Visiting the Auschwitz and Birkenau Nazi Death Camps

arbeit macht frei auschwitz
Arbeit Macht Frei. Work will set you free. The comforting lie that greeted the new prisoners as they entered the camp.

It dawned one of those sniveling gray days we’ve gotten used to since we’ve been in northern Europe. By the time the tour van arrived to pick us up at 7:30, it was raining steadily. It let up briefly on the one hour drive from Krakow to Auschwitz, but by the time we arrived at the camp, the sky had determined to be unremittingly miserable. It beat us with a melancholy roar–soaking us through our all-too-permeable jacket hoods before we could even walk from the van to the gate.

The gate where we entered the Auschwitz concentration camp bears the overarching black iron legend, “Arbeit Macht Frei” – Work Will Set You Free. Camp Commandant Rudolf Hoess had it fashioned so the very first communication to the prisoners of the concentration camp was a message of false hope that they might someday get out of Auschwitz. So much more diabolical than “Abandon All Hope, You Who Enter Here” inscribed over the door of Dante’s hell.

auschwitz fence line
The double row of electrified barbed wire that surrounded Auschwitz I. Some prisoners committed suicide by throwing themselves on the high voltage strands.

Stark ranks of arched concrete posts holding electrified barbed wire still guard the grounds. Just inside that perimeter begin the blocks of red brick barracks sewn by broken stone walkways into compact and well ordered rows. The high points in the paths provide infrequent stepping places for already soaked shoes.

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From the outside, the buildings are uniform, plain, and solid. They could maybe be New England school houses or small handwork factories. When you walk into them you could maintain that impression. There is a central hall, its walls painted a bland green. Classroom-size rooms flank both sides.

Seventy years ago, these rooms were like that. Some were offices, some were rooms for work. But many are still stuffed full of three-tier bunk beds. Some show nothing but pine slats for lying on. Others have thin straw mattresses. These have been put in their original sites to show how the prisoners lived. Other larger rooms are turned into “classrooms,” if you will–rooms that have been converted from their original purposes to documentation of what went on here.

We are led to the second floor, which is a duplicate of the first. In the first of those rooms, are large grainy black and white photos that were taken by the Nazi SS guards. It’s not known exactly why these photos were taken. As the war progressed, the practice stopped. But we have many shots of the prisoners and the guards. We see prisoners arriving on trains with their suitcases. We see them in their striped uniforms digging ditches. We see them standing in rows being counted. And we see them looking apprehensive, perhaps. But not terrified. Those pictures were probably not saved.

prisoner photos Auschwitz
In the beginning each prisoner was photographed for the files and given a number. Later an SS accountant decided that the photo process was too expensive and time consuming. So it was replaced with just giving each prisoner a number, which was tattooed on their left forearm. Auschwitz was the only Nazi camp that tattooed the number.

In another building, rows of face shots of prisoners, along with their serial number and date of birth and death, line the first floor hall. These were taken soon after the prisoners arrived at Auschwitz. The prisoners seem relatively robust. The cheeks are not yet hollow with hunger. However, every face is decidedly expressionless, as though recent imprisonment has already robbed them of any personality. These photos were part of the original camp record keeping procedure–which was later abandoned for reasons of cost and efficiency. For so many, the large group photos which might, by chance, show a face, are all the proof that remain that an individual was here.

suitcases Auschwitz
Arriving Jews were told to paint their name on the suitcase, so they’d get it back later.

If anyone has a question of why so many were brought to Auschwitz in the beginning, you should know that it wasn’t only to kill them. The determined slaughter came later. The main purpose we can glean from the evidence of Auschwitz I, as the camp we’re at was called, was not to kill prisoners outright. It was first to steal all their possessions, and then to rent them out to German corporations as slave laborers. And, of course, to terrorize.

Unlike the pure extermination camps which came later, the concentration camps had a political purpose. The Germans never kept them secret. They wanted their occupied peoples to know that they could be deported if they caused any trouble. At a concentration camp, death was almost a side effect, and, in the early years, usually didn’t come so quickly.

