This July, my husband celebrated a big birthday and I wanted to surprise him with a city break.
He has a real interest in WW2 and has always wanted to visit Auschwitz, so I booked us a short break to Krakow.
After doing some research, I booked our Auschwitz-Birkenau tour with Viator, who offer combined visits with the Salt Mine and pick you up from your hotel.
It was really well organised and we got a text message the day before, with an exact pick up time, the name of our guide and what vehicle to look out for. I then got a second message, warning me that the weather forecast was predicting violent thunderstorms and to be prepared with sensible clothing.
It was an early start to the day, a 7am pick up and then a 90 minute coach journey to our first stop – Auschwitz.
The entrance to Auschwitz I is an unassuming, cream museum type building where you meet your official guide and get given your headsets. Once you are set up, your guide advises you not to wear your headsets yet, as the first part of the tour takes you through concrete walkway which plays the names of some of the victims as you walk through.
Visiting Auschwitz isn’t for some, as it is the resting place for some 1.5 million people. We chose not to take the kids, as the site once served as a concentration camp and extermination site of the European Jewish community during World War II and although Isaac (15) is interested, the younger kids would not understand the significance of the museum and its buildings.
I had been expecting it to be eerie, grey and silent, but first impressions were of buildings surrounded by a lush green space, in fact, its first guise was as a Polish army camp. It was as you got closer that you started to get hints of the atrocities of what went on here all those years ago and the first gate displayed the phrase “Arbeit macht frei” – translating to “Work sets you free”
Our guide was brilliantly knowledgable, describing what life would have been like inside the camp as we made our way around.
There are not many images from inside the camp from that time, but the few that exist have been made into displays to really help bring it to life. If you are travelling with kids, some of these do show the death of some of the prisoners.
As well as these images, many of the buildings are now dedicated museums, each depicting different aspects of the camp, from bare dormitories and old corridors to latrines and prison cells.
None of the information was sugar-coated and nor was it glamourised, it was all fact based and sometimes hard to hear, but an important part of history that needs to be learned from. I knew bits from my history lesson days, but the sheer number of people who were transported to Auschwitz and died in the holocaust, was incomprehensible.
One thing that really brought it to life was some of the displays, which is just a fraction of what would have come through the gates; glasses, shoes, pots and pans, children’s toys and suitcases. The most shocking was the almost two tons of hair belonging to almost 40,000 women and children, which would have been sold and used for industrial use such as making felt.
Then there was the death wall, where the SS men shot several thousand people, mostly Polish political prisoners and members of clandestine organisations.
Possibly the most shocking thing we learned was that the wife and family of Rudolph Hoess who ran the camp, lived in a villa behind a large gate, just a few hundred yards from the gas chamber, but apparently never knew what was going on inside the camp. The gas chamber itself looks like a grassy hill, with only a doorway and a chimney giving away the concrete bunker underneath.
Having a guide was great for understanding the horror of the place, but did come with its issues. If we hovered at a certain point to read the signs or look at the displays and he moved on, we lost radio contact, or the contact broke up, so we couldn’t understand what he was saying.
The other issue we had is that we wanted to explore some of the other buildings that had displays, but as a guided tour, we were obviously on a stricter time scale, so we moved on quite quickly.
With the 90 minute tour of Auschwitz I complete, we then jumped on the bus for the short 5 minute transfer to Birkenau.
Auschwitz II – Birkenau
Auschwitz-Birkenau was the largest of the more than 40 camps and sub-camps that made up the Auschwitz complex and about 90% of the victims of Auschwitz Concentration Camp died there.
Birkenau is huge and although much of it was destroyed by the retreating German forces, you can still see the guard towers, chimney’s and foundations of the brick buildings as well as the railway line that would have brought the prisoners in.
We saw how they would have arrived, crammed into a wooden carriage and where they were selected to work, or to be sent to their death, either by turning left or right.
At the end of the railway lines are the remains of two gas chambers, which many of the prisoners were lead to believe were factories when they initially arrived.
The Birkenau tour has the same tour guide as Auschwitz, but is shorter in length at approximately 60 minutes. There are some brick buildings still standing and available to view. You can really see that the standards of living were far worse here than of the original camp.
The block we visited was a women’s block and we learned how five women would share each wooden bunk, with each woman expected to live on warm water and possibly even a very weak soup made from rotten beetroot.
It was then a quiet, reflective walk back to the car park and our waiting coach.
A visit to Auschwitz – Birkenau is a must do if you are visiting Krakow. I have read the history books, watched the films (The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is a must), but seeing it in real life made me understand the sheer horror of the place.
Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.