Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial & Museum pilgrimage

Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial & Museum pilgrimage

Auschwitz Birkenau Tour

Auschwitz Birkenau Memorial and Museum

Auschwitz history

This year 2020 was the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz Birkenau concentration camp in Poland.

Auschwitz Survivors were the most important guests of the event commemorating the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. Arriving from all over the world the survivors of Auschwitz and Birkenau came to remember those who did not survive the horrors of the camps.

Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial & Museum pilgrimage
Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial & Museum pilgrimage

I first learned of the Holocaust in primary school in Canada when I read the Diary of Anne Frank, I think I was about 9 or 10 at the time and the book burned itself into my memory and has never left me. Around that time I also learned from my mother that my grandfather’s mother was Jewish and had left Germany for England in the late 1800s.

Since that time I made it a priority to understand other religions, since I essentially had none, and in particular read everything I could get my hands on about Judaism, the struggle for an Israeli state, the Holocaust and books from those who survived.

These are a few of the books I read and recommend:

ANNE FRANK THE UNTOLD STORY: The hidden truth about Elli Vossen, the youngest helper of the Secret Annex

This book is about Otto Frank’s young secretary Bep Voskuijl, Elli Vossen who became remarkable support for Anne Frank during the years she was hidden on Prinsengracht in Amsterdam. Bep is 23 years old and does her best to support the hidden family and in doing so becomes great friends with Anne. Bep is the one who saved Anne’s Diary and writings.  

Mila 18 by Leon Uris

The New York Times referred to Leon Uris’s Mila 18 as “Not only authentic as history, [but] convincing as fiction!”Mila 18 is a thrilling novel that brings to life the Jewish uprising of the Warsaw ghetto, during which prisoners used homemade weapons and their bare fists to go up against the power and cruelty of their German captors.

Schindler’s List by Thomas Keneally

Schindler’s List is arguably one of the best-known novels about the Holocaust. Schindler’s List is a novelization of the real-life efforts of Oskar Schindler, a German war profiteer and factory director who risked his life to save more Jews from death than any other single person in World War II history. You can also visit the Schindler Factory in Krakow which has now been turned into a permanent exhibition of Krakow under Nazi Occupation.

Hope is the last to die by Halina Birenbaum

This is a book I purchased at the Birkenau Bookshop and it is written by Halina a survivor of Auschwitz. Halina spent the occupation in the Warsaw Ghetto and in concentration camps at Majdanek Auschwitz, Ravenbruck and Newstadt-Glewe where the Auswitch survivors were shipped to hide them from the Russians and Americans who liberated the camp. Halina was freed in 1945. This is a deeply horrifying story of survival in the camp and the process of dehumanization and of the survival of hope.

You can also find Schindler’s List and Anne Frank on DVD to watch and learn before you come to Poland.

I knew when I planned a visit to Poland that one of my main goals was going to be to visit Auschwitz and Birkenau Memorial & Museum. In March of 2020, I went with 3 friends to visit Krakow and it is with thanks to Musement Tours who provided us with complimentary tours of Auschwitz Birkenau so that we could go together.

Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial & Museum pilgrimage

Tips for visiting Auschwitz

  1. It is a long rough walk for around 3 hours. There are at least 3 staircases to manoeuvre and the camps are simply not built for accessibility. The terrain is very rough and difficult for those with any mobility challenges let alone wheelchairs. You will need assistance if in a wheelchair to get around on the broken paths and rubble-strewn roads.
  1. There is no break from the rain or the sun depending on what season you visit. There are no benches to rest at anywhere inside or out. It will be hotter than hell or muddy damp and miserable. No matter this is a pilgrimage not a trip to the beach.
  1. There is a security point that you must go through were your bags will be searched and you will go through a metal detector. Bags any bigger than very small backpacks will not be allowed in and you will have to store them in the lockers provided.
  1. Auschwitz is not recommended for those under 14 years old.
Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial & Museum pilgrimage
  1. You are allowed to take photographs in both Auschwitz and Birkenau, but there are some areas in which photography is strictly prohibited to ensure respect for those who suffered here.
Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial & Museum pilgrimage
  1. Keep in mind at all times that you are walking through a memorial and that people died and were buried here.
  1. DO NOT take any selfies that is in extremely bad taste.
  1. You may see groups of people praying, singing or various memorial services taking place around the Camp please be respectful and ask permission before photographing.

