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Auschwitz-Birkenau: A Visitor’s Manual

In 2011, Humanity in Action published its first book, Reflections on the Holocaust. The essays collected in this volume were written by Humanity in Action Fellows, Senior Fellows, board members and lecturers who participated in Humanity in Action's educational programs from 1997 to 2010.


Over the past ten years, I have been working as a guide for groups and individuals visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau. Though over a million people visit Auschwitz-Birkenau annually, there are very few short, condensed texts that could serve as a good introductory manual for the average visitor. This paper aims to provide such a manual. (1)

Importance of the Site

Why is it that when people think of the Holocaust, Auschwitz and the iconography associated with the site immediately come to mind?

First of all, Auschwitz-Birkenau was the largest and the most efficient of all the German Nazi concentration and extermination camps built in occupied Europe. The sheer number of victims—close to 1.5 million—is not the only factor that renders the site unique. Auschwitz-Birkenau was one of the only two Nazi camps where the perpetrators merged two functions in one place: mass incarceration of slave labor and mass extermination of people in gas chambers. (2) This is particularly important because between 1942 and 1944, when the gas chambers at Birkenau were active, as many as 120,000 prisoners in the vicinity worked as the slave workers of the concentration camp. (3) These prisoners witnessed the selections and mass extermination. Of course towards the end of the camp, most of those inmates would have been killed or transferred, but still we estimate that in 1945 tens of thousands of Auschwitz survivors were alive in various parts of Poland and Germany. (4) Those people had stories, testimonies and went on to write books and chronicle their lives in the camp. Their voices and the name Auschwitz could be heard globally; Auschwitz-Birkenau became synonymous with the Holocaust. (5)

Other German Nazi camps, including Treblinka, Belzec, Sobibor, and Chelmno have received little attention compared to Auschwitz, since they were built for the sole purpose of extermination. These camps were built as temporary structures in sparsely populated territories and often hidden in forests, far from Western Europe. Their sole function was to kill as many Jews from Nazi-occupied Poland as possible and they were designed to be dismantled after the task was accomplished. (6)

Today, almost nothing remains of those camps’ former existence. The German crime was not only the murder of those Jews, but also the eradication of the memory of their very existence and the manner in which they were killed. This was meant to be “the perfect crime,” and its cover-up took tremendous effort. No images were left which could be used as iconography in the way we now perceive and remember the Holocaust. The low numbers of survivors ensured that their stories rarely became part of the global narrative of the Holocaust and the general commemorative culture. These camps sharply contrast Auschwitz, whose relatively high number of survivors is unique and well documented.

Auschwitz-Birkenau is now the best-preserved and best-documented former Nazi concentration-extermination camp, which contributes to its iconic status. Most of the camp structures remain relatively intact and contain artifacts, such as original documents, shorn hair and plundered victims’ property. Visiting the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum offers a chance to see physically the buildings, execution and imprisonment sites, and thousands of preserved objects. The visual aids tangibly help the visitor imagine and recreate an historical time when Auschwitz was functioning. It is even possible to locate certain survivors’ narratives or camp stories in the remaining camp space.

The buildings and objects also offer material proof of the crimes committed, which is particularly important since we are probably the last generation to meet and hear Holocaust survivors tell their stories. In Auschwitz, visitors can physically enter the Crematorium Gas Chamber I and see the inside of a gas chamber and cremation ovens. One of two such German Nazi-built structures standing in the world today, (7) the crematorium and gas chamber assumes a tremendous burden now that there is a growing wave of Holocaust revisionism. (8) Equally important are the ruins of Crematorium Gas Chamber II, III, IV and V located far from Birkenau’s iconic main entrance gate. Though the gas chambers were blown up by the retreating Germans in 1945, they still communicate the meticulous nature of the perpetrators, the details and scope of the extermination process. Millions of visitors see these well-preserved sites thanks to the 1947 decision to establish the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum on the site of the former German Nazi camp.

