World War 2 has left deep scars on countless souls, lives and families. Not surprising that there are numerous World War 2 Museums around the world to tell the stories and the facts that should never be forgotten. Not fun yet very important. We owe our freedom to those who fought back and suffered during those horrible years of war. They deserve our respect, honor and time. With so many on offer, which of the World War 2 Museums around the world are definitely worth a visit? Here are my personal recommendations of the World War 2 Museums that made the deepest impression on me.
Please people do not take (smiling) selfies at these kind of places, it is disrespectful!
1: Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum
Auschwitz – Birkenau has the dubious reputation of being the world’s most cruel and well-known Nazi concentration and extermination camp. Auschwitz is located about 1.5 hours west of Krakow in the southeast of Poland. Approximately 1.1 million people were killed or died in Auschwitz during World War 2. This is really one of the most moving and shocking places that I have ever visited. Scary even. It confronts with the evil and harm people apparently can do to each other.
You walk past the barracks and barbwire fences, see remains of the gas chambers… What a nightmare it must have been to be imprisoned here. It made my boyfriend literally feel sick. Yet regardless how sickening this place may feel, I think it is good to see. To realize our freedom today and take our responsibility in making sure something like this will never happen again. Although I seriously doubt whether we are succeeding in that, thinking about a country like North Korea.
For all details including opening hours, admission, how to get there, tours, etc. see my earlier article Visit Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in Poland and value your freedom more than ever. In Krakow you can also visit Schindler’s Factory, maybe you know it from the movie Schindler’s List? Read more about Krakow and Schindler’s Factory in my earlier article Charming Krakow: perfect cheap city trip with culture, history and pierogi!
2: Yad Vashem Holocaust History Museum
Located on Mount Herzl, also known as the Mount of Remembrance, in Jerusalem, Israel, I visited Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center. It shows the victims and criminals of the systematic extermination of the European Jews during World War 2, known as the Holocaust. To honor and memory the deaths and the battlers against the discriminating oppression and violence, Jews and non-Jews.
Yad Vashem is absolutely one of the best set up indoor museums that I have ever seen.
I would recommend to either join a group tour or book an individual audio tour to learn more about the stories captured in this impressive museum. Each space in Yad Vashem has their own unique way of sharing the stories of events and message of that particular room. I found it striking to see how well this museum has been set up, sponsored by thousands of donators around the world. Yad Vashem attracts about 1 million visitors from all over the world per year.
- Admission: free, skip-the-line audio tour 1.5 hours ILS 25 (EUR 6.50)
- Location: Har Hazikaron, Mount Herzl, Jerusalem, Israel
- Public transport: take the tram from Jerusalem city center to Mount Herzl station (final stop)
- Opening hours: Sun-Thu 09:00-17:00h, Fri & holiday evenings 09:00-14:00h
Before going to Jerusalem, somehow I just couldn’t imagine myself traveling by tram or bus, but in reality it turned out to be very easy with the Rav Kav Card.
To read more about Jerusalem please check out my earlier article Jerusalem: 10 things to see in the Old City for a cultural journey. And to read more about Israel go to the Israel Blog Archives.
3: Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum
My grandmother and her sister were born and raised in the Dutch Indies, now Indonesia. When the Japanese Empire occupied the Dutch East Indies during World War 2 (1942-1945) they ended up in multiple terrible Japanese prison camps in Indonesia. My maternal uncle, serving in the KNIL, was captured and became a Prisoner of War (POW) in Thailand. When I visited Thailand earlier this year, I was determined to visit Kanchanaburi with its famous Bridge on the River Kwai, Death Railway Museum, Kanchanaburi War Cemetery and Hellfire Pass.
Especially the audio tour at the Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum made a great impression on me. Walking around there in the heat, surrounded by bamboo and mountains, listening to the stories of the actual survivors… You get a glimpse of the horrible, extreme circumstances of these prisoners were in while digging out the rocks by hand, to build the 415km railway for the Japanese to get access to Myanmar (Burma, oil and wolfram). My maternal uncle survived but got killed a few years later on Bali. I would like to explore my family’s history further in Indonesia.
