Is Auschwitz Worth Visiting?

Not for the first time that day, I asked myself if I should be visiting Auschwitz.

The apprehensive mood inside the minibus from Kraków cloaked us like a shroud. Driving rain from an ash-grey sky beat a staccato rhythm on the windshield, which increased in tempo as we approached the former death camp.

“I watched The Pianist last night to get into the mood,” shared Katerina from Athens. Beside her, Athanasius, her husband, intermittently hummed an unknown tune.

Stepping outside at Auschwitz it was cold. Bitterly cold. The sort of cold that penetrated my down coat, woollen gloves and warm boots.

But, in a strange way, that felt fitting.

Standing in front of the concentration camp where an estimated 1.1 million people perished, 90% of them Jews, the bleakness of the day brought home the reality of the Holocaust in a way that no book or film ever could. The outside chill matched that slowly creeping up my spine.

warning sign at auschwitz camp

Visiting Auschwitz I: Work Will Set You Free

We enter Auschwitz I under the twisted iron of the “Arbeit Macht Frei” gate – work will set you free. Whilst it has a cruelly symbolic status, only a small proportion of the estimated 1.3 – 1.5 million prisoners who entered the concentration camp passed under this gate.

Arbeit Macht Frei sign at entrance to Auschwitz I
Arbeit Macht Frei: Work will set you free – Auschwitz I

Auschwitz was, in fact, a collection of camps.

Auschwitz I, a former Polish Army barracks, had its first intake of political prisoners in June 1940. However, Hitler’s murderous intent knew no bounds.

In 1941, to increase the camp’s capacity from 30,000 to 100,000, Auschwitz II – Birkenau was built, 3km northwest of Auschwitz I. It was here that the majority of Jewish prisoners died.

Once through this infamous gate, we are greeted with a series of perfectly preserved red-brick barrack buildings, neatly spaced in rows.

Some of these are largely untouched, frozen in time. The remaining buildings house exhibitions displaying a total of 80,000 artefacts remembering the lives lost during the Holocaust.

Block 5 – Material Evidence of Crime

In Block 5 we walk past a case piled high with shoes of every conceivable style, from work boots to flowery summer sandals, the type of fancy footwear that you might wear on a day trip to the beach.

pile of old shoes
Shoes: Auschwitz I

A tangled mass of eyeglasses, weighing a total of 40 kg, peer out at us from another case.

Behind a glass wall running the length of one room are seven tonnes of human hair, shaved from victims before or after death. In life, this mass of hair would have been a spectrum of colours. Over time, it has faded to a uniform dull grey.

Documentary photos show no evidence of distress as Jews awaited transfer to Auschwitz. There is a good reason for this. Unaware of the fate that awaited them, the Jews believed that they were being relocated.

This is evident from other exhibits in Auschwitz’s Museum.

There are hundreds of suitcases, neatly labelled with their owner’s name. Displayed in another case are kitchen utensils, colour-coded in keeping with Kosher law, never again to be used in the preparation of a family meal.

pile of old suitcases

Block 11 – The jail

The infamous Block 11 housed the administrative offices of Auschwitz and was the central jail for prisoners across the camp complex. Here, prisoners were punished and tortured in regular, dark or standing cells.

Standing cells were a particularly cruel form of punishment. Each cell was a space measuring less than one square meter and the only source of air was a 5 square centimetre opening covered by a metal grille. Prisoners could be confined here from one night up to several weeks.

In the courtyard between Block 11 and Block 10 is the so-called Wall of Death. Thousands of prisoners met their fate here, lined up in front of a firing squad.

Opposite the entrance to Block 11, you can see two unremarkable wooden posts. From here, prisoners were hanged from each hand tied behind their back. A barbaric form of punishment.

Roll-call square

Twice a day, at 4.30 am (5.30 am in the winter) and 7 pm, prisoners assembled in Auschwitz’s central ‘square’ for roll-call. They were counted, and if the numbers didn’t tally the roll-call would be prolonged. There is one 19-hour roll-call on record.

street lined with barracks buildings in the rain in auschwitz

Winters in Poland in the 1940s were harsh and lows of –25 degrees were not unheard of. Many perished during these head-counts.

