After our near miss of the flight from Vienna, we arrived in Poland and promptly took the least efficient route to our hotel. We finally identified the correct bus, which was packed to the gills, and figured it would eventually take us to city center. We’ve been to enough airports now to know that the road leading into town always looks the same… a highway, on which you can expect to pass an Ikea, Carrefour, and some random office buildings. Not Poland. It was just a 2-lane road through the countryside that reminded me of driving from Lodi to Acampo. If you don’t know where that is, I guess that is the point.
Our primary reason for coming to Kraków was to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau, which is about an hour outside the city. There’s really not much around Auschwitz, so most people stay in Kraków then make a day trip to the largest of the former concentration camps.
I went back and forth on how much I wanted to write about Auschwitz, or if I wanted to (or should) write at all. I hesitate to impose my experience on someone else, at the risk of it affecting your own personal experience, should you ever choose to visit it yourself. There are also those people who have never visited Auschwitz and have no intentions of doing so. I was kinda one of those people. Scott almost took this leg of the trip on his own, but I later decided that it was something I… wanted isn’t the right word… needed to do? Felt like I should do? Might regret not doing? I dunno. Anyhow, I went.
Aside from some logistics (which I hope might help fellow travelers), I decided to keep the specifics to a minimum, and just share my personal experience in more general terms. However, we did post some photos (don’t worry, nothing graphic), and there are plenty of other informative websites if you are interested in learning more details about the concentration camps.
We had done tons of research on different ways for making this trip. One option was to take a bus from Kraków to Auschwitz, and upon arrival we could either hire a licensed guide, or purchase some reference materials and do a self-guided tour. We have heard great reviews on both methods – just depending how independent you want to be. The “museum” is actually free to enter, and you can hire one of their guides for 39 PLN (roughly $17) per person. Even with the bus ride of 10 PLN ($4.50), either one of these options would have been both high quality and cost effective.
However, getting to Poland (from Austria) the day before had been somewhat of a mess, and we were sick of dealing with logistics at the moment. We were physically exhausted, and knew that the next day would also be emotionally exhausting, so we decided to take the easy way this time. We paid extra (about $50/person) for a tour service recommended by our hostel, which picks you up and handles everything. No thinking necessary. This was a mistake.
The tour company was See Kraków – don’t bother using them. It was nice to be picked up at the door of our hostel, but that’s where the perks ended. Upon arrival at Auschwitz, we realized that we were not receiving a specially guided tour with a smaller, more intimate group. Instead, our group was combined with 2 other minibuses and our guide was one of the same from the museum that we would have received for ½ the price if we had gone on our own (and seriously, I could have done without her dramatic pauses and voice inflections. The experience is emotional enough without her rehearsed performance). We were also disappointed that our tour did not include the brief video in the museum, which we had heard a lot about (which is included in the basic museum tour). So basically, we paid double the price for an inferior tour and a bad driver.
There are tons of other we-pick-you-up tour companies out there, and I can’t speak for the rest of them, but we both felt that See Kraków was capitalizing on emotions and not focused on providing the best possible experience for their guests. Our advice would be to get there with public transportation (which I believe runs at least hourly), then decide if you want to hire a guide, self-guide, or both. If you hire a guide you can stick around and continue exploring on your own after the tour… but you don’t have that option when your minibus is leaving without you.
I am now retracting my claws and moving on…
Sorry. My intention was not to turn this blog into my soapbox, but I thought that might be valuable information for some. If sharing our experience helps to add value to someone else’s experience, then my ranting will not be in vain.
In the grand scheme of things, the disappointments really are minor. It’s not like we were taking a tour of the chocolate museum. It’s not even about the tour at all… it’s just about an experience that can’t really be put to words. In some ways the day was easier than I had anticipated (perhaps because I had built it up so much in my mind), but some moments were every bit as gut wrenching as you would imagine.
We made the trip on April 3rd – a significant day in my family. One of my grandmothers turned 86 on this day. It was also the first anniversary of my other grandmother’s death. I was feeling a huge sense of loss before we even began. However, unlike the friends & families of the 1.5 million people who died in this concentration camp, I knew exactly what happened to my grandmother when she died of cancer. I knew where she was (and where she is now). I got to visit her in the months preceding her death, and we had more great phone & email conversations in the last few years than in my entire life previous. My family was not separated; in fact, we were reunited. I flew home from San Diego the day she died, and my uncle picked me up at the airport. I saw my brother for the first time in months. I cried with my dad. I hugged all my cousins. People I don’t even know brought over food. Despite my loss, I felt love & comfort. That was my April 3, 2007.
On April 3 of this year, the sun didn’t shine. I can’t imagine the sun ever shines in Auschwitz. The gray weather, mud & wooden barracks all blend together as if you’re watching this scene on old black & white film. The only splash of color I recall seeing was in the enormous pile of shoes on display. I know, ironic that shoes would make the biggest impact on me, right? But it hit me – someone came here wearing those and likely never left. You could tell that some people came wearing only what they had, and others came wearing their very best. They brought suitcases! We saw hundreds of them, all labeled with their names & dates of birth, and certainly containing their most valuable possessions, which were confiscated immediately upon arrival. But I imagine the worst sense of loss was in the unknown… being separated from loved ones with no clue of their fate.
I’m not interested in sharing statistics, and I don’t think it’s my place to paint the picture for you. This is just part of my picture. Despite my tearful dread of this day, somehow I left with a strange sense of peace. Heavy-hearted peace, if that’s possible. A sobering gift that can only be received with a new perspective on your own life - and your own loss.
The remainder of our time in Kraków was pretty low key. We spent the rest of that evening and parts of the next day reminiscing about what we had learned, and how we felt about it. Even touring the city of Kraków, you can almost see the scars. While the younger generation seems vibrant & fashionable, the majority look tired. The city itself has equal parts of beauty and ugliness, and it actually felt quite “foreign” compared to the (mostly Western European) countries that we have visited thus far.
One of the most interesting things in Kraków was literally stumbling across the Shroud of Turin, which is believed to be the cloth that Jesus was wrapped in after his crucifixion. Scott had scene a documentary on it, but neither of us had any clue that it was inside St. Francis of Assisi Basilica right in the center of town. It’s not every day you see something like that, and I found it to be a great symbol of hope after the sorrow we felt from the day before.
We enjoyed our time in Kraków, but possibly didn’t give it a fair chance in the shadow of the other events. Someone we met in Poland asked us why we were so interested in the holocaust, and we both struggled to answer the question. Why did I subject myself to re-living such a dark time in the history of the world? I don’t really know, except to quote Edmund Burke who said, “Those who do not learn from history are destined to repeat it.” If I’ve become a better version of Karie, and learned to be a little more loving & grateful along the way, then I guess that was its purpose for me.