Suggestions for Visiting Oświęcim and Auschwitz
I have visited Oświęcim (the city) and Auschwitz (the concentration camp) four times to do research for various books I have written. Like many people, I had apprehensions about making such a trip before I went the first time. It is not an easy journey to take, geographically and emotionally, but it is one that was necessary as I researched my books Auschwitz: Voices From the Death Camp and The Prisoners of Breendonk: Personal Histories from a World War II Concentration Camp.
You can easily find a group tour to take if you would like to visit Auschwitz and other Holocaust sites in Europe; that is a simple but somehwat restrictive way to see the camp. I have chosen to go as an individual, without a tour. Based on my experiences there, I can offer the following suggestions for individuals who want to see Auschwitz on their own:
Getting there. I have arrived in Oświęcim two different ways: (1) I have flown to Krakow, rented a car, and driven to the camp (you can also take a day tour from Krakow), and (2) I have flown to Berlin (where I had research to do) and driven to Auschwitz, which is less than six hours away. It is obviously less taxing to drive from Krakow than Berlin, but it is easy to combine a visit to both cities. If you choose to drive from Berlin to Oświęcim, the highways are excellent (except for the first forty miles of highway into Poland).
The infamous main gate at Auschwitz I
Read about the camp before you visit. Two excellent general books are Anatomy of the Auschwitz Death Camp (an in-depth look at the camp by scholars and researchers) and Auschwitz: A New History (a more general book by one author); you can't go wrong with either one. Many people who visit Auschwitz are unaware that it was really three camps: Auschwitz I (the original camp that was created from an old Polish military barracks and the administrative center), Auschwitz II-Birkenau (the extermination center which eventually had six gas chambers), and Monowitz (the slave labor camp and subcamps).
Although there are book shops on the way into Auschwitz I, the more you know ahead of time, the more meaningful the experience will be. If nothing else, make sure you purchase a laminated map of the camp. It will come in handy. Signs and display labels are written in English, but such labels do not provide as much information as you might want. Audio guides are also available at the main desk.
Spend two days at the site. Although you can see both Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau in one day if you rush, you will learn more and see more if you can stay two days. On the first day, you tour Auschwitz I, which is the main museum site. On the second day, you tour Auschwitz II-Birkenau; you will need walking shoes for this and a map.
Visiting Auschwitz I. Whether you spend the better part of a day there or only a few hours, I cannot stress how important it is to arrive when it opens at 8 a.m. The main parking lot is open (about 10 PLN or about 3 EUR for all-day parking), and tour buses will already be there. Many more tour buses come as the day progresses. As you approach the memorial, many parking agents along the road will wave you into their lot, but it is easier to park in the main lot.
But note this rule: "From April 1 to October 31, entrance to the grounds of the former Auschwitz I camp during peak visiting hours (10:00 am to 3:00 pm) is permitted only with a Museum guide. This restriction does not apply to the grounds of the former Auschwitz II-Birkenau camp." Believe me, this is not how you want to see the camp. You want time to linger and think and even speed up if you need to. On the other hand, you can arrange through the Auschwitz Memorial website to book a personal guide for a variety of tours. If your time or background knowledge are limited, this might be an excellent way to have a more personalized visit.
Also, you should be aware that very strict security measures are in operation now at Auschwitz I. Airport metal detectors are now in operation. No backpacks or large purses can be taken inside the Auschwitz I; items must be smaller than a sheet of standard computer paper (security agents will measure). A check room is outside in an adjacent buildinbg; checked items cost 3 PLN.
If you want to avoid the crowds, you will want to go to the camp at 8 o'clock. But try to avoid weekends and holidays, where there will be more visitors. When I have visited in October and March, I have been able to wander without the crowds that you will find there in summer.
Street of barracks at Auschwitz I
The best route for touring Auschwitz I is to pass through the entrance gate and head for Block 4. This barrack and the next three (buildings 5-7) are the main museum buildings in Auschwitz I. These are the most difficult buildings to visit because, among other items, they house the evidence of the mass murder that took place in Auschwitz I and Auschwitz-Birkenau. They also provide a glimpse into everyday life at Auschwitz I.
After Block 7, go to the courtyard between Blocks 10 and 11. This houses the Black Wall, where early executions were carried out by gun; it is a special memorial today, and you will see many flowers there honoring the dead. Then go into Block 11 which was a kind of prison with the camp, where prisoners were held (sometimes starved) as they awaited execution and where the first gassing experiment took place.
