It was the autumn of 2015 and I was in the middle of my very first solo trip in Europe. I had already established a great love for exploring Europe and an even greater love for learning about the second World War. So I made it my mission to visit places I had dreamt about seeing since I was twelve years old, and made a big part of my trip about seeing sites made famous by the war. Little did I know this trip would leave a lasting mark on me, and not just from the history.
About a week into my two week trip I made the journey a million people make every year, I was going to visit Auschwitz concentration camp. I had arrived in Poland early in the morning, in the city of Katowice. Now, from my experience most people stay in Warsaw or Krakow and take a tour to Auschwitz, but I was taking this trip on a very small, tight budget so I was staying in a small town called Bierún. Bierún is only about an eighteen minute car drive from Auschwitz which was one reason I chose to stay there, but also because it was so much cheaper than the larger cities. In order to get from Katowice to Bierún I had to catch a cab, easier said than done when you speak no Polish what so ever. I managed to find an elderly man with a taxi, and although he spoke no English, we managed to get to the hotel after I showed him the address and he wrote the fair on a piece of paper. Though I had what I thought was a shaky start to my time in Poland I was excited to venture out the next day and visit the museum.
I was nervous and excited to visit a place I had read so much about. It wasn’t until I saw that famous iron gate that the full force of what I was about to do hit me and a feeling of pure awe and amazement fell over me. I was really about to walk the grounds so many I had read about did before me. It was like being transported in time, I could almost hear those words I had read playing in my head, the horrific stories of survivors.
We were walking the grounds and buildings of Auschwitz listening to the guide tell us stories and facts about the places around us. It was quite the feeling seeing places and putting them together with the stories I read, kind of like finally putting a face with someone’s voice. Walking on the through that fence was so surreal, though the weather was warm and sunny I kept picturing the camp in as a dark dreary day. In my mind I kept picturing the grounds muddy and covered in blood, the dead and they dying, yet before me I saw green grass and life.
The tour took us through rooms full of items confiscated from the prisoners, rooms full of shoes, luggage, bowls and zyklon b containers, the poison used in gas chambers. Seeing the amount of these items is really shocking, even though you know the number of victims seeing rooms filled with their belongings is a real eye opener.
We made it to one of the remaining gas chambers/crematoriums and the air was gone from my chest, I was really standing in the room hundreds of thousands of people lost their lives in. How could I be here? How could have these crimes happened?
We then made our way over to Auschwitz II, which changed my feelings entirely. Seeing barracks that weren’t much more than chimneys and gas chambers the Nazis had tried to destroy before liberation lit a fire in me. How could they think what they had done could be hidden? Standing on those tracks so many innocent souls were brought in on made it feel like this place was apart of my history. Now, no one in my family is Jewish or even lived in Europe at the time, as a matter of fact, but hearing the victims stories and walking those grounds makes it feel like your story. Which as you can imagine would make for a very draining and emotional day.
By the time I made it back to my hotel in Bierún in the early afternoon, I was full of so many emotions from my trip. On one hand I felt drained from all the camp brought out in me that day, but on the other hand I was on a high that I had actually visited somewhere I had been dreaming of so long. I took the rest of the day to rest and ponder everything I had saw and learned that day. I had to start the next leg of my journey in the morning and needed to be ready to go. I went to bed thinking that this was the best trip ever and nothing was going to ruin that.
Departure day of my time in Poland was upon me and I was ready to move onto the next country. I decided I was going to walk to the train station since I was only about 3 miles, and honestly using public transit terrified me since I didn’t know the language. So I trekked my way to the train station, which was a lot smaller than any of the other stations I had visited up to this point.
I got up to the ticket counter and an elderly lady asks me a question in Polish. I smile and ask her if she speaks English, she shakes her head no, but I wasn’t worried that was no problem with me and the taxi driver. So I ask for a ticket to Ostrava, Czech Republic which she responds to in Polish, but I understood, there are no international tickets here. So now a slight panic sets in, how am I going to get out of Poland and to my next hotel in time for check in? This little station has no wifi!
I remembered seeing a familiar sight up the road, a universal sign, the golden arches of McDonald’s. Here in the States almost every McDonald’s has wifi, so I made my way back up the road to try to find wifi to no avail. Now I am panicking and frustrated, what am I going to do! I don’t know how to get to where I needed to be next and I have a mother back home waiting for me to check in at the next hotel. That’s when I really started to panic, I wasn’t going to be able to leave sets or that I’ll run out of money trying.
I decided I had to go back to the one place I knew had wifi and people to help me, my hotel almost three miles away. The whole three miles my anxiety starts to get the better of me, so by the time I reach the hotel I am already a mess. At the counter is one of the workers I had talked to during my stay, she knew and understood basic English so I explained my situation to her. She told me I needed to go to the train station in town to buy a ticket to get the Czech Republic. At that point my frustration and anxiety won over and I burst into tears. She was telling me to do what I had just done!
Luckily another employee, Suzanna, I had talked to during my stay made her way to the desk, and had a better understanding of English. She knew I was traveling alone and had no one to call, so she reassured me that everything would be okay and they would get me where I needed to be. Suzanna was amazing, she got online to find the tickets I needed to get to my hotel and wrote a card up saying what cities, trains, times I needed and where I had to switch trains. All while I am standing there trying not to cry anymore, apologizing for being such a wreck. After she has my schedule ready Suzanna asks if I know where to get back on the bus, and I will never forget the look of shock on their faces when I told them I walked to town and back!
Suzanna then arranged for someone to drive me to the train station and help buy the ticket I needed to get to the border of Poland and Czech Republic, and explained what I needed to do from there to get to the right city. I felt like the poor crazy American girl, but they were the kindest people, they even brought me a meal while we waited until the it was time to head to the station. I thanked them a million times over, I finally felt like I had some control to my day again. They hugged me, told me it wasn’t a problem and sent me on my way.
Once I was back at the station my driver spoke with the same ticket lady as before (thankfully) and helped me purchase my tickets. From there we walked to the platform (where I was the only passenger in sight) and she called Suzanna so I could ask any last questions I may of had, and then I was on my own again. I was able to make all my connections without issue.
When I arrived at the border I had to leave the Polish station and walk through town into Czech Republic. To some of you that might not seem like a big deal, but where I live in Michigan it is only a 3 hour drive to Canada and I need a passport to enter. So to just walk into another country like I am just out for a stroll in the park was insane to me! I then once I crossed I had to find the Czech train station and buy a ticket to Ostrava where my next hotel was.
All in all it ended well, I made it to my hotel just after dark and was only slightly late for check in with my mom. I “survived” Poland even though my anxiety told me I wouldn’t. I thought that event would ruin my trip, although I didn’t do much while in Czech Republic because of it, I am actually really glad it happened. It showed me that I could get through things I thought I couldn’t on my own (and with a little help from hotel employees). But it made me a better traveler, I wasn’t afraid to take risks or go on adventures. Something I thought would ruin my first solo experience actually became one of my favorite travel stories that I will never forget.
I would love to hear your favorite travel story or travel horror story. You can message me or leave it in the comments below!