What to expect when visiting Auschwitz

“Those who cannot remember the past, are condemned to repeat it.”

George Santayana

To say I was apprehensive before my visit to Auschwitz would be an understatement. The day before the trip I really started questioning why I ever thought it was a good idea to visit a place where some of the worst crimes against humanity in human history were committed. But seeing the George Santayana quote on the wall when we arrived, I quickly remembered why I was there. We cannot allow ourselves to forget the past just because it is easier for us to isolate ourselves from the knowledge that other humans are capable of causing such immense suffering.

The tour we chose was organised by DiscoverCrakow. We met them in their office, just off the main market square around 11am. I’d strongly advise having a big breakfast as there are pretty much no opportunities to eat on the tour. We were on a bus with about 10-15 other people. The drive from Krakow to Auschwitz took just over an hour. A documentary about the Holocaust was played on the bus.

The tour starts in the main camp, Auschwitz I. Built as a Polish military base, it was originally made up of just 22 pre-war brick buildings. Each of the buildings have now been converted into separate exhibitions, expanding on various historical aspects of the camp.

The guide was careful to emphasise that Auschwitz had two functions. At the beginning, from the founding of the camp in 1940 to the start of 1942, Auschwitz functioned exclusively as a concentration camp. The first prisoners of the camp were Polish political prisoners, often academics and people who were deemed a threat to the Nazi regime in Poland. As a concentration camp, the prisoners were forced to work in inhuman conditions, often leading to death through starvation. From 1942 to it’s liberation by the Soviets on the 27th January 1945, Auschwitz served an even darker purpose. Not only was it a functioning concentration camp, but it was also the largest centre for the immediate mass killing of a large part of the Jewish population of Europe.

Inside block 6, lies an exhibition emphasising the lives of the prisoners when Auschwitz was functioning solely as a concentration camp. The hallway is lined with the identification photographs taken of the prisoners when they first arrived at the camp. Everyone looks visibility exhausted from their journey which would often involve days shut inside a cattle train. All the women’s hair has been cut short. There is fear behind all of their eyes, determination behind others. The guide told us that the use of photographs as identification was scrapped as people were unrecognisable after being at the camp for a short period of time. The Nazi’s replaced the photograph identification method with numbers tattooed on the prisoners.

Another exhibition shows personal items taken to Auschwitz by the prisoners and found by the Soviets when they liberated the camp- a stark reminder that some people arriving at Auschwitz really believed they were there to start a new life. Another glass display in the same building contains a pile of human hair, and shoes of every type and size. We walked through this building in silence, no words were needed to explain the horror of what was being seen.

Block 11 was probably the most harrowing part of the visit to Auschwitz I. Block 11 was effectively a prison within a prison. Prisoners would be punished for disobeying the orders of the SS. The most frequently punished acts were attempting to acquire additional food, various forms of working in an unsatisfactory way, smoking, relieving themselves at a time deemed improper by the guards, wearing clothing that was non-regulatory, or, attempting to commit suicide. The punishments were arbitrarily chosen, with different punishments frequently being used for the same crimes. Block 11 contained starvation cells, standing cells, dark cells and a shooting wall. Block 11 was also the place of the first experiment with mass killing using Zyklon B.

To end the tour of the main camp, we were taken into the first gas chamber a crematorium. No words could be said here.

After a quick stop to use the toilet we got back on the bus to Auschwitz II-Birkenau. The majority, probably about 90%, of the victims of Auschwitz Concentration Camp died in Birkenau. This equates to approximately a million people. More than nine out of ten, were Jews. We walked along the railway tracks to the selection ramp. In this place, the fate of thousands of terrified people was decided… were they fit to work or, should they be sent straight to the gas chamber? This was often the last place that people ever saw their family and friends.

The scale of Birkenau is unimaginable, just one of the many buildings could be home to around a thousand people. We were shown around one of the buildings where the children slept. The building was dark and cold.

