This was a difficult post to write. Matt and I discussed at length, whether we should write about our experience. We decided it is important to write about Auschwitz and other historically horrible locations because these places offer valuable insight, understanding, and history for all generations of all countries. They are also places open to everyone to pay respects for all of those lost.
Plan on an entire day to get to/from and around both sites at Auschwitz I and II. It can be done in less time, but I recommend taking your time. We took the train into Oswiecim from Krakow. We walked from the train station to Auschwitz I. The walk is ok, but I wouldn’t recommend it because the path is a little bit confusing toward the end. Also, I wouldn’t recommend it because you want to conserve your energy. Touring the museum and memorial can be incredibly emotionally difficult.
Auschwitz consists of 2 separate locations: Auschwitz 1 and Auschwitz-Birkenau (Auschwitz II). We recommend starting your tour at Auschwitz 1 with a tour guide. Photography is allowed in most areas. Be respectful of the different rule signs and your tour guides instructions. Also keep in mind, when it comes to world history each country may have various levels of interpretations. Be respectful of your guide and of those in your tour group. This is not the time or place to have a “I’m right, your wrong” showdown.
During the busy season it is required to sign up for a guided tour at Auschwitz I. Once you have completed your tour you can walk some of the grounds on your own. The tour is one of the most informative and best tours I have have ever taken. With that said, it is also a very emotionally exhausting tour. The displays of personal belongings and human hair are particularly moving for a lot of people. Be prepared to see a range of emotions among your fellow visitors. Be patient and understanding with each other.
For me, the display of purposely collected human hair sent me over my emotional edge. I am not sure how to describe it, but it is similar to an “aha” moment but the negative and very sad opposite. It is that instant when something you have read or heard about and understand to be true becomes “real or live” in your head and heart. In reality, I am well aware I have no idea because I wasn’t there nor have I ever come close to experiencing anything close to what the victims went through. My point in telling you is to let you know you may have similar moments with varying degrees of intensity during your visit. Take breaks if needed. Everyone will have different reactions at different locations throughout the sites. We all process, read, hear and see information differently; therefore, our moments of understanding come at different times. Be respectful of each other as you move through the museum.
I am stressing to each of you to be patient and respectful to each other, to your guides and to the grounds because we witnessed some tourists that were not respectful during their visit. Without going into a rant about it…the behaviors we witnessed left quite a few of us in shock and some very angered. Be conscious of your words and actions always, but especially at public memorials.
Once you have completed your tour of Auschwitz, I make your way over to Birkenau. The museum provides shuttle service between the 2 locations. Birkenau is the location I recognized from my history books and movies. The railroad tracks and the train car, in particular, seem to really trigger heavy emotions in quite a few visitors. It is not required to take a tour at II, but I can not stress enough how much the trip was worth the time and small fee. The tour guide provides valuable historical and personal stories about individuals who lived at Birkenau. The tour does not cover the entire campus. After your tour, take the time to walk the grounds. Walk to the back and be sure to visit the memorial, water structures and the forest area.
Auschwitz I was originally constructed to hold Polish political prisoners. They began to arrive in May 1940, and the first extermination of prisoners took place in September 1941. Birkenau (Auschwitz II) went on to become a major site of the Nazi “Final Solution to the Jewish question”. From early 1942 until late 1944, transport trains delivered Jews to the camp’s gas chambers from all over German-occupied Europe. At least 1.1 million prisoners died at Auschwitz, around 90 percent of them Jewish. Approximately 1 in 6 Jews killed in the Holocaust died at the camp. Living conditions were brutal at the camps (particularly Birkenau), and many of those not killed in the gas chambers died of starvation, forced labor, infectious diseases, individual executions, and medical experiments. While Jews made up the largest group they weren’t alone. Poles, Romani, Sinti, Soviet prisoners of war, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and tens of thousands of other diverse nationalities shared their fate. The camp was liberated in January of 1945.
I know Heather stated this, but I think it is important to stress to carve out an entire day for this excursion. Between travel time, touring and the emotional toll you will not want to do much afterwards – I know I didn’t. My firm recommendation is to take the tour at both locations. Wander around on your own after each tour. There is so much to absorb and some many questions you don’t know you are going to have, the last thing you want to have to do is negotiate the maze of buildings on your own.
Logistics: There is no better place to stay other than Krakow, Poland. Read our article about Krakow here. You have 2 options readily available for you to traverse between Krakow and Auschwitz; bus or train.
1) By Bus: Buses leave from the central bus station behind the train station in Krakow. Most of the buses are run by PKS and will say Oświęcim where Auschwitz I is located. It will take roughly an hour and 45 min one way. Check the Tourist Information booth for the most recent bus schedule.
2) By Train: If you choose to take the train to Oświęcim, it will take roughly 90 mins. You will have to make your way from the train station to Auschwitz I on your own. You can either walk, which takes about 20 mins, or take a taxi. If you choose to walk, exit the train station heading right and then make a left at the traffic circle; Auschwitz I will be several blocks ahead on the left.
Your Return: If you choose to venture on to Auschwitz II (Birkenau) you must return to Auschwitz I as there is NO public transportation from Birkenau. Most buses returning to Krakow pickup from the stop on the edge of the Auschwitz I grounds, not from the parking lot itself. Tickets can be purchased on board the bus.
Recommendable: Yes. This is one of the most informative and historically significant museums and memorials in the world. The visit is difficult. The memorials are beautifully designed and so very much worth witnessing.