I have visited Auschwitz concentration camp twice. The first time was in January 2009 and the second was in April 2015. The first time the experience stuck with me for weeks. I knew that Auschwitz was an extermination camp and the conditions were atrocious, but for some reason I thought that it is still possible to survive. After the visit I understood that the average life expectancy at the camp was around three months and it was pure luck if someone survived and it made a whole lot of difference what time of the year you arrived and what job you were assigned to do and who supervised your barracks.
Both times we took a tour to Auschwitz from Krakow as it is a bit tricky to get there yourself. You are assigned to a group with a guide and you are given headphones, so you can hear the guide really clearly at all times despite there being a crowd. The tour route has been basically identical both times, but guides have of course their own way of telling the story. While they are all authorized Auschwitz guides, but they focus on different details, so I learned new things on the second tour as well even though most things I was already familiar with.
There are two parts to Auschwitz: Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II – Birkenau. The Birkenau section is located 3,5 km away and there are not a lot of buildings left as nazis burned downed as much as they could as they retreated. There are still some train tracks left in the middle of the field, so you can see where the sorting took place. There are a few barracks left and some chimneys from the barracks that were burned down.
In winter 2009 we didn’t take a long walk in Auschwitz II as it seemed there wasn’t much further afield and it was so cold that I was freezing despite wearing a long down jacket. In spring the weather was more temperate, so we walked ahead and it seems that there was a memory site constructed. Of course it is possible that it was there already in 2009, but I just didn’t notice it.
If you are in Southern Poland, I do recommend that you visit Auschwitz. The visit takes approximately 4-5 hours plus the time spent on driving there. The entrance is free, but I do recommend visiting with a guide as you get a much better picture. It is possible for individual visitors to join a group for a fee.
It is difficult to describe, but the experience lingers and demanded a lot of mental processing. I don’t even know exactly how to put this into words… It is a place you hear so much about and it is a central part of world history and it is so serene and peaceful in a way that it is difficult to associate the facts and stories with the place you’re standing in.