Why Should Anyone Visit Auschwitz?

Why would anyone want to visit Auschwitz?
Why would anyone want to visit Auschwitz?

Last week I visited the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps and well, nothing can really prepare you for the influx of emotions that will run through your heart as you walk from one cabin to another reading about all the atrocities that took place here.

Warning: For me, travel is about enhancing your own happiness so I would like to warn you that after reading this article you will be filled with sadness and anger after being witness to the pure evil that humans are capable of doing. Nevertheless, you’ll be filled with hope. And hope is the strongest weapon of them all.

Are you ready to venture into the gates of Auschwitz with me?

Why should anyone visit Auschwitz? Seriously

As I boarded the mini-van to reach the Auschwitz concentration camp, my head began to fill with doubt and second-thoughts. “Is this really a good idea? I know I’m going to be sad. I know I’m going to be angry. I know I won’t be able to sleep tonight. Do I really want to go there?”

The, something surreal happened. The driver played Nelly Furtado songs on the radio and some of the people in the mini-van started to sing Karaoke. I wonder if they knew about what they were getting into. And yes, I bet they were all silent on their ride back.

You see, the problem with Auschwitz is that it has become a must-see on the bucket-list of visitors to Krakow and many people go to Auschwitz just for the sake of saying they have been there instead of doing it to learn about the atrocities took place here.

The worst part? Organized tours that actually make a huge profit by bringing countless numbers of tourists to the concentration camps.

How to get to Auschwitz from Krakow without an organized tour

The price of an organized tour from Krakow to Auschwitz ranges from 135 to 100 PNL (roughly 30 to 25 euros). This includes transportation and a rushed three hour visit to both the Auschwitz and the Birkenau camps (located 3Kms away from each other).

You won’t be able to see all the rooms of the Auschwitz museum and you won’t ever have a solo time to reflect about what happened here.

In fact, a tour makes it way too easy to process since there will be a wall of security between you and the events and it makes it easier to think that you’re visiting a museum instead of a death camp. Instead, how about venturing to Auschwitz on your own?

From the Krakow Bus Station, you can take a minivan to Auschwitz (24 PNL return) and from there you can take the free shuttle to Birkenau each 30 minutes. Entrance to the Auschwitz concentration camp is free after 3pm while entrance to the Birkenau concentration camp is free at all times.

Why would anyone want to visit Auschwitz?
Why would anyone want to visit Auschwitz?

Birkenau and why all these photos are black and white

I won’t lie to you: The Polish countryside is beautiful and so is Birkenau. Decades ago, Steven Spielberg decided to shoot Schindler’s List in black and white mainly because he didn’t want to beautify the places in which these atrocities took place and after reviewing the photos I took of Auschwitz-Birkenau I fully agreed with him.

Isn’t it sad how the Nazis converted this beautiful area into a place of death and despair? I cannot help but imagine the chilling contrast between the beautiful vegetation of the Polish countryside and the ashes of the dead bodies that were constantly incinerated out in the open.

You should spend at least a couple of hours exploring the huge area of Birkenau before continuing to Auschwitz, the smaller and yet more horrifying camp of the two.

The Auschwitz Museum: Work will set you free

We’ve have all seen this phrase in the media related to the concentration camps of WWII: “Arbeit macht frei”. Work will set you free, one of the many lies that the Nazis told the prisoners in order to encourage them to keep doing hard labor for them. And yet, I couldn’t believe my eyes when people were posing underneath the sign smiling to the camera.

“They don’t know what they’re doing” I told myself since I simply couldn’t believe that someone could be as insensitive as to do something like that in front of the gate where many people entered never to exit again. At least not alive.

The concentration camp of Auschwitz is unique in the sense that each of the barracks is actually a museum detailing the process of the executions, the life at the concentration camps and history lessons in general that will help you to gain a better understanding of what took place here.

Hearing an explanation from a guide is different from reading it since hearing offers you a safety net that helps you unplug yourself from the harsh reality of the place while reading immerses you into the pages of history and gives you time to fully process the pointlessness of killing someone.

I consider myself as a very strong and confident person, however, there was this room that completely broke me and left me shedding tears of rage and sadness after which I quickly left the museum and decided it was time to go back to Krakow. It was this one. I don’t think words are needed to explain why this is the saddest exhibition of all Auschwitz.

So…should you visit Auschwitz?

As I told you in the beginning, this was not a happy visit. But it was a necessary one.

Would I visit Auschwitz again? Probably not but I think that everyone should visit Auschwitz at least once in their lifetime. “It’s not about remembering what happened, it’s about never forgetting it”.

Thoughts?

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14 Comments

  • Yes. Everyone should visit Auschwitz. It will bring you to tears. But too many people have taken an indifferent approach to history. “Oh, that was a long time ago.” Or, “history is boring.” Or worse, “I’ve read about it, but I’m not Jewish so it doesn’t affect me.” History will repeat itself when people forget the past. The antisemitic protests in Europe and North America are proof that we are already forgetting, not even a full generation later. I’ve never been to Auschwitz, but I will one day. Reading your post, seeing the pictures, and watching documentaries on tv about it bring me to tears; I can’t imagine how broken and mournful I will feel after seeing it in person.

