Anyone visiting Krakow for more than a day should make the short trip to a Polish town 50 kilometers west of Krakow called Oswiecim, which is much better known by its former German name, Auschwitz. Though the city itself is small and not exactly a historic tourist attraction, the site of the most famous concentration camps, Konzentrationslager Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau, have been extremely well preserved and converted into one of the most famous and important museums in the world. Today Auschwitz is the strongest symbol of the Holocaust, and the terror of the Nazis’ “Final Solution” the destruction of the Jews during World War II. Of course Auschwitz is an immensely depressing place to visit, although many rightly feel that this site of human horror must live with us, both to commemorate victims of the Holocaust and to serve as a warning to future generations.
When Poland was invaded by Nazi Germany in 1939, the Germans occupied Krakow and the smaller towns around it for the duration of the war. In the quiet suburb town of Oswiecim, the Nazis converted a military barracks on the outskirts of town into Konzentrationslager Auschwitz (Auschwitz simply being the Germanized version of the name Oswiecim). When it began functioning in June 1940, it was originally intended for Polish political prisoners. In addition to Poles, Soviet prisoners of war, gypsies, homosexuals, and political prisoners of other nationalities were incarcerated there. Essentially the camp functioned as a prison rather than a place of extermination. It wasn’t until 1942 that Auschwitz became the site of the greatest mass murder of human history, as Hitler’s “Final Solution” began to be put into place.
Over the next several years, the camp expanded into Auschwitz I, Auschwitz II-Birkenau, and Auschwitz III-Monowitz, as well as over 40 sub-camps. Once Birkenau began to function, European Jews were murdered in trainloads in the camp’s gas chambers. Almost all Jewish women and children, and most men, who arrived in Birkenau went straight to the gas chambers, with not even a pretence of imprisonment. Those Polish and Jewish men who were allowed to survive worked on the camps in extremely harsh conditions, and many died of cold and starvation. In 1945, when the end of the war for the Nazis was near, the SS began destroying evidence of the horrors of the death camps, and razed many of the gas chambers and crematoria of Birkenau. However most of Auschwitz I and some of Birkenau survived both the SS destruction and the Allied bombing, and on 21st July 1947 the new Polish parliament established Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum on the grounds of the death camps. In 1979, the museum was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List.
Visitors to Auschwitz will find the museum part of the site at Auschwitz I, which has a great many exhibits about the war, the Holocaust, and the victims of the Nazi horror, each set up in former prison barracks. And at Auschwitz II they will witness the skeletal remains of the destroyed Birkenau camp, which now holds a monument of memorial plaques and the foundations of the crematoria. The museum is generally open from morning until dusk, with a free bus going the three kilometres between Auschwitz I and II every hour.
No words can describe the sheer size of the second camp (in total an estimated one and a half million Jews, as well as Poles, Russians, and Gypsies were murdered at Auschwitz) or the emotional impact of some of the displays in the museum of the first camp; one can only encourage anyone who has a chance to do so to visit this important monument to the horror that man can inflict on man, in the hopes of preventing such horrors in the future.