The country where World War II officially began, the location of numerous concentration and extermination camps, and the nucleus of a fierce resistance to Nazi forces, Poland played a crucial role in the European theater of World War II. Today, numerous sites detail the history of the war and the physical and emotional toll it took here. If you’d like to expand your understanding of World War II in Europe, add these attractions to your Poland itinerary.
1. Memorial and Museum Auschwitz-Birkenau
A must in order to grasp the devastation the Nazis wrought on various population groups of Poland and Europe, the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum both honors the memory of the 1.1 million people who perished here and recounts the horrors that occurred at its concentration and extermination camps. The museum displays artifacts such as human hair from prisoners, while the gas chambers and crematoria remain as they were when Soviet soldiers liberated the camp.
2. Oskar Schindler’s Factory
Oskar Schindler’s Factory in Krakow both pays tribute to the German industrialist who saved 1,200 Jews from Nazi extermination camps and details the conditions in occupied Krakow. Exhibits include Schindler’s office, preserved in the same condition as he left it near the end of the war, and a model of a Jewish ghetto apartment.
3. Warsaw Uprising Museum
Unlike the numerous countries that capitulated to Nazi aggression without a struggle, Poland mounted a bold resistance to occupation. Through artifact displays such as weapons and love letters written by fighters, the Warsaw Uprising Museum details the failed 1944 uprising and the conditions that hatched it.
If you decide to include Gdansk when you plan a trip to Poland, you’ll have a chance to visit Westerplatte, the site of the first battle of World War II. On September 1, 1939, Nazi forces attacked the Polish Military Transit Depot on this peninsula. Today, you’ll encounter a memorial to the Polish soldiers who died in the battle, gravestones, and ruins of barracks.
5. Jewish Ghetto Memorial
Dedicated to Warsaw ghetto inhabitants who battled against attempts to transport them to Treblinka extermination camp, the Jewish Ghetto Memorial sits in the spot where the first armed clash took place in 1943. The western side of the memorial displays a frieze of insurgents armed with Molotov cocktails and guns, while the eastern side memorializes general persecution of Jews during World War II.
6. Prozna Street
Located near the Jewish Ghetto Memorial, Prozna Street includes numerous tenement houses as they stood in the Warsaw Ghetto. If you plan to visit Poland during September, check the schedule for the Festival of Jewish Culture – Singer’s Warsaw, which takes place here each year during this month.
7. Gestapo Headquarters Museum
Compact but impactful, the Gestapo Headquarters Museum details the terror the Nazi secret police unleashed on wartime Warsaw. The museum presents its exhibits in prisoner cells to create a stronger impression. Krakow also had its own Gestapo Headquarters that serve as a museum today.
8. Wolf’s Lair
Although you’ll have to trek out to isolated Ketrzyn County during your Poland vacation, you’ll have a chance to visit one of Europe’s most interesting World War II attractions–Wolf’s Lair. Serving as Hitler’s headquarters for military operations on the Eastern Front, the site today is a collection of ruined bunkers with interpretive displays. The enveloping forest still holds remains of plastic trees used for camouflage.
9. The State Museum of Majdanek
Considered the best-preserved example of a Nazi extermination camp, the State Museum of Majdanek displays intact gas chambers, crematoria, barracks, and watchtowers. The museum includes artifacts, such as shoes worn by prisoners and photographs, and two separate monuments that pay tribute to the camp’s victims.
10. Pawiak Prison Museum
Pawiak has served as a jail since the early 19th century, and Nazi occupiers initially converted it into a Gestapo prison before integrating it into the Warsaw concentration camp complex and then using it as an operational base during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. The Pawiak Prison Museum recounts this history and memorializes the tens of thousands of Polish resistance fighters and political prisoners held here and deported to concentration and death camps.
Ground Zero of a Grim Chapter
Although World War II wrought terror and destruction across Europe, no single country saw greater brutality than Poland. While the sites listed above provide insight on the scale of the war’s horrors, many of them also carry a message of hope in the darkest of circumstances. Add these attractions to your Poland itinerary and you’ll come away with a greater understanding of the Great War’s impact on European society and collective consciousness.