Only 66 km outside the city of Kraków, Poland in the town of Oświęcim, sits one of the most haunting, yet significantly historical places in the world – the concentration camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau. For people all over the globe, Auschwitz has become a main symbol of terror, genocide, and the Holocaust. Some of the most grueling and horrific stories of human torture the world has ever known occurred there. While it may seem like forever ago these gruesome events took place, it wasn’t long ago at all, as January 27th, 2020, marked only the 75th anniversary and celebration of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Since Poland was a quick trip from where I was recently staying in Vilnius, Lithuania, I knew visiting Auschwitz was something essential I had to do while being in this part of the world for the first time. After doing a lot of research on different individual and group tour options for visiting the camps, I got online and went to Lastminute.com, a reputable website for those looking to book great deals on last minute trips and travel packages. With my schedule keeping me busy in Vilnius during the week and only allowing for weekend travel, I knew I had limited time to pull off a trip like this. I knew that I had to be strategic in planning if I was going to fit everything I wanted to do in to a quick 24 hour trip to Poland.
The Auschwitz-Birkenau complex was the largest of its kind, opening its doors in 1940, it was operated by Nazi Germany in occupied Poland during World War II and the Holocaust. While there were many concentration camps operating during the time period, Auschwitz-Birkenau was the largest of any of the facilities, also accruing the most human deaths. Over 1.1 million people, mostly Jews, died in these extermination camps, leaving behind not only an eerie energy you can feel when you visit the camps, but a truly horrifying history. A visit to Auschwitz is an experience you have to have for yourself in order to fully understand the significance of the events that took place there. I think everyone should visit Auschwitz in their lifetime if given the chance. It is important that future generations are made aware of the historical events that took place there, that way history never repeats itself. The haunting truths of the memories that these death camps hold are something we must never let be forgotten.
Kraków, Poland is the closest and best city to stay in if you’re planning a visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau, and with no direct flights from Vilnius to Kraków currently in existence, I knew it was going to be challenging to make this trip happen. After hours of scouring the web for different flights options and hotel deals, for less than $300 dollars I was able to book myself a round trip flight, and a one night stay in a 4-star hotel located right in the heart of Krakow’s old town district. I considered leaving Friday night and returning Sunday, but no flights were available on Friday evening that fit the schedule I was trying to accommodate. The only option was to leave Saturday morning and return Sunday. I decided after giving it some thought that I was up for the challenge, and convinced my co-worker to do a quick 24 hour trip with me.
Before I knew it, we were boarding the LOT Polish airlines flight from Vilnius to Warsaw at 6:25 a.m. on a Saturday morning. It was only a one hour flight from VNO to WAW, followed by an hour layover, and then fifty-five minutes of airtime from WAR to KRK. The flights were very easy and both on-time, so in less then 3 hours we arrived safely in Kraków. We both packed only essentials in a backpack since we did not need much for a one night stay. With no checked baggage to obtain after the flight landed, we were able to navigate quickly through the airport to outside where we called for an Uber that arrived within minutes to take us to our hotel.
After arriving at The Plaza Boutique hotel in Krakows old town district, we got checked in to our rooms, grabbed a quick bite to eat and called another Uber to take us to the bus station where we were scheduled to meet the rest of our group tour for our visit to Auschwitz. We booked our tour through Cracow Tours, a great company offering many sightseeing tour options in Poland. Our tour bus arrived on time, our guide checked our tickets, and before we knew it, we were pulling out of the parking lot and were on the road headed to Oświęcim. Up until this point, the whole trip seemed like a whirlwind adventure, as we were moving very quickly!
Our tour guide stood at the front of the bus and explained the details of what we would experience during our tour, as well as the rules and regulations you must be mindful of when visiting the camps. During the hour drive from Kraków to Oświęcim we watched a film that played on small screens hanging from the roof of the bus, which gave us more detailed history and insight into the events that took place at Auschwitz-Birkenau between its operating years of 1940-1945. As if seeing it on video isn’t already bad enough, it comes nowhere close to actually experiencing these death camps for yourself. I was foolish to think anything could prepare me for the horrors of visiting this place.
When we arrived to Auschwitz, we all got off the bus and were given stickers by our tour guide to wear on the front of our shirts so we knew how to find each other should anyone get separated from the group for any reason during our visit. The tour is broken up into two parts, the first being a 2.5 hour visit to Auschwitz I, the main camp and administrative headquarters of the camp complex. After that, your given a quick fifteen minute break where you can hit the bathroom, grab a snack from the onsite canteen, or check out the bookstore to grab a historical souvenir before getting back on the bus and heading 3.3 km down the road to the second part of the tour, which consists of an hour spent at Birkenau, the camps expansion which was built in 1942. At the beginning of the tour you will be given a headset and battery pack, which allows you too easily hear your tour guide give information and details as to what you are seeing as you walk throughout the camps exhibits.
