The main reason I wanted to visit Krakow, Poland, wasn't food related. Rather, it was to visit the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum, on the site of the largest Nazi-run extermination camp during World War II.
Below are personal reactions to a few photos I took; by no means any kind of comprehensive write up. For more historical context, Wikipedia provides an excellent starting point.
Auschwitz-Birkenau has been a museum and memorial since 1947 -- 2 years after its liberation by Soviet troops -- but it was still unnerving to watch a group of visitors get herded through the entrance, under the infamous slogan "Arbeit Macht Frei", which translates to "Work Brings Freedom". This phrase greeted prisoners at the gates of several other concentration camps, including Dachau and Sachsenhausen in Germany, and Theresienstadt in the Czech Republic.
Electrified fences and watchtowers surround and divide camp clusters. This photo for me captures an eerie peacefulness, which in itself is disturbing, knowing that at the time Nazi guards would have shot anyone trying to escape from this vantage point, and many who lost hope would have thrown themselves at the electric fence.
Given the mass murders in gas chambers using cyanide-based pesticide Zyklon B, I found myself taking photos of any large structure with chimneys. These structures below, however, were the camp kitchens.
Our guide told us that the earliest victims of Zyklon B gassing suffered the most, as the Nazis were trying to figure out the minimum amount needed to get the heinous task done, thus dragging out the poisoning and dying process.
Many of the gas chambers were destroyed by fleeing Nazis, who knew that the arrival of Soviet troops was imminent. The ruins of the gas chambers have been intentionally left in situ. A group of young Israeli soldiers -- possibly as part of their national service stint(?) -- were visiting the site at the same time as us.
An old woman wearing the flag of Israel as a cape sits and talks with a few of the young Israeli soldiers. That their conversation is in Hebrew is the only thing I can make out. I don't know what she's saying, or whether she's the assigned guide for the group or a survivor of the camp.
The range of reactions among the visitors was an interesting study in its own right. Some started sobbing at key junctures of the guided tour. Some continued taking photos indoors and carrying on conversations on their mobiles, when both were prohibited.
This man below was quietly walking, then was suddenly overcome with emotion and sat down to compose himself.
This innocuous looking concrete pond below was one of the most mind boggling and infuriating sights at the camp for me. These ponds were built at the behest of the insurer who underwrote fire coverage for the camp. It speaks to the level of absurd forethought, organisation and corporate collusion in whole affair.
A man, his visit complete, walks towards the exit of Birkenau camp along the train tracks that brought in so many prisoners deported from various corners of Europe. It occured to me that so few individuals would have had the privilege of walking in this direction while the camp was operational.
I show the above photos in black and white because that's how I've always pictured Auschwitz (too many Hollywood movies I'm sure). I simply wasn't prepared for how lush the place looked on the mild summer afternoon we visited.
The immense size of the camp complex -- said to be 191 hectares in total (1 soccer field being about 1 hectare in size) -- is difficult to digest. The inhabitants of at least 2 towns were booted out so that the Nazis could build and carry out their operations in secrecy.
Our guide, whose grandparents lived in the area at the time, said that even from many kilometres away the smoke and ash and smell of burning flesh was hard to miss, but his grandparents said they had no concept of the scale of mass murders (more than 20,000 gassed per day). Even eyewitness reports from Polish Army Captain Witold Pilecki -- who volunteered to be imprisoned to gather information about the camp and its crimes and managed to escape -- were discounted by Allied Forces between 1940 and 1943 as exaggerations. Imagine the number of lives lost during that period because of inaction!
Imagine how many lives we, here and now, continue to allow to be lost, every time we hear of a mass injustice somewhere, and do nothing. This particular thought still sits like a rock in my gut.
Many people visit Auschwitz - Birkenau with a tour group, but it's very doable to get a train or public bus from Dworzec Glowny, Krakow's main bus and train station. At the ticketing window, ask for Oswiecim (Auschwitz is the German name for the Polish town). Travel time in either direction is about 90 minutes to 2 hours, depending on traffic. A train might be more comfortable than a bus, but buses run more frequently and will drop you right at the entrance of the camp.
During busy visiting periods (designated months and hours of the day), you have to go through the camp with a guide. The guided tour takes between 3-4 hours, with a bus transit between Auschwitz and Birkenau. Then allow 1-2 hours for wandering around on your own after the guided tour.
There are regular public buses that will take you back to central Krakow. The staff at the information booth can furnish you with a schedule.
For more details, see the museum's website.