Auschwitz remains the dominant site in the general memory of the Holo- caust because the German Nazis decided to make it the central destination for prisoners and, later, victims from all over Europe. The majority of Poland’s 3.3 million Jews were exterminated in the extermination camps mentioned above. Auschwitz-Birkenau’s capacity was reserved mostly for Jewish trans- ports from Western, Northern and Southern Europe. No other camp had so many nationalities crowded in one place and no other camp’s lethal operation would cover almost the entire territory of Europe. There were Jews deported to Auschwitz from as far as Oslo, the Greek island of Corfu and the distant French Atlantic Coast. After the war, when the European Jewish and non-Jewish survivors began to look for their missing relatives, the answer almost always pointed to Auschwitz-Birkenau. (9) After the war, the words Auschwitz- Birkenau became synonymous with the incarnation of evil and became the icon of the German Nazi genocide.

Visit and Education - Challenges

Today, most of the visitors to the Auschwitz Museum participate in a guided tour that lasts approximately three hours. Visitors spend the first two hours at Auschwitz I, examining the artifacts and historical exhibits, and the final hour on the territory of Auschwitz II-Birkenau. The three hours provide the bare minimum for familiarizing visitors with camp chronology, history and activity and constitute the very core of the institutional education process. I recommend that visitors acquaint themselves with the historical basics prior to the guided tour. (10)

The historical exhibit in Auschwitz-I does not offer a coherent narrative. There are almost no descriptions of sites, pictures, documents and artifacts. It is worth remem- bering that this exhibit was put together in the 1950’s for the generation that had firsthand memories of the war. Guides explain the primitive nature of the exhibit and enhance visitors’ understanding of the authentic site of Nazi genocidal policy. Without proper guidance people often get lost in the complexity of the camp territory and history.

At first glance, Auschwitz II-Birkenau is a large open air museum made up of ruins of buildings or remaining camp structures scattered over a large area of 170 hectares (approx 420 acres). The best way to get a sense of the entire territory is to enter the central watchtower over the main entrance gate. However, the most important places in Birkenau are either in ruins or not visible at all. The actual site of former German Nazi mass genocide lies 1 km from the main gate. The ruins of the massive Crematoriums and Gas Cham- bers II, III, IV and V are located in the far reaches of Birkenau. The ashes of the majority of camp victims have been deposited in what is today the green, serene and almost idyllic forest, landing and water pond landscape. Little tangible evidence exists of the largest cemetery known to humanity, thanks to the German Nazi determination to cover up the crime scene. The illusive serenity of the site should always be contrasted with the established historical facts. This place, where what is invisible is most important, demands that the visitors pay tribute to the camp victims. The place itself makes these demands in a very metaphysi- cal way because facing the enormous crime and having cog- nitive difficulties in understanding and explaining its enor- mity, visitors often retreat to certain culturally dictated commemorative  gestures. (11)

The last five years have witnessed an organizational frame- work for a more individual and formalized education at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum. 2005 marked the official creation of the International Center for Education about Auschwitz and the Holocaust. This evolving institution provides a counterpart to the drawbacks connected with mass tourism to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum. (12)

Representations of Auschwitz

What is Auschwitz-Birkenau today? The site of a former German Nazi Concentration-Extermination Camp, a Museum, the largest cemetery in the world, a WWII history icon, a religious challenge for Judaism and Christianity, material proof of the Nazi genocide, a site of mass education, a site of mass tourism, etc. These are just some of the functions of the site, which all coexist, are interrelated, and play into the frictions of the daily reality.

The diversity of visitors to Auschwitz is staggering. On any given day, one can encounter Auschwitz survivors and their families, family members of perpetrators, Holocaust historians, Holocaust revisionists, orthodox Jews, Catholics following the stations of the cross, Buddhists deeply into their meditations, leading world politicians, and thousands of accidental tourists who happen to be there only because the travel operator included the camp on their itinerary among fi e other sites to see the same day. Visitors come to Auschwitz for different reasons and the site has to accommodate them all. These colorful, loud masses, often strongly opinionated and convinced about the importance of the site, have to coexist in the sobering physical space of Auschwitz-Birkenau today. The growth of mass tourism in the last ten years creates an enormous challenge for educators and technical problems for the museum, as well as large opportunities for the global community to be exposed to historical and contemporary cases of genocide.