Auschwitz-Birkenau operating times

The camps are open seven days a week from 07:30. Closing times depend on the month of the year:

December – 14:00.

January, November – 15:00.

February – 16:00 March, October – 17:00.

April, May, September – 18:00.

June, July, August – 19:00.

Auschwitz and Birkenau are situated three kilometres apart, a forty minutes’ walk.

You can access the free bus which links the two sites from April 15th through October 31st departing every sixty minutes. Note: The bus runs from Birkenau on the hour and from Auschwitz, thirty minutes later.

Cost of tickets for Auschwitz

An individual ticket for a foreign language guided tour of both camps costs 60/55 Polish Zloty which equals around $15 US dollars. Admission without a guide (when possible) to either camp is free.  

All visits must be booked in advance through the website visit.auschwitz.org. As a result, you may find there are no tickets available for the day you would like to visit because they have all been purchased by tourist agencies.

If you are determined to visit Auschwitz I by yourself on public transit you should know that during the peak season from March 1- October 3, it is mandatory to buy a ticket and become part of a 3.5hr guided tour unless you get there before 10:00 or after 16:00. Birkenau or Auschwitz II is always free to independent visitors. Even if visiting independently for free, you still need a ‘free ticket’ from the ticket office. I absolutely recommend taking a guided tour you just won’t get as much out of the “free” experience as you will a tour.

There is a schedule of guided tours that are held in various languages from English, Polish, German, French, Italian, Russian, Spanish, Hungarian, Dutch, Swedish and Japanese (also Czech and Slovak in July and August). To their credit, the museum makes a big effort to provide the tour in the native language of each guest (despite the website being only in English and Polish), and tours in languages other than those mentioned can be easily arranged through the website if done in advance.

Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial & Museum pilgrimage

How do I get to Auschwitz?

There are several ways to get to Auschwitz but remember Auschwitz Birkenau are located around 3 km from each other and that is around a 40-minute walk if you take public transit.

From mid-April, to October there is a free shuttle bus which links the two sites and departs every hour.

Why Visit Auschwitz?

A visit to Auschwitz should be required and mandatory for any individual caught with a Nazi symbol or acting as a holocaust denier. Our tour through this horrific place was quiet and pretty grim, to be honest. The guides were soft-spoken and drove home the nature of this place without falseness or drama. There is no need for drama at Auschwitz the nightmare speaks for itself.

I used to believe in free speech and that people who denied the holocaust or used Nazi symbols had the right to do that since it was freedom of speech. But after my visit to Auschwitz, I am now a believer in the fact that regulation needs to be enforced on these hate symbols.

Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial & Museum pilgrimage

If you have the chance you must visit Auschwitz-Birkenau to keep the memory alive and ensure that we “never forget”. Soon all the survivors of the camps will be dead but we the younger generations must ensure that these horrors are never forgotten.  I am deeply disappointed in Poland currently as you would believe they had learned from these atrocities conducted by the Nazi’s but they continue to pass laws against LGBTQ people and attempt to outlaw them much as the Jews, Gypsies, Homosexuals and so on were massacred by the Nazis.

In December, the European Union Parliament formally condemned Poland for trying to create “LGBTI-free” zones, with lawmakers comparing the policies to “Jew-free” zones that existed during World War II.

Despite this, approximately one-third of Poland territories now declare themselves as such. That amounts to over 80 different municipalities or territorial areas — more than double the 30-plus areas whose local governments had already declared themselves as “LGBTI-free” zones and had passed anti-LGBTQ resolutions from July. from LGBTQ Nation

German Law on Nazi symbols

In Germany, the law considers swastikas and SS sig runes the “symbols of anti-constitutional organizations.” Displaying them publicly or selling goods that have the symbols on them is illegal. The Nazi salute and statements such as “Heil Hitler” are also banned in public. In fact, the band KISS when they appeared in Germany were not allowed to use the sig runes that bracketed the stage during their shows in other countries.

