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A haunting visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau, Poland

Visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau near Kraków, Poland: A haunting experience at the Nazi’s largest concentration camp, where over a million people lost their lives, including tips for planning your visit.

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A haunting visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau, Poland

The skies are dark and moody as we pass through the gates of Birkenau, part of the Auschwitz concentration camp near Kraków in Poland. As we walk across this vast, bleak stretch of land a cold wind whistles by and somewhere in the distance I hear the sound of singing. At first it’s so faint I think I imagined it, but the wind picks up the tune and carries it through the barbed-wire fence, past ruined buildings and over wooden huts.

It’s a haunting sound in a place where you can feel ghosts all around you. As I get closer I can see a group of Jewish men and boys, holding onto each other and singing a hymn in Hebrew as they walk along the railway tracks. I can’t understand the words but I can feel the emotion coming through and I can’t stop a shiver running down my spine.

Map of Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in Poland
Map of Auschwitz I (A) and Auschwitz II/Birkenau (B)

Visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau

Auschwitz-Birkenau is the site of one of the greatest mass murders in history. If you grew up sometime in the last 40 years you’ve probably studied the Second World War at school, you’ve watched Schindler’s List, you’ve read The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. Like me you probably feel like you know about the Holocaust, you know about Auschwitz.

But arriving in the place where it happened and walking through the infamous gates made me realise I didn’t know anything. That knowing the facts doesn’t mean you know the real story. And even the facts take on a different aspect when you’re standing there.

Barbed wire at Auschwitz in Poland
Through the fence at Auschwitz

The name Auschwitz is synonymous with the worst things that human beings can do to each other. It was the largest of the Nazi concentration camps, where over 1.1 million people were killed. Most were Jews but there were also Poles, Hungarians, gypsies and anyone else who was unlucky enough to catch the attention of the Nazis.

The Nazis took a Polish army base in the town of Oświęcim and turned it into a multi-site concentration camp that practiced mass murder on an industrial scale. And today two of those sites have been turned into a museum, a memorial to those who lost their lives.

Auschwitz-Birkenau isn’t somewhere you ‘want’ to visit, but it’s somewhere that you should visit – and somewhere that is guaranteed to have an effect on you.

Entrance to Birkenau at Auschwitz-Birkenau camp in Poland
The gates to Birkenau


Most tours of Auschwitz-Birkenau start with the original Auschwitz camp, but our guide took us first to Auschwitz II – or Birkenau. It’s the largest of the three main Auschwitz camps, built in 1941 to house up to 200,000 prisoners after the original camp got too overcrowded. Birkenau is where the scale of the horrors that went on here start to hit you.

Birkenau stretches over 425 acres of bleak, barren landscape, with lines of barbed-wire fences and watchtowers stretching off into the distance in each direction. It was a huge extermination camp where the Nazis industrialised death, building four gas chambers to dispose of as many Jews as they could, as efficiently as possible.

Watchtowers at Birkenau
Watchtowers at Birkenau

Running through the middle of the Birkenau site is the railway track. This is where trains would arrive, carrying prisoners from all across Europe. It’s where the guards selected which of them would live and which would die. The fit would be sent to work in the camp and the sick, elderly and children would go straight to the gas chamber.

Most of Birkenau’s buildings were destroyed in 1945 when the Nazis tried to hide the evidence from the approaching Soviet army. But you can walk around piles of brick and twisted metal where the gas chambers once stood, and go inside recreations of the wooden huts where people would sleep, up to 1000 people tightly packed in like cattle.

Railway line at Auschwitz-Birkenau
The railway carts

Even in March, the cold and damp weather made it uncomfortable to stay outside for too long at Birkenau. I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to live through a winter here, working 12 hours a day in thin clothes and wooden shoes on minimal food. Fighting disease, exhaustion and abuse every day to just stay alive.

Visiting Birkenau isn’t like a museum, you’re mostly left on your own with your thoughts. Left to soak it all up and try to make sense of what took place here. A lot of people worry that they’d get too upset visiting the camps, but I found I came through it all almost feeling numb, like it was too much to take in, too much for me to possibly comprehend.

Inside a toilet block at Birkenau camp
Toilet block at Birkenhau


Where Birkenau brings the scale to life, Auschwitz I is all about the details. The original Auschwitz camp was a Polish army barracks which was converted into a prison camp for political prisoners in 1940. So much of the Nazis’ first and smallest camp has been preserved, from the entrance gate displaying ‘Arbeit macht frei’ in wrought iron. ‘Work will set you free’ – a horrendous irony in the place where so many people came to die.

Warning sign on the fences at Auschwitz
Inside Auschwitz I

You can walk through the camp’s rows of brick huts, each of which had a different function. There’s Hut 20, the so-called ‘hospital’ which was more a lab where doctors like Dr Mengele used prisoners as guinea pigs and experimented with different ways of killing them.

There’s Hut 11, the prison within a prison where guards would come up with new and more horrific ways to torture the prisoners who dared to rebel – whether that was by starvation, suffocation or being forced to stand in a tiny one-metre-square cell for days.

Rows of huts at Auschwitz
Rows of huts

Most heartbreaking of all there are the piles of people’s belongings – the huge stacks of suitcases, shoes, cups and bowls that people brought with them when they thought they were just being sent away to work and someday they’d be going home.

Then there are the eerie piles of glasses, wooden legs and human hair. Taking people’s clothes, belongings and shaving their hair all helped the Nazis strip them of their humanity. But walking along the hut corridors you see lines of faces looking down at you. In the early days, new arrivals were photographed, until the numbers got too big to keep up.

