Most know the name, but not all the details. We like to think we're informed enough, that it isn't necessary to dive head first into something so horrific when we know the gist of it.
We travel for the beauty, the thrills, the food. But we also travel to learn and to grow and to have our worldviews challenged. To see the sun rise on the other side of the world. To erase prejudices and form our own judgments about the world around us. To be able to say with certainty why we do or do not agree with someone else's worldview.
Visiting Auschwitz always had a place on our Krakow itinerary. A virtual tour of Auschwitz-Birkenau is available online. But feeling the horrible aura of a place that was at one time filled with so much evil cannot be replicated by scrolling around the internet from your sofa.
An hour and a half bus ride from Krakow drops you off at the main entrance to Auschwitz I where guided tours begin. The museum provided tour is about 3.5 hours, not even enough time to see both camps in their entirety. But you see a lot, the guides are excellent, and Connor and I appreciated having a designated "end" to our visit. You can only handle so much at once, and you quickly enter the realm of just trying to cope with what's before you, so having someone guiding your steps seems rather simple but is entirely necessary. If you don't opt for the guide, make sure to take the provided tram over to Birkenau (Auschwitz II). Both sites are essential for understanding the extent of "Auschwitz" and Birkenau is significantly larger.
Your guide leads you under the "work will make you free" sign and through some of the buildings that make up the museum portion of the experience. Here you'll learn about the camp and how it functioned and see "exhibits" like the room full of shoes, estimated at 40,000 pairs. A horrific display of human hair. A pile of eyeglasses. Of hairbrushes. Shaving kits. Items stolen from the prisoners that were discovered when the camp was liberated. Only a small fraction of items were found on sight since possessions were regularly claimed by the Nazis and shipped out of the camp.
We had the chance to see the cell where St. Maximilian Kolbe died. It now holds a large candle placed there by Pope John Paul II.
2km away, Birkenau was the site where most people lost their lives. We walked the length of the train tracks toward the gas chambers, the same path that over a million innocent people would have walked after disembarking from their train. Everything about this place was chilling.
I couldn't bring myself to photograph some of the most gruesome elements, like the ruins of the gas chambers.
This is not exactly my most exciting travel recommendation, but if you're already in Krakow, skipping this would be a mistake. There are beautiful memorials on site and I'm glad we took the time to experience this. Just don't plan on trying to do or see anything afterwards.