Lying 70km west of Kraków and within easy day-trip range, the complex of camps known as Auschwitz-Birkenau (auschwitz.org) has become synonymous with World War II and the Holocaust. The camps lie on the western fringes of Oświęcim, which is in all other respects a perfectly nondescript middle-sized Polish town. Auschwitz was established by the Germans in 1940 to house Polish political prisoners but swiftly expanded to accommodate Soviet POWs. The Birkenau annexe, built in 1941 to cope with growing numbers, became the site of one of the Nazi regime’s most notorious death camps: about 1.3 million people, 90 percent of them Jews, were murdered here. The Germans failed to destroy the camp before they left and over 60,000 prisoners survived – which is why the horrors perpetrated here are so well documented. The two sites, Auschwitz and Birkenau, are 3km apart, but are linked by shuttle bus. Together they are visited by over 1.3 million visitors a year.
You can catch one of the regular buses (2–3 every hour; 1hr 40min; 10zł) to the main camp from Kraków’s PKS Terminal. There’s an hourly shuttle-bus service to the Birkenau section from the car park at Auschwitz from April to October. Taxis are also available; otherwise it’s a 3km walk.
Most visitors start at Auschwitz (daily 8am–dusk; guided tour 40zł, non-guided visits free; English-language tours depart on the hour 9.30am–3.30pm), which is 3km west of Oświęcim town centre. From May to October participation in guided tours is compulsory between 10am–3pm, so if you want to visit the Auschwitz site on your own, arrive outside these times. Once beyond the entrance gate (bearing the notorious cast-iron inscription Arbeit Macht Frei), the site consists of a series of red-brick barrack blocks, many of which contain a museum display relating to a particular aspect of the camp or a particular nation whose citizens were deported here. Block 13 contains an account of Europe’s Roma and Sinti communities (an estimated 20,000 of whom died here); block 5 contains rooms full of spectacles, prosthetic limbs, pots and pans, all confiscated from inmates of the camp and abandoned here when the Germans retreated. The prison blocks finish by a gas chamberand a pair of ovens where the bodies were incinerated.
The huge Birkenau camp (same hours as Auschwitz) was designed as a death camp in 1942, when the Nazis decided on their policy of exterminating European Jewry. Allow 1–2 hours to fully explore the 175-hectare site. Large gas chambers at the back of the camp were damaged but not destroyed by the fleeing Nazis in 1945. Victims arrived in closed trains, and those who were fit to work (around 25 percent) were immediately separated from those who were driven straight to the gas chambers. The railway line is still there, just as the Nazis abandoned it. One of the few buildings still standing here is the so-called "Sauna", where the newly arrived were undressed, shaved and assigned camp clothes – a matter-of-fact museum display takes you methodically through the process.