We spent our first full day in Poland on a full-day tour. We were picked up at our hotel and driven west of Krakow to Auschwitz concentration camp.
Our tour stopped at Auschwitz (Auschwitz I), Birkenau (Auschwitz II-Birkenau), and the Wieliczka Salt Mine.
Auschwitz (Auschwitz I)
Our drive from Krakow to Auschwitz didn’t take long, maybe about an hour or so. Auschwitz concentration camp is not one camp, but a collection of concentration and extermination camps. There are more than 40 in total and of these, we visited Auschwitz and Birkenau. These camps are also known as Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II or Auschwitz II-Birkenau.
Disclaimer: I am not an expert on Auschwitz, WWII, the Third Reich, or anything relating to these subjects, therefore, this post will not be flooded with facts. Instead, it will be about my experience visiting these historic places.
Auschwitz (Auschwitz I), as a site, is preserved and well maintained. With the exception of the entrance gate, it was nothing as I expected it to be.
The buildings on the site were originally army barracks and a lot of the buildings and structures on the site are still intact. Financial support by way of donations, individual country sponsorships, and museum entry fees help fund the preservation.
We visited the Russian-sponsored and Polish-sponsored blocks and they were drastically different. The Russian-sponsored block was digitized with flat screen televisions and interactive touch screen displays.
The Polish-sponsored block looked like it had not been touched for many years. There were copies of newspaper articles in frames affixed to the walls. The lighting was limited and there was no digitalization of media, which is how I felt it should be.
Guided tours were available at Auschwitz, however, we took the advice of our tour van driver to visit blocks 4, 5, 6, 7, and 11 on our own and return to our meet-up spot 2.5 hours later.
Most of the Jews arrived convinced that they had been deported from their home countries to Auschwitz for resettlement. The Nazis sold them non-existent plots of land, shops, or work in fake factories.
For these reasons, deportees usually brought with them their most valuable possessions. Clothing and shoes were stolen from them upon arrival at Auschwitz. And at that point, they were told that they had arrived at a concentration camp and the only way to escape was “through a crematorium chimney.”
Of the blocks we visited, each block had a theme and detailed a different aspect of the camp. For example, one block was dedicated to living conditions. Another block was dedicated to “a day in the life of a prisoner”. And another block was dedicated to processes like the prisoner arrival process.
Peter and I felt that it was difficult to take everything in. It was an emotional experience and there were a lot of people in the blocks, perhaps too many people.
As we snaked through the large tour groups and into some of the less popular blocks, we were able to look around more and take everything in.
Some rooms in some blocks were preserved with original furniture such as bunk beds. Some rooms had large displays illustrating how the room would have looked when the camp was in operation. As an example, one room had straw on the floor on which the prisoners slept.
Other blocks had dedicated rooms for displaying personal items that were taken from prisoners when they arrived like glasses, luggage, shoes, and even hair.
In addition to the blocks, there are other structures on the site including the kitchen, various guard towers, a courtyard where executions took place, and a small (relatively speaking) replica crematorium.
Outside of the blocks, the site felt empty. It was quiet and somber and in contrast to the large volumes of tourists being pushed through the blocks. I think it’d be great if they further limited the number of tourists allowed to enter the site at any given time.
Birkenau (Auschwitz II)
Birkenau is 3 km / 2 mi from Auschwitz and is 30 times the size of Auschwitz. At its present size, it’s only a fraction of the size it was planned to be. It was built on a marsh and the few remaining buildings on the site have slowly been sinking.
It’s estimated that the remaining buildings on the site will collapse or will become too unstable to allow entry by 2024 if measures are not taken to make them structurally sound.
Birkenau is classified as a cemetery, therefore, cannot charge an admission fee. It does not have a museum or any signage. There were no IKEA-like mazes or bottlenecks in the few still-standing buildings.
Birkenau survives on donations only.
Auschwitz and Birkenau were two different experiences from the outset. At Birkenau, the railroad tracks are the first thing you see which sets the tone immediately.
In some cases, prisoners had been placed in sealed train cars for up to 10 days without food or water prior to arriving in Birkenau. They arrived from as far as 1,500 miles away.
The end of the tracks is where women were separated from men and the primary selection process took place. The elderly, the young (with the exception of some children who were used for medical experimentation), the unfit, and anyone “defective” (e.g. wore glasses) were sent directly to one of the four crematoriums on the site.