The cruelties, the grief, the suffering, the losses and the courage. Very sad but very interesting to learn more about it.
- Admission Hellfire Pass Interpretive Centre: free (donation box), audio set with passport registration
- Location: 207 Moo 11, Tha Sao Subdistrict, Sai Yok District, Kanchanaburi Province 71150, Thailand, 80km northwest of Kanchanaburi center, 20km from Nam Tok Station
- Public transport: from Kanchanaburi take the bus to Sangkhlaburi (every hour), the train to Nam Tok (4x p/d) or the most convenient: a guided day tour
- Opening hours: daily 09:00-16:00h except some national holidays
The Death Railway Museum in Kanchanaburi gave some information about my maternal uncle and the opposite War Cemetery is also sadly impressive. The Death Railway Museum tells about the terrible conditions the Prisoners of War had to live in while building the railway. Unfortunately Kanchanaburi the town itself wasn’t a highlight of our trip. Too commercial and too many white men hanging around with certain local ladies on their arms at the bars, if you know what I mean… Right next to the bridge there is this awful Prisoner of War theme park; completely with bouncy castles, food stalls and festive string lights. A terrible insult and totally disrespectful towards the victims and their loved ones.
Later I will write a complete article about visiting Kanchanaburi and surroundings. To read more about other places in Thailand check out the Thailand Blog Archives.
4: Topography of Terror Berlin
When walking around a museum portraying the perpetrators of World War 2, it is quite a shock when you encounter a sign that mentions your family name as being one of them. Not me, but a person I visited Topography of Terror with, had this. Certainly not something to be proud of, but definitely a reality check. Many German families will have to live with the fact that a lot of their ancestors were those cruel men and women responsible for so much loss and sorrow. Never forget.
Like ad Yad Vashem, at Topography of Terror in Berlin the perpetrators of World War 2 are given a name and a face. I feel this is an essential part of what the society today owes to the victims of back then; not stashing away those who caused so much misery. Although many fled to South America or went into hiding by taking another name at the end of World War 2, still denying in prosecution cases.
Topography of Terror is located on the site where the headquarters of the Secret State Police, SS and Security Services of the Nazi regime used to be. The permanent exhibition Topography of Terror opened in 2005 and is nowadays one of the most frequently visited places of remembrance in Berlin. It also shows the propaganda and terror in Berlin 1933-1945 and has special WW2 exhibitions, for example about the Neurenberg trials.
- Admission: free
- Location: Niederkirchnerstraße 8 in Berlin, Germany
- Public transport: get off at Potsdamer Platz or walk 10 min south from Berlin Hauptbahnhof
- Opening hours: daily 10:00-18:00h, closed Dec 24, 31 and Jan 1
Berlin has several other WW2 related sites, such as Checkpoint Charlie (5 min walk), German Spy Museum (9 min), Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (13 min), Jewish Museum (16 min), etc. Consider joining a guided group tour.
5: Anne Frank Museum Amsterdam
Whenever visiting Amsterdam, I would definitely recommend going to the Anne Frank House. Walk through the house in Amsterdam where the Jewish-Dutch young girl wrote her famous diary while hiding for more than two years during WW2. The house gives an idea under which claustrophobic circumstances Jews lived during WW2. Before they got caught and deported to concentration camps like Auschwitz.
Tickets for the Anne Frank House normally sell out quickly after they get released about 3 months in advance. Due to this high demand, resulting into hours long waiting lines outside and crowds inside. Since COVID-19 it is mandatory to book a time slot online, which should solve the waiting lines and give people more space inside.
