Which concentration camp?

This sounds strange to me even asking it but I will be in/near Munich (Dachau), Berlin (Sachsenhausen), & Krakow (Auschwitz) on my trip this summer. My interest in history tends more to ancient/medieval/renaissance rather than 20th c. and WWII. However I do think it's important to incorporate at least one of these experiences in my trip. I know that emotionally I can only handle one of them so what I'm asking is: which of them, in your opinion, offers the most comprehensive experience, the best museum, etc.

If you could only visit one, which would you pick?

Posted by Lo
Tucson
1233 posts

I haven't been to the others, so that's probably why I'd pick Dachau (http://www.kz-gedenkstaette-dachau.de/index-e.html). The other reason is that Dachau was the model and training place for all the other camps. It was set up very early, 1933. I have been there 4 times now, once on my own and the other 3 taking friends and family. The museum is excellent and you can find lots of information on Dachau, but by far the best experience I had was with a small group and a guide. If you can't make the days listed at the Service for Visitors link, you can find other guides to take you from the Munich train station. We used Radius Tours (http://www.radiustours.com/index.php/en/english-tours). Our guide was an American historian married to a German woman and he was excellent.

Posted by Andrea
Sacramento, CA
5591 posts

I've often recommended the Radius tour to Dachau. We had an excellent experience and I'm sure we learned a lot by being able to ask questions of a native English speaker. That said, my only experience has been using this tour. Someone else here will likely argue that you can do this on your own for less money and have just as good an experience. I don't believe this person has ever done the Radius tour, so really has nothing to compare it to. Lo has gone to Dachau with and without the tour, so has a better basis of comparison.

Posted by Zoe
Toledo, Ohio, US
5161 posts

I visited three memorials last summer, Madjanek (near Warsaw), Auschwitz-Birkenau (near Krakow), and Matthausen (near Linz). Each one was different. I had an on-site guide at Auschwitz, I was on my own at the others. I had done a fair amount of research before I went; but I think there's no way to anticipate what your reactions will be.

Posted by Ms. Jo
Frankfurt, Germany
5294 posts

I think if I only had the time to go to one, and only one, it would be Auschwitz. I have not been there, but do plan on going some day. I have been to Sachsenhausen, Ravensbruck, and Bergen-Belsen though. You can read my Trip Report on my visits there from last year, if you like.

Suggest you look at the websites for the each of these very sad places, see what exhibits are there, as this may help you make your decision.

Some people prefer a tour with a guide who has done intense research on this particular Concentration Camp, while others prefer an audio guide, and others just want to walk around and to read the texts on each exhibit. For me, I want two things, a guide that can offer insight and knowledge that is probably not available on the exhibits, but I also want time to look at the photos, films, and read the text. An audio guide does not appeal to me at all.

My trip report.
https://community.ricksteves.com/travel-forum/trip-reports/jo-travels-thru-germany

Posted by Pamela
New York City, NY, USA
3963 posts

I think you're wise to plan on only going to one. I went to Buchenwald and that was enough. I agree with Jo, that Auschwitz would be my choice. Like her, I will go to Auschwitz some day.

Pam

Posted by Randy
Minneapolis, MN, USA
1525 posts

I would only add that if you wind up going to Auschwitz/Birkenau, be sure to see both and arrive at Auschwitz as early as possible to avoid the mandatory summer mid-day guided tours (at least it was mandatory for us in 2010 as a way to control the flow of crowds through the buildings). While the tour guide was informative and very sincere in her efforts, I found the experience of being herded like a flock of sheep from one poignant site to another off-putting and ran contrary to my need to "process" what I was seeing in my own way.

Posted by Ed
Pensacola
9110 posts

What everybody else said about Auschwitz. If you're short of time or don't want a big dose, Dachau. I've seen every one of the damn things, it's rough.

Posted by Terry kathryn
Ann Arbor, Mi
3029 posts

I have been to Dachau 3 times and Auschwitz just once and Birkenau and have to agree they are overwhelmingly sad. (not even close to explaining how terrible it is) First time to Dachau my daughter and I arrived very early... no guide... we just walked through and read and looked. I will never forget the feeling as we drove there and got closer and closer to the site. It was like nothing I had ever felt before... it was a bright and sunny and warm day but there was this 'cloud of gloom'. Have been to the many memorials in DC and very moved, but this was the location of the atrocities and it was so different. It was very quiet and respectful the whole time we were there. I will never forget what we saw, but it did take a long time to shake the feeling of our experience. A trip to Auschwitz was totally different.... crowds of school kids all over the parking lot, laughing, goofing off while their teachers appeared oblivious of the disrespect. Then came the buses of adult tourists and lots of the same, as well as all the bikers who appeared to be having a picnic in the parking lot. Go early to avoid this carnival like atmosphere. Three friends that were with me all opted not to go in. We then drove down the road to Birkenau and spent some time there reflecting.

