Krakow, Auschwitz-Birkenau, Warsaw
08.11.2012 - 08.14.2012 65 °F
Poland was the greatest surprise for me. The start of the journey was an absolute nightmare, first by missing my 6:30am bus. Add this to your reminders for individual travel: DON'T BOOK EARLY DEPARTURES. EVER. Or if you do, be responsible and go to bed early! But I must admit, in this case, it not only worked out in my favor, it made this trip become one of the most memorable throughout my two weeks.
”If at some point you don’t ask yourself, ‘What have I gotten myself into?’ then you’re not doing it right.” — Roland Gau
The above quote could never be more appropriate. $100 more to get on a 11 hour train ride from Budapest to Krakow. Awful circumstances, right? Well.. yes, that's right. UNTIL that whole new friends thing happens. For no apparent reason, the stewardess lady on the train did not take a liking to me, no idea why. I'm wandering through this narrow train corridor trying to figure out where my seat is, or at least which car I'm supposed to be in.. maybe she was just offended by my lack of Hungarian. I have no idea. Regardless, the sound of the heavens to a lonesome American traveler's ears is fluent English. So imagine my joy when some British folk come up behind me so naturally I ask "Where the hell am I supposed to go?!" Ah, the nice people of the world. God bless you, Amie, Franky and Lee! They happened to have one seat open in their carriage so I joined them for the remainder of the journey.
None of us could say anything about positive as we rolled into Poland. I don't know if it was the darkness or the gloomy weather or the fact that we had been on a train for umpteen hours. We couldn't stop talking about how we would be in hog heaven for some greasy KFC and free wifi and behold.. there appeared to be civilization is this dreadful place! The bus station connected to a huge mall, fully equipped with some life support in the form of.. you got it, KFC and wifi. The original game plan was for me to detach from the group and couch surf with a host who was supposed to leave his key with a security officer at his complex. 'New friends save my life round two'.. walking me to my host's complex.. where, no surprise here, there's no key left with the officer (later write my host of this misfortune, who is more than sorry that it was lost somehow, but no matter anymore..) Long story short, the couch surfing ordeal bellied up and 'new friends save my life round three' commences and they openly invite me to stay with them at their hostel in the center square, which ended up being PERFECT. All in the same room, dorm room with 14 rooms (and a total of three plugs and three showers/toilets, mind you.. gotta love hostels!) Regardless of the mishaps earlier in the evening, we were settled, awake, and ready to hit the ground running in this wonderful, upbeat city.
We met two Dutch fellows in our hostel, whom we stuck close to during our three-day stay in Krakow. The first night we bounced around the center of Krakow, taking in the more-than-surprising hype of the city. But, on this first full day of being out of birthday mode with my additional year of wisdom, us girls turned in early, mentally and physically preparing for the underestimated dreadfulness and insight of reality that was to come the following day.
This is also when my trip dropped about 25 degrees. I don't think there's ever been a time in my life when I've had to wear a sweatshirt and jeans in AUGUST. We woke up to a dreary, rainy Krakow, which only seemed appropriate since we were planning on going to Auschwitz-Birkenau all day. Our new Dutch friends just so happened to be literally roadtripping throughout Europe, so they offered us a lift to the hour journey to the concentration camp. It was quite an interesting ride, four people packed into the back seat of Rens's little Lexis and 6'5 Jelle squeezed into the passenger seat! At least we had a nice laugh before the inevitable ambiance came about..
"We are all different; because of that, each of us has something different and special to offer and each and every one of us can make a difference by not being indifferent." -- Henry Friedman, Chairman of the Holocaust Education Centre, Washington D.C.
For most of us outsiders, being those who especially don't have much connection or relation to the Holocaust in general, Auschwitz is typically one of the first things that comes to mind. It has the reputation as one of the most horrific and devastating camps of World War II, which is true. Most websites claim that Auschwitz was built solely for the purpose of becoming a labor camp, which I learned is entirely false. The whole Auschwitz complex is located in Oswiecim, a southern town located about an hour west from Krakow. Hitler annexed this town to start the conversion into the death camp. The entirety of the complex was broken up into three parts: Auschwitz I, Auschwitz II and Birkenau. I was lucky enough to visit the first and the latter. Oswiecim was most appealing because it was actually already built. The history of present "Auschwitz I" is a Polish Army barracks, which shows the incredulous irony in history. So in 1940, the town of Oswiecim watched the accommodations for their country's army become one of the most tragic pieces of 20th century history. Also, at the start of Auschwitz, Jews were not yet the target. Most of the inmates in Auschwitz I were Polish politicians, Soviet POWs, gypsies. It wasn't until 1941 when all of the Jews from Oswiecim were forced out and the construction of Birkenau begun in 1942. My purpose wasn't to give you a history lesson, I know you're reading this to discover my personal experiences and reactions to the death camps. But after my guided tour, I realized how misconstrued history books can be. I feel like, that by actually visiting the camp and being open-minded and receptive to what the place had to say, I learned so much more than in all my years prior.
Take it from me: Spend the money to do the guided tour throughout these concentration camps. They are free to walk through, but I'd imagine you would not get nearly the same effect you would with a guide. Our tour guide was Polish.. so while she was talking about these events, she would say "my people" and "my country". I have been on many tours in my life, even that of the Third Reich tour in Munich; however, I have never experienced stories of such despair on the very grounds of which I was walking on. At the end of the Auschwitz I tour, we had a little bit of down time before we took a bus to Birkenau for the second part of the guided tour. Another tidbit of advice: You might not want to do this tour alone. Like anything else that one might struggle with, its always a bit easier to be able to talk it out with others, especially when it comes to things we don't entirely understand. We were bombarded with so much disastrous information, we all seemed rather dumbfounded and empty during our break. It was strange, there were several other tourists walking around with children, smiling like it was just an everyday, normal tour. We didn't understand. Some of the things we saw and heard throughout the tour were enough to completely immerse yourself in your own thoughts, at the very least putting anyone out of any sort of good mood. To stand in front of a gas chamber and crematorium.. the words aren't there. There are literally no words to describe the feeling you have in your gut, knowing that where you stood, inhumanity was merely an understatement, a concept irrelevant to the the Nazi's lives.
