Some places you visit for their beauty, others for their iconic status. And some places – some places you visit because they should never be forgotten.
Last October, Milou from Explorista invited me on a 2-day trip to Krakow in Poland with her. We wouldn't even be there the full 48 hours and the whole trip would be focused on an excursion to Auschwitz-Birkenau.
I understand that it may seem weird and even a bit gruesome to travel somewhere just to visit such an awful place, but I actually preferred it this way.
- An Auschwitz tour from Krakow
- The camps
- Auschwitz II-Birkenau
- How to get to Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau
- When to go to Auschwitz
- What to bring to Auschwitz
- Auschwitz tickets and Auschwitz tour prices
- Where to stay when visiting Auschwitz
- Don't forget travel insurance
- Books about Auschwitz
An Auschwitz tour from Krakow
I'd always wanted to tour Auschwitz. No, that's not right. I've always felt like I had to visit Auschwitz. To not forget. To continue telling the story of what happened there.
Yet going there scared me a bit and as I didn't know what it would do to me, I was reluctant to combine it with a proper city trip and kept putting it off altogether. But then I had the chance to visit Auschwitz in the company of a friend and so I went.
We arrived in Krakow in the early evening and would have a tour company pick us up the next morning at 9 to make the trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where we'd be taken around by a guide. A mistake with the reservations left us waiting in the hall of the hotel for over an hour before we found out that they'd forgotten to process our booking.
“Will we still make it to Auschwitz today?” we thought. Luckily, there was another tour going at 12 which we could join.
We went for a quick walk around Krakow before finally getting in the shuttle car that would take us from Krakow to Auschwitz. A few minutes into the trip, the driver turned on an Auschwitz movie. It was an old documentary about Auschwitz-Birkenau, made with original black and white images shot in the death camps both by the Nazis during their reign and after the Auschwitz liberation by others.
There were images of people so frail it seemed as if they could break at any moment. Children, too. There were testimonies of doctors who'd examined Auschwitz survivors after their liberation and interviews with people who'd gotten out alive but were forever changed.
It was hard to watch. Confronting. Painful and sickening.
Given the effect the documentary had on me, I braised myself for our actual tour around the camps. After passing the security check (only small bags are allowed) and walking through the famous Auschwitz gate, our guide took us around the terrain, walking in and out of barracks and buildings now set up as exhibition spaces.
It struck me how impersonal it all was. While the documentary we'd seen in the car focused on the victims and what they had to endure, our Auschwitz concentration camp tour focused mostly on facts and events.
The exhibition rooms of the Auschwitz museum were often entirely empty except for a few items or enlarged photos and while our guide obviously spoke of the horrors that went on there, little to no attention was given to individual Auschwitz survivor stories.
Now, I do have to say that when you take an Auschwitz guided tour as we did, it only takes you around a limited amount of many buildings and that if you visit Auschwitz-Birkenau independently, you get the chance and the time to see more of the compound, so it might be that things are different in other spaces and that I just haven't seen them.
But part of me also wondered whether the tour and exhibition spaces had gotten their impersonal character on purpose. Maybe they wanted to make it “easier” on people to visit?
I don't know.
What I do know, is that my trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau didn't have the major knock-down effect on me I thought it would have. The thing is that what happened there was so horrendous, so absolutely disgusting, unfair and done to so many people that it is very hard to fully grasp. I don't think I'll ever be able to.
When you stand there and you see the size of the camps, hear the number of people who were stuffed together in barracks and compare how many were brought in, but never made it out, your mind goes numb. You cannot comprehend the atrocity of it all. How people, actual human beings, were able to do what the Nazis have done.
I've thought about my day trip to Auschwitz often since. It may not have had the instant effect on me I'd expected it to have, it did have an impact I will feel for the rest of my life and maybe that's even more profound.
Maybe that's what needed to keep that part of history alive. To make sure nobody ever forgets the horrific events of the Holocaust.
There are not one, but two death camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau. The first one is Auschwitz I, named after the town it's located in, Oświęcim. “Auschwitz” is simply the German version of “Oświęcim”. If you decide to visit Auschwitz on your own and need to ask for directions along the way, it's better to ask the locals for the way to the Oswiecim concentration camp. Before the Germans took over, it was a Polish army camp.
