Auschwitz-Birkenau - sad museum in the Nazi concentration camp

Although all different names: Oświęcim (osh-fyen-cheem) and Brzezinka (bshe-zyn-ka) mean little to foreigners, their German equivalent: Auschwitz-Birkenau, evokes fear and shivers in almost everyone. These actually three camps were a part of the European network of Nazi concentration and extermination camps built in annexed Poland by the Third Reich during the second world war.

The Oświęcim camp, known also as Auschwitz I, opened in June 1940 when the first Polish political prisoners were sent there. In March 1941 a much larger camp in Brzezinka, known also as Birkenau and called Auschwitz II, was established in a village just 2 kilometers from Oświęcim. The third camp- Monowitz (Monowice) – Auschwitz III was built in 1943, and it was a labor camp situated close to Oświęcim.

Auschwitz-Birkenau complex was the biggest and the most deadly death-camp ever built in the history. It is estimated that even 1.2 million prisoners of different nations died there. Most of the exterminated prisoners were Jews. Victims of Auschwitz also included approximately 150,000 non-Jewish Poles, Gypsies, Soviet soldiers, Jehovah's Witnesses, and thousands of members of other nationalities as well as people recognized as homosexuals.

Many of those, who were transported to the camp didn't even obtain a status of a prisoner. After passing the infamous entry gate with a metal slogan "Arbeit macht frei" (Work makes you free) that is still standing there, they were immediately taken to gas chambers, where their life was taken in less than half an hour from arrival. Apart from those killed with the pesticide Zyklon B, thousands died of starvation, forced labor, infectious diseases, individual executions, and medical experiments.

Sad museum

The Auschwitz-Birkenau complex was only partially destroyed by fleeing Nazis and many of the original buildings stand to this day as a bleak testament to the camp's history. Auschwitz was opened to the public soon after the war ended. First as a state memorial, and few years later as a museum. In 1979 UNESCO added the camp to the list of World Heritage Sites.

Nowadays a dozen of the surviving prison blocks house museum exhibitions, either general or dedicated to victims from particular communities that lost lives in the camp. For those interested in history, there is also a series of movies and exhibits reviewing the history of WW2. Apart from exhibitions you are allowed to enter the former places of martyrdom gas chambers, crematory, and execution walls - as well as see the realities of everyday life in labor camp (like sleeping in 3-layer beds, hundred men in one room).

Every year the museum hosts almost 1.5 million visitors, and with this record it is the most visited museum in Poland. The entry to the museum is free, but you can take 3.5h guided tour by hiring a guide (from the museum) who costs 40 zł (students 30 zł).

How to get there?

The camp is usually visited on one-day trips from Kraków. Oświęcim city (the main destination from Kraków) is situated 60km west from Kraków. The best and fastest way to get there is by regular buses from the main bus station in Kraków (near the Main Raylway Station). There are also numerous organised trips from Kraków to the camp, shop around in the old town of Kraków.

Short trips from Oświęcim

You can combine your visit to the Auschwitz camp with visiting Pszczyna, one of the most beautiful classical-style castles in Poland, and Żywiec, the old Polish beer company.

Pszczyna is situated just 25km from Oświęcim, just a short drive by a local bus from the main bus station in Oświęcim. The beautiful residence used to be a stronghold of Piast dynasty –first kings of Poland. The castle has been rebuilt many times, and different styles in architecture contributed to what can be seen today. Throughout the history it was a home for influential people, including Krakow's bishops and a German Emperor Wilhelm II. 

Żywiec brewery museum is another place near Oświęcim and Pszczyna worth a visit. Żywiec is one of the most popular Polish beers and its interesting museum shows the entire process of producing beer and gives a great opportunity to taste beer products.