How to get to Auschwitz & Birkenau
24/03/2016 was the day myself and a few friends left England and flew to Krakow airport via Ryanair. The flight itself was just over 2 hours (Stansted – Krakow) and cost about £160 for a return trip. From Krakow airport we then booked a taxi to central Krakow where my hotel (Maksymilian Hotel) was located, the taxi took about 20 minutes and cost 89 Zl (£16). Our planned travel to Auschwitz was on 25/03/2016, from our hotel we got a taxi to the bus station which took about 10 minutes and cost around 20 Zl (£4). A single bus (minivan in my case) ticket to Auschwitz cost 12 Zl (£2.20) each way (very cheap!), the journey took about 90 minutes as you are travelling to Oswiecim which is 66 Km away from Krakow. One thing to be careful of, the bus driver may ask you to book a return ticket before you leave, my advice is don’t as they leave at specific times and locations, you can sometimes wait hours for the same driver to arrive. There are loads of different bus drivers (different companies) coming back and forth from Auschwitz and you will not struggle to find one back to Krakow, again they all charge pretty much the same price.
Our time in Poland, we never struggled to find a taxi or bus and their prices are generally very cheap. Polish taxi’s charge by distance only, not time. Taxi drivers are generally very friendly and informative assuming you get a well-spoken driver who speaks English. We always requested our hotel receptionist to book our taxi for us, as we knew they were legitimate cabs.
Arriving at Auschwitz
When our taxi driver dropped us off, we had a short walk (2-3 minutes) to the camp entrance. We arrived just after 09:00 am and the place was packed, there were queues which mainly consisted of tour groups and there is a different queue line for individual tourists. Auschwitz is visited by over 1 million tourists a year so expect it to be busy. Despite the queue lines we got in fairly quick, you will be checked by security guards and have to walk through a metal detector (do not walk your camera through the metal detector, give it to the security guard). Auschwitz is free to get in, however, I did book my tickets online and booked my entrance time, which helps speed up the process, I advise you do this before your trip and make sure you print your tickets out. Outside of Auschwitz entrance there are huts where you can buy tea, coffee and a sandwich, so don’t worry about taking lunch as you cannot eat or drink on the premises.
There is also a small book store located inside the entrance, the prices are expensive and the books they sell you can pick up online a lot cheaper. There are also plenty of toilets on the premises and lockers to store your possessions if required (we didn’t use the lockers).
I am not going to tell you a great deal about Auschwitz as you need to experience it yourself, but trust me the experience will stay with you for a lifetime. One thing to be aware of Auschwitz is not easy to travel around the paths are cobbled, bumpy and uneven. If your mobility is not great just take your time and use a walking stick if required, it is very easy to trip over so be observant. Auschwitz has pretty much been left as it was found, and rightfully so. One thing that entered my mind regarding the cobbled paths, was how difficult and painful it must have been for the prisoners to walk around the camp in their bare feet or rugged shoes. Auschwitz is smaller than I thought it would be and 3 hours is enough time to navigate around and visit the blocks. Despite it being smaller than I initially expected, it is as harrowing and horrific as I expected and Auschwitz does not disappoint in engaging your thoughts and emotions. I tried to place myself in the prisoner’s shoes everywhere I went, it was extremely difficult to do because it’s very hard to imagine the intense cruelty the Nazi’s bestowed upon these people. The atmosphere at Auschwitz is actually very busy and quite noisy due to the amount of people attending, however, you will walk into certain blocks and experience an eerie silence especially block 11 which is known as the block of death, which is rather ironic as every block is the ‘block of death’ in some way.
One thing that will surprise you and is also very difficult to observe, is the amount of photos taken (Wilhelm Brasse) and displayed in the museum, the Nazi’s were very good book keepers (when they wanted to) and documented prisoners in great detail. You will see thousands of photos of the victims who perished there, the expressions on their faces highlights the brutality they faced on a daily basis.
To get to Birkenau there is a free shuttle service outside the entrance of Auschwitz, the shuttle only takes about 5 minutes for which you will then see the infamous gatehouse of Birkenau. When I said Auschwitz was smaller than I thought, Birkenau was much larger than I thought, the reason for this was purely to exterminate as many people as possible. Observing the railway track and carriage was emotional, knowing this was the final journey for millions of people. Upon arriving at Birkenau you will notice how massive the camp is, the sheer size of it is daunting. It took myself and a two friends about 60-90 minutes to walk the perimeter of the camp. You will come across many barracks and most of them were closed, however, you can walk in a few of them and observe the horrific conditions people had to endure. There are a lot of buildings that were destroyed by the Nazi’s themselves and also the prisoners during uprisings. At the back of the camp you will come across the pond where human ash was dumped and fields where piles of bodies weren’t burnt. I recommend if you can, to walk the entire camp and witness as much as you can as you will read and observe many different stories and experiences these poor people went through. Birkenau is very different to Auschwitz, there is less to read and less museum like, however, the atmosphere and nature of the place tells a different story and is home to the ‘so called’ doctor Dr Mengele.
Birkenau is very vast and quiet compared to Auschwitz, it is situated in some beautiful woods, just a shame these woods are tarnished by the atrocities that happened here. You can’t help but notice that every step you take around Birkenau; you are literally standing at a place where someone potentially died. You won’t enjoy your visit unless you are a sadist, however, the visit is interesting, informative and like no other. I would always recommend people to visit if possible, if you only do it once in your life and too be honest once is enough. I also encourage you to talk about it and share your experiences with your family and friends, as this must never be forgotten. I sincerely hope humanity can learn from this and to never be repeated again, only time will tell.
You will encounter a lot of walking when visiting these camps, so think about what equipment you need on the day. If you are using a SLR\SLT camera think about a lens that can do a bit of everything, if you are taking a tripod I recommend something small like a Manfrotto Travel tripod. The ground at Auschwitz is not very stable so you may struggle using a tripod, I personally didn’t take one, I literally just took Camera, Lens, Battery and that’s it. I have recently purchased a Lowepro sling bag which I highly recommend and wish I had this when visiting the camps. 90% if the time you can use your camera at the camps, some areas you can’t use a flash and some areas you can’t take a picture at all, there will be signs informing what you cannot do, so respect the rules.
Bit of advice, after your visit go to a nice restaurant eat some lovely polish food and have a few drinks, you will likely need it.
10% of profits from a purchase of the ‘Auschwitz & Birkenau’ collection, will be donated to the Auschwitz & Birkenau museum.