As the number of prisoners increased, eventually roll-call was conducted in front of individual barracks.

The gas chamber

The remaining gas chamber at Auschwitz is easily the most chilling area of the former concentration camp.

For a truly spine-tingling moment look upwards. Light struggles to peek through the small holes in the roof, into which the Nazis poured deadly Zyklon.

The entire Auschwitz complex had seven gas chambers and five crematoria.

Prior to the liberation of the camp, the Nazis blew most of these up. However, in their haste to destroy any incriminating evidence, this gas chamber was overlooked as it had been converted into an air-raid shelter in 1943.

Documenting arrivals at Auschwitz

 However, avoiding the gas chamber was no guarantee of surviving Auschwitz. This is evident from the rows of photographs displayed in the museum.

Until 1942, guards documented an image of each new prisoner. Under each haunting image is the person’s name, nationality or ‘status’ (for example; “Jew”), occupation, date of arrival at Auschwitz and date of death.

For most of these people, there is only a small gap between these two dates.

Visiting Auschwitz II – Birkenau

The size of Auschwitz II – Birkenau reveals the scale of Hitler’s murderous ambition. Less of a museum and more of a memorial, Auschwitz II – Birkenau is 20 times the size of Auschwitz I.

The remains of its structures, including its 300 mostly wooden barracks, have been left untouched. These include a pile of rubble that was a gas chamber and Crematorium IV. 

Unlike the other crematoria at Auschwitz, this was not blown up by the Nazis. Instead, it was burnt down during a mutiny led by the Sonderkommandos earlier in 1944.

converging railway lines at Auschwitz II - Birkenau
From the unloading ramp at Auschwitz II – Birkenau

Only those deemed to be useful – invariably the young and fit – avoided the gas chamber. Their ‘reward’ was a sentence of forced labour and existence in appalling conditions.

It was at the unloading ramp that dreams began to die. Dreams of a new home. Dreams of a new life. Dreams of meeting children and grandchildren yet to be born.

Why You Should Visit Auschwitz

After liberation, the original intent was to raze Auschwitz to the ground and, along with it, the evil that had resided there.

However, yielding to overwhelming pressure from its freed prisoners, this decision was reversed. Instead, it has been preserved as a memorial to those who perished there.

The first tour groups were taken around Auschwitz in 1947. Their guides were former prisoners.

But Auschwitz is not only a place to remember and honour the victims of the Nazis’ genocide.

Its buildings silently stand as witnesses to the atrocities that took place there between 1941 and 1944, a warning to humans not to repeat the horrors of the past. Sadly, more recent genocides suggest that humankind is not fully capable of learning these lessons.

I have seen the statistics and visited Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. I have read more than one book on and the subject, seen more than one film.

But it wasn’t until I visited Auschwitz that I could fully appreciate and understand the scale of these atrocities. Somehow it made the horror of the Holocaust more real, more visceral.

Ultimately, a visit to Auschwitz is a profoundly moving experience.

Documentary images of those who perished stare out at you, frozen at that moment in time. Their collected belongings – pots and pans, suitcases, footwear, combs and brushes, tins of hair pomade – declare their belief that they were moving to a different life.

However, the most moving moment came right at the end of my visit.

As we were exiting Auschwitz II – Birkenau, we passed a group of young Israeli visitors. To the haunting strains of John Williams’ theme from the film Schindler’s List, they wordlessly entered the camp, arms wrapped around each other in collective grief and solidarity.

Not for the first time that day, I fought back tears.

flowers scattered on a railway line seen when visiting auschwitz
Floral tribute: Railway track, Auschwitz II – Birkenau

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PLAN YOUR VISIT TO AUSCHWITZ

Where is Auschwitz in Poland?

Auschwitz is in Oświęcim, 66km west of Kraków. It is 35km southeast of Katowice.

MAP SHOWING WHERE IS AUSCHWITZ IN POLAND
Auschwitz in Poland. Map data @ 2021 Google

You can either visit on an organised tour or independently.

