Auschwitz – Birkenau Memorial & Museum: A Tragic History

posted in: Europe, Poland | 10

There are certain places you visit along your travels that will stay with you forever, but not in the same way as all those favourite destinations and adventures. Some places will leave you feeling unsettled and horrified by the capabilities of our fellow human race. The place that leaves me feeling that way more than any other I have visited is Auschwitz.

We visited Auschwitz – Birkenau Memorial and Museum back at the end of 2008, during a family Christmas holiday in Poland. Our visit consisted of both Auschwitz and the nearby Birkenau, sometimes referred to as Auschwitz II.Both sites still remain, although some areas since destroyed following WWII. Those that do remain have been preserved and converted into a museum based site, educating visitors on the tragic history that took place in these places, and throughout Europe during World War II.

Auschwitz - Birkenau Memorial & Museum

Mostly the photos speak for themselves. You can only begin to imagine what it would have been like for the hundreds of thousands of prisoners of war that were taken here, many of which never left. Simply heartbreaking.

For me, the part that has always unsettled me the most is the fact that really it is recent history and not so long ago that these horrors took place. So hard to imagine such control and power could be exhibited by a group of individuals. We like to think something like this could never happen again, but the world is an unpredictable place.

While visiting a concentration camp may seem like a very morbid way to spend a day of holiday, when travelling through Europe, so many of the cities you will visit have been impacted in some way from WWII, whether by destroyed buildings or museums documenting the history so visiting Auschwitz gave us greater understanding of this brutal part of European and world histroy.

Auschwitz – Birkenau Memorial & Museum

Birkenau and Auschwitz tour

As you can see, even so close to Christmas, Auschwitz and Birkenau are busy with visitors from all around the world coming to learn more about this tragic part of world history at the existing concentration camp sites.

We paid an English speaking tour guide to take us on our tour around Auschwitz – Birkenau, as this is the only way to have access to the watch tower near the railway entrance.

Birkenau and Auschwitz tour

 

Birkenau and Auschwitz tour

Many of these existing buildings that remain have been converted into educational museum displays, documenting the history, the deaths and how the war came about. However, some of the buildings are full of artefacts from the prisoners of war, such as a whole room displaying suitcases, hair, personal accessories and shoes, amongst other things. They are displayed behind glass. It is such an eerie and sickening thought that all of this belonged to people like you and me whose lives were taken away from them either as a prisoner of war, or worse, permanently.

Birkenau and Auschwitz tour

 

Birkenau and Auschwitz tour

 

Birkenau and Auschwitz tour

Being winter, you can imagine how freezing cold it would have been in a place such as this, likely with minimal clothing to keep warm, and the expectation to work and walk through the snow. No doubt many people would have died from the conditions alone during the colder months, which is so incredibly sad.

Birkenau and Auschwitz tour

Birkenau and Auschwitz tour

Birkenau and Auschwitz tour

Birkenau and Auschwitz tour

This is inside one of the accommodation buildings, lined wall to wall with 3 level bunk beds. Our tour guide said each bunk would sleep around 30 people or more, so at least 10 per mattress. They would have been so crowded, but at the same time, it was likely the only way to keep warm too by huddling together through the cold nights during winter.

Birkenau and Auschwitz tour

 

Birkenau and Auschwitz tour

 

Birkenau and Auschwitz tour

 

Birkenau and Auschwitz tour

Birkenau and Auschwitz tour

This was by far one of the saddest spots. This was the location they would take prisoners to execute them, one after another, in large groups. It is really unsettling to stand here in this spot and know how many men, women and even children may have been murdered right there. Even looking back on this photograph, it leaves a tightness in my chest.

Birkenau and Auschwitz tour

 

Birkenau and Auschwitz tour

 

Birkenau and Auschwitz tour

Birkenau and Auschwitz tour

Birkenau and Auschwitz tour

A memorial sits at the entrance of the train tunnel. A small token to acknowledge the many people who lost their lives and their loved ones through this sad historic event.

Birkenau and Auschwitz tour

As we visited in winter, it gives you a whole different perspective to Auschwitz and Birkenau in the snow. If you want to see how it looks and hear more about this sad place in world history, fellow Aussie travel bloggers The Wyld Family have recently visited in summer. Check out their article here.

Is Auschwitz-Birkenau suitable for children?

Many people ask if Auschwitz is suitable for children. I think this is a personal opinion and there were children there when we visited. Many of the children there during our visit were too young to understand.

We travelled with my brother in law who at the time was 14. He was old enough to understand, being in his early teens and not quite a child anymore, but still young. My husband actually visited Auschwitz and Birkenau with his family previously, as a kid, slightly younger than his brother. Both were fine with the experience and appreciated having witnessed a significant part of history, especially being from Polish background. However, younger children may find it quite upsetting, or potentially boring if too young to understand so I think the best option is to consider your own child before you visit and whether you are comfortable with them seeing the confronting images and stories that are on display.

