Auschwitz

I have always been interested in visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau.  I always thought that it was quite out of the way, but after some research it is quite easy to get there from Krakow.  There are many tour companies that offer day trips to Auschwitz-Birkenau from Krakow, but I really didn’t want to feel rushed through the camp so I decided to research how to get the Oswiecim and go to Auschwitz-Birkenau on my own.

I first looked at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Official Website to see what tours were available and at what times.

TICKETS TO AUSCHWITZ-BIRKENAU

I purchased two types of tickets on the official website.

  1. “Tour for individuals without an educator” at 8:00. This ticket is to tour Auschwitz on my own.  Most of the camp has English captions throughout the exhibits in the barrocks. These tickets are free of cost.
  2. General Tour 3.5 hour tour in English at 10:30.  I wanted to get more insight from a guide as well so I decided to take the 3.5 hour tour as well.  This ticket is 45 zloty.  The tour includes a tour of Auschwitz, a tour of Birkenau, and the shuttle to/from both places.

After I purchased the tickets online, I was emailed the tickets.  The tickets need to be printed out.

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Since I reserved early morning tickets, I knew that I should book a hotel in Oswiecim.  I decided on the Hotel Galicja.  It was the farthest from Auschwitz camp, but it looked like the nicest option and it wasn’t too expensive ($50).

There are several different ways to get to Oswiecim from Krakow.  You can take the train, bus, or taxi.  The bus looked like the cheapest option.  Since I was traveling with my mom, I decided to pay a little more and have a driver from Hotel Galicja pick us up from Krakow.  The drive from Krakow was beautiful!!  The countryside is very pleasant.  The drive took an hour.

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We arrived at Hotel Galicja at about 19:00.  We went promptly to bed since my mom and sister were jet lagged and we had a long day the next day.  We woke up early, and had breakfast at the hotel.  The breakfast was fantastic; one of the best we have had in Europe.  We then went to the front desk and had them call us a taxi.  The taxi was there within minutes.  Auschwitz camp was only a 5 miles drive from the hotel; it cost us 24 zloty.  We arrived to the camp just before 8:00.  There was already a line of people outside the front.  I think that they were in line to get tickets to go inside.  Thankfully we already had our tickets so we went straight to the front of the line.

You need to be mindful about the size of bag you bring.  I brought a smallish bag that I have never had a problem getting in to any museum or tourist site, but I had to check it here because the personnel said it was too big.  Your bag can’t be bigger than a 8×11 inches by 4 inches wide.  There is a small shack just outside the entrance where you check your bag; it seemed secure.  They give you a little dot with your number on it.  They will give you a very small, clear bag to hold necessary items, like wallet and phone.

Children

I had read many forums on whether it was okay to bring children to a site like this.  I think that one difficult thing about traveling with children is when there is a site the adult don’t want to miss, but there is no way NOT to bring the kids.  I dread the disapproving looks by other adults, but it really shouldn’t matter what other adults think because YOU are the parent!  I think that it is very doable to bring kids to this site.  Many people are worried about what the children will see there, but if you keep the kids outside the barracks, they will not have to see anything you do not want them to see.  You can choose which barracks are appropriate for your kids to see; if you don’t think they are old enough, one parent could stay outside while the other looks through each barrack.   I was going to bring my youngest daughter with me on this trip, but at the last minute she didn’t end up coming with me.  I felt like it was okay to bring my youngest because I was going to have her in a baby carrier the whole time and she would have slept.  I did see a few parents with strollers; most of the children were toddlers.  It would have been difficult to manage a stroller at Auschwitz because if you want to go in to the exhibitions inside the barracks, you cannot bring a stroller; there are no lifts and quite a bit of stairs in each one, and the hallways were quite small.  If I brought kids to this site, I would definitely go at the earliest time possible.  There are not many people at the camp early in the morning, so if your children ended up giving a tantrum, not too many people will be bothered by them.

Tour For Individuals Without An Educator

I am very happy that we chose to get early tickets at Auschwitz.  There were only a few people in the camp that early in the morning.  Most of the time, we were the only people in each of the barracks looking through the exhibits.  I felt like I could connect with the place better; there was a quiet reverence over the place.  There were many times that I got some chills. Since there weren’t very many people in the morning, I could also get some pictures that didn’t have other people in them which is always nice!

General Tour

I thought that maybe going on the tour after walking around on my own would be an overload of information, but it really wasn’t.  I really liked all of the insights that our tour guide had.  She was able to humanize the place with her many stories of people who were there.  This tour was at 10:30 and by this time, the camp was quite full with tour groups.  The grounds were so much louder with people talking; it definitely lost its quiet reverence that I felt earlier in the morning.  The barracks took quite a bit longer to get through since we were stuck in a single file line with a whole bunch of other tours.  The downside of going on a tour is that the guide can decide which barracks to go in to.  Our guide completely skipped Block 11 because the line was out the door.  This seemed to be the most important barrack to go in to and I was surprised that our guide completely skipped it.  We told some people in our tour that they needed to definitely go back and go through Block 11 before they leave; it is a must see! The general tour at Auschwitz took about 1.5 hours, then we got on a shuttle at the front entrance to go to Birkenau.  Our tour of Birkenau was about 1 hour.  We got to Birkenau at about 12-12:30.  There were a lot of people there.

AUSCHWITZ

A great website that details what you see at Auschwitz, along with pictures, can be found here: Website on Auschwitz

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I got this map from a guidebook I bought at the site. The legend shows each Block and the name of each exhibition found in each block — Block 4’s exhibition is on ‘Extermination’, etc.