How to Visit Auschwitz on an Organised Tour

I joined a tour group in Kraków which, on balance, was the right decision. It was convenient and the guide was excellent, providing far more context than I could have gleaned from a guidebook.

However, the downside was that it sometimes felt rushed and it didn’t give me a chance for quiet reflection whilst there.

Most of the tour operators in Kraków offer Auschwitz as a day trip. You can also combine Auschwitz and the Wieliczka Salt Mines into one day trip. This is useful if you are short on time but may feel a little rushed.

I used GetYourGuide to identify day trips to Auschwitz. In my experience, they are reliable, offer a good selection of tours and you can cancel up to 24 hours before your excursion for a full refund.

RECOMMENDED DAY TRIPS TO AUSCHWITZ

AUSCHWITZ-BIRKENAU GUIDED TOUR WITH TRANSPORT

I took this excellent excursion which included transport in a minibus from Kraków, entrance fees and a guide.

>>> BOOK YOUR TOUR HERE

AUSCHWITZ-BIRKENAU & LABYRINTH DAY TOUR

If I was returning to Auschwitz, I’d be tempted to opt for this excursion as it includes a visit to the ”Frames of memory. Labyrinths” art installation by a former prisoner.

>>> BOOK YOUR TOUR HERE

VISIT AUSCHWITZ & THE SALT MINE IN ONE DAY

This full-day guided tour allows you to explore two of Poland’s most popular destinations in one day: Auschwitz-Birkenau and the Wieliczka Salt Mine. It’s also fantastic value.

>>> BOOK YOUR TOUR HERE

How to Visit Auschwitz Independently

To enter the Auschwitz Memorial, you must have a ticket and carry your ID with you. There are two types of entry tickets: a general admission ticket (tour without an educator) or a tour with an educator (General Tour). 

Guided tours last for 2.5 or 3.5 hours. However, the shorter duration tour is available only when the opening hours of the Auschwitz Museum do not allow booking a 3.5-hour tour.

Longer study tours are also available.

General admission tickets are available only in the latter half of the day. Thier availability is further limited in the summer months when self-guided tours are prohibited between 10 am and 4 pm.

Tickets need to be pre-booked through the Auschwitz Memorial website at least one month before a planned visit. Book your ticket here

How to Get to Auschwitz from Kraków

Getting to Auschwitz from Kraków by bus

From the main bus station in Kraków (Dworzec Autobusowy), there are direct bus services between Kraków and Auschwitz each day. The journey takes from 85 minutes to 1 hour 40 minutes.

Buses from Kraków arrive at Oswiecim’s Museum Auschwitz bus stop.

Getting to Auschwitz from Kraków by train

Frequent trains run between Kraków and Oświęcim. The fastest journey time is 90 minutes.

Although slightly cheaper than the bus, the train is less convenient, the station located between Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II – Birkenau.

Getting to Auschwitz from Kraków by shared minibus

Shared minibuses also ply the route between Auschwitz and Kraków. They depart from Kraków’s bus station and cost 4 Euro.

How to Get to Auschwitz from Katowice

It is also possible to visit Auschwitz on day trip from Katowice.

Infrequent direct trains leave from Katowice’s central station bound for Oświęcim. The fastest journey time is 50 minutes.

You will need to make your way to Auschwitz I on foot or by local bus to start your visit.

Although on the pricey side, a more conveneient way to visit Auschwitz from Katowice is on an organised tour. Check out the options here.

How to get between Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II – Birkenau

If you don’t fancy walking the 3km between Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II – Birkenau, there is a free shuttle bus that runs every 30 minutes.

Auschwitz: Frequently Asked Questions

Is Auschwitz free to visit?

Although admission to Auschwitz-Birkenau is free, you have to pay for the guided tour with an educator. In 2021, this costs 85 PLN (75 PLN for tours in Polish).

How far in advance can you book tickets for Auschwitz-Birkenau?

Tickets for Auschwitz-Birkenau are released 90 days in advance.

What should I do if Auschwitz-Birkenau is fully booked for my dates of travel?

If there are no tickets available, I recommend checking guided tour options with GetYourGuide.

Is Auschwitz open year-round?

