Located at Oswiecim in Poland, Auschwitz-Birkenau was the largest of the concentration camps of World War II. Established in mid-1940, by 1942 it had become the biggest death camp under the Nazis. It is estimated that between 1.1 and 1.5 million victims died here.
Throughout its existence it functioned as a concentration camp. Initially, the inhabitants were Poles who had been part of the Polish intelligentsia, as well as other political, spiritual and important figures.
However, as the war progressed, prisoners from other occupied countries began arriving at the camp. According to figures from the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum which now stands on the site, around 400,000 people were kept in the camp at one time.
Of these, 200,000 were Jews, 140,000 were Poles, and around 20,000 were Gypsies from various countries. In addition, there were approximately 10,000 Soviet prisoners of war and 10,000 prisoners of other nationalities.
It is estimated that around 50 per cent of these registered prisoners died from starvation, exhaustion, disease, inhuman living conditions, torture or criminal medical experiments.
At its peak, the camp comprised three parts. The oldest, Auschwitz I, was constructed in the buildings of pre-war Polish barracks and housed between 15,000 and 20,000 inmates.
Auschwitz II, the second camp at Birkenau, held over 90,000 prisoners in 1944 and was the largest part of the complex. The majority of the mass exterminations took place here.
The third part, Auschwitz III, was made up of some 40 sub-camps in the area. This part held 10,000 prisoners.
There were a number of gas chambers and crematoriums around the complex where Jews, Gypsies and prisoners of war were gassed and then cremated. When Auschwitz-Birkenau began functioning as an extermination camp in early 1942, hundreds of thousands of prisoners were killed here without being registered.
They were taken straight from the trains and brought to the gas chambers - selection procedures targeted those who were considered unfit to work, including the infirm or elderly and children and pregnant women.
The camp was liberated in January 1945 by Red Army soldiers and the few thousand remaining prisoners were set free. Today, a museum and memorial mark its site.
How to get there
The memorial is accessible from Krakow hostels; the city is located just 60 kilometres from the camp, making it the gateway to Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Before settling down and becoming a copywriter for HostelBookers, Paul Scottyn travelled extensively and stayed in numerous Krakow hostels and had time to visit the memorial.