Inside Hut 20, Auschwitz's former hospital
Inside Hut 20

Looking into their eyes, you can see a mixture of fear, horror and defiance. Seeing their faces, reading their names, their nationalities, ages and occupations brings humanity back to people who’ve been dehumanised. It helps translate abstract numbers into real people.

You can’t help imagining how you would have coped if you had been there in their place – would hunger, cold and disease have seen you off before the gas chamber did? Or would you be one of the few that made it through? Because in among all the horror there are stories of defiance and survival, of people who made it through despite the odds.

Piles of suitcases and warning signs at Auschwitz
Warning signs and piles of suitcases

Auschwitz asks as many questions as it answers. And a big one is should thousands of visitors – stag parties to school groups – be visiting a place where so many people died? For me it was a sombre experience hard to shake off, but so important to have. As a quote at Auschwitz says: “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it”.

Looking at the camps 70 years on it’s hard for us to imagine how this could have ever happened. But in a world still filled with hate, is it really that impossible? Visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau and seeing these places for yourself is something you’ll never forget – an experience to take away and hold onto like as a talisman that it never happens again.

Barbed wire strip at Auschwitz I
Barbed wire strip at Auschwitz I

The details

How to get to Auschwitz-Birkenau

The Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum is located almost 70km outside of Kraków, on the edge of the town of Oświęcim. There are a few different options for getting to Auschwitz-Birkenau and exploring the site – either independently or on a tour.

To visit independently, you can catch a train from Kraków Glowny (the city’s main train station) to Oświęcim. This takes from 45 minutes to 1 hour 35 minutes. Oświęcim train station is 2km from the camp – 25 minutes’ walk or you can catch a local bus or taxi.

Or there are buses direct from Kraków’s main bus station, Dworzec MDA, behind the train station. They take around 1 hour 40 minutes. Several different companies run on the same route so buying single tickets gives you more flexibility. Some drop you off in central Oświęcim but others, like the Lajkonik buses, stop outside the museum.

Train from Kraków to Oświęcim used to visit Auschwitz independently
Train from Kraków to Oświęcim

You can also take a day tour from Kraków which includes transportation, skip-the-line entrance tickets and a guide to show you around. Cheapest are group tours,* but groups may be big and it can feel a bit rushed. We had a private driver and guide for the day which meant we could walk around at our own pace but had someone to answer questions.

Auschwitz and Birkenau are 3.5km apart. If you’re on a tour you’ll be transported between them but otherwise you can walk or take the free museum shuttle bus. This runs every 10 mins from April–October and every 20 mins from November–March.

Moody skies over Birkenau
Moody skies over Birkenau

Auschwitz-Birkenau opening hours and prices

The Auschwitz-Birkenau memorial and museum is open from 7.30am every day, but the last entry time varies through the year (from 2pm in December to 7pm in June, July and August). And the site closes 90 minutes after the last entry time.

You can reserve a timed ticket online in advance on their website. The site is free to enter, and there are certain time slots where you can visit without a guide. Otherwise you can book a small group guided tour, which helps to understand what you’re seeing.

Tours take 3.5 hours and are run in lots of different languages. They cost 110 PLN (£22/€26/$28) per person and you need to book well in advance in high season.

Barbed-wire fence at Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp
Behind the wire

Tips for visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau

  • It’s not recommended that children under 14 visit Auschwitz-Birkenau.
  • You can’t bring bags bigger than 35cm x 25cm x 15cm onto the site (the size of a small handbag) – anything larger must be left in their paid luggage storage.
  • The site covers a large area so wear comfortable shoes.
  • There are paid toilets at both Auschwitz and Birkenau, so bring some small change.
  • You can take bottled water into the site but any other food and drink isn’t permitted– there’s a café, vending machines and a picnic area by the car park.
  • Photography is permitted, except in certain areas, but no flash or tripods.
Quote on the wall at Auschwitz – "Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it"
Quote on the wall at Auschwitz I

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Visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau near Kraków, Poland: A haunting experience at the Nazi’s largest concentration camp, where over a million people lost their lives, including tips for planning your visit | Day trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau | Visiting Auschwitz from Krakow | Day trips from KrakowVisiting Auschwitz-Birkenau near Kraków, Poland: A haunting experience at the Nazi’s largest concentration camp, where over a million people lost their lives, including tips for planning your visit | Day trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau | Visiting Auschwitz from Krakow | Day trips from Krakow

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Jim Hartman

Wednesday 27th of January 2021

I visited Dachau in 2018. It was tiny compared to this. I was ready for everything except the torture chambers. That was just one building.

Lucy Dodsworth

Thursday 4th of February 2021

Sounds like another very moving and difficult place to visit.

Kay Farrell

Friday 18th of September 2020

I visited Auschwitz and Birkenau just yesterday. The inhuman and vicious way the Nazi's treated those poor souls and all the memorobila will always stay with me. My friend and i planted a ceramic poppy under a tree as a mark of respect. I will never forget the atrocities that took place, it was horrific and cruel beyond words. God rest all their souls

Lucy Dodsworth

Monday 28th of September 2020

It is such a moving place to visit – hard to experience but important so we never forget.


Saturday 9th of March 2019

Great article and very well written. I can almost feel your emotions by reading your words and looking at the haunting pictures. I am a big WW2 history buff, especially the rise and fall of the Nazis. I live in the United States and have asked myself do I need to go to Auschwitz at least once in my lifetime. But I believe I should. The story of Auschwitz cannot be completely understood through readings and documentaries. I wish to feel what you felt when you visited there. Thanks for a great article.


Sunday 10th of March 2019

Thanks so much, it was such a moving place and experience – one I'll never forget.