The majority (approximately 90 percent, 1.1 million people) of Auschwitz concentration camp prisoners were exterminated at Birkenau (Auschwitz-Birkenau has the highest estimated deaths of all of the camps).
It’s estimated that up to 6,000 people per day were exterminated at Birkenau. Many people were exterminated immediately upon arrival without registration, making a precise count impossible.
Birkenau has both brick and wooden structures. The brick structures were built using bricks from nearby houses and when the bricks ran out, the Nazis deforested the surrounding area and used the wood to build the wooden structures.
The site currently includes a few original brick structures and a of couple replica wooden structures. The Nazis destroyed everything else.
The building below is where camp staff were housed.
The building below is where women prisoners were housed.
We entered the women’s barracks and I was… I can’t describe it.
Each brick barrack was partitioned into 60 sections with three tiers per section. In total, there were 180 sleeping platforms known as “buks” designed to accommodate four prisoners each but occupancy was double or triple the “planned” occupancy.
We then entered the men’s replica wooden barrack.
It was a similar setup to the women’s barracks with three-tier bunk beds but they were freestanding. Unlike the women’s brick barracks, the men’s barracks did not have windows on the sides of the building. Instead, there was a skylight that ran the length of the barrack.
From the men’s barrack, we entered a replica structure that housed washing and toileting facilities for men. There were 58 toilets in the concrete section that ran the length of the building.
In total, we spent about four hours visiting Auschwitz and Birkenau. It was an emotionally heavy visit.
Wieliczka salt mine
The salt mine in Wieliczka is a vast defunct salt mine that is more than 700 years old. The long and short of it is that brine was upwelled from the mine and then boiled in iron pans, leaving behind sodium chloride, or as we know it, table salt.
Mining in Wieliczka dates back to the 13th century and continued to be mined commercially until 1996, making it one of the oldest salt mines in the world.
The mine has its own microclimate. There are no allergens, pollution, or radiation in the mine. It naturally maintains a high level of humidity and temperature between 14-16°C (57-61°F).
It’s said that it is the perfect microclimate to treat respiratory illnesses like COPD, allergies and asthma. Our guide claimed that if people with respiratory illnesses stay in the mine for a week, they’ll leave cured. I don’t believe this but I do believe anyone with allergies who stays in a place without allergens or any period of time will feel better.
The mine is a vast network of shafts and passageways spanning 245 km / 152 mi (another estimate is 287 km / 178 mi). The mine is so big that only 2 percent of it can be visited.
The salt mine has an underground lake, four chapels, countless statues and artwork carved by minders into the rock salt, and recent statues carved by contemporary artists.
Approximately 1.2 million people visit the salt mine every year for various reasons, including, weddings, natural healing, and just plain curiosity.
The drive from Birkenau was about an hour and I was STARVING!
We arrived at the salt mine and joined the long entrance queue.
All visitors to the mine are required to be accompanied by a guide. As mentioned above, there are miles of underground tunnels and it would be very easy to get lost or fall off any of the salt “cliffs” inside the mine.
We entered the mine and in every direction I looked, there were sculptures, carvings, and chambers hand-carved by miners over generations. It was very impressive.
The floor, the walls, the statues, the artwork carved into the walls, everything was made of salt!
The biggest chamber is the Chapel of St. Kinga. With a grandiose double staircase (sculpted out of salt, of course) and a vast open area with chandeliers, it’s a unique venue for weddings, yes, weddings.
On the left wall in the photo above are several wall carvings. I nudged my way through a large group of tourists to get a close view of the carvings.
Here’s a close-up of one of the carvings. The gray veins of the rock salt make it look like granite.
Our salt mine tour lasted about three hours, however, a good chunk of this time was spent waiting. Waiting for other tour groups to advance, waiting for the miner’s elevator to haul us to the surface, etc.
Like many popular tourist sites, I felt the mine was overcrowded and would be better off by further limiting the number of visitors at any given time.
We walked over a mile during our tour of the mine and by the time we arrived back at Earth’s surface, we’d been on our tour for 10 hours. We were exhausted and I was starving. The last time I ate was before our tour guide picked us up pre-8am.
The drive from Wieliczka to Krakow was 45 minutes and we immediately sorted out the food and drink situation. I was woefully unprepared for a tour of that length with no respite or access to food.
The following day (Saturday) we spent exploring Krakow and then it was back to London early on Sunday.
Even though my visit to Dachau was over 15 years ago, I still remember it quite vividly, one I will not forget. I would recommend the visit.