The exterior of this camp has been preserved pretty much as it was, but some of the buildings have gotten a museum function, teaching visitors about what happened there and at Auschwitz II-Birkenau.
There are buildings dedicated to the role and sufferings of specific countries in the Nazis genocide and then there are rooms with photos, preserved living quarters and prison cells. What got to me most at Auschwitz I, were the objects displayed. Suitcases taken from people who'd never return from their journey. Shoes and other personal items stolen from those who didn't realize they would never own anything again. Heaps and heaps of human hair, shaved off to be used as manufacturing material in an act of complete dehumanization.
And then there was the wall prisoners were executed against, with holes in the bricks as silent proof of what once must have been deafening lethal precision.
The Nazis developed many cruel execution ways at Auschwitz I. They would lock prisoners in standing cells, not allowing them to move. They would deprive them of food and drinks until they'd perish or they would lock them in airless rooms, leaving them to suffocate.
And they would develop their preferred method of mass extermination: gassing prisoners with Zyklon-B, an adaptation of the pesticide Zyklon-A formerly used to kill lice in the camp.
Auschwitz II-Birkenau is the concentration camp most people see before them when thinking about Auschwitz. Built specifically because the Auschwitz I camp was too small for the mass extermination the Germans had in mind, it takes about half an hour to walk from the entry gate to the back of the camp.
That entry gate, with the railroad tracks running through and right into the middle of the camp, is an image often used in articles and documentaries about the death camps. Lesser known is the vast field surrounding those tracks, dotted with barracks in which prisoners would be packed together by the dozens in the worst possible conditions. They would die of malnourishment, cold, and exhausting labor. They would be executed as a punishment for even the slightest error or they would be killed in the infamous gas chambers.
Visitors can enter the gas chambers at the Birkenau camp and see where prisoners needed to undress before being lead to the “showers”.
Time stands still at the Birkenau death camp, preserving one of mankind's most horrid creations so that we and later generations can learn lessons from Auschwitz and prevent the past from ever repeating itself. It pains me to say that I feel we still have a lot to learn.
How to get to Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau
The easiest way to travel to Auschwitz is from Krakow and you can get to Krakow by plane, train, or bus (and of course, also by car). From Krakow, I recommend going with an organized tour as getting there yourself is a bit of a hassle.
Krakow airport is just a train ride away from the city center and welcomes flights from all over the world.
If you still need to book your flight, check Skyscanner for a good overview of prices and airline options.
By train or bus
Krakow's train station lies walking distance from the old town so if you're already in Poland, it makes a lot of sense to travel to Krakow by train. Another option, which is often a bit cheaper but also slower, is to travel by bus.
Omio is a platform that automatically gives you the best possible route by train and/or bus and allows you book your tickets online as well. Check it out to plan your trip to Krakow.
With an organized tour
There are multiple companies that run organized trips to Auschwitz from Krakow. KrakowDirect is one company with which you can do an Auschwitz tour from Krakow. We went on an organized excursion that brought us with a shuttle bus from Krakow to Auschwitz and then back from Auschwitz to Krakow at a set time.
Once at the Auschwitz-Birkenau museum, we had a guide as well that shared facts about Auschwitz and showed us around. While I loved the convenience of being picked up and dropped off again, I wouldn't have minded visiting the grounds without a guide.
On the one hand, I feel like going in a group in a structured matter like this made the whole experience a bit less personal and maybe “easier”, but on the other hand I also feel like I missed some things as the Auschwitz tour guides follow a certain route and don't take you into all of the buildings that are open to the public. I highly recommend the pickup and drop-off, but whether you should go with a guide is entirely up to your own preferences.
With a taxi
You could always book a transfer or taxi to Auschwitz and have it pick you back up again as well, but I do recommend discussing and setting the price beforehand. Keep in mind that the distance from Krakow to Auschwitz is about 50 km, so it's a bit of a drive.
With public transportation
While it's possible to take the train from Krakow to Auschwitz, I highly recommend taking the bus to Auschwitz if you want to go the budget-friendly route. Train connections from Krakow aren't great and the closest train station to Auschwitz is still 2 km away, forcing you to either walk that bit or take a bus anyway.
