January 27th marks the Anniversary of the Soviet Army’s liberation of Auschwitz. As far as anniversaries go, this is one of the more somber ones to be recognized. As it should be. A visit to Auschwitz is filled with a sense of dread and heavy mood that still, today, even on a sunny summer day, clings to the crumbling brick and mortar of Auschwitz and Birkenau. It is a hard place to visit with its ghosts and memories. A very blunt, in your face reminder of the atrocities carried out there over 70 years ago. But a reminder we need and a memorial for those lost.
When you go, plan for about 90 minutes for both sites. You’ll need to be with a guide for the Auschwitz portion of the camps. We usually avoid guided museum visits, preferring instead to go at our own pace, reading the placards we choose to read and skipping over some. But in this case it’s obligatory and we didn’t really mind as it gave us an insight into what others think about the monstrous events that took place here. Our English speaking group of 20 was a mix of western and eastern countries with a varied range of English skills. Our guide was patient and helped with additional explanation where needed. We even adopted a small group of Hungarians that had lost their assigned group which was easy to do.
This is one of those places you don’t mind sharing with big crowds of tourists. And there were plenty of us, trudging along the muddy streets, herded along in our tight little groups form spot to spot. In a way, it may have added to the heavy atmosphere we could all sense. But we never felt rushed or pressed for time; stopping for a picture, going back for a second read, or getting a closer look at some document or map was no problem.
For the Birkenau visit, 90 minutes is enough as well. Here you don’t need a guide, though they are available and recommended. Even if you do go with a guide, though, you’ll still be able to get out and wander the grounds on your own which wasn’t allowed at Auschwitz.
Other Practical Information:
Most people get to the sites by arranging a day tour out of Krakow. This is very easy to do with your hotel or one of the tour operators in the main square. It’s also very easy to get to Auschwitz on your own, it takes about an hour drive and most tours show a dour, mood setting video giving the history and details about the camps. Most tours also include lunch, ours was a sandwich, a bowl of macaroni salad (surprisingly tasty), and a Polish chocolate bar. They will also shuttle you between the two sites, as they are a few minutes’ drive away from each other.
For more information you can visit the website.
Have you visited Auschwitz or any Holocaust sites? Please tell us what you thought in the comment section.