At the end of the railway track is the remains of the gas chambers. The gas chambers were destroyed by the Nazi’s before the end of the war in an attempt to cover up the evidence. There is also a memorial, which is open to artistic interpretation.

It’s impossible to really imagine the scale of human suffering that took place on the Auschwitz complex. I think it’s incredible that just two years after the war ended the camp was converted into a museum by the survivors.

I definitely feel more emotional looking back on these photos and writing this blog post that I did immediately after the trip. It’s not the normal fun and exciting thing that you do on holiday, but I think it’s an incredibly important place to see. In school you learn the facts of the Holocaust, but standing in the place it happened, you begin to understand the story slightly more.

Advice for your trip

Wear comfortable shoes. There will be a lot of walking/standing involved and some on the ground is uneven. If you’re visiting in winter like we did, wear as many layers as possible. You may feel like you’re overdressed, but even in thermals and a ski jacket we were freezing. Most importantly, be respectful, despite being told at the start of the tour not to take photographs in certain areas and not to take selfies anywhere, we still had a number of individuals on our tour group doing just that.

24 Hours in Krakow

Krakow is a beautiful city with a rich history. There are regular decently priced flights from London making it a perfect place for a weekend away! If you’ve got limited time in the city this 24 hour itinerary will make sure you’ve covered the must-see sights!

1. The Cloth Hall

Krakow’s main market square is the natural starting point for a 24 hour adventure around the city. In the centre of the main square lies The Cloth Hall. Known as Europe’s oldest shopping centre, the Cloth Hall has been a place of trade since the mid 14th century. In the middle of the 16th century, a fire destroyed much of the original building and a redevelopment project saw it rebuilt in classical renaissance style. After Krakow lost its status as Poland’s capital in 1569, the Cloth Hall was left to fall in to disrepair for almost three centuries. Towards the end of the 19th century the facade was restored to its former glory. The development was not only superficial, a new museum space was also created upstairs. The Cloth Hall now houses a row of shops selling traditional souvenirs such as sheep skin slippers and all the amber jewellery your heart could desire! I picked up a couple of rings and a necklace, all at really decent prices.

2. St. Mary Basilica Church

Across the square from the Cloth Hall is the magnificent St. Mary’s Basilica church. Built in classic Polish gothic architecture in the 1300’s, this incredible church should definitely not be missed. The blue starred ceiling and stained glass windows are truly unique and no matter how many churches you’ve visited, this one will definitely stand out.

We happened to wonder out of the church minutes before 12, just in time to hear the trumpet signal, known as the Heijnal mariacki, being played from the taller of Saint Mary’s two towers. To commemorate the 13th century trumpeter that was shot in the throat while sounding the alarm before the Mongol attack on the city, the tune breaks off mid-stream.

3. Lunch break- Pierogies

No trip to Krakow is complete without sampling as many Piergoies as you can fit in your stomach! An upcoming blog post will be dedicated to the insanely good food we ate in Krakow, so i’ll save the details of our lunch stop for that!

4. Jewish Quarter

Following our lunch we wandered through the snow to the Jewish quarter, Kazimierz. Prior to WWII, Kazimierz was the centre of Jewish culture in Krakow. Szeroka street is the main road in this neighbourhood, lined with synagogues, bars and unique boutiques.

5. Wawel Castle

Following a quick stop for a warm drink, we headed on to the Wawel Castle complex at the top of Wawel Hill. The complex consists of a castle and a cathedral centred around an Italian style main courtyard. Wawel has been a significant place throughout Polish history. It is said that people settled on Wawel Hill as early as the 7th century, and from the 9th century onwards it became the principal home to the Vislane tribe and the first historical ruler of Poland, Miesco I. It also became the centre of Polish christianity.

