You will have seen photos, you will have seen documentaries, you may have been taught in school. Some people will be compelled to visit here, some feel they must, but perhaps everyone should do so that the horrors of yesterday never again become today. A place where 1.1 million people, mainly European Jews were systematically dehumanised, tortured, experimented on and murdered. Auschwitz was the largest Nazi German concentration camp and death camp. 40 miles west of Krakow, Auschwitz Birkenau is now a UNESCO world heritage site, a museum, a memorial, with a meaning.

Auschwitz gate entrance. Work sets you free.


It’s a museum of two parts, from two of the remaining camps. Our tour guide takes us through Auschwitz 1 camp and it starts with the sign above the gate entrance; ARBEIT MACHT FREI – work sets you free. Horrendous irony that meant exactly the opposite for those who came here, a site where the greatest mass murder in history took place, genocide, the holocaust.

We are reminded that Auschwitz was originally a Polish Army Camp at the village of Oświęcim, the layout, the barrack blocks remind me of my former RAF sites. But what happened within the electrified fences of this concentration camp was state sponsored slave labour, slow death, starvation, shootings, worked to death,  hangings, gassing, suicide, torture, disease, destruction and death.

Auschwitz electric fence


It might be difficult to comprehend the sheer scale of the savage destruction as you are guided around but the barrack blocks now house the exhibits, the stories and the material evidence. Zyklon B canisters used to gas people, mounds of shoes, children’s shoes, baby shoes, suitcases, spectacles, human hair. Early on, before the number got too large, the Nazis kept a record at Auschwitz, the walls are lined with photos of those that were murdered by being worked to death, their name, nationality, birth date, deported date, their death date. The faces of Auschwitz.


We’re taken to Block 11, the block used solely to torture, starve, the isolation cells, and where the first attempts to gas using Zyklon B were made. 600 Russian prisoner’s of war and 250 Polish prisoners were crammed into the basement where Zyklon B was released. At 15-20 minutes, not a quick death but an efficient one for Nazi purposes.


We walk past the house where the camp commandant Rudolph Hoss lived, the same house where Rudolph Hoss’s wife stayed after he was back in Germany and which his wife described as paradise while on the other side of the fence was exactly the opposite. And not far from where he was hung in 1947. Just a few metres away, the gas chamber and the crematorium. We get to go in, we look up to see the holes where the Zyklon B was dropped through.

The 2nd part of our tour takes us to Auschwitz camp 2, Birkenau, the death camp, the extermination camp. Birkenau is at the end of the train line, and the very last stop for 900,000 people. Its bleak and barren, the buildings and guard towers punctuate the flat landscape.

Birkenau train tracks


It was here where people arrived from all over Europe.  Arriving off the cattle train, they walk on to the The Ramp. This is where selection took place. The elderly, the infirm, those under 15 walked with their mother walked straight to the gas chamber. They didn’t know they were going, it was orderly. Once there, they stripped for a shower. A shower that never took place. They were gassed, hundreds at a time. After, the Sonderkommando, were forced to clean up the chamber. shave the hair and remove gold fillings and false teeth.

Today the gas chamber and crematorium buildings remains as they were found, partially destroyed by the retreating SS. Our last stop is Block 25, the block of death where female prisoners deemed unfit for work were kept until they were sent to the gas chamber.

Something to remember as the right wing rhetoric and nationalism that builds up here and across the world where people are rejected by politicians building up walls and fences. Never again.

We’re in Poland’s second city spending four days in the quaint, cultural, crazy Krakow for city break. A curious mix of communist, medieval and modern buildings wrapped around an old town square. It’s hard to miss, old town is dominated by St Mary’s Basilica where the bugle calls out each hour and the old town splays out from the Cloth Hall to old streets.

We had a hotel (Hotel Maksymilian) that was a 7 minute stroll from the centre than we then explored the city from. We’ve had to dress for the November weather, we’ve had snow, mist, fog, rain, clouds and its been freezing everyday and even I have sworn we’ll go somewhere warm for once. Krakow is not a massive city centre but we certainly clocked up some kilometres that we broke up with regular food and drink stops. Initial impressions are that its very much like Budapest and Prague, perhaps too similar to each other.


The main square was gearing up for Christmas with lots of work going off and in a way we were disappointed we were a little too early for the Christmas market but then again, I suppose it would have just been the usual fair of tourist tat. With its very own fire breathing dragon, Wawel Castle is a busy junction with views over the Vistula river a hilltop castle. The castle is a mish-mash of medieval, Baroque and Renaissance. Its free to enter though there are some areas you have to pay for but it’s cheap.


No visit to Poland is complete without sampling the food and drink. Seems rude not to engage in the national Polish drink so tried Vodka at Wódka vodka bar, beers in The Tram Bar. On a a cold winters day when the cold air has bitten, a plate of Pierogi, fried or baked Polish dumplings, from U Babci Maliny restaurant is a great comfort food.


