There’s so much to tell you about visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau that I’ve split this into two posts: first the emotional side of things, then the practical side. It’s important not to let logistics overtake the reasons you’d want to visit: to learn, to pay respects, to remember, and to pass on what you’ve seen.
My mum and I arrived on a cold but sunny March morning and joined a group tour with an official guide. This was what we discovered under bright blue skies.
What to Expect
Auschwitz I looks less like a traditional camp and more like a forlorn housing estate, because it used to be an army barracks, whereas Birkenau’s low wooden buildings were stables for horses before they housed people, and the brick buildings came later. Life goes on around the camps, with houses and businesses on their very fringes, and signs directing you to KFC. Monowitz-Buna, one of the satellite camps, was based further away and doesn’t exist anymore, but our guide pointed it out from Birkenau as laying beyond the two industrial towers in the distance.
The museum itself is really at Auschwitz I, and this is where the bulk of your visit takes place. Not all blocks are open to the public, but those with exhibits are well marked and you can’t miss the processions trooping in and out. Gardeners are dotted around, lugging wheelbarrows and trimming the grass. It must be a very eerie place to work.
I was really moved by the photos of early prisoners from 1942-43, when each arrival was documented (later this was abandoned, with too many prisoners to monitor and photograph, plus large numbers were sent straight to the gas chambers without being registered at all). Their jobs before being incarcerated are also mentioned: waiters, accountants, locksmiths, teachers.
As the dates below these photos prove, prisoners typically lasted a few months in these nightmarish surroundings; some already looked painfully emaciated on arrival. Many looked haunted, but a handful desperately tried to smile.
The most emotionally draining parts of the museum are the belongings recovered from prisoners, because this is quantifiable horror: piles of tangled glasses, well-worn shoes and enamelware, all surplus to requirements, their owners force-fed into the jaws of the konzentrationslager. My mum was lost for words when she saw the neat display of children’s clothing. How do you even process sights like that?
Two parts of the exhibition aren’t allowed to be photographed: the piles of human hair, and the death cells in Block 11 where people were starved over a fortnight or slowly gassed over a horrific period of two days. It’s really insulting to the victims’ memories if you take pictures in these banned areas, so please don’t try.
Birkenau is vast and daunting. I really don’t think you could grasp its significance without at least carrying a guidebook, but I don’t regret seeing it as part of a group. It would be all too easy for most of us to skim the surface, then turn and leave – for one thing, it’s a long walk to the ruined gas chambers and the memorials from the main gate. However, you should take this walk.
The buildings that have been deliberately destroyed are covered in lichen and carefully cordoned off, but they are not to be ignored. That long trench-like subterranean corridor open to the elements is the undressing room, where prisoners would prepare for the shower they thought they’d be having. Anyone who had an inkling of what really lay in store was quickly silenced. The grim efficiency of the Nazis’ efficient factory of death is just as chilling as you’d imagine.
Like Auschwitz I, Birkenau was built by prisoners – in this case, Soviet POWs. In Laurence Rees’ book, Auschwitz: The Nazis and the ‘Final Solution’, he writes that: ‘Of the 10,000 Soviet prisoners who began building Birkenau that autumn , only a few hundred were still alive the following spring.’ (p.81). One fellow prisoner estimates these POWs’ life expectancy was just two weeks.
The most surprising thing about this camp was the amount of tourist graffiti in the living quarters (you can go inside one block to look at the bunks). It was really sad to see people’s scrawls on the walls, because they weren’t leaving messages of hope or respect, just tagging their names and the year they were here. I love street art, murals, and graffiti that really means something, but this was just moronic. More appropriately, someone had laid a rose on one of the bunks.
Is It Appropriate to Visit Auschwitz?
As long as you have the emotional intelligence and maturity to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau, you should take the opportunity. I honestly think you shouldn’t shelter children from this, either (provided it won’t leave them traumatised, but I’m guessing you can judge for yourself). Anyone unsure about taking kids along should read top travel blogger 1 Dad 1 Kid’s excellent post, To Bear Witness.
If you think it’s too grim, too far in the past, or simply irrelevant because you’re not Jewish, you’re missing the point. Concentration camps systematically destroyed millions of lives and many people in the wider world just didn’t want to intervene, out of self-interest or self-preservation.
Beyond the massacre of Jews, others who lost their lives included political prisoners, asocials (prostitutes, criminals, gay people, etc.), Gypsies, intellectuals and even monks, plus the POWs I mentioned before. For me, visiting is a way of remembering all those who suffered, and holding the perpetrators and bystanders to account.
Powerlessness Behind the Wire
When you physically stand in Auschwitz-Birkenau, you truly see what the prisoners were up against. Watchtowers and vantage points are all around, and the barbed wire and electric fences still send a chill down your spine. Though our guide pointed out the low ratio of guards to prisoners, he also showed how the odds were stacked against anyone wanting to break out of here.
Put yourself in the average prisoner’s battered shoes: you’ve probably arrived from months of hardship in the ghetto, or at the very least have endured days on the cattle trucks without any food and water. Ordered to undertake back-breaking work, you’re soon malnourished, exhausted and usually fighting illness or disease, but desperately trying to avoid being sent to the hospital block, where further gas chamber selections take place, not to mention lethal injections administered on a whim.
You’re ruled over by Kapos – high ranking prisoners, usually with a sadistic streak – and SS guards. Any sign of weakness is dangerous, and you’re terrified of turning into a muselmann: the nickname for the broken inmates who have lost the will to live, said to resemble living skeletons.
All escape attempts are punishable by death, plus your entire family would be interred and your friends in the camp would often be killed too. Your best chance of escape would be to join a work group sent to a nearby farm or satellite camp, but you’d have problems once you fled: the language barrier, the conspicuous clothing and ill-fitting shoes, not to mention the danger of trusting anyone in the outside world. Would you have taken the risk, let alone got away with it, knowing it wasn’t just your life on the line?
What to Read and Watch Before You Visit
- If This Is A Man, and The Truce, both by Primo Levi – a first-hand account of surviving Auschwitz, and the long journey back home to Italy after the camp’s liberation.
- Counterfeiter, by Moritz Nachtstern and Ragnar Arntzen – a little-known Nazi strategy: making prisoners forge enemy bank notes in a hidden camp workshop. Those chosen to become forgers in Auschwitz were sworn to secrecy and given to understand they’d be killed once they’d served their purpose.
- Auschwitz: The Nazis and the ‘Final Solution’, by Laurence Rees – a definitive guide to the camp, showing how it came to exist, and what happened to both prisoners and employees. He also puts the camp in the wider context of the regime and its ideology.
- Denial – a play by Red Card Theatre (see a Vimeo clip here), about people who visit Auschwitz to praise the Nazis. Based on an actual encounter with Neo Nazis at the site, it’s shocking but necessary viewing.
- The Girl Who Forgave The Nazis, originally broadcast on Channel 4 (available online) – one of Josef Mengele’s victims, experimented on at Auschwitz alongside her twin sister, famously decided to forgive the Nazis. She embraced unapologetic camp employee Oskar Groening at his trial, causing uproar amongst fellow survivors.
- Schindler’s List – the multiple Oscar-winning film, directed by Stephen Spielberg, focuses on Krakow-based factory owner Oscar Schindler (played by Liam Neeson) employing Jewish workers from the ghetto: firstly as cheap labour, but then as a way of saving them from the Auschwitz transports.
- Auschwitz Survivors 70 Years On – a photo essay from Business Insider.
Now you’re emotionally prepared, in my next post I’ll cover the best way to travel and the independent vs. guided tour dilemma, along with the basic advice you need to know before you arrive.