We saw more photos of the day to day operations of the camp, and accompanying didactic maps of German occupied Europe with train routes and numbers of deported political prisoners. The records distinguish among Jews, Roma, political prisoners, Soviet prisoners of war, and other categories of undesirables. Eventually, you come to more personal evidence of Auschwitz I’s purpose.

Several of the buildings were warehouses or sorting areas of things taken from the arriving prisoners. These buildings were cynically called “Canada,” because Canada was reputed to be a country where you could get anything you needed. Canada was the best place for an inmate to work, because, if you were careful, you could get anything. You could find food that was brought in by arriving prisoners. Or valuables such as jewelry or money, that if secreted long enough to get them out of Canada, could later be traded to corrupt guards for food.

There is one room in Canada that is nothing but empty suitcases, all painted with the name and address of their original owner. The Jews were told to bring suitcases with them, so they’d have clothing and household items with them during their relocation. This gave them some hope, which of course worked against them. It also gave the SS vast piles of loot. There is one room full of nothing but pots and pans, which is especially ironic given the meager, if any, food, the prisoners got after arrival. There is another room that holds only piles of children’s shoes.

childrens shoes Auschwitz
Children’s shoes ended up in a big pile.

There are piles of combs and hair brushes. And there is a room full of more than a thousand kilograms of long hair shaved from the women’s and girls’ heads. You can still see some braids and evidence of careful curling. The hair is mostly dark, but there is some light brown and even some blond. At the end of that room is a bolt of felt cloth made from that hair. It was used to line winter coats for soldiers and to make socks for U-boat crews. No photos were permitted here.

After Canada, we arrived at the basement of the infamous Building 11. There were cells there where prisoners were punished for whatever real or imagined infraction. In particular, escapes were discouraged in Building 11. If someone did escape, ten men from the escapee’s section were chosen at random to be starved to death in a basement cell.

At the end of the basement hall, there were several tiny brick cells, about the size of a box a refrigerator might be delivered in. There, four men would be put standing up and left for days, unable to move, or especially to lie down. Sometimes they would be let out to work during the day, only to be put back, unfed, at night.

Sometimes the screams of the tortured were so loud, it shattered camp tranquility. This created a disincentive to the compliance the other prisoners. The proximity of one building to the other made this difficult to deal with. So, sometimes, the SS guards would have two motorcycles revving their engines outside Building 11 to drown out the noise.

Next door, at Building 10, trials were held. These were for prisoners–mostly Germans who resisted the Nazis in their home country–who had a “right” to a show trial before being executed. They would get their trial, then be taken out behind the building where a soft metal bullet backstop had been affixed to the brick courtyard wall. They’d be shot in the back of the head with small caliber, quieter, pistols, and the bodies would be carted out only after nightfall.

furnaces Auschwitz
The “experimental” furnaces at Auschwitz I. These became obsolete when the bigger more efficient crematoria were installed at Birkenau.

Eventually, in the basement of another building, the Nazis built gas chambers and furnaces. Auschwitz I was never designed to be a death camp. But when the orders came later to begin mass extermination, one basement space was bricked in, disguised as a shower room, and used to test mass poisoning.

poison gas canisters Auschwitz
Used canisters of Zyklon B, the chemical used in the gas chambers. Dark humor: Gift in German means poison.

The Germans started by pumping in carbon monoxide from engines running outside the building. The cheap pesticide eventually used as the extermination gas, Zyklon B, was also tested here to determine the concentration needed to quickly do the job. The first experiments were reported to be less than satisfactory as too little gas was used, and people took hours to die a screaming painful death.

The noxious smoke from the accompanying small capacity furnaces was also too obvious. Since these experiments happened right in the middle of the camp, they were also disruptive and disheartening to the other inmates. The Germans feared this too would lead to inmate revolt, now that their fate was apparent, and imminent.

As Commandant Hoess said, “The key to committing mass murder on this scale was to conduct the whole process in an atmosphere of great calm.”

As it began raining even harder, we were bused two kilometers up the road to Birkenau.

