After arriving late in Kraków, Poland the previous night and checking into our hostel, Zosia Zgolak and I were up again early on the morning of 5 January 2018 to catch the first bus of the day departing for the nearby town of Oświęcim, the location of the infamous Auschwitz concentration camps.  The museum for the camps is actually comprised of two separate sites—Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau—which are separated by a few kilometres.  The museum runs free shuttle buses throughout the day between the two sites.  Although admission to the museum is free, booking a reservation online in advance is strongly recommended for entry into Auschwitz I.

From historic photos and documentary films, I had always imagined that the concentration camps at Auschwitz were located in some remote area of the countryside.  That may have been the case during World War 2, but as we arrived at Auschwitz I, I was a little shocked to see how much development had encroached on the camp perimeter.  Surprisingly, a lot of it was residential.  Imagine living next to a former death camp!

Before entering Auschwitz I, we had to check any bags that were larger than a purse and then go through a metal detector much like airport security.  Although visitors may choose to pay for a guided tour, we opted to wander freely on our own through the camp.  Some interpretive displays are situated at key exterior locations, but the bulk of the museum’s exhibits are inside the many numbered barracks within the camp.  Some of the barracks were devoted to victims of a particular nationality or ethnicity, but the barracks containing exhibits of living conditions and victims’ personal effects were the busiest.  Photography was forbidden in some areas such as the interior of a crematorium or the interrogation building where many victims were tortured and killed.  There were also signs in these same places requesting that tourists show respect by keeping voices low.

Furthermore, I have seen my fair share of graphic and disturbing images of Holocaust victims in numerous books and on the Internet, but I found surprisingly few of these same images on display in the museum.  In general, the museum does a commendable job of presenting the horrors of the Holocaust while respecting and preserving the dignity of the victims.
Ugh, it's not even 6 AM yet! At the bus depot in Kraków, Zosia reviews her ticket booking for the first departure of the day to Auschwitz.
The morning light was beautiful as we walked through the gate. Zosia walks through the infamous gate at Auschwitz I which reads, "ARBEIT MACHT FREI" (Work Sets You Free).  The sign over the gate is a replica of the original which was stolen in 2009 but later recovered.

The weathered sign and barbed wire fence help to exemplify the grimness of the concentration camp.

What goes around, comes around. The sign reads:

"This is where the camp Gestapo was located.  Prisoners suspected of involvement in the camp's underground resistance movement or of preparing to escape were interrogated here.  Many prisoners died as a result of being beaten or tortured.

The first commandant of Auschwitz, SS-Obersturmbannführer Rudolf Höss, who was tried and sentenced to death after the war by the Polish Supreme National Tribunal, was hanged here on"

The English translation ends abruptly here, but from the Polish and Hebrew inscriptions, the date of the hanging was 16 April 1947.


No photography is allowed within the crematorium. Zosia stands outside a crematorium in Auschwitz I.
One of the most moving exhibits in the museum.

The Book of Names lists about 4.2 million victims of the Holocaust.  Usually, each victim's name is followed by a date of birth, their nationality, and, if known, the location of their murder.

When we finished touring Auschwitz I, we retrieved our checked bags and caught a free shuttle bus to Auschwitz II-Birkenau.  There is no controlled checkpoint at this much larger site, and anyone can freely enter or exit through the iconic gate house.  There are less exhibits here than at Auschwitz I, and almost all of the interpretive displays are located outdoors.  The most striking thing about Auschwitz II-Birkenau is how vast and empty it feels.  While some restorations are still ongoing, the majority of the buildings have disappeared leaving behind only the foundations and perhaps a chimney stack.  The four crematoria here with their accompanying gas chambers all lay in ruins (the Nazis destroyed them toward the end of the war to try and cover up their crimes against humanity).

Despite sunny skies on this day, a chilly wind made it uncomfortably cool to linger in the openness of Auschwitz II-Birkenau, and with fatigue starting to set in, we only toured about half of the site before concluding our visit.  Much of the other half of the site which we did not venture into looked about the same anyway from a distance, and we did not feel like we missed anything unique.  We subsequently returned to Auschwitz I by shuttle bus and stopped at a nearby restaurant for lunch before catching a late afternoon bus back to Kraków.

The most prolific death camp of World War 2.

Behind Zosia is the infamous gate house of Auschwitz II-Birkenau.


Restorations are still ongoing at the site. Only the foundations and chimney stacks remain for many of the buildings at Auschwitz II-Birkenau.
The last stop. Railroad tracks into the camp were not laid until the spring of 1944 just before a great influx of Hungarian Jews.
So many people were murdered here.

These are the ruins of one of the gas chambers in Auschwitz II-Birkenau.

A fitting memorial. A memorial for the murdered victims stands at the west end of Auschwitz II-Birkenau.  At the foot of the memorial are multiple plaques in different languages which all read the same following message:

"For ever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity, where the Nazis murdered about one and a half million men, women, and children, mainly Jews from various countries of Europe.



A very sad place. The cremated ashes of murdered victims were dumped into these shallow ponds.  The inscriptions read:

"To the memory of the men, women, and children who fell victim to the Nazi genocide.  Here lie their ashes.  May their souls rest in peace."