I lived in DC for two years and on my one and only attempt to visit the Holocaust Museum, I left crying before getting to the main exhibit. So I don’t know why I thought I could tour Auschwitz and Birkenau, the largest Nazi concentration camps, and be fine.
There are two ways to visit Auschwitz and Birkenau from Kraków: with a tour or on your own. Most tours are anywhere from $25-30 and take you to both sites, and of course, transport you the hour and a half or so it takes to get there. In order to save money and because I had no interest in being a sobbing mess in front of a bus full of people for 8 hours, we went on our own.
The train from Kraków is $2 each way. The downside to the train is that the closest station, Oswiecim, is 20 minutes walking from Auschwitz. It’s not a bad walk but considering how much you have to walk at the sites, it’s better to avoid it. Luckily, there is a bus, Lajkonik, that also runs to and from Auschwitz that picks you up directly there. The bus ends up being a little bit faster, and hour and 15 minutes instead of 1:45 or 2 hours and costs $3.50. Since entrance to the camps is free, you really can’t get any cheaper than that to spend a day crying and reflecting on the atrocities that people inflict on other human beings.
Unbeknownst to us, individuals are not allowed in Auschwitz I until after 3 pm. If you arrive before that, you must join a group or wait. However, the same restrictions don’t apply to Auschwitz II – Birkenau. And there is a free shuttle that runs constantly from one to the other. I rely pretty heavily on Google Maps when I travel and I could not for the life of me find Birkenau on the map, because when you search for it, it directs you to the main Auschwitz I site. But thankfully that shuttle knows exactly where to go. So even though we got there around 1, we were able to have lunch and walk through Birkenau before tickets were available to individuals at Auschwitz.
So what is it like walking around Auschwitz – a place where so many people have been systematically murdered? Sickening, depressing, horrifying. It was overcast, which was appropriate. I can’t imagine the sun ever shining on a place like that. Birkenau is huge and many of it is in ruins with only chimneys left where barracks used to be. Small yellow flowers grow where piles of dead bodies used to be. Kids run around on the train tracks that once were used to transport people to gas chambers. It’s both depressing and encouraging that they are not old enough to know the worst of humanity is surrounding them.
After that harrowing experience, we took the shuttle back to Auschwitz, which is more of a museum than Birkenau. Even though it’s free, you have to get a ticket from the information booth. The tickets are given out in timed order. So you get whatever time is available and you have to wait outside until you’re within half an hour of your scheduled time. You also have to go through security and any bag bigger than a large clutch has to be checked. Make sure you do that before you wait in a long line for no reason and are turned away. There is a 3 PLN ($0.75) fee to check your bag so have some cash on you.
Even though Birkenau is bigger, Auschwitz takes more time to see, because almost every building has some sort of exhibit inside. This ranges from photos of prisoners to the representation of living conditions to photographic and artifacts, like the tattered clothes of children gassed there. It can get pretty crowded with all the tour groups, which makes the stuffy rooms hard to handle. By the time we got to the gas chambers, I pretty much had to get the hell out of there. I don’t know if it’s the amount of people in each of the buildings or the shadow of the horrors that took place in those buildings but being there is like suffocating. I spent a good part of my visit and almost an hour afterward trying not to vomit.
I’m sure a guided tour would have been very informative but I’m glad we went individually. It would have felt even more claustrophobic to go with a group. As difficult as it was, it’s definitely something worth doing if you’re in Kraków. Halfway back to the city on the bus, as though we’re far enough away from that dark place, the sun shines again.
Get the GPS-guided version of this article and other Oswiecim guides on GPSmyCity here.