Posted by Nancy
Corvallis OR
1792 posts

I appreciate all the replies, thanks. I'm leaning toward Auschwitz myself but here's my problem. Because I will be using public transportation from Krakow, it's very hard to get there before 10:00am when the required group tours start. My other option is to go after the required tours (3:00pm) and stay until closing (7:00pm) even if it means getting back to Krakow later in the evening. Third option is to go with an organized tour from Krakow but I don't think they get there before 10:00 so I suppose they just drop you off and you're forced to go with the group tours.

Has anyone done it independently by public transportation (rather than by car)? Has anyone done an organized tour from Krakow? How did it go? Did you feel like a herd of sheep? I feel like if I'm going to go I'll need some alone time while I'm there.

Posted by Terry kathryn
Ann Arbor, Mi
3029 posts

I can't address the public transportation as I had a car and we drove from Krakow, however I woud probably opt for the later time as I think most tour bus people probably leave by mid afternoon. I would most definitely agree that quiet time is extremely important so I would try to be the last one to leave.

Posted by Ed
Pensacola
9110 posts

How about pick up a car the night before and drive over early? It'd probably be fifty bucks plus a bit of gas.

A good pal lost her brother, mom, and dad in the complex. I needed some time alone for that one. Being in the carnival (which I haven't seen) would have left me fuming.

Edit: It's a civil hour's drive. All freeway except the last ten miles or so and the little secondary road is uncrowded with only a couple of villages. Right as you get off the freeway, the Mazaraki Museum is worth a stop if you're interested in Polish history.

Posted by Zoe
Toledo, Ohio, US
5161 posts

I took the first bus from Krakow, about 8:30 am, and there was a mandatory guided tour (this was in May last year), so I don't know if it's possible to go without a guide. She was wonderful, and apologized that we couldn't stay longer in each of the barracks. The option for time on your own would be after the tour of Auschwitz, before going to Birkenau. I stayed on my own at Birkenau for some time, and got back to Krakow at about 4 in the afternoon. The bus station is very near the central train station.

Did I feel herded? Yes, but I have to say the guide walked the group (20 people) rather quickly from barracks to barracks so we had a little more time inside.

I didn't really notice a carnival atmosphere but the experience was so profound that I wouldn't have noticed it.

Posted by Gail
Downingtown, USA
1658 posts

We only went to Dachau. We were there in February and it was damp and dreary and I think the weather was appropriate. So very sobering whichever one you choose. If you can go when crowds are gone, I think it would be better. Later on in the day we were pretty much on our own to process it. The down side was earlier in the day, the very disrupting school children on a field trip, laughing, chewing gum, poking each other, I blame them and most of all their teachers. Unfortunately we had an even worse situation in DC at the Holocaust museum that was so bad I reported it to the guard after the teacher did nothing. A rowdy group of schoolchildren in the inside courtyard where one of them was even doing cartwheels. Good for you to want to experience this terrible situation. It is something you will never regret seeing.

Posted by James E.
USA
2969 posts

Nancy, we have been bumming around Central/Eastern Europe on and off for about a decade now and have never been to a Camp. Nor do I think we ever will. I could not imagine anything that would be more emotionally crippling. I spend a lot of time in Budapest and I have a response each time I step across the line into the deportation ghetto; despite the fact that it has become a wonderful neighborhood full of life and full of recognition of its origins.

While you said this wasn't your subject you might want to look for the stumbling stones on your travels. It helps to tie the remote camps to the reality of every day street life. Here is the map for Berlin but you can google maps for each of the cities you are visiting. https://maps.google.com/maps/ms?ie=UTF8&oe=UTF8&msa=0&msid=110414308871392355602.00046de1b1ee2e4f7faa5

Posted by Bruce
Whitefish, Montana
816 posts

I've been to two of your three listed plus another. if I had to choose just one to visit it would be Auschwitz/Birkenau. Very very sobering.

Posted by Nancy
Corvallis OR
1792 posts

Thanks everyone. After reading your replies and doing some more research I think I will go to Auschwitz from Krakow.

