Auschwitz is one of the most infamous and well known set of Nazi concentration camps from World War II. There are actually two main camps open to tourists, known as Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II (or Auschwitz-Birkenau). This post will focus on Auschwitz I. I will share more about Auschwitz-Birkenau in a separate post.
Auschwitz I was originally a Polish Army barracks and was turned into a concentration camp in 1940 on the orders of Heinrich Himmler, after the fall of Poland in 1939. The first prisoners were mainly Polish men who were political prisoners of the Third Reich.
Eventually others were sent here, including Polish women, Jews from all over Europe as well as Soviet prisoners of war. Soviet POW’s came to number about 10,000 starting in 1941 and were sectioned off in the camp to certain blocks (buildings). Within 5 months, 9,000 had died, due to hunger, brutality, exposure to freezing weather or being gassed.
Anne Frank (whose diary as a young girl about life in hiding from the Nazis in Amsterdam has been widely published) was held here but was later transferred to Bergen-Belsen camp where she died. Her father, Otto, somehow survived Auschwitz and returned to Amsterdam after the War. Another famous prisoner was Viktor E. Frankl, who wrote the book Man’s Search for Meaning based on his experiences at Auschwitz.
All in all, about 400,000 men, women and children were sent to Auschwitz I. At any given time, 13,000 – 16,000 would be housed in the camp. Due to the horrific conditions as well as the outright execution of numerous prisoners, the mortality rate was high, about two-thirds of the prisoners did not survive.
This was the only concentration camp where prisoners were tattooed to aid in identification due to the large number of corpses.
There were 700 attempted escapes, about 400 were recaptured. If a Polish prisoner escaped, his family was rounded up and sent to Auschwitz, and made to stand under a sign indicating why they had been arrested, as a warning to other prisoners.
Initially, the mass killing of Jews was not part of the purpose of Auschwitz; it wasn’t until about 1943 that the Germans started perfecting their gassing techniques and killing Jews by the hundreds of thousands in Auschwitz-Birkenau. However, Auschwitz I was one of the experimental locations for large scale gassing operations.
Auschwitz (Oświęcim is Polish) is about 67 km (41 miles) southwest of Kraków and can be done as a day trip. We visited on our way into Kraków from Częstochowa. Allow at least four hours to see both camps, which are about 3 km (2 miles) from each other. Get your tickets and guide maps (essential) at Auschwitz I which is right next to the town. Auschwitz-Birkenau (also called Auschwitz II) is a much larger site, slightly farther out of town. Tours are available, but we felt the guidebooks did a great job explaining the history and operations of the camps. Also note if you get to Auschwitz I after 10 am (as I recall) you’ll be required to take a tour and won’t be able to walk around on your own. In Auschwitz I, many of the barrack buildings house different exhibits on life in the camp, the history of the holocaust, and experiences of different cultures and countries during the War.
Be forewarned: A visit here is gut-wrenching and depressing. However, the exhibits and information are well organized and almost overwhelming. Understanding this dark period of the world’s history is important so that we will never allow something like this to happen again.
References: Site plaques and brochures from Auschwitz. For an excellent review of the history of Auschwitz, read Auschwitz: A New History by Laurence Rees.