It’s taken me a long time to write about how it felt to visit a concentration camp. For a long time, I didn’t know how to talk about them. And it is a hard thing to talk and write about (especially respectfully). But I think that’s the whole point. We shouldn’t only go places that charm us or bring joy and relaxation. It’s also important to go places that challenge us and force us to think and reflect. If you’ve got an upcoming visit to Germany, or Poland, or the Czech Republic, I highly encourage you to consider adding a visit to one of the concentration camps to your list. But there are some things you should know about before you go, to be better prepared for your visit.
Preparing to Visit a Concentration Camp
Be a respectful human
Before saying anything else, there’s this: be a respectful human. Don’t make shitty jokes, don’t take stupid photos. Do not bring your children and let them run amok. Be prepared to carry the weight of this experience, come humble and considerate. Think of it this way: Being anything besides respectful in these places gives power back to the evil that brought these camps into existence.
Know the differences between the camps
Depending on where you are going, there will be different types of camps. I’ve visited three. Terezin (Theriesenstadt), was a concentration camp/ghetto outside of Prague. Dachau, located just outside of Munich and the first concentration camp opened in Germany, was intended for academic, political, religious, and royal prisoners. It was eventually enlarged to include forced labor and additional prisoners (largely criminals). And Auschwitz, the largest and most notorious camp, outside of Krakòw. Auschwitz was a concentration and extermination camp.
Over 42,000 camps of different sizes and purposes were recorded after the war, which is absolutely staggering. Some elements of an extermination camp were present at every camp. However, mass, systematic extermination by gas chambers only occurred in certain camps.
Be intentional about your plan
Visiting a concentration camp should not be a spur of the moment decision. Give yourself time after your visit to think and reflect. I did not want to do anything, eat anything, or talk to anyone for several hours after I came back. You might process things differently or at a different pace—but give yourself time to decompress afterwards. And as a best practice, probably not a good idea to schedule too many things after you visit a concentration camp.
Get tickets ahead of time
Visitors to Auschwitz have three options. You can visit as part of a group organized by a Kraków tourist agency or visit independently and join a guided tour at the museum. Or you can visit independently for free without a guide. This last option has gotten much trickier recently, because Auschwitz now requires all visits to be booked in advance. The booking portal only allows for either guided external tours or guided tours with the official guides.
Choose your tour
I opted not to do a guided tour, but did get an audio self-tour. I highly advise this, because the audio tour gives you a lot of context and historical information for what you see. If you’re touring alone, the little voice is also quite grounding. Others have told me they felt that external tours (especially ones for Auschwitz, out of Kraków) felt rushed. Obviously there’s a lot to cover and a time restraint, but they felt they didn’t have enough time to absorb things. People like the guided tours because they cover transport and usually a different activity. I found public transportation sufficient to get to the different sites, so that wasn’t a big selling point for me. The official tours of Auschwitz are supposed to be excellent.
Get some distance
There are guided tours and group tours of the camps, but I recommend going alone. Even to the point of distancing yourself from your own travel companions. The heaviness of these sites hits people in different ways, and people deal with it the ways they know. Forced levity, non-stop chatter, morbidity, silence. I found it better to process the experience in my own way, away from a group. You can pause when you need to, linger when it moves you, and reflect on your own time. I also recommend getting there as early as possible, before too many other people, and walking around in the quiet.
Embrace the quiet
One of the things that’s so unnerving is the quiet of these places. Once you get used to it, the sound almost becomes an experience in itself. At Dachau, I remember taking a moment on the lane between where the barracks used to stand. There was a storm coming and the poplar trees were shaking roughly, making a clattering sound I’d never heard before. Sound and silence adds another layer of memory to these places. If you are in a group, try to keep speaking to a minimum. When you do need to talk things through, step away from the crowds or keep your voice low.
Visit the visitors center
It might seem weird to recommend stopping at the gift shop at the end of a visit to a concentration camp. But the shops within the visitors centers literally hold the stories of the camps. There are books on every topic, from every perspective, and for any age. Fiction, non-fiction, essays. I found it somehow reassuring to see all of these survivor stories after the intensity of the camps. As if understanding was being offered to me like a lifeline.
Prepare yourself mentally
Expect your visit to a concentration camp to be overwhelming. I keep saying the word, “heavy” but it’s the best word I have. Especially coming from America, I found the weight of this history to be almost crushing. You’re seeing things that have only existed in grainy documentaries or history books before. You are breathing in that same air, seeing the same trees, walking the same gravel paths as all these doomed prisoners. I’m not exaggerating at all when I say I felt a sense of evil crawl over my skin as soon as I passed through the gates. I had chills the whole time. Let yourself feel your feelings. If you need to, cry and let it out. If something makes you smile, let yourself smile.
Don’t be surprised if your visit to a concentration camp feels surreal. Dachau is literally on the outskirts of what’s basically now a Munich suburb. There was a McDonald’s by the bus stop. We drove to Auschwitz via car. For the length of the drive, we followed a railway. I watched it the whole time with a sinking feeling. But it was only when we arrived at the camp gates that the horror of realizing where those tracks ended sunk in. We stepped out of the car and there were apartments not 300m away. Balconies and backyards faced the camp. A discount furniture store wasn’t far away. It’s a mindfuck.
The whole experience is a mindfuck, honestly. It’s astounding to realize how much evil the world can hold. Unsettling, to realize how recent this history is, and how much it still pertains to our lives now. Case in point, I trampled an AfD (the Neo-Nazi party) election poster on this morning’s walk to work. But by visiting these places, you’re doing an important thing. Recognizing that history. Reliving that horror so that it will never be repeated. When I walked into the gates of each camp, I was unprepared for what I’d see, how I’d feel, and what I’d think after. When I walked back out, it was clear. Never again.