"Forever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity where the Nazis murdered about one and half million men, women, and children mainly Jews from various countries of Europe. Auschwitz-Birkenau 1940 – 1945" - English memorial tablet at the International Memorial in former Auschwitz II-Birkenau site
No matter how much you read and hear about this place, nothing compares to finding yourself on the same ground where millions died. Unlike Barry who had been there over a decade ago, this was my first time visiting both sites. Regardless of our intensive research while preparing our Polish itinerary, there was nothing like visiting the real thing. There was a lot to learn, and a lot to take in.
I consider it important to get a good grasp of what was Auschwitz. In a nutshell, the
Auschwitz concentration camp was a network of German Nazi concentration camps and extermination camps built and operated by the Third Reich in Polish areas annexed by Nazi Germany during World War II. It comprised of Auschwitz I (the original camp), Auschwitz II-Birkenau (a combination concentration/extermination camp), Auschwitz III–Monowitz (a labor camp to staff an IG Farben factory), and 45 satellite camps . We focused on the first two sites.
Another helpful tidbit of information is that Auschwitz is the German name for the small town where the camps are; the Polish name for the place is actually Oświęcim (pronounced osh-wien-shim). Between 1940 and 1945, 1.3 million people were deported to Auschwitz, the largest of the death camps, 90 percent of them Jews, of whom at least 1.1 million died. Others deported to Auschwitz included 150,000 Poles, 23,000 Romani and Sinti, 15,000 Soviet prisoners of war, 400 Jehovah's Witnesses, and tens of thousands of others of diverse nationalities, including an unknown number of homosexuals. Many of those not killed in the gas chambers died of starvation, forced labor, infectious diseases, individual executions, and medical experiments. 
Upon arrival to Auschwitz I (FYI - we drove and found the car parking to be cheap and right next to the sites), the original smaller camp which was first constructed to hold Polish political prisoners as of May 1940, we got our tickets to which we had to wait over half an hour for entry.
Admission to the museum buildings in Auschwitz I is ticketed (to control volume of visitors) but it is free of charge. However, in the summer months Guide Tours are mandatory for those arriving between 10:00 and 15:00 and fees are charged for engaging a guide. We decided to do the tour on our own time as we had arrived after 15:00, and focused on the parts of the camp that interested us the most without being shepherded and rushed to a schedule.
An UNESCO Site
All the exhibits in Auschwitz are well signed in both Polish and English, so a guide is not required to understand them. The exhibits and information in the Auschwitz I museum provide a very powerful insight into the history and horrors that occurred. It is important to add that in 1947, Poland founded the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum on the site of Auschwitz I and Auschwitz-Birkenau II, and in 1979, it was named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
Compared to the Auschwitz II-Birkenau site, the main camp is more intact of the two. I strolled on my own reminding myself that I was not on a movie-set death camp. I kept myself grounded from the get-go as I walked past the main gate with the "Arbeit Macht Frei" motto looming above our heads which translates "Work sets free" or "Work makes one free".
Poignant recollections of the camp included visiting the original crematory and gas chamber, the punishment block, death wall, roll-call square, the thousands of items with their unique character robbed from all those innocent souls, to name a few.
From the main camp we moved on to nearby Auschwitz II-Birkenau, the extermination camp, which served to really bring home to me the sheer magnitude of the killing that went on. The camps are a mile or so apart from each other but there is a free shuttle bus between them that runs every 10 minutes. The shuttle bus doesn't require a ticket to use, but we found it more practical to drive over to it.
Unlike Auschwitz I, admission to the grounds is not ticketed or limited. The camp is vast, much larger than the original camp. Its physical size demonstrates the sheer scale of horror that took place there. Its gas chambers lie in ruins, having been destroyed by the fleeing Nazis as the Red Army arrived, but many of its blocks and watchtowers survive, plus the rail line on which the transports arrived through its iconic entrance.
The actual site is very well maintained to its original outline and does create a vivid portrayal of life and death at the camp during the war. Fortunately, we had comfortable footwear which allowed us to walk around the whole site.
Ironically, there were areas of the camp that gave off a serene and peaceful vibe regardless of the living nightmares forced onto those helpless souls.
Walking through Auschwitz concentration camp's dark history was sobering and heart breaking. However, it surpassed my expectations as I came across the thousands of plundered goods with their unique character.
Preserving an inventory that includes a ton of human hair, 3800 suitcases, hundreds of hairbrushes and toothbrushes, 88 pounds of eyeglasses, coins, cigarette cases, spoons, more than 12,000 pots and pans carried by Jews, molten metal objects, 110,000 shoes, Jewish religious objects, 470 prostheses, and 379 striped uniforms, to name a few, made me bow down my head and feel a pang in my chest.
It is obvious that all these objects show their own history.
Auschwitz II Birkenau was liberated by the Red Army at around 3:30 p.m. on 27 January 1945, and the main camp, Auschwitz I, two hours later.
I more than hope that history does not repeat itself again.
Join us next time when we visit Lublin, Poland, and give you our top 10 things to see and do there.
Until then, happy reading and safe travels!
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