Krakow is a significant cultural and historical center; there is much to see in and around the city.
A visit to Auschwitz requires a full day, including the main camp and then minutes away by a free shuttle, Auschwitz II-Birkenau. During the hours of 10-3pm you must pay to join a guided tour (given in a variety of languages). Human genocides do not get any bigger than this and a visit here is a solemn and moving experience. Exhibits showing huge piles of shoes, suitcases, shaving materials and human hair leave one saddened and repulsed. Not to mention the ovens and the death wall where thousands were shot naked. Reminders, such as these, of the darkest periods in humanity are absolutely essential to remind and show continuing generations the dangers of extremism. The numbers are mind boggling – 1.1 million people were murdered here, nearly as many as who today visit on an annual basis and well more than the entire population of the city of San Francisco in the USA. Prisoners were taken to Auschwitz from as far north as Oslo, Norway and as far south as Athens, Greece. Poland fell to the Nazi’s in merely a matter of days in September of 1939.
I highly recommend the guided tour – but then after 3pm be sure to come back and walk the grounds on your own. It will be a more personal experience.
Oskar Schindler Museum in Krakow opened in 2010 (at his original factory), which is still in an industrial zone. This is well worth visiting before you go to Auschwitz; its easy to spend half a day here. After 90 minutes I was still on “1939” of the museum’s entire WW II exhibit – its a big factory and its a big museum. The majority of the exhibits are dedicated to Krakow under the Nazi occupation during WW II rather than Oskar Schindler and his efforts in the war.
Sometimes you need a bout of humor after visiting a place that’s as far from humor as “hell” is from a comedy club on Sunset Blvd in Los Angeles. That bit of humor came in one of the mini vans that leave Auschwitz for Krakow every half hour. Waiting in the crowd at the bus stop with a bunch of people I was skeptical we all would even get on. A mini van pulled up and what a surprise – all the seats were already occupied. We pushed and pulled our way in – all of us standing in the aisle. The line stretched out the door and the bus driver indicated he was going to pull away. More pushing and finally we all squeezed in.
Five young guys, obviously from Ireland provided comic relief and conversation in an otherwise very quiet van. One of these guys was opposed to getting on the bus. After some time we found out why. As the uncomfortable trip continued he obviously began to experience some pain – not from the crowding but from needing to urinate. His “friends” soon started making a variety of jokes at his expense and then thought of songs that involved water and began to sing lyrics from “Yellow Submarine” and “Chasing Waterfalls“. They told him the human bladder can expand up to 4x its normal size before exploding. The poor guy was desperate – at the next stop they all ran off the bus and the guy in need urinated right in front all the onlooking passengers at the bus stop!