About Auschwitz Concentration Camp
Auschwitz Birkenau was a concentration camp founded by the Nazis near the town of Oświęcim or “Auschwitz” in Poland and which became the largest and most infamous camp of them all. Today, it is open to the public as a memorial and museum to remember the atrocities that happened there.
History of Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp
Opened in 1940 following the Nazi annexation of Poland, Auschwitz was originally intended to be a prison for the large number of arrested Poles overwhelming existing local prisons. The first gassings of Soviet and Polish prisoners took place in 1941.
By 1942, Auschwitz had taken on a further role as the main “death camp” in Hitler’s mission to exterminate the Jewish people, known as the “Final Solution” or the Holocaust. Freight trains arrived from across Europe, delivering 1.3 million Jews from across Europe to Auschwitz, and the next door camp Birkenau, which opened in 1941 in order to keep with demand.
Those interned at Auschwitz were subject to the most horrific treatment, including forced labour, starvation, random executions and various forms of torture such as “medical experiments”. Over 1.1 million prisoners died at Auschwitz – meaning around a mere 200,000 survived their time at the camp.
As the Soviets approached the camp in January 1945, SS guards sent 58,000 prisoners that were still alive on ‘death marches’ west. Those too sick to go, or those who fell behind on the marches were shot. The Soviets arrived at Auschwitz on 27 January 1945, where they found 7,000 prisoners still alive.
Auschwitz was made up of three sections. The first and original “Auschwitz I” became the camp’s administrative centre, but also operated as part of the camp and was the original testing venue for gassing prisoners using Zyklon B. “Auschwitz II”, which was actually in the nearby town of Birkenau, became the main prisoner centre and a mass extermination site, while “Auschwitz III” was the main labour camp.
Auschwitz Museum is based at the original concentration camp site and offers visitors the chance to pass through the camp’s infamous arches bearing the chilling slogan of “Arbeit macht frei” or “Work will set you free”. Tours are compulsory between April and October if you arrive between 10am and 3pm, and can last several hours. If you’re not on a tour, it’s sensible to get a map and/or guidebook at the entrance – there’s a lot of ground to cover and the layout can be quite confusing.
Auschwitz gets busy, particularly in the summer: book ahead if you’re keen to go. It’s not a site that’s recommended for children under 13: the content is truly horrific in places. Today, Auschwitz is a site of contemplation, reflection and learning – it’s not unusual to feel shaken up after visiting. Treat the site with respect and if you’re taking photos, think about why you’re doing so.
Getting to Auschwitz-Birkenau
Most visitors come to Auschwitz from Krakow: you can get a bus from the MDA Bus Station (behind the Krakow’s main railway station), which will drop you about 10 minutes from the site – it takes between 90 minutes and 2 hours depending on traffic. You can also get the train from Krakow to Oswiecim: from there, it’s a 20-30 minute walk or a 5 minute bus.
There are some direct shuttles from Krakow to Auschwitz but you’ll need to book in advance, particularly in the summer.
It should take just over an hour to drive from Krakow to Auschwitz: there is some parking on site, but it fills up quickly.
Explore the diverse history of Poland, from the great Barbakan to the beautiful Wilanow Palace, through our guide to 10 historic sites, landmarks and monuments to see when in Poland.