At Birkenau, there was not much illusion of a placid community, as you might infer if there were no barbed wire or guard towers at Auschwitz I. First, as you enter the gate, you notice that the site is massive, many times the size the size of the first camp. And it’s in a flat, unhealthy fen, made relatively habitable–if habitable is the right word–only by drainage ditches dug all around.

birkinau barracks
Most of the barracks at Birkenau were made from pre-fabricated horse stables. A stable designed for about 50 horses could hold over 500 men.

The left side as you look down the long set of railway tracks that bisect the camp are seeming hundreds of long, mostly brick, barracks. Each is probably five times the size of the buildings at Auschwitz I. Again, there’s a perimeter of barbed wire, and rickety guard towers every 50 meters or so outside the wire. Women were housed on this side.

On the right side, you assume once stood a similar stand of buildings, but now all that are left of most of them are the brick chimneys of the original stoves used for heating.

birkinau train tracks
An improvement to the system in Birkenau was to run the train tracks right into the camp. The prisoners were separated by doctors immediately upon arrival into those who would go to the barracks to be worked to death, and those who would go directly to the gas chambers.

But the most ominous sight are the train tracks. They run on now-splintered wooden ties more than a kilometer straight away from you down to another barely visible gray pile of ruins of one of the gas chambers and crematoria.

We had seen pictures of this back at the main camp. Not of the gas chambers and crematoria, because no photos were made or kept of those. But the wide middle swath was the “selection” area.

The trains pulled right into the camp, and as the prisoners were unloaded, SS doctors made the spot decision who were shunted to the barracks to be worked to death, and who made straight for the four, high-capacity killing grounds at the far edge of the camp. At the edge where things could be done that didn’t upset the rest. At their most efficient, the chambers and crematoria at Birkenau could kill and dispose of 4700 people per day. Of the 1.3 million who arrived at Birkenau on the trains, over 1.1 million were killed here.

birkinau fence line
The ruins of barracks on the right side of the tracks. Both the Poles and Russians cannibalized the camp for scarce post-war building materials.

As the Germans retreated from Poland ahead of the Russian advance, they destroyed their death camps. At Treblinka and Sobibor, other camps in the northern part of Poland, they pulled down the camps, bulldozed the gas chambers and crematoria, and plowed the ground into farmland. Hardly a trace remains.

But for some reason, they didn’t have enough time to do the job at Birkenau. Three of the four death factories were completely destroyed, but the fourth, right at the end of the tracks, was blown up. But the debris was left, maybe because Russian tanks were arriving sooner than anticipated. It’s a pile of twisted steel and concrete, and if you didn’t know what it was, it would be hard to know it from any other monument to shattered war.

The ashes of that 1.1 million people were buried in a field behind the camp. There’s no particular monument over the ash burial ground.

But, there are stories of the Poles who came back to the area of the camp after the war. The Germans had destroyed their homes to build the camps, and to remove any witnesses. Some original residents walked all the way back to the area from Eastern Ukraine where they’d been exiled. When they arrived destitute to their destroyed homes, some cannibalized building materials from Birkenau to start over.

Some sifted through the ash pits to find money or jewelry that had gone into the furnace with their owners, because it hadn’t been found on the naked bodies of the Jews between the time they were gassed and the time they were burned.

One said he found some gold from teeth and a bracelet. He was able to trade those for a cow, and start his life again.

Two recommendations if you want to visit the camps: although during certain hours, you can visit Auschwitz/Birkenau by yourself, take a tour. The guides are very good. Our guide was an American, David Kennedy, who is a graduate student who takes his job seriously and knows an enormous amount about what went on here. Undoubtedly, your hotel in Krakow can arrange a tour, which makes it both easy to get the 65 kilometers from Krakow to Auschwitz and also to get between the two camps. Our tour cost 125 Polish Zloty each, about $41 USD or about €30. It’s well worth it. You probably can’t do it any cheaper on your own.

Second: visit the Ksiegarnia Bookshop at Jozefa Street number 38 in Krakow’s Jewish Quarter. There’s an incredible wealth of information on the Jews of Krakow and the Holocaust there, including some monographs of Auschwitz survivors and some books of photos that are hard to find elsewhere. Most of course, are in Polish, but there are plenty of books in all languages, including English. I bought English historian Lawrence Rees’s book, Auschwitz: A New History.It’s a brilliant, readable history of awful importance.