The Museum is open every day with the exception of 1 January, 25 December and Easter Sunday. Check opening hours here.

How old do you have to be to visit Auschwitz?

Whilst there are no rules regarding age on a tour of Auschwitz, it’s recommended that those under the age of 14 should not visit.

How long does it take to visit Auschwitz?

You will need at least 90 minutes to visit Auschwitz I and a further 60-90 minutes for Auschwitz II – Birkenau.

Can you take photos inside Auschwitz?

With the exception of two locations – the exhibit of the hair of victims and the basement of Block 11 – photography is permitted throughout the camp. But please be respectful. This should be a selfie-free zone.

I am visiting Auschwitz as part of a visit to Kraków. Do you have any suggestions for what to do in Kraków?

I sure do! Check out this walking tour of Kraków’s Royal Road and my bumper article on how to spend four days in Kraków.

If you thinking of celebrating the festive season in this lovely city, discover why you should spend Christmas in Kraków.

Tips for Visiting Auschwitz

Eating & drinking 

There are a few limited options at the entrance to Auschwitz I 

Clothes and footwear

Show respect for the location and dress appropriately. It can be bitterly cold in the winter, so wrap up warm.

As there will be a lot of walking over uneven ground – I clocked up 5 km on my visit – wear comfortable shoes. If it has been raining, it can also be muddy in places.

Bags 

There are strictly enforced restrictions on the size of bag you can bring into Auschwitz I (30 x 20 x 10cm). Lockers are available.

Where to Stay When Visiting Auschwitz

Although there are a few local hotels, the majority of people visit Auschwitz as a day trip from Kraków.

There is no shortage of places to stay in Krakow, accommodating all budgets. Here are a few options.

Mid-range

Mercure Stare Misto – I stayed at this comfortable 4-star chain hotel, conveniently located opposite the train station and a 10-minute walk from the Market Square. Recommended.

>>> CLICK HERE TO BOOK A ROOM

Here are some alternatives that I have found that may suit other budgets:

Splurge

Balthazar Design Hotel – In the heart of the old town, close to Wawel Castle, this boutique has garnered rave reviews.

>>> CLICK HERE TO BOOK A ROOM

Budget

EWM Kopernika 8.3 – Market Square & Old Town – This centrally-located apartment looks like a fantastic budget choice. It has the bonus of a garden area for outdoor dining.

>>> CLICK HERE TO BOOK AN APARTMENT

>>> None of these places take your fancy? Click here for other great accommodation choices in Kraków.

Recommended Books & Films

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When Lale Sokolov arrived in Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1942 he was given the job of tattooing the prisoners marked for survival. These numbers scratched in indelible ink became one of the most potent symbols of the Holocaust.

A poignant story about an Auschwitz survivor.

Buy the novel here

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John Boyne’s moving novel tells of the friendship between 9-year-old Bruno and Schmuel, conducted through the wire fence of the concentration camp. But ultimately it is about the loss of innocence

Buy the novel or stream on Amazon Prime

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Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece is one of the most historically significant films of all time. Following the true story of enigmatic Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson), who saved the lives of more than 1,100 Jews during the Holocaust, this multi-Oscar winner was shot around Kraków and in Auschwitz.

Buy on BluRay or stream on Amazon Prime

PLAN YOUR TRIP TO POLAND

GETTING THERE

Skyscanner is my go-to platform to search for flights. I like having the ability to filter results by cabin class and to compare the price of flights across an entire month. Skyscanner also supports multi-city options in searching for open-jaw flights.

STAYING THERE

I book 80% of my accommodation with Booking.com. Rates are competitive and many reservations are cancellable without penalty.

Alternatively, check rates and availability on Expedia.

Check accommodation reviews, and prices across a range of booking platforms, on TripAdvisor.

TRAVEL INSURANCE

Wherever you travel in the world it’s important to have comprehensive travel insurance to protect you against illness, injury, theft, and cancellations. Check if World Nomads will cover your needs.

OTHER TRAVEL RESOURCES

Check out my Travel Resources page for the companies and other resources I use when planning my trips and whilst I am away.