Depending on your time, there are other barracks with special exhibits, which I highly recommend. You will see information that you did not know before (no matter how much you have read about the camp):
Block 13 The Extermination of the European Roma
Block 14 USSR
Block 15 Poland
Block 16 Czech Republic and Slovakia
Block 17 Yugoslavia and Austria
Block 18 Hungary
Block 20 France and Belgium
Block 21 Italy and the Netherlands
Block 27 The Marytyrdom and Struggle of the Jews
Please note that some of these special exhibits do not open until 10 a.m., although Blocks 4-7 are open at 8 a.m.
There are a few other other areas that you may want to see:
The commandant's house (You can't actually reach it, but you can see it through the fence. It's near the end of the street just beyond Block 13. It's a private home now.)
The prison gallows (near the camp kitchen building, which faces Blocks 15-18)
The first gas chamber and crematorium (Notice how close it was to the commandant's house. Experiments with Zyklon-B were done in this building.)
The gallows on which Rudolf Höss, the first commandant of the camp, was hanged (it is just opposite the crematorium and within sight of his former house).
This covers the main highlights of Auschwitz I. There is a little snackbar inside if you need some coffee or a soft drink. The bookshops outside the visitor's center also sell snacks and drinks. Unless you are on a tight schedule and need to visit Auschwitz II-Birkenau, you should stop for the day and relax.
Spending the night. After one day in Auschwitz I, I found that it was important to take care of myself emotionally. For this reason, I sought a hotel in Oświęcim that was removed from the camp, where I could relax and reflect and have a good meal. The hotel I have used each time I visited is a few miles away, on the east side of town: Hotel Galicja and Wellness Spa. I have not tried the spa, but I can vouch for the rooms and the two restaurants (one is traditional Polish, one is Italian; both are open all day). Prices are extremely reasonable, and the staff (especially in the restaurant) is courteous and friendly.
A side trip. If you want to visit the town of Oświęcim (which I highly recommend), you can get a feel for Oshpitzin (the Jewish name for the town). Here is a link to a map which shows many of the main Jewish sites of the town.
I recommend a walk around the main square.
You may be surprised that there is a Jewish Museum and Synagogue across the street from the town square. You get a glimpse of Jewish life in Oshpitzin before World War II; it's a very powerful and meaningful place, especially after you have witnessed the horrors of the Holocaust down the road. There is a small bookshop and cafe where you can have a drink and a piece of cake.
There is also a Jewish cemetery; you can glimse it through a locked gate, but if you wish to visit and pay your respects, you can borrow the key from the synagogue/museum.
Visiting Auschwitz II-Birkenau. The road to Birkenau is well sign-posted from Auschwitz I. But I want to make a suggestion for another side trip. As you near Auschwitz II-Birkenau (which was an old farming hamlet before the Nazis took it over and created the death camp), you will see a sign for the Judenrampe.This is the place transport trains carrying Jews arrived in the early years. It is worth a detour to turn down the road until you find the Judenrampe, with its train car memorial and informational signs. You will also find well-kept modern houses across the road.
Train car memorial at the Judenrampe on the way to Auschwitz II-Birkenau
When you arrive at Birkenau, there is a parking lot on the right and a sidewalk to the main gate. Birkenau is huge, and you will wander aimlessly unless you have planned an itinerary.
I find it best to head straight in. You will notice right away that a great deal of Birkenau is gone or in ruins. Most prisoner barracks, not well constructed, have disappeared, except for chimneys or stoves.
The remains of a kitchen block, a barbed wire fence, and in the distance some barracks
But as you go halfway down the dirt road from the main entrance, you will see an intersection. On the left, you will see an area of brick buildings that are still standing intact. These are the remains of the women's camp (the men's camp until 1943). Turn left at the intersection and then right at the next path. Some of these barracks may be open (though the ground can be very muddy). Inside, you will find the original bunks.
On my trips to Auschwitz II-Birkenau, it was important for me to walk through the entire site. I wanted to see the gas chambers and crematoria, so that I had a sense of their placement and their appearance. Again, these are in ruins, but signs, drawings, and photos explain what they looked like.
The ruins of Gas Chamber V
I wanted to see the location of the Roma camp. I wanted to see Bunker I and Bunker II, the original farmhouse gas chambers at Birkenau. They are hard to find, but they were important to me. I know the daughter of a Belgian woman who was murdered in one of them in August 1942. And, we have recently learned, my wife had two relatives who were murdered there as well.
The site of Bunker 1 is marked only by a memorial; it is on the north side of Birkenau, outside the main area of the camp. Residential homes are nearby.
The site of Bunker 2 still shows its foundations
I have walked the perimeter of Birkenau in good weather, in rainy weather, and on a day when a blizzard was coming. I left each time with a heavy heart and extremely sad. But it was important for me to pay my respects to those who suffered and those who died there.
If you ever have the opportunity, I encourage you to do the same.