If you are organizing a visit to the famous Auschwitz concentration camp, you should know that there are mainly two ways to visit it: either on your own, buying tickets to Auschwitz or joining one of the day trips to Auschwitz from Krakow.
I personally recommend the second option: besides not having to worry about the logistics of getting there, you will be joined by an expert guide.
They will help you to understand this tragic episode of history, and to contextualize the rooms and the different parts of the extermination camp.
In any case, during your visit to Auschwitz, you will visit the two main camps that are part of the great Auschwitz Birkenau complex: Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II (both are only 2 miles apart). Here is a list of what you will see during the tour.
Auschwitz I Camp
This is the entrance to the extermination camp and the original part of the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex. It was built in 1940 by the Nazis with the idea of housing 15,000 to 20,000 prisoners. The visit to Auschwitz starts here, where the visitor center is located.
You will immediately recognize the iron gate that appears in all the photos, headed by the famous writing "Work will set you free".
The short documentary of the visitor center
Before starting the tour, the visitor center offers the viewing of a short documentary (about 15 minutes) that will help you to contextualize everything you will see next.
In my opinion, it is worth spending time (especially if you have not hired a guide or audio guide for the visit) because it is very dynamic and everything is very well explained. The documentary is in black and white and shows original images of the time.
The large barracks with objects and photos of the victims
The first thing that will strike you when you enter the area will be the huge brick barracks where the Jews arrived and where they were housed during their stay in the camp.
Some of them have been converted today as a museum, where some of the prisoners' belongings that were recovered after the liberation of the camp are exhibited. You will see small objects of personal hygiene, clothes, shoes, suitcases... In this part, the tension of the visit starts to rise and it gets a bit rough.
The exhibits inside the barracks
Along some corridors, you will also see endless walls filled with pictures with photos of the Jews whose lives ended in Auschwitz. On them, you will see the date of their arrival at the camp and their date of extermination. While those who arrived during the first few months were there for a long time working until they were exterminated, those who arrived last barely hung on for weeks or months before their lives ended.
If you go with children, my advice is don't linger too long in this part of the exhibit, as the details may hurt their sensibilities (there is even a large room with the hair they shaved off the prisoners upon arrival).
The old train tracks
Along one part of the field and also joining the former with the latter, you will see that there are some abandoned train tracks. These tracks were used to transport prisoners from one camp to another or receive them from different parts of the country and the rest of Europe.
The guide will put you in the context of how these transfers were done and how the prisoners were crammed into crowded wagons. Today these train tracks are not used at all, but are maintained as part of the Auschwitz memorial.
The Great Auschwitz Open Field II
After an emotionally charged visit to Auschwitz I, it is time to move on to the Auschwitz II camp. This part is much less touristic and less visited than Auschwitz I, but also, being so large and with so few barracks still standing, it will give you a much greater sense of frailness and abandonment.
This camp was built by the Nazis as an extension annex to the first camp. The number of Jews that could be housed here was much larger: up to 90,000 prisoners lived here simultaneously.
The speed with which this part of the camp had to be built made the materials used and the quality of the barracks much worse: wood was used and the spaces were completely open-plan so that as many people as possible could fit in. Creepy. Very few are left standing.
The gas chambers
Some of the gas chambers that were used in the extermination of prisoners in this camp are preserved and you will be able to visit some of them. The guide will explain how the Nazis who ran the camp tried to blow them up when the liberation of the Jews began. They tried by all means to eliminate the traces of the tortures to which they subjected their prisoners. Today they are preserved as they were after that.
The walk through this area is, needless to say, really creepy. If you visit Auschwitz in the winter season, you will see that the temperatures, the humidity, and the feeling of cold in the middle of that wasteland is terrible. Imagine the situation that the prisoners lived there, dressed in simple cloth pajamas and practically without food for days, weeks, or months.
While initially, it seemed that these camps were going to be labor camps, with the short passage of time they turned directly into extermination camps. Wagonloads of people arrived who never even made it to Auschwitz, but instead "landed" en masse in these gas chambers where their lives were ended.
One of the elements that stand out most in this part of the camp is the watchtower that is still standing and which you can climb for a panoramic view that will help you understand the huge dimensions of Auschwitz-Birkenau. The view from the top is bleak, especially if you try to imagine what the actual views of the Nazis guarding the prisoners were from here. Terrifying.
The barbed wire fences surrounding the camp
Another thing that surprised me was to see that miles of barbed wire surrounding the camp are still standing and that perimeters the little space of freedom and movement that the prisoners had. If after the visit you have time to walk around the camp, you will see that there are still some huge houses that were once the homes of the Nazis who ran the concentration camps.
A terrible contrast compared to the living conditions, work, and torture to which the prisoners were subjected for years in this place.
Auschwitz life of the prisoners
One of the things that struck me most during the tour, besides the details and objects that you will see throughout your visit, was that only when you are there do you get an idea of what the daily life of the prisoners was like.
Until then, I had heard and read about many episodes of this part of history, but when I got there, saw the dimensions of the camps and heard from an expert guide what the daily life of the prisoners was like, I really got to imagine how all the people who went through there lived.
If you take the guided tour, they will explain the schedules, routines and functioning of the different pavilions, always with respect for the memory of the victims. Definitely, a reality check that is worth knowing in order not to forget one of the worst episodes of the most recent history of mankind.