If you are visiting Kraków, there are two excursions that you should definitely not miss – a visit to Auschwitz and a visit to Wieliczka to see the salt mines. Technically, it is possible to go to both in the same day, but it would be a very long and exhausting day (both physically and mentally), and I recommend that you visit them on separate days, if your time allows.
In this post, I will share our experiences on the trip we took to Oświeçim, which is the name of the city that Auschwitz I and Birkenau are located in, with our amazing tour guide/driver, Chris.
I am very glad that we visited both camps, but they turned out to be very different experiences than what I was expecting.
Chris picked us up at our hotel in at 7:00 a.m. and we headed to Oświeçim. The easy and somewhat scenic drive took us about an hour and a half. Chris filled the time with stories about life in Poland and pointed out things of interest along the way. When we arrived at Auschwitz, the parking lot was already filling up with tour buses, and the next available English tour wasn’t for another 90 minutes.
Chris suggested that we use that time to visit Birkenau (also known as Auschwitz II, or as Brzezinka in Polish), another camp located about two miles away from Auschwitz I. While researching this trip, I had read about both camps and wasn’t even sure I wanted to visit Birkenau, but rather, wanted to spend more time at Auschwitz I. Well, let me tell you, I am so glad that we had to wait for the English tour, because we might not have seen Birkenau otherwise. To me, Birkenau ended up being so much more powerful and moving than Auschwitz I.
Arriving at Birkenau, what you see first is the infamous gate and railroad track leading into the extermination camp. Just seeing it with my own eyes, standing on the tracks in front of the gate and thinking about the hopes and dreams that millions of people had when they were brought to the camps – and what fate ultimately awaited them – is simply indescribable.
When we entered the camp, there were only three other people there, and they were on their way out, so we were alone in the camp. There are plaques outside (and a few inside) the buildings that give you information about the camp and what the buildings were used for – so take the time to read them. They also have some pictures that were taken at the time the camp was being utilized that really help you get a better understanding of what it was like.
Birkenau was opened in March of 1941, and was used as both and extermination camp and a forced labor camp. It is much bigger and less of a “museum” than Auschwitz I, and has been left much as it was when the Nazis abandoned the camp in 1945, destroying as many of the wooden barracks as they could as they left. When you look out across the crumbling chimneys that are all that remain of the prisoner barracks, it’s almost impossible to fathom just how many buildings there once were…and how many people were starved, tortured and killed there.
There are three wooden barracks still remaining that you can walk through to see where the prisoners “lived”. The bunk beds – which aren’t there anymore, but there are pictures (second photo below) – were placed side-by-side and stacked three high, and three to five people were forced to sleep in each bunk. A minimum of 400 prisoners were housed in a stable that was meant for 52 horses.
The barrack pictured below is where the prisoners were taken to go to the bathroom – sitting shoulder to shoulder on stone benches with holes cut in them. It just leaves you speechless because it is so far beyond comprehension how a complete horror like this even happened.
We spent about an hour walking around Birkenau before we had to head back to Auschwitz I in time to join our tour. I wish we had more time at Birkenau because there are things we didn’t get to see, and frankly, I got so much more out of it than I did at Auschwitz I, which is not what I was expecting.
I am a very emotional person (I quite literally cover my ears and flee the room if a commercial about abused animals comes on the TV) and I expected to walk around Auschwitz with a steady stream of tears falling from my eyes. All of the prisoners who were there deserved my tears…but the whole experience was so rushed and crowded and just plain touristy, that I didn’t have the chance to really feel the impact of the place.
When we drove back to Auschwitz I, the parking lot was packed with cars and tour buses. We went inside the entrance building and got our audio guides. When dropping us off, Chris advised us to watch a short movie that is shown in a very small theater room near where the audio guides are picked up. Since there were only about ten other people in there with us, I’m guessing most people skip the movie even though it’s only about 15-20 minutes long, but I would very strongly recommend that anybody visiting Auschwitz take the time to watch it. The movie was the highlight (I feel weird using that word given what I’m talking about…) of our time spent at Auschwitz I. It was informative and impactful and should not be missed.
After the movie, we went outside the main building to meet our tour guide, and there were probably about 60 other people waiting to meet with their guides as well. Looking around, you could see that the site was already very crowded with visitors. Our group consisted of about 30 people, and there was another similar-sized group that left right before us, and one that left right at the same time as us.
We entered the main area of the camp walking under the “Arbeit macht frei” sign and began the tour.
We walked through several of the buildings, and saw the terrible conditions the prisoners lived and died in. We also saw the personal belongings that were taken from the prisoners as they entered camp – the haunting rooms where the hair that was shaved from the heads of the female prisoners is displayed, the shoes, the suitcases…it’s just unbelievable.
There were a lot of pictures and plaques that were very informative, but unfortunately, we didn’t have time to stop and read them. In one of the rooms, I walked away from the group for a moment and looked in some of the display cases where they had original Nazi documents on display. I was really struck by one of the documents, which showed a typewritten list of female prisoners that were gassed in Birkenau on August 21, 1943. The pages are each filled with two columns of typewritten names… for ONE DAY. Only one day and that many women lost their lives in just one camp. And you can be sure that there were many men and children that also died on that day.
We also went into a courtyard where there was wall that prisoners were lined up in front of and shot, and then saw the building where a heartbreaking number of people were gassed and cremated.
There were many more buildings we didn’t see, and sadly, we were rushed through the ones that we did go into. Due to the fact that groups were both in front of and behind us, our guide kept saying “Keep moving, stay to the left, keep moving….”. He would explain something that he was looking at thirty feet ahead of where we were standing in a single file line, and by the time we got there, it was hard to remember what he said about it, because he was already talking about something else another thirty feet ahead. It really took away from the experience, and we weren’t able really appreciate or understand the things that we were seeing.
When our tour was over after about two and a half hours, I felt disappointed. It’s not that I went there to have a good time, obviously, but I really felt like being part of a group in such a crowded site really detracted from the experience. I wanted to be able to learn, to reflect on what happened there in the 1940s and to remember and honor those that suffered and died there (just a handful of whom are shown in the photo below) – not to be herded through like cattle. Therefore, I would strongly recommend that, if possible, you visit the site on your own with a good guidebook so you can take it at your own pace.
After the guided tour ended, the group had the option of going with the guide to Birkenau. Since we had already visited there on our own (so glad we did it that way), we just stopped at the small shop outside to get some drinks and then met back up with Chris.
We had originally intended to visit the Salt Mines after Auschwitz, but we realized that it would be just too much to do in one day. So we made plans with Chris to visit the Salt Mines another day and headed back to Kraków.
Have you ever been to Auschwitz I and/or Birkenau? What was your experience like? Please feel free to share your thoughts below.