The entrance in to Auschwitz is located at ‘it’ on the map.  You show them your tickets, then you walk to the back of the building to get out to the camp, or you sit in a little waiting area until your tour group has gathered.

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The main entrance of the camp (near ‘k’ on map) with the famous “Work sets you free” sign

It was kind of surreal to see the front gate.  I have seen it in so many documentaries that I couldn’t believe I was actually standing at the gate of Auschwitz.

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In front of this building on the left (near the front gate) is where an orchestra would be positioned. The orchestra would play to keep the prisoners marching in step when the left and returned to the camp. Across from ’24’ on map.
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Roll Call Square. The wider road from ‘d’ on the map.
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The Sentry Box is set at the front of the roll call square.  The SS could stay dry if it was raining during roll call.
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This is a reconstruction of the gallows in front of the kitchen.

 

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All of the barracks are the same on the exterior. These buildings were Polish Army barracks before the war.

I hadn’t realized that there were so many barracks, and the barracks were a lot larger than I had expected.  The construction of them were a much better quality than those found at Dachau, well, I guess that is because they were originally barracks for the Polish Army.  At least the buildings were tall so the prisoners were able to enjoy some shade during the days of Summer.

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Double Electrical Wires surround the camp.

I thought that the double wires would be farther apart.  I wonder if anyone ever made it to the second wire.  It seems impossible since the electrical wire would kill anyone if they even touched it.  Why did they need two wires?

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Electrical Wires
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A corner watch house.

There were quite a few watch towers around the whole perimeter.  I think there were about 10-12 all together, all looking the same.

Block 11

Block 11 is known as the “Death Block”.  This building was the prison for the camp, and many horrific things happened here.  My sister and I were looking through Block 11 all by ourselves since we were there early in the morning.  While walking through the building, there was a very eerie feeling, especially when we got to the basement.  The SS imprisoned prisoners here who were suspected of clandestine activity, escape attempts, and mutiny.  For more in depth information on Block 11 and more detailed pictures, go to this website: More information on Block 11.

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The front of Block 11. #13 on map.
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The entrance to the Death Wall in through the entrance on the left, Block 11 is on the right. ‘b’ on map.

 

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A re-creation of the Death Wall. ‘b’ on map.

The Death Wall was where thousands of prisoners were shot. It was the site for executions.

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These poles are in the Death Wall courtyard and were used for flogging–Prisoner’s arms were put behind their back, wrists bound, and their wrists were hoisted up to the silver hooks on top of the poles, and their bodies would hang bringing all the weight on their shoulders. The windows were boarded up so people couldn’t watch the executions.

Gas Chamber and Crematorium

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The East side of the crematorium. This is the exit of the crematorium.
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The North side of the gas chamber.  This is the main entrance.  It leads to the gas chamber.

The gas chamber was a much smaller room than I thought it would be.  They would put several hundred people in the chamber at once.  There are holes in the ceiling where the SS would throw Zyklon-B into the chamber. There was a door from the gas chamber to the furnaces.  The German authorities calculated that the maximum number of corpses that could be cremated in one day was 340.  The Nazis used this gas chamber and crematorium until 1943 when larger, higher-capacity crematorium were built at Birkenau.  More information on gas chamber.

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The place where Rudolf Hoess, commandant of Auschwitz, was hung. It is across from the crematorium.

Block 4 and 5

Block 4 and 5 contains objects found after liberation.  These huge piles of personal items in these large rooms is astounding, and these piles are only a small fraction of what was collected of personal items over the years the camp was open. Pictures of Block 5

 

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A display case with Zyklon-B.
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The hallway of one of the barracks was lined with these pictures of prisoners.  None of the people pictured survived.  

Block 7

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The type of room prisoners would sleep in.
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Prisoner’s washroom.
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Prisoner’s washroom.

Block 27

I would recommend going in Block 27. The exhibit there was created by the Shoah Foundation. There are films with testimonies of survivors and home videos and pictures of victims before the war. It really makes you understand that the victims here were real people, with families, with names.  The Book of Names is also housed in this Block. Designing the Shoah Exhibit

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The Book of Names.  The Shoah Foundation has tried to collect every person’s name who died in the Holocaust; each name is added to this book.
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The Book of Names.  Every name, birth date, home town, and place of death has been printed.

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I was really glad that I went to Auschwitz.  I was surprised that many of the exhibits were not of high quality.  Many of the captions in display cases were typed with a typewriter which shows how old the exhibit was.  But then some exhibits were of great quality which the newest technology.  I really hope that funding becomes available so they can revamp the older exhibits.

We saw quite a few young people working on the grounds.  I started talking to one of them and they were from the US.  A group from somewhere in the US got together and were able to volunteer to work on the grounds.  I thought that was very neat!  What a great thing to do during a summer.

There is a very small bookshop (just a room) at ‘m’ on the map above.  I bought all of the guidebooks that were sold there.  They are below.FullSizeRender

The two books in the middle are very good. The middle top book is a quick picture book with basic captions.  The middle bottom describes Auschwitz in great detail along with what happened in each block.  I really love the book on the right.  This book centers around pictures of Birkenau.  The book is constructed like this — On the left page, there is an old picture during the operation of the camp, then on the right page, there is a picture of that same picture but in modern day.  Seeing these pictures side by side really makes the happenings at Birkenau real. The book on the right is a general history of the holocaust and how Auschwitz-Birkenau was used during that time, plus what people have been doing research wise to support the continued support of the site.

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