Looks like my options to do it on my own (without the required group tour) are: 1 - take an early train (6:42 am) that gets me there about 8:30, then I guess I have to walk from the train station but should get there around 9:00 am. Then I can either take a bus or train back to Krakow when I'm done. 2 - take a later bus that gets me there around 3:00 pm and then take a train back to Krakow. I checked the bus schedule and the last bus back leaves at 6:20 pm so I don't think I'd have enough time to do the after 3:00 pm thing using the bus return.

Anyway, thanks for all your opinions and info.

@Ed, since I'm staying in the center I don't think I want to deal with having to park a rental car overnight (add'l cost and hassle for me - would do it if I was with another person). Thanks for the suggestion though.

Posted by Amy
Clarksville, TN, USA
862 posts

Nancy, I have not been to Dachau or Sachsenhausen. I have been to Theresienstadt, Buchenwald and Auschwitz/Birkenau. (On three separate trips! I never could have done more than one concentration camp in the same European trip. Way too heavy.) We went to Auschwitz in 2011. We were staying in Krakow. I really wanted to see Auschwitz as it's the most infamous. We decided to take a tour out of Krakow as it completely simplified the process. It was extremely convenient. We were picked up right outside our hotel and they did everything for us. Although you're on "their" schedule, we didn't need more time than they gave us. I suppose if you want to wander and explore Birkenau, you might not be able to if you're on a tour like we did. We were given a brief tour at Birkenau and a little while to use the restroom and take pictures from the tower, then we left. (And of course, the full tour at Auschwitz.) Rick Steves' book says that the tours will cost three times more than if you get to Auschwitz/Birkenau on your own, but for us, it was worth it. We didn't have to figure out the train to get there and back. They do everything for you. I'm not 100% sure of which tour group we used, but I think it was Cracow City Tours. It's hard to use an adjective for a tour of a concentration camp that doesn't sound inappropriate. I mean, it was sobering, scary, tragic... But our tour guide was excellent. I learned a lot. I had no idea how in addition to Jewish people, the Hungarians and Poles were also abused by the Nazis. Simply for living in the wrong place... Anyway, let us know what you decide!

Posted by James E.
USA
2969 posts

George for some reason has a bone to pick with Hungary; still he hits on some good points from time to time. I'm not sure its necessary to go to camp, but it is necessary to be aware that anti-Semitism is alive and well in Europe and the United States. There were a number of surveys after the economic crash in 2008 and nearly a third of Europeans surveyed blamed the Jewish population for the crisis and forty percent thought the Jews had too much power. I wouldn't be surprised if these numbers are close to those in pre-War Germany. That's pretty unsettling if true. The picture isn't a whole lot prettier in the US: http://www.israelnationalnews.com/News/News.aspx/131238#.UxPjeJuPI5s
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If you do go to a camp you might indeed get a lot out of it, but then I suggest you go do something positive with your emotions. Make you way to the nearest synagogue and make a generous contribution. The Jewish communities through out Europe are still struggling to rebuild nearly 70 years later. If anyone needs help finding a way to make a difference let me know I would be pleased to put you in touch with a good community where you be significant in the rebuilding of their shul and in the recording and documentation of their history. It's one thing to feel really, really bad, its something else to leave a mark in history by being a tool for change.

Posted by Ken
Vernon, Canada
20610 posts

Nancy,

It sounds like you've already made a decision, but I wanted to add my two cents worth as well. A few thoughts about the camps you mentioned.....

  • Dachau: Probably the easiest one to get to. As mentioned previously, it was opened in 1933 and was the model on which many of the others were based. While it was a bit different than Auschwitz, a visit will still be a very moving experience.
  • Sachsenhausen: Travel time is slightly longer but it's still reasonably easy to get to. It has a few unique features such as the triangular shape, the fact that it was the site of one of the largest counterfeiting operations in history, and also that it's use was continued by the Russians after the war.
  • Auschwitz/Birkenau: Will take longer to get to and also longer to tour if you plan on seeing both parts. This will also likely be the most intense experience of the three, so you'll have to decide what your tolerance is for that.
Posted by David
Florence, AL, USA
2545 posts

I've been to Dachau three times, and the last time we took my 11 year old daughter. Dachau and the Anne Frank Haus are two sights she'll never forget. I've been traveling to Munich and Germany since 1970, and that terrible chapter in history has been kept very quiet in German tourism.

One side of my family was from Dresden, and they got out on the last U.S. ship to leave Germany (Hamburg) before WWII. The grandfather visited his mother the night before leaving, and the Gestapo stormed into her house looking for our family. Opi hid underneath his mother's bed with a Giant Schnauzer, and only God protected him from the Gestapo--and kept that dog quiet. After getting on that ship bound for Ellis Island (11/1939), his mother was euphemized by the family doctor. And only 3 cousins escaped Hitler's actions.