Everybody has expectations before arriving at Auschwitz- Birkenau. In some cases the fear and stigma generated for years and connected with the word Auschwitz makes people expect a metaphysical experience. At the end of their visit, those people exhibit all possible responses from disappoint- ment (in most cases) to a form of personal catharsis after facing imagined evil. The iconography of the site created in the last 70 years is one of the strongest and most globally recognized symbols of genocide and WWII. At the same time, every passing day distances us from the event itself and leaves us with less and less survivors who can say“I have been there…I have experienced it…I can witness.” The next gen- erations will rely on secondary images of the Holocaust generated by historians, museums, documentation centers; on the global scale, memory will be generated by film and mass culture.

We must do everything in order to maintain a proper balance between the narratives provided by official historical facts and mass culture. In fact, we must ensure that the official historical narrative prevails. Holocaust museums around the world, universities and research institutions help bolster the historical narrative. (13)

The mass culture images of Auschwitz help spread knowledge about the genocide, but also run the risk of oversimplifying and misrepresenting history. The movie “Boy in the Striped Pajamas” offers an example of how secondary reality created by mass culture has little in common with the historical reality of Auschwitz. There is a danger that viewers take the facts pictured in this movie as a historical Holocaust narrative. On a factual level, the movie bears little resemblance to the real history of Auschwitz. This situation of selec- tively picking certain elements that imitate Auschwitz and intermingling them into the plot, which is a pure figment of somebody’s imagination, cre- ates a very dangerous and confusing mixture. The story is heartbreaking, it has a positive educational message, it sells, but completely disrespects the historical facts and disre- spects the 1.5 million stories of victims whose ashes are still spread over the large territory of Birkenau. The film created a sort of secondary Auschwitz matrix reality. Are future generations doomed to such narratives? Will Auschwitz- Birkenau tour guides soon be forced to change their narra- tive to follow the imagined places and stories? Every day, visitors to Auschwitz ask to see sites pictured in the movie, which do not exist in reality.

Mass culture and information also creates a certain threat to the site itself. There are now people for whom stealing an object such as the “Arbeit Macht Frei” inscription from the main gate is not only imaginable, but also possible. Barbaric behaviors such as robbing the site are increasing: just a few weeks ago the Auschwitz Museum guards caught two Canadian teachers stealing metal parts of the Birkenau rail platform. (14)

Until recently, Museum authorities provided very few security measures at the site, and relied on visitors’ common sense. To minimize the sense of visitors being watched constantly–a highly inappropriate feeling at Auschwitz–security guards were almost invisible. However, recent acts of vandalism have forced the Museum to rethink its security system.

How to Visit Auschwitz

Taking into account the multi-layered history of the site, the answer of “how one ought to visit Auschwitz” is complicated. The historical layer of the camp narrative is inseparable from current problems, conflicts and the physicality of the site. How can we adequately balance proper commemoration of the victims of mass extermination with the needs of contemporary mass tourism? When I lead tours, I suggest that the three most important issues to have in mind while visiting the site are historical awareness, respect and responsibility. I hope that building one’s individual visit on those three values as the base foundation of the entire time spent at the mass genocide site facilitates structuring the inevitable multitude of thoughts and emotions. Maintaining those three guiding principles will help one leave the Museum grounds and say “I have been there…I have experienced it…I can witness.”

Though historical awareness of the site builds over time, it is helpful to briefly review the most important facts about Auschwitz-Birkenau before visiting the site. It always helps to orient oneself better in the site complex and provides one with a certain comfort of knowing the chronology. Chronology becomes a foundation on which the experience of the site itself is based and then amplified, thanks to a guide’s narration.

Respect for the site, and its victims, does not mean one ought to spend the three hours in mourning. Respecting Auschwitz today is about remembering the history behind Auschwitz-Birkenau. In addition to respecting the site, I also urge visitors to respect other visitors around them. It is worth remembering that there are people with different needs and approaches to visiting the site. Some come to visit the cemetery of their beloved family members, while others visit the site as tourists. The less we imprint our own personality on this site and the more respectful we are of others around us, the better.

Responsibility for Auschwitz and its history is undoubtedly the most important task of the education process. Every visitor must feel responsible for bringing home a message about Auschwitz-Birkenau after the visit. I tell each visitor on my tours that they are becoming a modern witness to the past, which is now precarious, since Auschwitz survivors are passing away. Responsibility also means recognizing the consequences of our moral choices and realizing the sort of extremes that humanity is capable of under certain circumstances. Without this process a visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau has no effect on the current world, and can lead to history repeating itself in the future.