We also managed to squeeze in a few other things including a day trip to Auschwitz and Birkenau, the Wieliczka Salt Mine, and shooting guns including an Uzi and an AK47!  Its easy to become crazy in a Krakow city break, its cheap as chips and we much preferred being there mid week. Our last day was Saturday when the tourist hordes descended in large numbers making the streets and bars a very busy Krakow city break.

We live in a country where shooting guns is considered uncommon, unless you are the estates gamekeeper, in the army or a criminal intent on blagging a bookies or a bank with a bit of armed robbery. It just so happens we’re on a break in Poland where, certainly for the tourist crowds, shooting guns is normal, so we’re giving it both barrels and gaining some instant macho swagger by shooting guns in  Krakow.

Shooting Guns in Krakow, Nick with Uzi and Sam with 44 Magnum

Strangely enough, you even get the chance to pick your weapons of choice. This may sound weird but we’ve gone for a custom package and I’ve picked my favourites, or certainly ones that have I’ve heard of. Everything you’ve heard of in Call of Duty seems to be in their weapons armoury.

Of course, it’s all in a controlled environment, we’re not nutjobs on a rampage or gun toting gangsters, but I don’t know if its more scary that I still want to shoot a gun or that I still know the muzzle velocity of the ones I have fired. We’ve got a selection of weapons at our disposal and its time to cock the Glock and take some shots.

Growing up as a child in the 70s and 80s in the cold war paranoia of a decadent western government, the temptation to pick the Belgian FN FAL, the so called right arm of the free world, and the very first weapon I ever held and fired in the RAF, is tempting for the sake of nostalgia. Instead we’ve picked the iconic, for all the wrong reason, Kalashnikov AK47. Adorned on country flags, adopted by guerrilla groups, the main armament of 55 armies across the world and the very weapon that Ivan and his red Russian army would have attempted to stomp all over the western world with during those MAD days during the Cold War. Apparently cheap enough and plentiful enough that you can by for the same price as a pack of fags, I’m glad I don’t smoke.

I can’t think of many reasons why I’d need to spray six hundred rounds per minute from a sub-machine and lay down a large amount of suppressive fire. Unless that is, I was a killer robot from the future sent back in time to prevent the leader of the human resistance from being born. In that case, I’d be marching in to a gun shop in down town Los Angeles ordering an Uzi 9mm with a strong Austrian accent Terminator style. I’m not a cyborg assassin from the future but I’m having a go anyway and on full automatic. It takes about 1 second  to expand my bullets on full auto and we both laughed, enjoying it a little too much.

It is impossible to order an Uzi 9mm without a very strong Austrian accent like you were a killer robot from the future sent back in time

I was 8 years old and it was the 4th May 1980, we were in London walking along Prince’s Gate. The very next day, we were huddled around the television in Didcot watching the news as the SAS exploded onto the scene as they stormed the Iranian Embassy. Any weapon that’s good enough for the SAS’s Counter Revolutionary Warfare wing to storm embassies has to be good enough for me. A Heckler and Koch MP5 to take a terrorist tango down. I took down the paper target in front of me with a mix of single aimed shots and burst of 3.

Then it’s on to an AR15 (M4) Carbine with an EOTech holographic sight, very Call of Duty, and then we had a blast with a Uzkon pump action shotgun.

Taking a break from the assault rifles and a rain of hot brass, we turn to handguns. I say handguns, but the next gun,a Ruger Redhawk, was more like a hand cannon. Seeing as this a 44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world and would blow your head clean off, you’ve gotta ask yourself, do you feel lucky punk, well, do ya? Hell yes I do! That paper target positively quivered as Sam levelled the sights. It nearly knocked her out of her socks and sent her staggering back. Its got one hell of a kick and I swear there was a shockblast, it’s a huge chunk of metal and an absolute beast.

Sniper Sam

The iconic opening sequence of a tuxedo wearing , suave, debonair man, walks, suddenly turns towards the camera and then shoots, blood runs down the screen. Its not the man form the Milk Tray advert but the James Bond gun barrel sequence. Because of course, no self respecting British spy would be caught dead with a weapon that ruins the smooth lines of his suit, he’d wear something small that could be tucked away like a Walther PPK. Unfortunately this had broken so were given another choice and opted for a CZ P-10C pistol. Its the equivalent to a Glock 19 and known as the Glock killer and ended up being my most accurate grouping.

Shooting guns in Krakow

We’ve had a great time at Grotgun, the instructor was patient and helpful, showing us other weapons and helping where needed. A little strange for me not having to load the weapons or clean them though. It was a breeze to book online, we just turned up and everything was already for us. We expected to see stag do groups but only saw couples while we were there. You’re not allowed to take videos of photograph while shooting but can pose afterwards, even if we do look like a poor Dempsey and Makepeace, we’ve enjoyed shooting guns in Krakow, something a little different and certainly coming away with some instant macho swagger.

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