Here is a post about our visit to the Rumbula Massacre site in Latvia. Another monument of the Holocaust.

And this is a post about our visit to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin.

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34 thoughts on “Visiting the Auschwitz and Birkenau Nazi Death Camps”

  1. Tom,
    You are much braver than I am. I can’t even read your post without feeling horrible. How you had the courage to actually visit and stroll through these places is beyond me. I will try again in the morning. Thanks for sharing even if I could not finish.

    • It’s a long post, Mike. Certainly the longest I’ve written. It was a long, gray day, and a very dulling one–in the sense that eventually you just were overwhelmed and it was hard to take in more. But, it’s worth doing. When you come next to Europe, put it on the list. There are a lot of World War I and II monuments that bear a visit and a thought for what Europe went through. What I like most about the EU is that it’s less likely that it will happen again…Ukraine notwithstanding.

  2. A very moving description. We went yesterday. It is the scale of Birkenau and the cruelty of Auschwitz that are staying with me. Selling the hair. Those trunks with the names. Haunting.

    • David, I think it was the piles of children’s shoes that made me stand there for a couple of minutes and just try to get my composure again so I could continue. I asked our guide if he ever became very depressed with his job. “Not exactly depressed,” he said, “But frequently I have to take four days off before I can come back.”

  3. The first book I ever remembering loving was ‘The Diary of Anne Frank,’ and I’ve always said I’d go to Auschwitz to bear witness to the atrocities of war. I’ve been to both Terezin, where a man who worked incinerating bodies now gives tours and broke down when describing his work, and to Sachsenhausen, which I went to on a cold December day, and my friend and I were the only tourists. Certainly a sobering visit, but one worth doing to remember the souls lost and the horrors of war.

  4. Cat, I read that in high school, and I used it as an example of what a young person can do when I was tutoring middle school kids in writing. What a loss for the world that she didn’t grow up. We tried to visit the Anne Frank house when we were in Amsterdam in May, but the lines were around the block. I’m glad we saw it maybe 20 years ago when we were there. Actually, I wasn’t sure I could take it again.

  5. Teriffic piece of writing, Tom. In 1968 I visited Dachau near Munich and had a similar emotional experience to the one you are describing…. However, this is now 70 some years later– and in 1968 it was less than 25 years later. One of the clear recollections I have from that visit is the stench of death and burning still seemed nauseouslly present. On the other hand, I will bet that much more information is now available from the tour guides. I hope to get to Auschwitz one day soon.

    • Odd you should mention the stench Larry, because there was definitely an odor to Birkenau. As I mentioned, it was raining the entire time we were at the camps, and when we got back, our shoes, and feet, were soaked. My shoes had somehow picked up the foulest odor…and before you say anything, it was definitely not your run of the mill foot odor. I washed the shoes out thoroughly twice with the hotel shampoo and, while that helped, it wasn’t definitively palliative. Only when I left them out in the sun for two days after it cleared up did they lose the stench. Which I was glad of because they’re pretty new expensive hiking shoes and I didn’t want to throw them away. It was touch and go there for a while, though. I do think the Birkenau site, in particular, is contaminated with many things other than just the metaphorical miasma of evil.

  6. I visited Auschwitz last year on a trip to Krakow and was deeply moved by everything I saw. I found it a harrowing experience and I was filled with an emotion I could not identify. After 2 weeks back at home in familiar surrounding I realized what it was that so deeply affected me. It was the silence. Because you have on headphones listening to the guide as you walk around in silence with grim faces and then I remembered that in the camps no birds sing. All is sadness,horror and silence. I had taken photographs,so many of them, and I wondered what I could do with them all as I would not want to profit from all this death. I decided finally that when any images of mine I sold, then I would donate the money to charity. The charity I chose is East Lancashire into Employment which is based where I live and they offer free training and support to disabled people to enable them to start up their own businesses and support those businesses for as long as they are needed to enable them to be sustainable and help the clients get off life on benefits/welfare. Out of this horror, hope is given to about 150 disabled people every year. See their work at I am glad I went to the camps but I never ever want to return again

  7. I just finished reading the book, “The Auschwitz Escape” bu Joel Rosenberg today & this post was on Facebook within hours…kinda eerie lol. Loved the book & your stories on this subject. Would love to see it someday.

