A 'must-do' when in Krakow is visiting the Auschwitz-Birkenau site in Oswiecim, 60 km from Krakow.
Auschwitz-Birkenau was a cluster of concentration, labour and extermination camps established by the Nazis during the Second World War. Auschwitz was the largest of all camps organized by the Hitler's regime. Therefore it became one of the greatest scenes of mass murder in recorded history. 1.1 million (mostly Jewish) men, women and children were sent immediately to their deadths in the Birkenau gas chambers upon arrival after being transported by train from across occupied Europe. Those who were not killed in the gas chambers often died of disease, starvation, forced labour, medical experiments or execution.
Nowadays the Auschwitz-Birkenau site is a museum. I visited it on a tour from one of the many tourist agencies in Krakow. During the tour we spend most of the time at Auschwitz I. This camp was build first and is still in a more complete state than the Auschwitz II - Birkenau site.
The tour started at the entrance gate of Auschwitz I, marked by the infamous camp slogan "Arbeit macht frei". We visited the barracks and viewed some exhibitions and rooms filled with preserved authentic artefacts like prisoners' shoes and suitcases. Our guide gave a lot of information about how life was in the camps back in the days and the horrific statistics about the labour, the medical experiments and the extermination that took place. The tour ended at the reconstucted gas chamber.
After a small break we were taken by bus to the Birkenau site a few kilometers further. This was the camp that was built in 1941 to house the huge number of deportees from Europe. Just before liberation in January 1945, the Nazis dismantled the crematoriums and many of the barracks to hide their crimes, but the site is still well worth the visit. It’s seeing the large size of Birkenau that makes you realize how big of an operation it was.