Auschwitz - A place we must never forget

The UNESCO-listed Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum is perhaps the most harrowing memorial in Poland. It is located in Oświęcim, about 70 kilometres from Kraków, on the site of the largest former Nazi concentration camp and its continued existence ensures that the world will never forget the horrific atrocities of the Holocaust.

The ‘Final Solution’

No-one knows for sure how many people died at Auschwitz-Birkenau, but estimates suggest the number was in excess of one million. It is generally accepted that the camp began operating in June 1940, initially for Polish political prisoners. Over time it was expanded and modified in order to carry out the ‘Final Solution’, Hitler’s plan to annihilate European Jews. Inevitably therefore, the majority of those who perished at Auschwitz were Jewish men, women and children, and most were taken to the gas chambers shortly after their arrival.

Preserved as a museum

Between 1940 and 1945 Auschwitz grew to encompass three principal sites, the main camp known as Auschwitz I, a larger camp at Birkenau – Auschwitz II – and another at Monowitz, a few kilometres to the west. The whole complex was liberated in January 1945 and when the war came to an end, the Polish government decided to preserve it as a museum. Today Auschwitz I and Birkenau are both open to visitors, and to fully appreciate the extent of this sombre site, you need to allow time to see both.

Original buildings still stand

At Auschwitz I, many of the original buildings still stand, including Block 11 - the camp’s notorious jail. On this site photographic displays bring to life the misery of this disturbing place and there are chilling exhibits of human hair and shoes and glasses belonging to the people who were transported here.

A place of solemn reflection

Birkenau was the largest of the camp’s three sites with around 300 prison barracks each housing about 300 people in overcrowded conditions. Four large gas chambers and the necessary crematoria were built, with the capacity to dispose of 20,000 people a day. Much of this site was destroyed by the Germans when the Soviet army advanced, but from what remains you’ll gain a real understanding of the extent and scale of what happened here.

Auschwitz-Birkenau is a difficult place to visit, but every year thousands of people come to remember the victims and solemnly reflect on one of the darkest events in recent history.

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