    • It’s certainly worth a visit, Allan. Auschwitz I, being smaller, is able to be grasped perhaps. But when you go from there to the vast death factory at Birkenau…Well, that’s when I lost control to rationalize it and had to leave the group and just stand in the rain and look at it for a while.

  8. The closest we’ve come to this experience is visiting the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. I am grateful for the experience, but it was emotionally very difficult, but I believe that’s part of the lesson, we cannot forget. One exhibit in particular has stayed with me for years and that was the railroad car. It’s set on a platform that mimics the movement of the train and people are allowed (encouraged) to stand in the car with the doors close and feel the utter darkness and despair. I think everyone needs to visit because as a society we need to remember and maybe we’d do a bit better in helping those in need now.

    • Yes, the railroad car. There is one car of the same type used by the Nazis which is parked on the tracks at Birkenau. I didn’t photograph it, but now feel I maybe should have. One is struck by how small it was, and how terrible it must have been to be locked inside for days, only to arrive at a place like Birkenau.

  9. Was there this past May with my wife, went with the school history Dept I work with. Seeing it on the history channel is one thing but seeing it in person really hits home . So hard to believe a people could do that to another people.

    • Bob, at the same time as being so hard to believe anyone could do such a thing, is the testimony you can read in books such as Rees’ Auschwitz of people from Commandant Hoess on down to a corporal guard. They really didn’t think they were doing anything wrong.

  10. I remember looking through Dad’s books of WWII and the awful pictures. He was a POW during that time and it swore to never forget. Inhumanity to say the least.

  11. Tom, as always, you’ve given me something new to think about. And a new destination to visit. We’re going to try and visit here this fall. As always, thanks for sharing your images and your thoughts.

    • Lance, it would be nice if everyone could see it. And so many other sites we’ve seen on this trip. I want to spend a lot more time in Eastern Europe and learn more about what went on here. Poland has a lot more history than can be absorbed in two weeks.

  12. Tom, Thanks for the tips. We’ll be going at the end of September. I think the fact that it was an overcast, dismal day really added to the tone of your photos.

    • Thanks, Corinne. It is true the gray day was mostly a miserable downpour, but I really didn’t feel I had anything to complain about. I do wish my camera had a raincoat, though. I’m going to have to buy it one.

  13. Just reading this post caused my whole chest and heart to ache. “Arriving Jews were told to paint their name on the suitcase, so they’d get it back later.” This caption and photo immediately gave me chills. Thank you for sharing this–I’m sure it wasn’t at all an easy experience to document.

  14. Hi Tom,

    We will be visiting in October, and after reading your post, I am not sure if I could maintain composure at the site itself :( But thank you for your post, it is helping me prep for what to expect. I think it would be good to have a guide, could I trouble you for the contact of your guide? Thank you so much again!

    • Wen, the guides are assigned by the Museum Foundation, and we were just lucky enough to get David Kennedy. I suppose you could call ahead and ask if he’s working, but I’m sure all the guides who work for the Foundation are quite good. I think, unless you make prior arrangements, you have to go on the tour specified by the Museum. Obviously, they don’t want people wandering the site at random.

      • Oops I misunderstood you! I thought you got a private guide to take you ^^ alright then, I’ll be sure to time my visit to take the tour! Thanks again, Tom :)

  15. A beautifully written piece about such a haunting story and place. You put me there, even though I wish you hadn’t. It is not a place to visit for pleasure, is it? I have not been to any of the “death camps,” but two months ago I visited the Nazi prison and ghetto at Terezin (called Theresienstadt by the Germans) about an hour from Prague. The experience was jarring, numbing, moving, and confusing all at the same time. I’ve just written a blog post about it, based on a journal entry I wrote that day when I got back to Prague. You might enjoy reading it.

  16. Your photos are incredible – they perfectly capture the eeriness and sadness of Auschwitz. Very informative article, I’d like to visit someday. It’s such an important part of history we should never forget.


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