The Krakow to Auschwitz bus goes directly to the entry gate of Auschwitz I and departs from there as well. There's no bus stop at Auschwitz II but there is a free shuttle which covers the 3.5 km between the two camps.
If you decide to go by yourself, make sure to check timetables. While the website recommends a minimum of 3.5 hours at both sites combined, you can easily spend a full day here.
For an address, GPS coordinates and more, check the official website.
When to go to Auschwitz
We went in October. It was cold, rainy and just plain miserable. But you know what? I wouldn't have wanted it any other way. While I was soaked and shivering during our visit, I can't imagine myself walking around there under clear skies while soaking up energy from the sun. It just wouldn't be right.
What to bring to Auschwitz
If you plan on visiting Auschwitz in winter or fall like I did, I highly recommend you wear sturdy, waterproof shoes as well as warm clothes and bring an umbrella or a rain jacket. Auschwitz II-Birkenau can get muddy and because of the vastness of the place, there's not a lot to protect you from the cold when walking outside.
If you go in summer, bring sunscreen, a hat, sunglasses, and water. Again, there's not a lot of cover and you'll be walking outside for a while so protect yourself. Do dress appropriately, though. Bikinis and swim shorts are not allowed.
Be aware that if you bring a bag, it can be no bigger than 30 20 x 10 cm. It will be scanned and you'll have to go through a security checkpoint.
Auschwitz tickets and Auschwitz tour prices
There is no Auschwitz entrance fee. A visit to both Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau is free (you can leave a donation if you want to), but a guided tour is not, nor is the Auschwitz audio guides you can pick up at the start your visit.
You also have to pay to see the Auschwitz video screening of the first hours after the camps were liberated. This means that it's entirely up to you how much your visit will cost. You can take a cheap bus and visit the campgrounds by yourself, join an organized excursion with transfer and guide or do something in between.
While entry to Auschwitz is free, you need to book your tickets to Auschwitz in advance and the sooner the better, as they tend to “sell out” fast. The organization managing the camps had to put this system in place to regulate the huge amount of people wanting to visit the sites.
If you're going on an organized excursion, there's no need to book the tickets yourself. The tour company will arrange everything for you.
Where to stay when visiting Auschwitz
If you're wondering where to stay to visit Auschwitz, I found Krakow to be a good option. The city itself is small but worth a visit and you can easily get to Auschwitz from Krakow, as I described above.
In Krakow, we stayed at the Kazimierz hotel. It was a stylish and classic hotel at the edge of the Old Jewish Quarter. I have to say it was nice being able to come back to a clean and spacious warm room and not having to mind anything after our visit. We could just lay down on our beds for a bit and let it all sink in.
Don't forget travel insurance
Plan for the best, prepare for the worst. Travel insurance has you covered in case (part of) your trip gets canceled, you get sick or hurt abroad, and sometimes even when your electronics break or get stolen. I always make sure I'm covered every trip I go on.
Don't have travel insurance yet? Check out SafetyWing. They offer super flexible plans that you can even sign up for while you're already on your trip. On top of that, they were the first travel insurance to cover COVID, and when I got COVID, they reimbursed all of my expenses without making a fuss. Their customer support team is great and I can personally recommend them.
Books about Auschwitz
“Auschwitz: A Doctor's Eyewitness Account” is the true story of Dr. Nyiszli, a Jewish doctor who was “spared” by the Nazis to assist the infamous “Angel of Death” Dr. Mengele by doing autopsies on the corpses of those who lives were taken at the camps. Dr. Nyiszli managed to survive by following atrocious orders, while also trying to make the lives of other Auschwitz prisoners a little more bearable.
“Measure of a Man: From Auschwitz Survivor to Presidents' Tailor” tells the remarkable story of a Czechoslovakian boy who survived Auschwitz and grew up to become one of America's most renowned tailors, dressing presidents such as Dwight Eisenhower and Bill Clinton as well as celebrities such as Leonardo DiCaprio and Jimmy Fallon.
In “Five Chimneys: A Woman Survivor's True Story of Auschwitz”, Olda Lengyel tell us how she and her children willingly accompanied her husband to Auschwitz-Birkenau when he was captured. She documents what daily life was like at the camp for a beautiful woman like herself, and how she lost everything and everyone while in there. Yet there's no self-pity in this book that was praised by Albert Einstein.
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