Auschwitz & Birkenau concentration camp


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Polish name of Oswiecim does not mean much to foreigners, but its German equivalent, Auschwitz, evokes fear in almost everyone. It has become a symbol of the Holocaust and Nazi war crimes as a whole. On 14th June 1940 the Nazis established here the largest concentration camp on Polish territory, Konzentrazionslager Auschwitz.

Initially its purpose was to destroy Polish intelligentsia, later it became an extermination camp. It was expanded and apart from the main camp at Auschwitz, it comprised branches at Brzezinka (Birkenau), Monowice and around 40 other subcamps. Besides Poles, other nationals were brought here, mostly Jews. The prisoners died by the dozens and from the spring of 1942 they were mass-murdered with gas. Their bodies were burned at crematories and on piles. During the camp evacuation in January 1945 thousands of inmates died in so-called death march. When the Russians liberated the camp on 27th January 1945, they found only 7,000 prisoners there. From 1 to 1,5 million people of 28 nationalities were killed here, 90% of which were Jews. Of 450,000 Polish citizens 150,000 were Poles and 300,000 Jews. This site is considered to be the biggest cemetery in the world. The camp is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

For the Poles, Auschwitz is a particular symbol of their own suffering. It was here that St Maksymilian Kolbe died from starvation after volunteering his life for that of a fellow prisoner who had family and survived.
Above the entrance to Auschwitz are inscribed the words “Arbeit macht frei” (“Work makes you free”). The camp has been preserved as a memorial and the prison blocks that survive have been turned into a museum charting the history of the camp and of persecution in wartime Poland. The exhibits are designed to provoke a strong emotional response to one of the blackest crimes in European history. The museum is NOT appropriate for children under the age of 14. The standard sightseeing of Auschwitz and Birkenau camps with local guide lasts approx. 3,5 hours.

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