- Admission: EUR 12,50 for adults, children get discounts
- Location: Prinsengracht 263-267 in Amsterdam, The Netherlands
- Public transport: walk 20 min from Central Station or take tram 13 or 17, tram stop Westermarkt
- Opening hours: daily 09:00-19:00h, closed Sep 28 (Yom Kippur)
Before or after you could take this walking tour through the Amsterdam Jewish Quarter and/or this canal boat tour from the Anne Frank House. In 2022 the National Holocaust Museum in Amsterdam will re-open again after a huge renovation. Amsterdam is a great place for museum fanatics anyway. Read more about my favorite museums in Amsterdam and more in my earlier article What to do in Amsterdam on a rainy day? The Ultimate Guide! including tips on where to stay, how to get around, etc. which are of course also valid on sunny days.
Dutch World War 2 museums
Next to the Anne Frank House there are more World War 2 Museums in The Netherlands, especially in the east. These can be placed on your to-do list, should you be interested in this topic, such as:
- Camp Westerbork in Drenthe (northeast Netherlands)
- Arnhem’s War Museum dedicated to WW2
- Airborne Museum Hartenstein in Oosterbeek (North Brabant) or Airborne at the Bridge in Arnhem mainly about Operation Market Garden,take the train or join this group tour from Amsterdam
- Museum Bronbeek in Arnhem about the Royal Dutch East Indies Army (KNIL)
Every year in The Netherlands we have:
- Remembrance Day on May 4thto honor the people who sacrificed their lives for our freedom, during World War 2 and beyond;
- Liberation Day May 5th to celebrate the day we got officially liberated from the German Nazi regime led by Adolf Hitler.
On May 5th of this year I posted the following on Facebook about freedom (translated from Dutch):
Freedom means a lot to me. Traveling the world, doing fun things spontaneously, sitting on a terrace, eating out with friends. Being able to be myself, say what I like and what I want, wear the clothes I prefer, build my own career. The more you see the world, the more you realize how good we are in the Netherlands, especially as a woman. On a day like this, Liberation Day 2020, I dwell on this a bit extra. Grateful for all those men and women who gave their lives in the fight for our freedom. It did not just turn up.
The war stories shared on TV last night for Remembrance Day moved me. My grandmother lived in several camps in Indonesia. Deprivations, suffering, grief, fear, but also courage and perseverance. All so that we can live in freedom today. Corona has thrown a bit of a spanner in the works lately, but how lucky we are. And I am proud of our Prime Minister Mark Rutte and King Willem-Alexander, how they lead our country in times of crisis. It takes a while but everything will be fine again. Long live the Netherlands, celebrate freedom! #Bevrijdingsdag
More concentration camps
Unfortunately Auschwitz is not the only concentration camp where the Nazis killed Jews. There are several other Nazi concentration camps in Europe that you can visit nowadays, such as:
- Dachau Concentration Camp near Munich in Germany
- Sachsenhausen-Oranienburg Concentration Camp 35km from Berlin
- Ravensbrück Women’s Concentration Camp 90km north of Berlin
- Terezin Concentration Camp north of Prague
- Treblinka Concentration Camp in northeast Poland
- Mauthausen Concentration Camp in Austria
Other war sites
Since the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum was closed for renovation when I visited Japan, I felt like I could no include it in the above list. Nevertheless, the A-Bomb building outside was already impressive. You can visit Hiroshima as a day trip from Osaka for example. And this happened during World War 2… I guess I will have to go back once day.
There are several other war museums and sites that I would like to visit, including:
- Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, USA
- Memorial Museum Battle of Normandy, D-Day landing beaches and cemetery in France
- The Killing Fields and S21 Tuol Sleng Museum in Nom Phen, Cambodia
And yes, I have also also visited several other, not World War 2 related museums that made a great impression on me. For example the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg (South Africa), America’s Black Holocaust Museum in Milwaukee (WI, USA), Ground Zero and the National September 11 Memorial & Museum in New York City, etc. I will write about those some other time.
I hope you find this article useful. Are you interested to learn more about World War 2? Which World War 2 Museum made the greatest impression on you? Do you have a suggestion for another World War 2 Museum that I did not mention in this article? Please feel free to leave a comment or question below.
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