In the sleepy south of Poland lies a small town by the name of Oswiecim, a name that most people have never heard of. When the Nazis invaded Poland and the occupation of the country was complete then it was very, very common for the Nazis to German-ise the names of Polish places so for example, Warsaw became Warschau and Oswiecim became Auschwitz.
Oswiecim is just over an hour’s drive away from Krakow and has become increasingly popular with tourists in recent years, partly due to the 70th anniversary of the camp’s liberation in 2015. The camp regularly receives over one million tourists every year.
It’s proximity to Krakow means that the site has become very popular with Krakow weekend-breakers who add it to their itinerary but Auschwitz is much more than a tick on a traveller’s to-see list it is a visual, living reminder of how close and real we still are to the horrors of the holocaust.
There is another camp that forms part of the Auschwitz complex in the village of Brzezinka renamed by the Nazis as Birkenau. A shuttle bus run between both camps so you do not have to worry about making your own way there. Whilst the Auschwitz camp has a superficial air of civility about the infrastructure Birkenau is much bleaker and much bigger. The brick buildings of Auschwitz are replaced by long barracks and huts. It is at Birkenau where you will see the iconic image of the rail track leading into the camp under the guard tower and it is here that the full scale of the horrors can be really felt.
The grim and tragic statistics that are associated with these camps are better documented on other sites such as www.auschwitz.org and www.holocaustresearchproject.org. For the purposes of our guide we would like to concentrate on practical advice for the person wishing to visit these camps.
There are a number of options available for visits-please be aware that there are two camps, Auschwitz AND Birkenau. You’re free to choose which ones to see although most people opt to visit both camps.
- Private-Individual trip
- Private tour
- Group tour with guide
- School/College tour
1. Private-Individual trip
If you wish to visit Auschwitz without being part of a guided tour then you need to arrive either before 10am or after 3pm otherwise you will be required to join part of a guided group (for a small fee).
2. Private tour
It’s possible to book a tour to Krakow from your hotel or booking centres dotted around the Old Town of Krakow. The price usually includes transfer from and to Krakow (sometimes even from your hotel) and also the price of a guide and transfer from Auschwitz to Birkenau.
3. Group tour with guide
It’s important to be aware that even if you arrive at Auschwitz by yourself or a family group then provided that you have arrived between 10am and 3pm then you will be required to join a guided tour (for a small fee).
4. School/College tour
The Holocaust Educational Trust do some fantastic work organising educational trips for pupils and students. Please contact them directly for more information on providing educational trip for your pupils and students.
During peak hours, unless you have reserved your admission via the website www.auschwitz.org then there is no guarantee you will be able to start your tour at a time of your choosing as sometimes the queues can be very long.
There is an argument for and against joining a guided tour. On the one hand, a tour guide will be able to explain every part of the camp to you allowing you to understand the history behind the camp however, being part of a group can sometimes mean you may not have enough time to reflect on certain parts of the site that you could have if you were to visit by yourself. Either way, a tour or private trip is highly recommended considering it’s close proximity to Krakow.
A visit to both Auschwitz and Birkenau requires plenty of walking so please bear this mind.
Also be advised that bags and rucksacks have to be less than 30cm x 20cm x 10cm in dimension otherwise they you will have to leave your bag in a locker before the tour starts.