 26 y.o and people over 75 years of age and/or those who have a disabled person’s ID are entitled to a reduced price. If you want to find out more, go to: http://auschwitz.org/en/visiting/guides/.

Booking

Since the memorial center is located just west of Krakow, you can now book the Auschwitz Tour from Krakow with our trusted partner Krakow Direct – a company that offers the best quality services in Krakow’s travel market. The 2021 Travellers Choice award, with almost 4000 positive reviews on Trip Advisor.

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Auschwitz opening hours

The Museum is open all year long, seven days a week, except January 1, December 25, and Easter Sunday. You can start the visit in the following hours*:

December 7:30 am – 2:00 pm
January, November 7:30 am – 3:00 pm
February 7:30 am – 4:00 pm
March, October 7:30 am – 5:00 pm
April, May, September 7:30 am – 6:00 pm
June, July, August 7:30 am – 7:00 pm

* These are the hours of the entrance to the Museum. A visitor may stay on the site of the Museum 90 minutes after the last entrance hour (i.e. 5.30 in February or 8.30 in July) 

Please bear in mind that visiting Auschwitz Birkenau may be a traumatic experience, therefore visiting with children younger than 14 years old is not recommended.

FAQ

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  1. Johnny

    I was there last year and I’m going to do the trip this year, this time with my son. I guess It was really shocking, even if I knew what to expect in a concentration camp. I guess that children under 15 should not be taken there. I didn’t take any guide so I was walking by my own and I do not regret that as I could spend there as much time as I wanted. Before going to the Auschwitz concentration camp, I was visiting also Krakow (the city nearby). I was in Kazimierz (Jewish Quarter) and in a former Jewish ghetto in the district called Podgorze. As my mother was half Jewish, I am strongly interested in Jewish culture and history. The south part of Poland, especially Krakow and its surroundings turned out to be a perfect place to do this.

  2. T-JAY

    My visit in Auschwitz concentration camp was unforgettable as well. This was the second Polish concentration camp in a row for me (the first was Majdanek near Lublin) and the 6th in Europe – I was in Serbia and Ukraine before. Anyway, Johnny I think you’ve missed a lot by not taking the guide in a camp. It wouldn’t be so interesting without the lady that showed our group the camp step by step and explained everything how it went. Actually, she said that she’s been working in the camp for 25 years and she’s already spent the most of her life in the concentration camp. Of course, you can read about all of theese things online but it’s way better to have the live narration while you are walking through the camp. I also wouldn’t agree with the claim that children under 15 should not be taken there. I guess they should be aware of this, it’s like the part of growing up and getting an experience in life.

  3. Marcy

    What can a person say? This is very sad and completely disturbing. How can people do this to people?