A trip to Krakow (or anywhere within southern Poland), isn’t complete until you’ve visited Auschwitz.
It plays such a huge part in European history: the rise of Hitler, WW2 and the struggle of all of the victims under the Nazis – especially the Jews.
Our main reason for visiting Krakow was so that we could go to Auschwitz. Growing up at school, Nazi Germany had cropped up every year in history lessons. I’d heard so much about it, I felt like it was time to finally gain more of an insight and actually visit the place where so many horrible atrocities were committed, so we booked a day trip to Auschwitz.
The journey from Krakow to Auschwitz
Auschwitz is 70km west of Krakow, so it’s easy to visit in a day. Buses and trains take you to the town of Oswiecim (‘Auschwitz’ is the German meaning of the town’s name).
We decided to pay a bit extra though, so that we could get picked up outside our apartment – we figured it was worth it, so we didn’t have to try and coordinate the transport and guide times.
There are lots of tour operators offering packages from Krakow to Auschwitz. When we looked online, they were all pretty much the same for similar prices, so I don’t think it really matters who you book with.
We used Auschwitz Tours, and it cost us £30 each (approx. 150 PLN). This included pick up from our apartment to and from Auschwitz, a guide of Auschwitz and Birkenau, and lunch. We booked the tour a few weeks before we were due to fly out to Poland to make sure we would definitely get a space.
The Monday morning of our Auschwitz trip, we got up early and had a leisurely breakfast, as the website had stated we would be picked up at 9am. There was a bit of a fail on our side, as we didn’t check the email that had been sent to us after we booked, which said that we would be picked up at 8.30am.
Unfortunately, even though they had my email address and phone number, they didn’t try to get in contact with us when we’d failed to show up outside. Luckily my friend then called them up and managed to negotiate a private driver to take us to Auschwitz for £10 extra.
Whilst we were all stressed out at the thought of not being able to go for Auschwitz, it all worked out for the best as not only did we have our own private car, but we got to cut to the front of the line at security to make sure we didn’t miss the start of the tour!
Arriving at Auschwitz
For most of our journey, we were travelling through pretty Polish countryside. I was expecting the former concentration camp to be in the middle of nowhere, so was really surprised to see that it was just down the road from the centre of Oswiecim. Granted, the train station and shopping centre wouldn’t have been there in the 1940s, but even so, I hadn’t realised that there were people living right next door to it!
Our chauffeur took us straight to the front of the security queue so we could join the English guided tour, which started promptly at 10.45am.
We met underneath the infamous “arbeit macht frei” sign – German for “work will set you free”.
Auschwitz-Birkenau consists of two concentration camps: Auschwitz I and Birkenau (also known as Auschwitz II).
Established in 1940, Auschwitz I was the original camp, with an average of around 15,000 prisoners at any one time. Many of these innocent people were then shipped over to Birkenau, where there were around 90,000 prisoners. Over 1.1 million innocent lives in total were lost here. There was a third sub-camp: Auschwitz III, or Monowitz, but we didn’t visit there.
When Auschwitz I was being built, the Nazis demolished 1,200 houses to make space, and deported the Poles to the ghettos.
Whilst the majority of prisoners in Auschwitz were Jews, there were many other sectors of society too, including Poles, Soviet Prisoners of War, gypsies and Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Our guide was really knowledgeable and gave us a great insight into what life was like at Auschwitz I.
Uncovering the victims’ belongings
She led us into different buildings, all housing different information. One of the most heartbreaking displays I found, were the display of suitcases and shoes. So many people who were sent here didn’t have a clue what their fate would be. To bring along all of their belongings, they must have either thought they were being moved somewhere else, or would eventually get to go back home. It’s just so sad.
One display showed piles and piles of glasses, whilst another showed a collection of false arms and legs of all of the victims. As we were led into another room, we came across another display – piles of hair.
When victims entered Auschwitz, they were no longer seen as a person. Instead, they were just a number. Everyone was given matching striped clothing and had their hair shaved off, so that they all looked the same. Now, tonnes of grey hair can be found behind a wall of glass.
In addition to exploring inside the many buildings, we walked around the outskirts of the camp where barbed wire kept prisoners inside (and potential rescuers out). We did hear of the heroic attempts of the citizens of Oswiecim risking their lives to provide prisoners with food and medicine.
We saw the firing wall, where thousands and thousands of innocent people were lined up and killed. Finally, we were taken to the showers, where thousands more were gassed to death – after being tricked into thinking they were going for a wash.
It’s disgusting to think that anyone could be treated this way. However, I don’t know what I expected, but the whole thing felt quite unreal. Perhaps it was down to the number of people visiting Auschwitz.
There were multiple tours going on at the time, and there must have been thousands of people there. We were all shepherded from one place to the other – when one tour had done in one room, another tour group were ushered in.
I suppose that’s to be expected – after all, Auschwitz represents such a huge part of European history; and lots of people want to learn more and pay their respects.
It was quite tasteless when you saw people taking selfies and smiling as they pointed to the gas chambers, or posed by the firing wall. Definitely uncalled for.
The tour of Auschwitz I took nearly two hours, and after that our guide met us for lunch – a homemade sandwich and drink for each of us, which was really sweet of him!
He then drove us ten minutes down the road to Birkenau. Auschwitz may have been sobering, but this was something else.
The entrance of Birkenau was the end of the line of the iconic train tracks. People were literally shipped here to die, and the conditions were awful. The statistics speak for themselves: 90% of victims sent to Birkenau died.
There were row after row of buildings as far as the eye could see, where dozens of people were forced to sleep in awful conditions; near to the remnants of the crematorium.
At one end of Birkenau was a touching tributes to all of the victims who suffered at the hands of the Nazis and Auschwitz-Birkenau.
I’m so glad we made it to Auschwitz – learning about it at school, and then actually going to visit gives you more of a sense of what went on.
Visiting Auschwitz definitely affects you. We were all pretty quiet on the drive back to Krakow, and even as we went out for dinner and drinks that night.
As hard as it is to comprehend the experience of the victims at Auschwitz, you just can’t shake from your mind the things you’ve learnt. It’s an extremely sobering experience, but a day trip to Auschwitz is a must when visiting Krakow.