Writing about Auschwitz-Birkenau is hard, visiting the death camp is even harder.
While in Warsaw I have decided to spend a week-end in Krakow. A beautiful city in Southern Poland. I have been to Krakow in December 2010, when the city was cold and full of snow. The warm days of late spring promised a lot more. So off we went. After getting in touch with Michał on BlaBlaCar and arranging a ride to Krakow I had to figure out some activities for the week-end… besides going to bars.
Most people who visit Krakow will do 2 things: Salt mines and the infamous death camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau. To be honest I didn’t care so much about the salt mines, since I’ve heard it wasn’t all that impressive. Auschwitz, however, was a must-see.
Getting to Auschwitz
The city of Oświęcim (renamed to Auschwitz by Germans) is located 67km away from Krakow. Nazis built 3 concentration camps there: Auschwitz I, Auschwitz II – Birkenau and Auschwitz III–Monowitz. Most tourists will book a guided tour to Auschwitz directly in Krakow. Most tours cost 100-150zł ($35-50USD). This includes transportation from Krakow to Oświęcim and back. However, you can make that trip on your own, for a lot less.
One way train tickets from Krakow to Auschwitz costs 9zł ($3) and bus ticket is 12zł ($4). This website will help you find the schedule for the trains and buses. I recommend taking a bus since it’s faster (1h15-1h20) and the local train takes over 2 hours to reach the city of Oświęcim. Some buses from Krakow will drop you off at the train station, others will take you to the Auschwitz I gate. If you need to get to Auschwitz from the train station you can catch a cab for 10-15zł or take a local bus (numbers 1 and 24-29) for less than 3zł. There is a free shuttle that runs every 30 minutes (sometimes more often) between Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau.
Entrance to both sites is free, however they have “donation boxes”, so feel free to leave some money which will help maintaining the museum. Remember that access to Auschwitz I is only open to organized tours from 10am until 3pm. If you are coming alone, make sure you enter the museum grounds before 10 or after 3, You can also join a guided tour at the museum for 40zł. You can also buy a brochure for 10zł at the museum kiosk, this brochure will explain a few things about the site.
I should mention that buses back to Krakow are running until 5-6 pm or so, last train is departing around 7:30pm. I might be wrong but that was my experience (on a weekend). Before going there I suggest you check the schedule on the website I mentioned earlier and plan your return trip so you don’t get stuck in Oświęcim for the night… unless you really like very small towns.
The Auschwitz I
When planning to visit the Auschwitz museum I was expecting it would be a sad experience. To be honest – it wasn’t sad. It was heart-breaking, it was disgusting, it was painful and very touching. Walking through that territory and imagining the suffering of Poles, Jews, Romas and many others is simply devastating. Then, I walked into the gas chamber. I can’t really explain what I felt. All I can say is that within minutes I had to walk out as I got dizzy, sick to my stomach and holding back tears.
After a relatively brief tour I walked out from the museum grounds since I planned to visit Auschwitz II – Birkenau. This second site is located about 3km away from Auschwitz I. You can walk if you feel like it but I suggest taking the free shuttle.
Another tip: look at the shuttle schedule before entering the museum. This way you will make it to the shuttle stop and wouldn’t have to wait for 25 minutes till the next shuttle. Just make sure you get to the shuttle stop a few minutes before the departure.
Auschwitz II – Birkenau.
As I was approaching the second site I couldn’t believe how huge it was. Barracks after barracks after barracks.
This second concentration camp had a capacity of 200,000 people at a time. Millions of people were sent to this site, most didn’t make it out of there alive.
The railway tracks inside Birkenau split in different directions as camp was divided. Some parts were exclusive to men, some to women, some to Gypsies, some to Russians, etc. The rails that go to the right were probably the scariest, although most prisoners didn’t know about it.
Jews selected by SS for immediate death were headed along this road upon arrival to Birkenau. On the left and the right side of the road you can see ruins. Nazis tried to destroy the barracks and crematoriums to hide the evidence of their inhuman actions.
I probably would not visit Auschwitz any time soon. It is a very difficult experience. Besides understanding how many people died there and how they were killed a lot of other things seem to be happening. Maybe my mind played tricks on me but I could swear I still smelt like something was burning near the destroyed crematorium. The air around the camp was heavy and the atmosphere was just… different.
If you ever get a chance – please do visit Auschwitz because no one will ever be able to explain what’s it really like.
I spent a lot of time deciding if I should publish this post since writing about it brings back the sadness and some other feelings. I hope this post will help you get prepared for the visit to Auschwitz – Birkenau.