When I was planning my Eastern European adventure last June, I decided to start in Krakow. This was for a number of reasons. I really wanted to go to Poland. It’s cheap (and it only cost me £35 to fly there from Stansted) and it was new country to me. Probably the most important factor – it’s the city that is the closest to Auschwitz. You may already know that I am a bit of a history geek (and have two archaeology based degrees). I have always been interested in the first and second world wars. I have previously been on a tour of World War I landmarks and cemeteries but I hadn’t really seen anything from World War II.
Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II (Birkenau)
Auschwitz, the largest Nazi concentration camp where approximately 1.1 million people died is an important part of European history. Each year, more than one million people walk through the famous gates to pay their respects. Auschwitz is not a museum you want to go to, you go there learn more about the tragedy.
I arrived into Krakow late on the Monday evening. Although I hadn’t got anything booked for while I was in Poland, Auschwitz was a top priority. I decided that I would spend Tuesday looking around the city. I wanted to find out where everything was and then I would visit Auschwitz on Wednesday. Luckily, my friend Kariss had been to Krakow and Auschwitz the year before so she told me how to get there and what to do.
Getting to Auschwitz from Krakow
As you walk around Krakow city centre, you will see a lot of signs in shop windows selling day trips to Auschwitz. A lot of these will be way more expensive than organising it yourself, so beware! It is so easy for tourists to fall into the trap of paying for these tours, especially if you are not familiar with the area. You can easily get to Auschwitz from Krakow Bus Station which is located next to the main train station.
I arrived at the bus station in the morning and saw that buses were every hour. I went up to the ticket office and paid 12 złoty (£2.49) for a single bus ticket to the town of Oświęcim where Auschwitz is located. The buses that go to Oswiecim are not your usual type. They are actually mini buses which seat around 15 people. As there are only a small number of seats on each bus, I recommend that you get there at least twenty minutes before the departure time to ensure you get a space. The journey takes just over an hour, as it is 68km away. You are dropped off in the car park for the Auschwitz museum.
Buying tickets for Auschwitz
Entrance to the grounds of Auschwitz is actually free. However, it is recommended that you pay for a guided tour. Guided tours are ran all day throughout the museum’s opening hours in several different languages. You can buy your tickets at the entrance and you pay for a certain time. These tickets cost 50 złoty (£10.36). What you are paying for is the guide and use of the audio headsets. Although you are able to enter the museum for free, but this is unguided. If you want to do this, you must register for a pass online beforehand.
There are a certain amount of places available for each tour. You might find that when you get there you have to wait for a while until the next tour. Once you have bought a ticket, you are then given a sticker to wear which has your time and language on it for ease of the guide.
The tour of Auschwitz
Before you enter the grounds, you must put your backpacks in the cloakroom. There is a small charge for this and they only accept cash. It is essential that you have some change on you. Once you enter the grounds there is a security checkpoint which you must go through. Any small bags that you have on you will be searched. Everyone is required to go through a metal detector. You are allowed to take cameras in and small bags. The guided tour takes around 3.5 hours so it is advised that you take a drink in with you. I left my backpack in the cloakroom but I had on a denim jacket with big pockets. So, I put my purse and passport in there as well as a bottle of coke. I had my camera on a strap around my neck.
Once you have passed security, you are given a headset which is essential when you are doing a guided tour. You then need to find your group (it is done by languages and colours) and your tour guide. Your tour guide will take you on a tour of the museum around each building. They will talk you through the atrocities that happened that happened at Auschwitz. You get to learn the full history of the site through your guide. Where the victims came from, what happened and who was responsible. Although I had researched a lot about Auschwitz, what I knew barely scratched the surface. My tour guide was so knowledgeable. I don’t know if she was following a script, but I learnt so much from her.
The true horrors of Auschwitz
Not all of the buildings at Auschwitz are accessible. Some are just reserved for the museum staff. However, you are able to see most of the camp. You can see where the prisoners were forced to sleep with no beds, the gas chambers in which they were cruelly murdered. There are several buildings which just contain piles of the victims belongings. These are the most harrowing. This is where you stop and realise the enormity of what happened when you see thousands and thousands of childrens shoes piled up. Thousands of suitcases with names and addresses on once belonging to people who thought they would be able to keep their belongings with them. Perhaps the most harrowing display of all is in block 4, where the hair of the victims who were murdered in the gas chambers is on display for all to see.
Visiting Birkenau (or Auschwitz II)
After your tour of Auschwitz I, you are able to get a bus over to Auschwitz II (Birkenau). Birkenau is just 3km away and it takes a few minutes to get there on the bus. Once I arrived there with the rest of my tour group, we waited for our tour guide to arrive. Although she did say that we didn’t have to wait for her, we could look around Birkenau ourselves, I wanted to hear what she had to say about it.
The first thing that you see when you get to Birkenau is the famous railway track. This is the track that was used to transport over a million people to the death camps. The track that took so many helpless people on their final journey. There isn’t as much of Birkenau left as there is Auschwitz. This is due to the Nazis trying to destroy evidence in 1945. A lot of the buildings were burnt down. However, you are able to walk through the remaining buildings. You can see recreations of the wooden huts where the prisoners were forced to sleep with little to no personal space.
Our tour guide showed us around Birkenau for around twenty minutes. We were then able to explore the camp ourselves. Once I had seen everything, I then waited for the free bus back to Auschwitz where I collected my backpack. As I had only bought a single ticket on the way out, I purchased another online with my phone for a specified time. This cost me 13 złoty (£2.69). I just needed to show the ticket to the driver on my phone when I boarded the bus.
I definitely recommend a trip to Auschwitz and Birkenau if you are in Krakow. I believe that the concentration camps are something that everyone should see to help you understand what really went on.