14.01.2010 - 18.01.2010 16 °F
We successfully managed the relocation to the Orbis Cracovia. We got another fantastic deal…it was more affordable than our hostel. The hotel’s location across from the Krakow Gallery
, next to the Theater, across from the park, and only a couple of blocks from Wawel Castle.
I spent another day resting up for us to make our trip to Auschwitz. Sara visited the Jewish Galicia heritage museum and also the Gestapo headquarters of Krakow.
Of course, when we asked about regular trains for a visit everyone tried to steer us to an organized tour. The organized tours go for almost $50 per person, but then you are locked into their departure times and visit schedules. We decided to continue our renegade nature and investigated on our own.
It turns out there are commuter trains that travel to Oswiecem, the Polish village close to the three prisoner complexes named for it. They depart nearly every half hour and cost about $2.5. Score for Sara and I against the tourism establishment.
The first complex was originally a Polish army barracks which was converted to a prison for militia and activists against the third reich. Many of the building were brick and the first experimental gas chambers were set up in this camp. The conditions seemed nearly luxurious by comparison to the barbarity of its sister camp. Once inside the brick interiors, we learned quickly that the same atrocities transpired.
The most notorious and famous part dubbed, “Auschwitz Birkenau II” is the camp usually seen on films. This camp is absolutely huge and was mostly consisted of only wooden buildings. The gas chambers and crematorium are easily recognizable despite Nazi efforts to destroy them as the Russian Army advanced. At its peak the security region nearby and these camps held nearly 100,000 people at a time.
I can hardly explain the effect that visiting this place had on Sara and I. She had read extensively about the camps and the ‘Final Solution’ during her schooling and so was a little more prepared for what we would see. It completely stunned us to see the mass of human effects left by the extermination program. In one exhibition, hundreds and hundreds of pounds of human hair were displayed that was used to make cloth in Germany. Thousands of pairs of glasses, combs, shoes, it was unfathomable. Jews ( and other “undesireables”) arrived from as far away as France to the camps. It is estimated that somewhere between one and two million Jews died in this camp alone. It was not only Jews that were a part of the German extermination scheme. The Slavic races and the gypsies were also classified as undesirable. Nearly 140,000 Poles and about 20,000 gypsies were also killed in the camps. The prisoners lived in a constant state of starvation. Many prisoners who arrived in winter only survived for a day or two before dying in the harsh conditions. Seventy percent of women and children who arrived to Birkenau were immediately gassed.
My experience was affected dramatically by my being on crutches. I was confronted repeatedly with the reality that if I had arrived to camp II as I was sixty years ago, I would have immediately been exterminated. Another display in one of the blocks was a collection of crutches, canes, and prosthetics taken from prisoners. Just visiting the first camp completed wore me out. The tour just to a sampling of the dormitories took more than an hour and a half. At camp II, we borrowed a wheel chair so that I could see a little more of the camp. The pain in my hands and wrists from using the crutches so much left me wincing with each step. Even with the wheelchair, it was very difficult to go far on the icy cold terrain. One nice young man from Leeds, UK, helped push me part of the way. Finally with my foot feeling frozen, I returned to the information office while Sara spent more time walking the grounds of the camp. Sara appreciated the time to walk alone and take everything in, although simultaneously it was quite an eerie feeling to imagine what it was like to be there in the cold, snowy months in those horrific conditions. January, consequently is the anniversary of the camp’s liberation.
I almost felt like we were drawn inexorably to this camp for the last sightseeing of our trip. We saw so many different races, religions, and nationalities on our travels. In 99% of our interactions fellow human beings acted with compassion and consideration to us and to the others that we saw them interact with. In contrast, at Auschwitz, we saw the first hand the evidence of the hate and inhumanity that can exist between peoples as well. It hammered home the reality of hate and violence that spring forth from even the most ‘civilized’ nations. It forced me to remember that Bosnia, Uganda, and the other violent expressions of human hate really do exist.
Okay, deep breath.
That night, we enjoyed a quiet meal in one of the neighborhood restaurants.
We went to bed early to rest up for our flight the next day. We woke up at 5 am, we packed our bags and headed back to the main train station. From there we took the shuttle to the John Paul II international airport for our flight back to London and the friendly confines of ‘Posh Pad London’.
Next: Last stop overseas.