One of the things we knew we wanted to do during our three-day stay in Poland was to visit the Auschwitz concentration camps in modern-day Oświęcim. To accomplish this, we had the choice of either booking an organized tour or figuring out the train tickets from Warsaw to Kraków and then the transportation to Auschwitz by ourselves.
After mulling it over a bit (and fiddling around on the Polish train ticket website, to no avail), I went with the former option, and organized a day trip from Warsaw to Auschwitz and Kraków through Poland Travel Tours.
I reached out to Andrea from Poland Travel Tours over email, who was very nice and accommodating. The tour included a return shuttle bus between the place we were staying in Warsaw and the train station, return train tickets, a driver who would take us between Kraków and Oświęcim, a three-and-a-half hour tour of Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, and about four hours of free time in Kraków.
The total cost was 520 złoty (~$182) per person, though it would’ve been cheaper if we were a larger group. There was also an option to add a private walking tour in Kraków, though we opted against it, since we figured we would be drained after touring Auschwitz for half a day.
Our driver, Mateusz, picked us up at Apartament na Mariensztacie at 4:40am to ensure we caught our 5:20am train. The three-hour train ride passed by uneventfully, and before we knew it we were in Kraków, where we were greeted by Poland Travel Tours’ local guide, Jakob, holding up signs with our names on it. We hopped in a seven-seater van and made a few stops at various Kraków hotels to pick up some other travellers before embarking on the two-hour drive to Oświęcim.
We arrived at the main Auschwitz tourist centre at about 10am. The place was absolutely packed with visitors, ranging from foreign tour groups to Polish schoolchildren. Our little group of Poland Travel Tours patrons was shuffled together with a few other groups and together we began our tour under the guidance of our fantastic tour guide, Agnieszka. She runs her own tours out of Kraków as well, so if you’re in the region and looking for a tour guide, I can’t recommend Agnieszka highly enough!
We began the tour by walking through the infamous Auschwitz gates. Arbeit macht frei, or “work sets you free.” Chillingly ironic.
(To clarify, “Auschwitz I” was the original camp at Auschwitz. It was primarily a labour camp and housed many of the concentration camp’s prisoners. “Auschwitz II–Birkenau” is the name of the much larger facility some distance away, which served as both a concentration camp and and an extermination camp. “Auschwitz-Birkenau” generally refers collectively to all the camps in the area.)
Agnieszka led our group through the various barracks of the camp that had been repurposed into exhibits of the atrocities that had taken place here. A sombre mood quickly set in as we reflected on the unspeakable crimes against humanity that had taken place in these very
I think it’s best to let the pictures speak for themselves, with some captions for context.
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After the tour of the barracks, we visited Krema I, the small and singular gas chamber located onsite at Auschwitz I, one of the few that survived the war. The other, larger ones – Krema II and Krema III – were located at Birkenau, and were partially destroyed by the Nazis as they left the concentration camps in an attempt to bury the evidence.
Our tour of Auschwitz I ended at this point and we broke into our smaller groups to make the journey over to Auschwitz II–Birkenau. Everyone hopped back into Jakob’s van for the quick 10-minute drive.
When visiting Birkenau, you park some distance away from the main gates and walk the rest of the way. The sheer size of Birkenau becomes apparent during this walk. It’s far bigger than Auschwitz I, and the charred carcasses of its barracks, partially destroyed by the Nazis, stretches into the distance as far as the eye can see.
The “death barrack” was a place where death was only staved off because thousands more were dying in the meantime, and it was a fitting place for Agnieszka to end the tour. She told us that due to vandalism, tours would soon be forbidden from visiting the “Death Barrack”, one of the few remaining barracks at Birkenau that have survived to this day.
It goes without saying that the mood throughout this tour was beyond sombre. Nevertheless, it was inspiring and heartwarming to see a group of Jewish students visiting the camp while wearing Israeli flags on their backs, paying their respects.
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Wow. This was by far one of the most emotionally and mentally draining sightseeing trips I’ve ever done. (Not to mention physically – I slept like a baby on the ride back to Kraków.)
I think “surreal” is definitely the right word to describe it – as we made our way out through the “death gate” of Birkenau, I grappled with the thought that over a million Jews were systematically murdered here on a mega-industrial scale. They were brought in on these very train tracks before my eyes, they walked the same half-mile that I had just walked between the train platform and Kremas II and III, and they were then packed into those facilities en masse and gassed to death. Their lives erased; any trace that they existed just going up in smoke, one after another. And for some reason, my mind just could not fully process this reality.
No place on Earth has known death more intimately or has borne witness to such extremes of what humanity is capable of. This visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau, while chilling to the core in its sombreness, served as a stark reminder of what travel means to me. Several generations later, the world at large remains fraught with division and fracture. Expanding our horizons and interacting with unfamiliar cultures and ideas is more important now than ever, in order to bridge these divides and ensure that we advance away from the unspeakable atrocities that have checkered our past.