Visiting Auschwitz & Birkenau

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Several years ago, while still in college, I was introduced by a dear friend to books of fiction themed around the second world war. I devoured them one by one and the more I read, I wanted to read some more – I was trying to understand and imagine those terrifying and cruel times and how difficult it must have been on the people. The topic stayed with me, and even now when an opportunity comes my way, I read and watch documentaries on this topic. So when I planned a trip to Poland, visiting Auschwitz & Birkenau was on top of the list of things I wanted to do. This was my way of paying homage to the people and another attempt at trying to understand why one human inflicts so much trauma and pain and torture on another.  I came back with a heavy heart and had to stop myself from getting teary eyed as I walked through the camps. Poland is dotted with several concentration camps. I am not sure I could have visited them all, all by myself. I may do it some day. But on this trip, this one was all I could handle.

Through this blog I want to help people understand how to visit the place. At the end, I have given some links which I hope you find useful.

Please note the spellings – AUSCHWITZ and BIRKENAU. I personally feel that a place of importance, needs to be spelt right, else it is a mockery of the sanctity of the place, especially this one.

The museum (as it is sometimes called) or the grounds of the camp are located in the town of Oświęcim, 50km from Krakow.

How to get there:
Many people hire a tour company to ferry them to & fro and leave the ticketing too to them.
It is really easy to do this trip by yourself.
1) You can take a bus or the train to get there.
2) The train takes forever to get there (2hours). It never gains speed because it stops every few minutes at every little station enroute. Another way to look at the train journey is the ‘experience’ and ‘joy’ of a slow train as it passes through the suburbs and rural areas. So if you are into that, then do take a train.
3) The camps are about 3km from the train station (known as Oświęcim) and this calls for hiring a cab or walking (20-25minutes). If you choose to walk, do keep in mind that you will be doing a lot of walking around at the camp grounds too and might want to avoid this additional walking.
4) The bus on the other hand gets you to right outside the museum and is definitely a faster (80minutes) way to get to/from Krakow’s main bus station.

Ticketing nuances:
1) The entry to the grounds is free but needs to be reserved ahead.
2) Do it online through their website and select the date and time that you want to visit.
3) There is a limit on the number people allowed on the grounds at any time. Therefore prebook so that you do not end up on a busy day with a long wait for your entry to the grounds.
4) Groups of more than 10 visitors have to compulsorily avail the services of a guided tour. While entry itself is free, there is a price to pay for the guided tour.
5) Individuals have the option to avail free entry passes or join the guided tour.
6) Entry to Birkenau is free.
7) If you choose to buy your entry pass on getting to Auschwitz, and find yourself with waiting time, then go to Birkenau first. There are shuttle buses (free) to & fro every few minutes or take a cab that costs only a few Zlotys.
8) Take into account the different summer & winter timings all listed neatly on the website (links provided below).
9) During the months April-October individual entry without a guide (they are called ‘educators’) is not possible between 10am & 4pm.

Walking around:
Auschwitz is large. You can chart the course of your tour or use the services of a tour guide (educator). The advantage of using tour guides is that they will take you to the important points of interest and you do not have to spend time thinking which way to do it. Going on a tour with a guide is most useful in Birkenau where there aren’t as many signboards and description. You can even climb one of the guard towers in Birkenau with a tour guide. Going with a guide also means that they will not cover the entire site. At the entry point, guidebooks & maps are available for purchase. Most places on the campsite are sign posted.

Duration of the visit:
Give yourself atleast 3-3.5hours to tour both the camps, Auschwitz – 2hours, a short 20min break, Birkenau 1-1.5hours.

Other things to note:
1) Birkenau is a large open area. So depending on the season take warm clothes or a nice hat to shield you from the sun or an umbrella during the rainy season.
2) Auschwitz & Birkenau are non-smoking areas. You can light up only in the parking lot.
3) There is no variety or a large number of restaurants. You can grab a quick bite from one of the small restaurants/cafes or pack a light snack from Krakow.
4) Photography – is allowed almost everywhere, except in a few exhibitions and these places are clearly sign-posted. Some indoor exhibitions allow photography without flash. So before you point and shoot, look out for the signs.

Auschwitz & Salt Mines – in one visit
There is a lot of walking to do at the concentration camp site and more walking at the salt mines including walking down several steps to reach the floor of the mine. Auschwitz can emotionally tire in addition to all the walking. So expect complete exhaustion if salt mine is added to that day. The day also becomes very long, almost 10 hours. So better do the two on different days.

Useful links:
This is the official website for Auschwitz & Birkenau:

More stories from Poland here.

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