Birkenau. In my experience learning about the Holocaust, Birkenau was never the first thought when talking about the death camps, for reasons I now do not understand. If you have ever seen the movie Boy in the Striped Pajamas, that is Birkenau. Birkenau was a MASSIVE concentration camp, with two large gas chambers in the end of the railway. Every picture you see, like above, of the bricked entrance with the railroad going through the center.. as seen in every picture we've ever seen growing up learning about the Holocaust.. I can't even begin to explain how strange it was to just stand in its presence. I've never seen a place so eerie.. so eerily quiet. It is true when they say that the birds don't even sing over Birkenau. Well, I saw birds and I never heard a thing. In the early 1940s, there were hundreds of huts in Birkenau, many of which were bombed down during the liberation. All that was left of them was their brick chimneys. However, there were still several huts standing on both the men and women's side. The male huts were made of wood and the women's were mostly brick. Many of the barrack beds were still standing, several decorated with flowers and stones from visitors. We walked along the railroad towards the back of the camp, where the rail carts finalized their journey and the prisoners where pointed in the direction of either the gas chambers or the barracks. The gas chambers are completely destroyed, all that is left is the ruins left from the bombing. The shape of the building is still very noticeable, the mere sight of it makes you sick to your stomach.
There is a beautiful memorial at the end of the railroad in between the two gas chambers. At least twenty plaques like the two below, all written in a different language, line the memorial. This was truly one of the most eye-opening experiences in my life. There are still so many questions circling my mind, I don't think the concept of the Holocaust will ever be fathomable.
“We live in a wonderful world that is full of beauty, charm and adventure. There is no end to the adventures we can have if only we seek them with our eyes open.” -- Jawaharal Nehru
We all passed out asleep on the ride back to Krakow. Not only was it completely mentally exhausting, I think we all had been lacking sleep for a long time.. backpacking can take its toll on you! And after an emotional day like we just had, some good old fashion shenanigans seemed to be all kinds of necessary! Obviously a tourist trap, yet very popular for a Sunday night, we moseyed to a club near our hostel. Oh my and were the creepers out that night! Very thankful for friends telling giant Brazilian men who follow me to the bathroom that I'm not interested and other friends pretending to be my boyfriend so midget Indian men will stop asking me to dance.. all in all, it was a pretty fun and eventful night to say the least!
It was a sad day saying goodbye to Krakow. It definitely made a jump to my top five list of favorite cities in Europe.. another visit will have to be in order soon! Ah, I love that.. going somewhere new with absolutely no prior knowledge of what you're getting yourself into. Then again, the ones you travel with and/or meet during your journey makes all the difference in the world. To my new British and Dutch friends, thank you for everything you did to make Krakow a wonderful experience for me! You are always so welcome to pay a visit to Praha anytime!
Bus maintenance to Warsaw. Not exactly the best news to hear when I was already bummed about leaving Krakow.. but finally on our way in the a.m. hours. A five hour bus ride easily turns into seven when you factor in downpours the entire way and bumper to bumper traffic once reaching civilization on the outskirts of Warsaw. Thankfully I was only in Warsaw for about 36 hours, it was literally factored into my itinerary for the sole purpose to get to Vilnius later.. I can say though, that while I was in Warsaw, I had a legitimate Polish meal, consisting of meat and cheese stuffed dumplings and grilled chicken and gravy! Might have been one of the best meals of my entire trip.. AND I DIDN'T EVEN GET A PICTURE OF IT. I don't know what I was thinking!
Another neat experience I had while being in the capital of Poland was the celebration of Polish Army Day. It was both to my benefit and not, since almost everything in Warsaw was closed. However, while I walking throughout Old Town and in the central district, there were TONS of people walking around carrying Polish flags and singing folk songs. I may or may not have even seen an albino gangster Polish kid rapping in the middle of a square wearing a Braves fitted hat! Haha.. It was so exciting! Polish army men and women were everywhere.. they had stands lining the main streets with old army jeeps and vehicles, planes, guns, supplies, etc. People were able to get in the vehicles and hold the guns to take pictures and what not (I'm pretty sure if this were to happen in America, you'd have to get some sort of permit and file some paperwork in order to get near these massive weapons..)
“Our happiest moments as tourists always seem to come when we stumble upon one thing while in pursuit of something else.” — Lawrence Block
Time to say goodbye to Poland. Such a variety of adventures, emotions, experiences, food, friends, and so much more to speak of, its rather difficult to put it all down on this blog. I feel like I'd covered a lot of ground there, most of it being on a train or bus, going through the country this way and also going back through in the opposite direction the next week on my way back to Prague. The plethora of history on Polish soil is mindbogglingly deep and enthralling. Although not usually at the top of most Westerners' travel lists, I would highly advise going to Krakow and Oswiecim. You will not regret it!
Keep checking back for the next post.. for the next leg of the adventure.. we're making our way up to the Baltic region!
Thanks for reading ya'll!
-----> SIDE NOTE. After I went to Auschwitz-Birkenau, I bought a book called "Alone in Berlin". Its tells the story of a working man in Berlin who is a part of the Party, until his only son is killed on the front lines.. then he turns against Hitler. Its really good so far, if you're looking for an interesting read!