Any trip to Krakow or Poland is incomplete without a trip to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camps & the Wieliczka Salt Mine and we ensured we had a complete trip! We did this trip on 13-July with KrakowDirect.com whom we booked through our hotel in Krakow and they planned a perfect trip for us without any glitches.
For the uninitiated, Auschwitz concentration camp was a network of German Nazi concentration and extermination camps built and operated by the Third Reich in Polish areas annexed by Nazi Germany during World War II. Auschwitz I was first constructed to hold Polish political prisoners, who began to arrive in May 1940. The first extermination of prisoners took place in September 1941, and Auschwitz II–Birkenau went on to become a major site of the Nazi “Final Solution to the Jewish question”. From early 1942 until late 1944, transport trains delivered Jews to the camp’s gas chambers from all over German-occupied Europe, where they were killed with the pesticide Zyklon B. At least 1.1 million prisoners died at Auschwitz, around 90 percent of them Jewish; approximately 1 in 6 Jews killed in the Holocaust died at the camp. Others deported to Auschwitz included 150,000 Poles, 23,000 Romani and Sinti, 15,000 Soviet prisoners of war, 400 Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, and tens of thousands of people of diverse nationalities. Many of those not killed in the gas chambers died of starvation, forced labor, infectious diseases, individual executions, and medical experiments. (Information from Wikipedia).
The unofficial number put the number of dead at 1.5 million Jews and other prisoners though this has never been confirmed. My ex-boss visited these camps during his trip in 2013 and he always talks about his experience of this place and recommended me the same.
Our vehicle picked us up from our hotel at 8:15 AM and we picked up 12 other people before starting our drive towards Auschwitz in a Mercedes van vehicle. It was quite a comfortable & picturesque journey interspersed with rain all the way through!
We reached the camp, had a short break, picked up the receivers & headphones and started our tour with our guide. I had seen the photograph of the entrance gate many times while going through multiple blogs and it definitely is an in-the-face reminder of what was waiting for us inside! It displays the motto Arbeit macht frei (“Work brings freedom”) which was the “route” the Nazis took to exterminate the Jews. This particular sign was made by prisoner-labourers including Jan Liwacz. The sign features an upside-down ‘B’, which has been interpreted as an act of defiance by the prisoners who made it. The camp site is very well maintained after all these years and it is frequented by millions of visitors each year.
We were given an introduction about the history & background of the camp by our guide at the entrance gate which was very informative and important for us to understand the context.
What followed was a walk through multiple exhibits of the prisoners’ artefacts – Shoes, Clothes, Combs, Utensils, Hair etc. and buildings where the prisoners were housed, tortured and made to work. It is a bone chilling experience going through all those exhibits just imagining what millions of those innocent Jews went through. We also saw the gas chambers where the prisoners were killed with pesticides. Many of the tour participants decided not to go inside as they did not have the mental resolve to go through the most painful part of the camp.
The weather was dark, windy & chilly resonating our experience of visiting those buildings which has witnessed millions dying in them. The authorities have maintained them brilliantly and all the exhibits are also very properly stocked along with mug shot photographs of many of those killed prisoners. Blank eyes staring at you and making you numb.
We then went to the Auschwitz II-Birkenau camp which is a much bigger site spread across a huge area. We saw the “Güterwagen” (goods wagon), one type of rail car used for deportations and which has been featured in Steven Spielberg’s legendary film “Schindler’s List”as well.
The last part of this tour was the Memorial which has been built in the memory of all the prisoners killed in the Holocaust; it is a very somber sight and all of us became very emotional imagining the misery of the departed. Our tour guide was absolutely awesome and we would never forget the way he modulated his voice while giving us the commentary.
Bandita was carrying Abhay in the baby carrier all the time and got very exhausted; luckily the weather was pleasant all the way through which was a big blessing considering we had to walk a lot visiting these 2 camp sites. By the time we finished the tour it started to rain and it was quite a farewell! No wonder Abhay was so happy!
The Wikipedia page about the camp is quite informative and comprehensive; you can go through the same at Auschwitz Concentration Camp
You can watch a video of the camp taken by a drone video here: Drone Video of Auschwitz Concentration Camp
We left the camp, got into a new vehicle and moved towards the Wieliczka Salt Mine which is one of Poland’s official national Historic Monuments (Pomnik historii), as designated in the first round in 1994. In 1978 it was placed on the first UNESCO list of the World Heritage Sites. It reaches a depth of 327 metres and is over 287 kms long. The mine features an underground lake; and the new exhibits on the history of salt mining, as well as a 3.5 kms (2.2 mi) touring route (less than 2% of the length of the mine’s passages) that includes historic statues and mythical figures carved out of rock salt in distant past.
We had a 1 hour break before this tour started which we spent at a restaurant having our lunch of Pierogi, Schnitzel and Pizza. Abhay was finally free from the baby carrier and roamed around the restaurant even visiting the kitchen where he got French fries from the Chef!
We entered the mine along with a huge crowd and our tour guide. A wooden staircase with 378 steps welcomed us which led us towards the mine’s 64-metre level. Our tour was going to be 4 kms long featuring corridors, chapels, statues, and an underground lake which is located at a depth of 135 metres.
It used to be a commercial mine till 1996 when commercial mining was discontinued due to low salt prices and mine flooding. The mine produced table salt continuously until 2007, as one of the world’s oldest salt mines still in operation. The main attractions include dozens of statues and four chapels that have been carved out of the rock salt by the miners which are absolutely gorgeous considering such beautiful statues & designs were carved by miners and not professional carving artistes.
The temperature in the mine stays uniform 15 degrees Celsius round the year and air feels so fresh. The air in the mine is characterised by exceptional bacteriological purity and a high concentration of sodium chloride, magnesium and calcium ions. That is why the mine also serves as a treatment centre. A stay in the saline underground is effective in the treatment of respiratory diseases, asthma and allergies. The sodium chloride content in the air is the highest near the salt lakes. So all of us were trying our own deep breathing techniques!
Out of 20 chambers to visit, the Chapel of St. King was the most beautiful one. We saw multiple fascinating carvings including the Last Supper. We had some 20 minutes to enjoy all those carvings & sculptures in the main atrium.
The entire tour took about 2.5 hours and luckily there is an elevator to reach the top! Just thinking about going up through all those 378 steps was a nightmare! Each elevator car holds 9 persons and takes some 30 seconds to make the trip. It was definitely a fun experience through those 30 seconds as the speed of the elevator was really very fast and we zipped up! Our guide did a great job answering all my queries and she even took our photographs too!
You can know more about the mine at Wieliczka Saltmine
You can book your tour at Krakowdirect.com as they arranged a fabulous day for us!
Needless to say we were almost dead by the time we came out of the mine due to a long day of walking & exploring. The van dropped us back to our hotel at 7 PM, we freshened up and had our Haldiram Ready Meal dinner in the room itself; I had booked a restaurant for dinner but were completely sapped to go out anywhere.
It was a day of learning about the infamous holocaust, what the Jews went through, the worst extent to which humans can reach in exterminating people and about another fascinating piece of history & architecture in the Mine. We were exhausted by the end of it yes but the experience was completely worth it.
I recommend this day long tour to everybody visiting Krakow or Poland and also to watch the 2 movies – “Schindler’s List” and “Life is Beautiful” to get a better perspective about the Auschwitz Camp.
So till the time we meet again…
Cheers to life…
Till then ride safe and have safe sex…
Hasta la Victoria Siempre…