If I was going to be close to any such sights, I'd visit them all. I found Dachau to have changed over the years, but it and the Holocaust Museum in D.C. are done in good taste.

Posted by Andre L.
Tilburg, Netherlands
2358 posts

Sachsenahusen is well organized in terms of visitor's resources. It is an unique place in that it was converted, after WW2, into a political prison by Soviet invaders, an.d then used by the equally evil puppet DDR regime for political exploitation. This is a different fate than that of Dachau or Awschwitz.

The museum, audioguide and/or information signs cover well all the iterations of the site, giving insights on how, in some aspects, the horrors of the Holocaust were followed by the horrors of Soviet occupation and then the communist police state. The curators did a great job in contextualizing all these three periods without making cheap comparisons.


As for the comments about children being festive and goofing around parking lots, I think it has in part to do with the fact that, as with any great tragedy, natural or man-made, the emotional impacts of events progress from 'something that affected me or my parents' to 'something that is historical'. Most Americans, today, won't feel much grief for the mass causalities of the Revolutionary War, as more than 10 generations passed ever since. Kids being born today will not have the same emotional relationship and involvement with 9/11 as people who witnessed the event as adults. I don't think these kids are disrespectful on purpose, just that they are not emotionally connected to events that happened 60 years before they were born.

Posted by Cyn
Wheat Ridge, CO, USA
1141 posts

Teachers' responsibilities to teach should include giving children an appreciation and understanding of what they're visiting, and explaining appropriate behavior in certain situations. Unruly kids can be a challenge, but if a teacher is in charge, then they need to take charge. If the kids don't have any emotional or intellectual connection to a significant place or event, and parents haven't provided any context, the teacher has an opportunity to teach. It's unfortunate if that opportunity is not fulfilled and resultingly interferes with other visitors' experiences.

Posted by Nancy
Bloomington, IL, USA
8258 posts

To add to what Andre said, I visited Mauthausen in Austria when I was a college student (a few many years ago). I am not Jewish, had no connection to the area (my family is Irish), and I knew only vaguely about the concentration camps. The same was true of everyone in my group, with the exception of one other student who was our parents' age, old enough to remember when it was happening. Going in, we, too, were kidding around, taking pictures of each other staring down from the observation point above the front gate, and generally acting like college students. Coming out was another thing all together. We were all silent, the older student in our group was crying. The mood remained down for the rest of the day. I have never forgotten it, nor stopped regretting my behavior in the beginning.

Posted by steven
white plains, ny, usa
1109 posts

The last two posts struck a chord for us . This past fall during our sojourn in Central Europe ,we visited three sites ( Terezin , Mauthausen , and Dachau ) . As we were informed , it is a common practice by the educational systems in many countries to make visits to these places by public school students a routine part of the educational process . It was a moving thing to witness , and mostly it was interesting to see the transformation in these young people from a position of ignorance ( not in the pejorative sense ) , to a questioning and amazed attitude , and ultimately , to an indescribable sadness at the end of the visit . One other site that had a similar impact for us was a visit to the Sts . Cyril and Methodius Cathedral in Prague , in which is the memorial to the Czech heroes of the Heydrich terror . We also encountered a large school group at that time .

Posted by stan
Kansas City
651 posts

Nancy. I have been to both Dachau and Auschwitz/Birkenau. Agree that Auschwitz/Birkenau is the one to visit. It has the most memorable exhibits. I took the tour and I think it was worth having guide give the history and explanation of things. It was not rushed, and would have been hard to orient on your own from a book or brochure. Many of the buildings look alike, and you wouldn't know which were significant w/o guide. Also, you must make it to the second part, Birkenau, which is few minutes away from the main camp by vehicle. There you get the feel for the enormity of the site, and see the place where the trains unloaded.

Posted by Emma
Oregon
112 posts

If you have the time, Auschwitz/Birkenau would be my first choice, as the site was more comprehensive, memorable and affecting to me than the sparser remains at Dachau. I have seen several other camps, too, but not Sachsenhausen.