Swastikas and other banned symbols can, however, be displayed in Germany if they are used for “civic education, countering anti-constitutional activities, art and science, research and education, the coverage of historic and current events, or similar purposes,” according to the Criminal Code.

Auschwitz Birkenau History

Auschwitz-Birkenau opened in 1940 and was the largest of the Nazi concentration and death camps. Initially, Auschwitz served as a detention centre for Polish citizens arrested after Germany took over Poland in 1939. These folks were politicians, resistance members, artists and protestors from musicians to celebrities.

Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial & Museum pilgrimage

Once Hitler put into place his “final solution” it soon became one of the most terrifying of Concentration camps where Jewish people and other “enemies of the state” as in Gypsies, Homosexuals, the Disabled both those physically and mentally, political prisoners, and those from the “resistance” were held prisoner, used as slave labour and eventually murdered.

Auschwitz was “conveniently located near all the German-occupied countries in Europe and it was close to railway lines used to transport the victims to the camps.

Auschwitz was also the place where the infamous Mengele “the angel of death” conducted his horrific experiments on prisoners. During World War II (1939-45), more than 1 million people, lost their lives at Auschwitz. In January 1945, with the Soviet army approaching, Nazi officials ordered the camp abandoned and sent an estimated 60,000 prisoners on a forced march to other locations. When the Soviet soldiers entered Auschwitz, they found thousands of emaciated detainees and piles of corpses left behind.

Auschwitz Birkenau location map

Auschwitz Birkenau is located in Southern Poland around an hour drive from Krakow. Auschwitz, in Polish, is called Oświęcim, the area is also known as Auschwitz-Birkenau. Auschwitz was actually three camps in one: a prison camp, an extermination camp, and a slave-labour camp.  Many people also wonder how to pronounce Auschwitz,  and it is Ow-svitch.

 

How to get to Auschwitz Birkenau Concentration camp

We took the Musement Tour of Auschwitz which transported us by coach to the camps. There are several tours offered from Krakow and we found the Guide was excellent. The tour of Auschwitz takes around 2.5-3 hours, Birkenau around 2 hours and then breaks and the bus journey all add up to around 7.5 hours.

How to Get to Auschwitz from Krakow

From Krakow to Auschwitz takes around an hour and a half via bus the distance is about 66 km. To visit and tour Auschwitz Birkenau you can book a tour, hire a private taxi, use the public bus or visit by public train.

Keep in mind if you want to visit Auschwitz and Birkenau you can but the line ups can and will be massive. Many tourists arriving by local transit as in buses, trains and taxis end up waiting over many hours to be able to get a ticket and access the site. We picked up our bus at 10 am arrived at the Camp at 12:30 and gained immediate access to the tour. We saw at least 300 people waiting in line to buy tickets.

Auschwitz Tours From Krakow

One of the benefits of a guided tour to Auschwitz is that it handles all of your transportation needs, leaving you to sit and reflect on what you are about to see and what you have seen.

If you are looking to purchase the tour in advance, then the following links from Musement Auschwitz may suit you.

They feature fast-track entry which is advisable as there can often be queues of up to two hours to enter. Here are the tour options offered by Musement.

An Auschwitz-Birkenau Full-Day Guided Tour

This full-day tour to Auschwitz-Birkenau offers a Krakow pick up in a comfortable air-conditioned bus with an English speaking driver. Every year, millions of visitors from around the world walk through the gate bearing that inscription: ‘Arbeit macht frei’. Walking the same path as prisoners from over half a century ago.

Our guide met us at the bus where there were several language groups including English, French, Italian and Polish. Our Guide spoke all 4. We were informed about how the tour worked upon arrival at Auschwitz. A day tour like this takes around 7-7.5 hours.

Our guide informed us about the breaks and although many were told to bring a packed lunch we were not allowed to eat the lunch or drink hot beverages on the bus. We actually had a couple of 15-20 minutes stops to get lunch or a coffee.

