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.
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 history.
Auschwitz – Birkenau Memorial & Museum
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Related reading: Visitors guide to the Auschwitz Concentration Camps
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.
Auschwitz – Birkenau Memorial and Museum are located approximately an hour from Krakow, in Poland, travelling by car or bus, in the town of Ošwiecim.
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.