Throughout history, Wawel has been occupied by a number of powers. After Poland lost its independence in 1795, the castle was handed to the Austrians who converted a number of the buildings into a military hospital. In 1880, the castle was the residence of the Emperor of Austria Franz Josef I. Between 1905-1911 the Austrian troops left the hill and Poland regained its independence in 1918. During this time, the castle served as a residence of the Head of State, and as a museum. During the Nazi occupation the castle was again occupied by foreign powers and used as the residence of the German governor general, Hans Frank. 

In 1978 Wawel Castle was declared a UNESCO world heritage site. With some beautiful examples of romanesque, gothic, renaissance and early baroque architecture, the castle and cathedral and definitely worth the walk up the hill. There is also an art museum that can be visited on site.

6. Cat Cafe

Our final stop before dinner was the cat cafe that was situation just opposite our hotel, The Mercure Kraków Stare Miasto. The hot drinks were nothing to rave about but the cats were adorable and friendly and, unlike many cat cafes around the world, we walked straight in and grabbed a seat without a reservation. A cute place to stop and warm up if you’re in the area!

The Sculpture Park- Churt

Just over an hour outside London, The Sculpture Park could not feel further away from London’s concrete jungle. Hailed as Britain’s most atmospheric sculpture park, stepping into this beautiful garden I felt like Alice falling down the rabbit hole into wonderland.

The park is owned and curated by Eddie Powell, a UK leading art expert. He himself is a sculptor who works under the pseudonym Wilfred Pritchard. The skeletons seen littered around the park in unusual situations are the work of the curator himself. In 2017, the Sculpture park was listed in The Week’s as one of the 14 best sculpture parks in the UK.

Walking into the park you are greeted by the resident doves, inhabiting an oversized bird house above the lake. You are also given a glimpse of the magic that is to follow as the walkway to reception is already lined with sculptures. After purchasing our £10 entry tickets, we were given a guide book containing details of the sculptures and a map. Every sculpture in the park is for sale. Prices vary wildly, ranging from a few hundred pounds to the price of a three bedroom house!

We didn’t follow the coloured paths shown on the map, choosing instead to get lost of our own volition. We paid attention to the areas on the map that we had seen, so we still ended up seeing a majority of the park. However, if you have less time and prefer a more organised approach, there are numerous paths that will effortlessly guide you around the park. Nature has been allowed free to reign to grow around the sculptures so even if you find yourself walking the same path twice, you will likely notice different pieces.

The collection of eclectic sculptures, accompanied by the magnificent 10 acre arboretum make this park a truly magical place to visit. With over 800 20th century, modern and contemporary sculpture’s on display, the pieces range from traditional to provocative. As the collection is ever changing, there will always be something new to see. I won’t be surprised if I find myself returning in the not too distant future.  

Advice for your visit:

Wear decent shoes that you don’t mind getting a bit dirty! The park has a diverse terrain made up of heathland, woodland and water gardens, so be prepared to cross slippery steel bridges and climb muddy hills. We went on a wet day, which didn’t ruin the experience but did make for potentially treacherous walking!

What not to miss:

The record breaking horseshoe dragon! Made of 50,000 horseshoes, this giant masterpiece created by artist, Jim Poolman joined the park in 2018. I believe it is now the most expensive piece in the park, and arguably one of the most striking!

Things to do nearby:

1. Breakfast, coffee or cake at the Orchard Barn Cafe. Hidden in an oak barn on Cherry Orchard Farm, this mother/daughter run cafe is the perfect place to fuel up before exploring the sculpture park. The breakfast was extremely fresh and well priced, i’d go as far as to say it was the best full english i’ve ever had! (Open Wednesday-Sunday 10am-4pm)

2. Explore the Devils Punch Bowl. Legend has it has this deep depression in the ground was caused when the devil scooped up handfuls of the earth and threw it at Thor, God of Thunder. Home to beautiful walks and a lovely national trust cafe.

3. Find factory bargains at Grayshott Pottery. You can find gorgeous pieces at bargain prices at the factory. You can also stop for a cake and watch some of the artists at work in their on site cafe.