Awareness, respect and responsibility are crucial to define today’s visit to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum. They should be also adopted every time we approach other genocides in human history. A visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau can be a catalyst for focusing on the phenomenon of genocide in general, and drawing our attention to those crimes, which have been happening in the world over the last twenty years. Over the course of the last twenty years, Holocaust historians have been giving more space to document, talk and compare the Holocaust with other known genocides. (15) Such work is necessary in order to reevaluate the history of sites like Auschwitz and to reflect on the responsibility of the global community. Auschwitz provides a genocidal model and could be the first step in working out a variety of global community responses to potential genocidal situations or behaviors. As we all create this global community, it is likely that visiting Auschwitz–Birkenau and understanding genocide phenomena can spark new anti-genocide legis- lation or government actions.

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About the Author

Tomasz Cebulski is currently a PhD student at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, specializing in Holocaust studies. His dissertation is called "State Museum Auschwitz-Birkenau and the socio-political conditions of its functioning." He is the founder of the center for genealogical research, documentation of history of Polish Jews, Holocaust education and Polish-Jewish dialogue www.jewish-guide.pl. For the past ten years, he has worked as a state guide at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum.


Cebulski, Tomasz. "Auschwitz-Birkenau: A Visitor’s Manual." In Reflections on the Holocaustedited by Julia Zarankin, 24-31. New York: Humanity in Action, Inc. and authors, 2011.


1. Annual report 2009, Record number of the visitors, Panstwowe Muzeum Auschwitz-Birkenau w Oswicimiu, 2010.

2. The other one is the German Nazi Concentration Camp Majdanek in what is now eastern Poland.

3. Auschwitz-Nazistowski Oboz Smierci, Liczba oiar KL Auschwitz, Franciszek Piper, Wydawnictwo Panstwowego Muzeum Oswicim-Brzezinka, 1998.

4. Pieter Lagrou, Return to a Vanished World. European Societies and the Remnants of their Jewish
Communities The Jews are Coming Back, edited by David Bankier, Yad Vashem, Jerusalem, 2005.

5. Deborah Dworak and Robert Jan van Pelt, Auschwitz, W.W.Norton & Company Inc., 2002.

6. Aktion Reinhard Camps, Treblinka, Belzec, Sobibor, Chelmno. http://www.deathcamps.org/. Web site Archived on December 2006. The list of extermination camps, with approximate time of operation, number of victims and number of survivors in 1945: CHELMNO-KULMHOF-16 months of operation, 150,000 people killed, 3 survivors. BELZEC-12 months of operation, 500,000 people killed, 7 survivors. SOBIBOR-19 months of operation, 200,000 people killed, 100 survivors. TREBLINKA-13 months of operation, 800,000 people killed, 60 survivors.

7. The other crematorium gas chamber still standing and visible is in Majdanek. Tomasz Kranz, Extermination of Jews at the Majdanek Concentration Camp, Panstwowe Muzeum na Majdanku, Lublin, 2007.

8. Those are the only two existing examples of such structures built on the territory of German Nazi Concentration Camps and designed for the mass extermination of people. I don't include the existing euthanasia centers or gas chambers designed for the disinfection of objects, which, at times, were used for killing people.

9. Martin Gilbert, Atlas of the Holocaust, William Morrow & Company, 1993.

10. The new Auschwitz Museum website provides necessary historical  milestones: www.auschwitz.org.pl.

11. James E.Young, The Changing Shape of Holocaust Memory, The American Jewish Committee, 2005.

12. Annual Report 2009 - International Center for Education about Auschwitz and the Holocaust, Panstwowe Muzeum Auschwitz-Birkenau w Oswicimiu, 2010.

13. In fact, the education does not have to happen at the Museum site itself. For example, the Facebook proile of State Museum Auschwitz-Birkenau, created two years ago, now has over 40,000 followers who are learning about the current daily challenges of commemorating the site of mass genocide. See: http://www.facebook.com/ auschwitzmemorial.

14. Matthew Day, Teachers 'arrested for stealing Auschwitz memento', Telegraph, 28 Jun 2010.

15. Rethinking the Holocaust, Yehuda Bauer, Yale University Press, 2000.

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