Posted by Denny
Columbus, OH, USA
890 posts

We have visited several of the camps over several years. I would suggest Auschwitz if you choose one, perhaps for the scale and scope. In forty years of travel I can think of maybe 3 or so times we chose an organized tour; after trying to figure out logistics, transportation, times, costs, etc. I gave in and opted for the organized tour for our trip to Auschwitz and I have no regrets. Our guide was excellent and strove to communicate the immensity and scale of the horror...the Poles suffered mightily under the Nazis, Jews and Christians alike. It was a somber and sobering experience. The tour included facilities at both Auschwitz and Birkenau...at the latter sight we were pretty much left on our own, which may address your need for private time. I never felt rushed, I never felt herded. Honestly, I have no recollection of the group at all. We are history minded guys, and between us have read thousands of pages of WW II and Holocaust history over the years. Nothing prepared me for that experience. I am glad we took the tour as arranged through our hotel. About the first thing we saw was an exhibit of suitcases upon entering the building, and the one front and center bore my family name. I really don't think I could have managed it on my own.

Posted by Greg
Billings, Mt
17 posts

I too agree that Auschwitz would be my choice. If you are going there, plan for the better part of a day if you are visiting both Auschwitz and Birkenau unless you get a real early start. Besides, the impact of the visit left me pretty somber, and not really much in the mood for light-hearted activities afterward. The sheer enormity of Birkenau is dumbfounding. I found the guide (required when we visited) very informative making the best use of the available time. Dachau can be done easily in half a day including your travel time to and from the city, and it's easier to do on your own. But last time I was there, it was closed on Mondays, so be sure to check.

Posted by Janice
Newport, Minnesota, USA
101 posts

Nancy,

I have been to both Dachau and Auschwitz/Birkenau. Of the two, I would recommend Auschwitz/Birkenau. If I remember correctly, Auschwitz was built mostly using brick and mortar so much of the camp is still in tact. Birkenau (which is nearby) was built more expeditiously using wood, so little of the structural camp remains except for the chimneys. One of the things I remember as being overwhelming was the size of the Birkenau camp. It's chimneys as far as you can see. As others have mentioned, please allow yourself ample time to visit both camps.

When we visited Auschwitz and Birchenau we used public transportation to get there. I believe we went to the bus station in Krakow and bought bus tickets there. The camp is a bit of a distance from Krakow but we enjoyed viewing the countryside. The bus route took us by a small country church with a graveyard. I have never seen a graveyard so overflowing with flowers and memorial shrines. It was beautiful and very touching to see.

Posted by Jill
Silicon Valley
17 posts

Nancy,

I've only visited Dachau, as it was easiest to get to via mass transit (bus). As you seem to know, it's a sobering experience. I went alone & was glad, bc I was pretty much a mess for the next 24 hrs. None of my family was directly affected, but even now, (20 yrs later,) I'm getting teary reading other's comments. I commend your intent to go. I highly recommend that you plan your next day to be very low key. Allow yourself some time to grieve, you'll need it. Maybe finish that day w/a comedy (movie). Something to lift your spirits, but not really require anything of you physically or emotionally. I hope you get from your visit what you're looking for, I know that some day I will take my children to one of these awful places. Short of that, I hope to never go again.

Jill

Posted by Nancy
Corvallis OR
1792 posts

Thanks again for all the replies and opinions. I've definitely added Auschwitz-Birkenau to my itinerary. I'll be going on my last day in Krakow, just haven't decided whether to do it on my own or with tour from Krakow, will probably leave that decision until I get there.

Posted by dontdeletesave
1 posts

I have went to Dachau and Auschwitz. They are both very different, Dachau still has the crematorium in tact and the set up of the camp is quite interesting however Auschwitz 1 and Auschwitz 2 Birkenou is something to experience. I would definitely choose a guide out of Krakow there are many public tours for very cheap. Just remembering now brings back the feeling of seeing them. But definitely use a guide.

Posted by James E.
USA
2969 posts

In case anyone thinks this is just "History" the persecution of the Jews is alive and well. Most notably this week in Ukraine. Equally as sad is that the Tatar muslems are also targets.
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It is fine to visit the camps, but then go do something, no matter how small a thing, to bring some positive change.
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Most of you that go to the camps will also find yourselves in Prague or Vienna or Budapest or someplace else with a living Jewish community. Find a synagogue and make a donation....70 years later they are still rebuilding their lives.

Posted by Terri Lynn
Nashville, TN, USA
477 posts

We have been to all of them and honestly, I would recommend trying to see them all and broaden your horizons. Auschwitz is probably the most famous so perhaps you should go there but do try to see the others. If you think it is emotionally hard for you to handle them, just imagine the kids and adults who had no choice but to live there in fear of their lives, often sent first to one and then another. They are, in my opinion, far more important than the ancient/medieval/Renaissance sites (those are wonderful too).