At both Auschwitz and Birkenau, there are coffee shops or cafes available along with shops where you can buy “souvenirs” or books. The books were interesting but I felt the souvenir aspect was tacky but they were not Auschwitz souvenirs mainly Polish.

During the tour, you will experience both Auschwitz and Birkenau camps while you learn about the history of both camps and the holocaust.

The tour includes a guide-led exploration of the prison blocks, gas chambers and crematoria building.

Auschwitz-Birkenau: Self-Guided Visit from Krakow $37 – 40 US

Touring Auschwitz – Birkenau

One of the areas that struck me quite hard was Kanada. I learned from the guide that the storage facilities for the items stolen from the Jews and other prisoners was known as Kanada. It was named this because Canada was considered to be the land of plenty and the arriving prisoners were of the belief that they would soon arrive at this Land of Plenty. 

Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial & Museum pilgrimage

The Auschwitz Album

To view the Auschwitz Album click here

The Auschwitz Album is the only surviving visual evidence of the process leading to the mass murder at Auschwitz-Birkenau. It is a unique document and was donated to Yad Vashem by Lilly Jacob-Zelmanovic Meier.

The photos were taken at the end of May or beginning of June 1944, either by Ernst Hofmann or by Bernhard Walter, two SS men whose task was to take ID photos and fingerprints of the inmates (not of the Jews who were sent directly to the gas chambers).

Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial & Museum pilgrimage

The Tour Guides lead us through a series of brick buildings some with haunting photos on the walls of those who were imprisoned here.

Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial & Museum pilgrimage

I expected wooden huts where the prisoners were kept but they were solid red brick buildings that held onto a real sense of gloom.

Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial & Museum pilgrimage

Some buildings had large rooms filled with items such as suitcases, bags and personal belongings.

Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial & Museum pilgrimage

Some had straw-filled mattresses or bunks that slept 10 people each. 

Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial & Museum pilgrimage

Views outside the windows in the buildings showed the barbed wire and concrete posts surrounding the camps, the guard stations from where you were shot if you got too close to the wires.

We passed execution places, ruined crematoriums, Mengele’s experiment rooms and the area of the only hanging at Auschwitz. 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 16 April 1947.

There’s a curious feel to Auschwitz that is hard to describe. It is desolate, and dead there is a dullness to the place, not in the sense of boring but as if the air that surrounds the camp is dead. All the pain and death that were suffered here has made the place a living tomb which is as it should be. 

Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial & Museum pilgrimage

Walking through both camps we hear groups of Israeli young people singing the Hatikvah. 

A national anthem was written more than 50 years before the birth of the state for which it was composed, “Hatikvah” has served as a source of hope and inspiration for Jews who have found themselves in the direst of circumstances. During the darkest hours of the Holocaust, Jews defied their tormentors by singing the song’s powerful lyrics.

‘The SS could not stop them’

Filip Muller was a Sonderkommando in Auschwitz—a Jewish slave labourer who was kept alive because he helped take corpses from the gas chambers to the crematoria. One of the very few Sonderkommandos to survive the Holocaust, Muller later described the remarkable behaviour of one group of Czech Jews who were being marched towards the gas chambers and were told what was about to happen:

“Their voices grew subdued and tense, their movements forced, their eyes stared as though they had been hypnotized… Suddenly a voice began to sing. Others joined in, and the sound swelled into a mighty choir. They sang first the Czechoslovak national anthem and then the Hebrew song ‘Hatikvah.’”

We must never lose hope that the Holocaust will always be remembered and we must stand and fight injustice towards any people everywhere.

March of the Living

The International March of the Living is an annual educational program, bringing individuals from around the world to Poland and Israel to study the history of the Holocaust and to examine the roots of prejudice, intolerance and hatred. Sadly this year 2020 the March may be cancelled due to the Coronavirus. 

young man holding a sign saying we are still here the March of the Living at Auschwitze - Birkenau
©March of the Living

“The universal goal of the International March of the Living is to help inspire our participants to fight indifference, racism and injustice by witnessing the atrocities of the Holocaust. Our hope is that the program will help strengthen Jewish identity, connections to Israel and build a community of future Jewish leaders.”

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