Oswiecim is the Polish town tragically placed on the map because of the largest concentration camp of World War II, where around 1.5million people lost their lives. Globally, Oswiecim is
known by the German name: Auschwitz, now one with the concentration camp itself. The mass exterminations that happened here make Auschwitz the most potent symbol of the Holocaust.
Around 60km from Krakow, Auschwitz is often visited as a day trip taking approximately 1-1.5 hours from Krakow. Few people stop off in the town itself. However, it is near impossible to truly take in the scale of Auschwitz in one day, so it is worth extending your visit if you can. Making for harrowing discovery and sombre moments, this element of Poland should not be overlooked.
Auschwitz Jewish Centre – Whilst the horrors of Auschwitz itself can leave the visitor stuck in the past, a visit to the Auschwitz Jewish Centre focuses more on the future and survival of Jewish culture in Poland. There is an educational centre and museum, and the synagogue is the only Jewish temple to have survived the war.
Oswiecim Old Town: Easily explored on foot, the Old Town is worth a visit with several old churches as well as the ruined castle.
The main reason that people pilgrimage to this area is of course to visit Auschwitz. This is an enormous site, essentially broken down in to two distinct areas (Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II – Birkenau) with a Main Building as well.
The site is itself free to enter, and fees are charged for guides and tours. You can self-explore but you will need to plan what you wish to see. The Main Building shows a film, originating back to immediately post-war but it should be noted that it is too graphic for children. Be prepared for a sombre and harrowing experience as you contemplate the atrocities of Auschwitz, and respect that this is an internationally memorial to those who lost their lives during the Holocaust.
Auschwitz I: This site is where the Nazis opened their original concentration camp and where they began to carry out mass extermination experiments, most notably with the gas Zyklon B. The focus here was on experiments for putting people to death as well as being the site of many mass shootings. Auschwitz I also was the site of the SS administration areas and camp headquarters.
Auschwitz II – Birkenau: At the second of the two Auschwitz sites, the Nazis kept and operated most of the machinery involved with the mass exterminations. It was also the site of the largest of the concentration camps. Within the grounds of Auschwitz II Birkenau you will see the gas chambers and the cremation sites.
At Auschwitz you can not only explore and wander within the former concentration camp itself, but also take the time to look at various exhibitions.
Permanent Exhibition: The original permanent exhibition of Auschwitz was opened in 1955 and documents the time that Auschwitz was in operation through photo displays, models, and various exhibits including prisoner clothing, effects and bunks.
National Exhibitions: Part of the collective remembering of the significance of Auschwitz across many European nations are the National Exhibitions, dedicated to, and run by, the individual countries whose populations were affected by Auschwitz. In these exhibitions visitors can see the history of Auschwitz with particular relevance to each country and the fate of their citizens. You can also come to understand the story of the resistance. The countries depicted in these exhibitions include: Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Soviet Union, East Germany, Yugoslavia, Belgium, Denmark, Bulgaria, Austria, France, Netherlands, Italy and Poland itself.