The memorial is not recommended for children under 14 years old, based on the website recommendation, however as it is free entry, there is no restriction on you taking your children if you do decide to. Personally, we do not feel it’s suitable if travelling with kids.

DETAILS

Auschwitz was the largest of the German Nazi concentration camps and extermination centres, with over 1.1 million people losing their lives at this location in the 1940s.

Location :

Auschwitz – Birkenau Memorial and Museum are located approximately an hour from Krakow, in Poland, travelling by car or bus, in the town of Ošwiecim.

Admission:

There is no admission fee to enter the grounds of Auschwitz-Birkenau, however large groups must pay for a tour guide and a guided tour is the only way to have access to the watch tower building. The fees are quite reasonable. Find out more on the website.

Where have you visited that has the most tragic history?

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Blogger, freelance writer and psychologist with a passion for travel, DIY and creating memories. You can also find Holly at http://simplifycreateinspire.com

10 Responses

  1. I hear you, Holly. I visited the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. This was a genocide that happened in my lifetime when I was a little girl. The museum has row after row of photographs of people, photographs taken moments before they were executed. The fear and the terror I expected to see in their faces, but not the looks of strong defiance and scorn in others. These images were haunting. I felt absolutely gutted as I walked through the museum, row after row, looking into the eyes of these executed souls and imaging what those moments before death must have been like. I can’t imagine. The museum felt oppressive, which is actually a good thing and it’s one way to learn and not forget about atrocities of the past.

    • We have been to a few war museums around the world now and every single one leaves you in such shock these things could happen at all. Especially so recently. Some of the images are so confronting. I remember a video clip showing at the Warsaw Rising war museum in Poland of someone pushing a cart of dead bodies like they were garbage. One of those things that can’t be unseen. Or the post Vietnam War deformities depicted in images in HCMC. So hard, isn’t it? 🙁 We haven’t made it to Cambodia yet but we will visit the museum when we do. Reminders are important. Hopefully they can help reduce the risk of future events of the same capacity.

  2. I want to say great post but it doesn’t seem right for an Auschwitz post, but you know what I mean. I had nightmares for a week after my visit there, but I’m glad I went. Your post made me wonder what age I’d take my son there (he’s 5 now). A long time off yet – it was hard enough explaining the Wall and Cold War etc when we were in Berlin recently, and I very pointedly avoided any Holocaust sites there.
    Amanda @ Not A Ballerina recently posted…To Eurail through Europe or not … and why I’m so glad I didMy Profile

    • Thanks Amanda. Totally know what you mean. It’s tricky with kids when they get to that age if understanding. Last year we visited the HCMC War Museum with our then 16 month old. That was fine because she was way too young to understand but fast forward a little more than a year and there is no way we could. She is far too aware & the images were so graphic. In fact she would probably understand less at Auschwitz now than most war museums because of the way the displays are set up. Glad we did that stuff before she came along.

  3. Thank you for the post, and your personal thoughts and reflections. We will be in Munich this year end, and I have been thinking of bringing my sons to the Dachau Concentration camp. Really not sure if they are ready – 9 and 11 respectively…

    I had another parent shared about his experience at The Killing Fields, Phnom Penh, in Cambodia. Like wise he expressed that while it was a moving visit (he cried) he left his kids out by the play area outside the monument with their nanny… (If you are interested, the link’s here http://kidsonboard.net/blog/travel-moment/the-killing-fields)

    So I just don’t decide. How old is old enough? My kids know about the two world wars, but are they ready – am I ready to bring them? Still thinking…
    Ling recently posted…Review: The Four Seasons Resort Huda Kuraa in Beautiful MaldivesMy Profile

    • From memory the imagery at Auschwitz was not so confronting, but it was the information the guide provided or more so the way your mind could put the pieces together viewing the displays. If your kids aren’t big readers, it may be ok as there is a lot of reading on the walls if you choose. The Warsaw Rising Museum was far more graphic in the displays. I’m not sure if the German camp would be similar though. Their website should give a guide but in the end, you also know your kids, so they may be ok at those ages. My hubby visited at 12 to Auschwitz and suffered no trauma from the experience. He is glad he had the opportunity (all those years ago).

  4. One of the most frightening and tragic displays of cowardice the world has ever seen, I take solace knowing we can open our youngsters’ eyes to the innumerable atrocities of war criminals. I’m scared to admit it, but this kind of sentiment resembles, to some extent, the ongoings in Syria.
    Gary Pearson recently posted…So you think you’re moving to Mokpo – not so fastMy Profile

    • I agree Gary. I am not overly familiar with the Syria circumstances though, but it just astounds me how something like this could take place at all, let alone in the life span of many individuals who still live to tell the story.

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