Travelling is the best way to find beauty in the world. When you stroll through unknown streets enjoying every breath you take while absorbing your surroundings, you fill your soul with beautiful memories that will always remind you that life is worth living and that happiness is in the small details – the smile of a stranger, the sunshine or the sound of laughter in a crowded plaza. But claiming that travelling makes you a better person also means you will be confronted with heart wrenching moments that will forever shape who you are. For us, one of those moments was taking the day trip from Krakow to visit Auschwitz, the most terrifying UNESCO World Heritage Site and an important place for the so called “Final Solution”. When we decided to travel to Poland we knew this was a mandatory stop. Knowing that you will be visiting the place where more than 1 million human beings perished is not something easy to digest neither does it sound a great way to spend your holidays, but we knew we couldn’t skip it. Now that we’ve been there, we know we did the right thing – no trip to Poland is ever complete without a visit to this tenebrous location that represents such a shameful side of the human history. One that must never be silenced or forgotten.
In Auschwitz you will be able to visit two different concentration camps: Auschwitz and Birkenau. The two camps had different purposes, as Auschwitz was meant to be a slave work camp and Birkenau a massive extermination camp.
DAY TRIP FROM KRAKOW – HOW TO GET TO AUSCHWITZ
If you want to take care of your Auschwitz day trip before your departure, it might be a good idea to check out a Full-Day Guided Tour. However, here’s how to reach the Concentration Camp using public transportation:
Day Trip from Krakow – we recommend taking the bus. All you have to do is go to Krakow Main Train Station (Krakow Glowny) and follow the signs that lead you to the main bus station, which is located inside. Once there, you just need to check the electronic panel displaying the arrivals and departures and look for buses going to Oswiecim (Auschwitz is actually the German name for the city). If you still can’t find the right bus, just ask any of the station workers and they will easily point you which platform to go. Tickets may cost between 8zl and 12zl, depending on the company you’re using. The trip takes about 90 minutes and the bus will drop you right at the gate of Auschwitz I.
Between Auschwitz I and Birkenau – both areas are actually 3.5km apart, but there are free shuttles arranged specifically to take visitors from one camp to another. These buses run every 15 or 30 minutes, depending on the time of the year you are visiting.
Admission to the camps is free if you choose to explore the area without a guide, but keep in mind that you may not be able to visit if you happen to go on a crowded day, as paying visitors have priority.
Be that as it may, a guided tour is nevertheless the best option in order to fully experience Auschwitz. Standard English guided tours last 3 hours and a half, and here are the prices:
- Full – 50zl;
- Reduced – 45zl (students up to 26 years old)
WHAT TO SEE IN AUSCHWITZ I
THE INFAMOUS GATE
As soon as you get closer to the gate you will recognize it. The entire concentration camp area is submerse in a deep grey atmosphere and you will most likely find any trade of colour unusual. The gate itself represents a true mark of the terror the innocents had to face and you can read the sentence “ARBEIT MACHT FREI”, which means “work sets you free”. As we all know, this meant nothing to the Nazis, as they were only trying to create more efficient slaves that believed their freedom could be granted if they truly worked harder.
One of the most intense places in the whole camp is the interior of a gas chamber. It will require some courage in order to follow your guide and cross the door towards such an energy-draining place, even if it’s just a reconstruction. If you look closely at the walls, you can almost see the distressing marks of those who lost their lives inside this room. You will also be in the presence of the underground ovens through which the Nazis tried to erase every evidence of their massacres.
THE VICTIM’S BELONGINGS
In this section of the camp you will get the chance to visit a building where the belongings of the victims are kept. This is one of the most shocking scenarios, as you will actually be confronted with objects that remind you these people are not just numbers, they are real life victims. You will see their clothing, their personal objects, their prosthetics, their luggage – with their names hand written – and even their hair. Everything that was stolen from them by the Nazis.
In Auschwitz, repression was part of the prisoners’ daily basis. In block 11 however, Nazis took one step further and actually tortured the people they held captive. They would lock prisoners for days on the cells of block 11 and apply all kinds of physical and psychological punishments, often making them starve to death. This was also the place where Zyklon B, the substance later used in gas chambers, was first tested on victims.
THE SHOOTING WALL
Auschwitz was a living hell. While in there you will be able to visit one of the saddest places in the complex, as this was the wall where Nazi officers executed by firing squad whoever stepped in their way, making “an example” of some prisoners in order to instigate fear and repression.
WHAT TO SEE IN AUSCHWITZ II – BIRKENAU
THE MAIN ENTRANCE
The iconic entrance in Birkenau is one of those sites that make you want to cry. It is devastating and seems like nature around you recognizes it as a place of terror, as even the whole atmosphere feels numb, hollow and sad, especially during winter time.
We can’t refer to the places where prisoners were kept as houses, constructions or anything else rather than sheds. You will visit these structures on the inside and be prepared for the worst – it is not easy to envision people having to live that way.
You will see the railroad tracks going through the main gate, and further ahead you can find a carriage just like the ones that were used by the Nazis to transport prisoners. These carriages were stopped after travelling long distances and the passengers had to make the trip in subhuman conditions, since the space was overcrowded and no supply of food or water was granted. In fact, these trips were so hard that some people perished while in those vehicles and never got to Auschwitz alive. Once the prisoners left the vehicle, Nazis decided who lived and who died, sending entire families to different sections never to be reunited again.
DESTROYED GAS CHAMBERS
When the Nazis realized they were going to lose the war, they tried to erase every evidence of their evil actions. Therefore, they managed to destroy the gas chambers of the Birkenau Camp, but the remains are still there to be seen.
Finally, you’ll be given the chance to stand in front of the monument built to pay homage to all the victims of this heinous crime. The monument itself is very subjective and metaphorical, as different people may interpret it in different ways, but what really matters is the single message that is written in 22 different languages, the native languages of those whose lives came to an end in one of the most horrifying places on Earth.
TIPS FOR VISITING AUSCHWITZ
1.Be prepared for a day of strong emotions, as this will be an experience that you will carry with you forever. Don’t expect to be perfectly fine at the end of the tour. You will need time to heal after all you have seen and felt, and therefore we recommend taking a full day for this day trip from Krakow – and nothing else.
2. If you truly desire to make the most of your visit, a guided tour is a must. It will enhance your experience and provide a lot more organization and emotion, since your guide will make sure you visit every corner of both camps and that you understand the atrocities that took place inside those fences. Besides, try to get there as early as you can to guarantee your place on a tour.
3. Keep in mind that this is the actual place where hell came alive on Earth, representing the suffering of millions of innocents. It is not a replica or representation and you will find pictures of real life victims. You will see their faces, their clothing, their belongings, you will hear about their stories. You will find their hair, kept by the Nazis to produce carpets, and you will stand in the rooms where they were left to die, starved, naked and humiliated. You will feel the scars they left inside the gas chambers while they died in agony. This was only 70 years ago. It hasn’t even been a century since the human race accomplished this terrible massacre, so please, don’t be indifferent. Respect this place as you would if your loved ones had also been there.
Have you ever been to Auschwitz? Have you also visited it as a day trip from Krakow? What did you feel there? Let us know on the comments below!