    Thanks for this post.

  • “And yet, I couldn’t believe my eyes when people were posing underneath the sign smiling to the camera”

    My thoughts exactly. Last year I visited Auschwitz. We spent around 3 hours walking around Auschwitz II and after that went to Auschwitz I and got an guided tour. I couldn’t believe when we entered a room that was full of hair from people, who had died in the camp, people took photos of the hair – even though the guide had just said that no photographing in this room!

    But what comes to visiting Auschwitz and other dark tourism sites, I think it is very important that we preserve and visit these places. “One who doesn’t remember history is bound to live through it again” I also think that people should think of their motives before visiting this kind of a site. Also when visiting a site, whatever your motives are, visitors should try to understand what’s happened there and respect the victims – taking smily selfies in concentration camp or memorial site is not respectful. (I’ve written on this subject too, you can check this post if you want to: http://ewoklife.wordpress.com/2014/04/01/dark-tourism-attractions-why-do-we-visit-them/)

  • I visited in April, but have yet to write about it as it was probably the most moving travel experience I have had to date. I did take one of the tours, and I wouldn’t change it for the world. Our guide’s father in law was a survivor and the insight she provided was unparalleled to anything I could have experienced if I just went on my own. We also didn’t have karaoke on the bus, but rather an informative video of what we could expect, which quite honestly, made me cry before we got there. I strongly believe that everyone, especially our generation, should visit a concentration camp at least once in their life. History lessons and tv shows are nothing like the real thing.

  • I have been talking about it with so many foreigners so many times that I won’t comment too much. Instead, I will just confirm than indeed everyone should visit this place once! But you see as some mentioned below, your experience depends from your character. You would think that in Poland where almost everyone goes to visit this place as a kind of a school trip antisemitism or any kind of race/religion hatery should be non existence! You couldn’t be more wrong.

  • I am brought to tears very easily, and Justin is quite sensitive too…so I’m sure it wouldn’t take much visiting here for it to be incredibly emotional for the both of us. I would like to visit here in my lifetime. I think it is important to understand and remember the atrocities of our history so we can prevent similar things from happening. I think it would be a good idea to explore on your own without a tour if possible, because I would find it hard to be fully immersed in my thoughts if I was taken in a large group from place to place. I think I would enjoy the alone time to process everything fully. Thank you so much for sharing!

  • This is something I’d like to see with my own eyes just because we studied it so much in high school and college that I’d be really interested to visit. It’s such an important part of our world’s history, yet incredibly sad. It’s hard to believe so many people died in a place where we now consider a tourist attraction. How times changes the world.

  • Auschwitz was the hardest place I’ve ever been to. It has affected the way I react to everything, the saddest part for me was the room with the hair. In fact we were escorted away for a ‘break’ after that.

    I did my trip as part of a tour, and actually, I would say it made me understand the experience a lot more than walking around just reading the signs. The guides at Auschwitz are mostly from the town of Oświęcim, and are only allowed to take a certain amount of tours a week, our guide is also a teacher at the school in the town. She had family who had been held, and died in Auschwitz. So, I’d say that having a guide who has, essentially lived thru the pain caused made our experience more ‘real’ and absolutely did not offer us a safety net.

    I maintain what I said at the time of writing my post, everyone should go. Everyone should remember. Especially as a European. It’s part of us. This is the post I wrote: http://www.wanderlustin.co.uk/2014/03/a-cry-of-despair-auschwitz-birkenau.html

  • Wow, Raphael. Thanks for this very important post. (I like how you began by posting a photo of the gate, that was actually super effective). I visited Mauthausen concentration camp in Germany and the killing fields in Cambodia and had the same whirlwind of emotions. But I feel it is so important when traveling to these other countries that we stop and remember and honor those victims in remembrance. I would absolutely visit Auschwitz as well.

  • Visiting Auschwitz was hard for me too, and I totally get it when you say ‘everyone should visit at least once’. But there’s another place that moved me even more… Anne Frank’s house in Amsterdam.

  • This was a very well written post. When I went to Hiroshima, there were people posing and smiling next to the A-bomb Dome. I thought that was inappropriate.

  • Really good write up. I visited at the beginning of this month and since returning to the UK it’s had such an impact on my subconscious. I keep having nightmares that I’m in the hollocaust and a prisoner in Auschwitz. I am mentally a very strong person and not easily affected but this place really touched me to the soul…. And to think, to so many people this wasn’t just a nightmare, they lived it.
    I too saw people walking around taking selfies and smiling next to the remains of the gas chambers… All I can say is, if youre plan on visiting have some respect and put the camera away. Nothing inside these bar wire walls warrants a photo.

  • I read this post because two of my friends are coming to Krakow this weekend and insist of doing the “death tour.” Why? Pure ghoulishness and a desire to be able to shock people when they return home, I suspect. They will have lots of pics to bandy about as well. They already know what happened there so will walking through the memorial educate them even more? They are going on a guided tour so they are helping to fuel a very macabre tourist industry, I think they would show more respect by not going and holding a minutes silence in the Ghetto Heroes Square.

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