My First Solo Trip: Day 10
Today was the day that I was most looking forward to and dreading at the same time. I was able to book a 6-hour study tour in English, through the official Auschwitz website, several weeks prior to my trip. This is definitely the way to go if you're able to find an available slot. The tour started at 09:00 and I wanted to make sure that I arrived there within plenty of time so I woke up at approximately 05:00, left the hotel at around 06:20, and walked to the bus station. There was a minibus leaving at 07:00. I bought my ticket from the driver and took a seat. Thankfully I was seated right behind the driver because I often struggle with motion sickness and buses seem to aggravate the problem. I was also glad that I had arrived early because the bus was half full when I arrived and the rest of the seats were quickly taken. The drive was fairly pleasant and I enjoyed getting a glimpse of the countryside along the way. I was a bit shocked to discover that people just keep getting on the bus even after all the seats are taken. People were wedged in pretty tightly by the time we arrived at our stop on the route. The minibus stopped near the rear of Auschwitz and we had to make a short walk to the main parking area and entrance. There were quite a few others visiting the museum that day so there was not question as to whether this was the correct stop or not.
I arrived a few minutes before 08:30; my tour was scheduled to begin at 09:00 so I was instructed to wait a few minutes before I could enter. Upon entry, you go through airport type security where you and your handbag are inspected for weapons. I’m not sure exactly why I was instructed to wait, because once I was inside there were already people there who were scheduled for the same tour. I spent the next half hour chatting with an American father and son from Colorado, which happens to be my neighboring state. They were traveling along with friends from Hungary, another father and son pair. The Hungarian man happened to be blind, so it was fascenating taking the tour with him and observing the way he tried to grasp and experience the things we were seeing. There were several occasions throughout the tour where I saw him touch structures and sniff the air to try to get a sense of what we were passing. His son was also quick to provide him with detailed descriptions of all the things that we were observing. I also really appreciated the questions that he asked about the way in which the Nazis treated individuals with disabilities, something that I probably wouldn't have considered if he hadn't been with us.
While waiting, I also met a young woman from Melbourne, Australia, who became my fast friend for the day. Every time we compared notes on our experiences thus far we kept responding to each other with, “me too!” She even tried to get me to go to Amsterdam with her, so that we could visit the Anne Frank and Ten Boom houses. If I had had an extra day in my travel schedule, I probably would have taken her up on the offer.
Our guide for the day was a young man name Michal. He was excellent and I felt that I learned so much. I also highly recommend booking the full day study tour directly through the museum website if it is at all possible, because you don’t have to try to rush to see everything and I felt that we were shown so much more than what most other visitors see. Some examples were, being permitted to walk through an original barracks that is accessible only with a guide, the guard tower, the processing areas, and outer regions of Birkenau. Most tours only make it as far as the memorial and gas chamber. He even spent time taking us through the Israeli memorial so that we could here the testimonies of survivors and see the massive Book of Names. It is also very inexpensive to book the study tour, a fraction of the cost of the shorter tours offered in Krakow. At the end of the tour, we discreetly asked if our guide was willing to accept tips. He said he was so we made sure to do so generously.
I had expected to feel more emotional during the tour, but it was a beautiful day outside, even the birds were chirping, and I felt like I was taking in so much information that I was completely overwhelmed. It has actually taken me several weeks to continue processing everything that I learned and saw and I still feel like it’s an ongoing process to come to terms with everything. At the time of the tour, I struggled to even think of relevant questions to ask. A few of the things that really touched me though, was the story of Maximilian Kolbe and the long somber walk the prisoners made toward the gas chambers at Birkenau. It was emotional to think of the hundreds of thousands whose last moments led them up that path.
I really would have liked to have had extra time to go back through each of the camps and see the limited number of things we missed, spend time reflecting on what took place there, and pay my respects to the victims. Thinking back, there probably was time that afternoon, but I felt like I had had enough for one day. I did end up purchasing a total of four books in the bookshop, and ordered another large hardback to be delivered to me at home. I don’t normally buy books while traveling because I don’t want to lug them around, but it felt important for me to do so that day.
I ended up taking the full-size bus back to Krakow with my new Australian friend. It was much less cramped than the minibus. I was thankful that I had decided to forgo eating anything while at the camps, because I did get a bit queasy on the bus ride back. The stop and go traffic didn’t help matters. Once back in Krakow, I bid my Melbourne friend goodbye and headed off in search of pierogie. Several people had recommended Przystanek Pierogarnia to me so I headed for the location nearest the bus station (they have three). I ordered the pork pierogies and they were so freaking good! If you ever find yourself in Krakow, you must go here.
This pretty much concluded my day. I think I might have wandered around the old town or grabbed a pastry from a coffee shop near my hotel, but I was pretty exhausted from waking up so early and the full day tour. All in all, I walked more than 27,000 steps that day.