The tour begins with you passing beneath a replica of the infamous ‘Arbeit Macht Frei‘ (‘Work Sets You Free’) entrance gate. The original sign was actually made by inmates of the camp on Nazi orders and is no longer on display after it was stolen in December of 2009 and found in pieces in northern Poland. From the entrance gate, the tour route leads you past the kitchens, where the camp orchestra once played as the prisoners marched to work. Then you are guided inside the first Block, where you are given an overview of the camps history, followed by the viewing of exhibits including original architectural sketches for gas chambers, tins of Zyklon B used for extermination and mugshots of some of the camps inmates.
When a prisoner arrived at Auschwitz they were stripped of their personal belongings by the guards, sent to be examined by doctors and then forced to have their heads shaved. Today you’ll can find items such as luggage, eyeglasses, shoes and tons of old clothing on display throughout the camp. Without question though, the most disturbing of anything you’ll see during the tour, is the room holding 7,000 kilograms of human hair, which the Nazi’s used to make army blankets and socks for U-boat crews. It was unlike anything I have ever seen before, and for good reason it is one of the few places at Auschwitz where visitors are not allowed to take photos.
I will never forget walking through the corridor with hundreds of images of some of the Auschwitz prisoners which displayed information like where they were from, when they arrived, and when they died at the camp. The majority of the victims sent to this horrific death camp only survived for a few months, and died by means of absolute torture. Prisoners were beaten, burned or gassed to death amongst other things. If guards felt you were not fit to work, you were killed almost immediately. Only the people which the Nazi’s felt could be useful and capable of manual labor were allowed to live. People were often asked during their intakes if they had any special talents or knowledge of trade jobs. If they could bring something useful to the table, they were often kept alive and their skills or talents were put to work.
We entered many different buildings during the tour which showcased the living quarters and conditions the prisoners at the camp were forced to live in during their time as prisoners. Communal bathrooms and showers were dirty and disgusting and prisoners were often forced to sleep on a hard bunk, or on top of hay spread out on the floor, as if they were animals. Sickness and disease flooded the camps, and many people often died of various infections. It was so sad walking inside these rooms and trying to imagine that this was real life for many people not even that long ago. Nobody, and I mean nobody, should ever have to endure being sent to live in a place like this. Our guide even brought us to see the gruesome gas chambers and crematory ovens where most of the Jews were killed upon arriving to Auschwitz.
After completing the first part of the tour, and buying a book from the “gift shop,” we boarded the bus once again to head to the second part of the tour. Birkenau, the biggest of the Auschwitz facilities, held roughly 90,000 prisoners. It also housed a group of bathhouses where countless people were gassed to death, and more crematory ovens where bodies were burned. The majority of Auschwitz victims died at Birkenau. When we arrived and stepped off the bus, I could not believe how vast the land that held this camp was – it was HUGE. Auschwitz itself was large, but the land that made up Birkenau was just massive. We walked alongside railroad tracks leading us to the front entrance of what used to be the largest of the Nazis’ more than 42,000 camps and incarceration facilities.
Once you pass through the entrance, its nothing but vast open space as far as the eye can see. A few buildings still remain, but a majority of the camp was destroyed, when Heinrich Himmler, one of the main architects of the Holocaust, issued an abrupt order to destroy the gas chambers at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Unsure of exactly why he was giving this command, especially after Hitler had ordered the remaining Jews in Europe be killed, officials at the camp obeyed Himmler and in late 1944, a group of mostly Jewish prisoners who were made to run the gas chambers were given orders to dismantle the structures piece by piece. However, as the Russian’s closed in on the camps that January of 1945, what still remained of the buildings were quickly destroyed, blown up completely using dynamite. The ruins still remain today and have been left untouched all these years.
Our tour guide brought us all throughout Birkenau giving us the history, and then brought us inside one of the buildings that used to hold women who were sentenced to death and waiting to be executed. Seeing those hard wooden bunk beds and the conditions these people were forced to endure, was gut wrenching. We even got to see an old train car that was used to transport Prisoners to the camps. The second part of the tour was more walking and just listening to our guide as we were given the backstory and the history of the camps operation.
After we finished our tour of Birkenau, we were guided back to the bus where we were given a little more information that summed up the tour. Once everyone was settled in their seats and accounted for, we started the hour-long trek back to Kraków. Our guide went over the three main stops they would make for dropping people off closest to their desired locations. When I mentioned I was a vegetarian and wanted to find some great places with a lot of options to eat, he suggested we get off the bus at the area near the Radisson in Kraków’s city center, which ended up being a great part of town to hang out, find dinner and enjoy a much needed cocktail after such an intense day. There was a ton of great shops and restaurants within walking distance of the square, and it was only a short ride back to the Old Town area where our hotel was located.
As hard as it was to spend a day listening to horrific stories of death and human torture, I am so grateful I had the opportunity to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau. I left there with a ton of newly acquired knowledge, and some real insight into the history of the Holocaust and the country of Poland. I think this experience is something everyone should force themselves through if given the chance. We must never forget the way in which people had to fight for the freedom we have here today. The history needs to be passed down to future generations so it can never repeat itself. As awful as visiting a place like may seem, it truly opens your eyes to the evil that did and still does exist in this world. The experience of visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau is something I will never forget.
“Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it” – George Santayana