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Auschwitz-Birkenau is synonymous with genocide and the Holocaust. More than a million Jews, and many Poles and Roma, were murdered here by the German occupiers during WWII. Both sections of the camp, base camp Auschwitz I and a much larger outlying camp at Birkenau (Auschwitz II), have been preserved and are open for visitors. It's essential to visit both to appreciate the extent and horror of the place.

From April to October it’s compulsory to join a tour if you arrive between 10am and 3pm; book well ahead either via www.visit.auschwitz.org, or by phoning.

English-language tours leave at numerous times throughout the day, generally most frequently between 11.30am and 1.30pm, when they operate half-hourly. All tours include a short documentary film about the liberation of the camp by Soviet troops in January 1945 (not recommended for children under 14).

The Auschwitz extermination camp was established in April 1940 by the German occupiers in prewar Polish army barracks on the outskirts of Oświęcim. Auschwitz was originally intended for Polish political prisoners, but the camp was then adapted for the wholesale extermination of the Jews of Europe in fulfilment of Nazi ideology. For this purpose, the much larger camp at Birkenau (Brzezinka) was built 2km west of the original site in 1941 and 1942, followed by another one in Monowitz (Monowice), several kilometres to the west.

The museum’s visitor centre is at the entrance to the Auschwitz site. Photography and filming are permitted throughout the camp without the use of a flash or stands. There’s a self-service snack bar by the entrance as well as a kantor (private currency-exchange office), free left-luggage room and bookshops with publications about the place.

If not on a tour, get a copy of the museum-produced Auschwitz Birkenau Guidebook (5zł). It has plans of both camps and gets you round the grounds.

Auschwitz

Auschwitz was only partially destroyed by the fleeing Germans, and many of the original brick buildings stand to this day as a bleak testament to the camp’s history. Some 13 of the 30 surviving prison blocks now house museum exhibitions – either general, or dedicated to victims from particular countries or ethnic groups that lost people at Auschwitz.

From the visitor centre in the entrance building, you enter the barbed-wire encampment through the infamous gate, displaying the grimly cynical message in German: ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ (Work Brings Freedom). The sign is in fact a replica, which replaced the original when it was stolen in late 2009. Though it was recovered within a few days, it had been cut into pieces by the thieves and took 17 months to restore. The replica has remained in place, with the original sign now on display within the museum.

Birkenau

It was actually at Birkenau, not Auschwitz, that most of the killing took place. Massive (175 hectares) and purpose-built for efficiency, the camp had more than 300 prison barracks – they were actually stables built for horses, but housed 300 people each. Birkenau had four huge gas chambers, complete with crematoria. Each could asphyxiate 2000 people at one time, and there were electric lifts to raise the bodies to the ovens.

Though much of Birkenau was destroyed by the retreating Germans, the size of the place, fenced off with long lines of barbed wire and watchtowers stretching almost as far as your eye can see, will give you some idea of the scale of the crime; climb the tower at the entrance gate to get the full effect. Some of the surviving barracks are open to visitors for viewing, silent contemplation and prayer. If you’re not part of a tour, make sure to leave enough time (at least an hour) to walk around the camp.