I think the wisest decision we made in Krakow was to hire a taxi to take us to Auschwitz and then to hire a private guide once we got there.  I'm usually such a tightwad and try to find the cheapest way out, but this was worth it in every possible way.  The total cost for the two of us for the day was about $120, about twice what we would have paid if we took the group tour.  For that price, we cut the driving time in half, rode in a Mercedes rather than a bus, and received very personal service from an outstanding and knowledgable guide.  We were able to see all parts of both Auschwitz and Birkenau; our guide had so many personal stories that she had accummulated from years of guiding survivors who had come back to visit.
Before this trip, I knew that Birkenau and Auschwitz were two separate but closely connected camps, but I think I've always associated the term "death camp" with Auschwitz.  There has been some criticism today that Auschwitz has been "sanitized" and that the horror of other suffering groups has been made to seem as terrible as that of the Jews.  There might be some truth to that at the Auschwitz camp itself (there is much emphasis on the Poles--both Jews and non-Jews) who were there), but at Birkenau, everything is much more stark and the tragedy is much more real.
These train tracks going under the tower at Birkenau have become almost symbolic of the final horror of the Holocaust.  As we walked through the camp, we and our guide found ourselves becoming quieter and quieter until we were finally talking hardly at all.  Instead we were just walking about looking and wondering how it had ever happened.
After visiting Dachau a number of times with the students, we felt really fortunate to have gotten a chance to see the difference.  The crematoria at the back of Birkenau were all "destroyed" by the Germans as they fled at the end of the war.  It was decided that these ruins would stay as they are with a memorial built nearby to all those who died here.  Although it was very difficult for us to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau, I think it's a trip that everyone who can take should take.  Visit this site for more information about the camps.

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