Monthly Archives: April 2012

Auschwitz

Back when I busked at Old Town, with my happy ukulele songs and my big smile, a tour guide remarked to me that I ought to play more sad songs, because, “The Polish are a sad people.”  At the time, I didn’t quite know what he meant.

When we moved from our hostel near Old Town and crossed the river, I noticed a distinct change of attitude in our surroundings.  After a search on Wikipedia, I learned that Podgórze, where we were, was the neighborhood where the Jews who had been living in Kazimierz were moved, before being deported to Auschwitz, 42 miles away.  Considering how much Poland has been through in its history, and specifically during the 20th century, suddenly the tour guide’s remarks started to make a little more sense.

Neither Jim nor I were particularly excited about getting up on the day we planned to go to Auschwitz.  Despite the fact that we’d been wandering through former Communist countries, where evidence of the two World Wars and the awful aftermath was still in plain view practically everywhere we went, we’d managed to avoid dealing with much heavy stuff the entire trip; it’d be truer to say that we actively avoided dealing with it (see my comments on the Terror House).  However, we each knew that a trip to Auschwitz was necessary, if only because this could be the only chance we’d ever have to see it.

We boarded the train bound for Oświęcim, the non-Germanized name of the town.  What started in Kraków as a full train dwindled down to just me and Jim about halfway through the journey, which imparted a feeling of sadness and solitude that set the stage for the rest of the day.

When we deboarded the train, I was struck by how normal Oswięcim seemed.  I don’t know what I was expecting.  There were a couple taverns, a filling station, a busy road.  It all seemed so benign.  We began walking to the camp.  Along the way, there were signs affirming that we were heading in the right direction, which had the effect of simultaneously reassuring and troubling me.  Eventually we came to the entrance of the camp.

If the signs created conflict within me, it was nothing compared to what walking into the Auschwitz compound did.  Rows of quiet brick buildings, tree-lined gravel paths– such an idyllic setting, belying such unspeakable cruelty.  We entered the compound under the wrought iron sign promising that “Work will make you free”.

ARBEIT MACHT FREI

I’ve struggled over how to write about the experience of walking through the camp.  Because it was the off-season, we were left to explore on our own, which allowed us to experience the different stations at our own pace, but it also meant that there was no group and no guide to act as a buffer between us and the horrors we were being shown.  The bunkhouses have each been converted to individual exhibits, and inside each were long corridors with rooms branching off on either side.  More than once I stood at a doorway, reluctant to enter on an almost visceral level, like a horse stepping foot on a rickety bridge.

Behind glass walls, the prison clothes of adults and children hang, lifeless.  On one end of a room, an enormous pile of spectacles.  In another room, discarded prosthetic limbs.  In yet another, a mound of makeup compacts.    In every main corridor, the faces of the people who lived and died here, all looking stoically at the camera.  I find myself having trouble meeting their gaze.

In addition to the debris, each room featured glass-topped tables, in which various examples of German paperwork could be seen.  There were Polish translations, and English summaries (“Paperwork documenting the arrest of an Italian Jew for listening to a foreign radio station”, etc).  Correspondence between Nazi higher-ups wherein they discussed the “Jewish Question” and its ghastly “Final Solution”.  Both Jim and I were glad we couldn’t read them in their entirety.

We hadn’t allotted nearly enough time to see most of the camp.  We got through seven blocks, ending at Block 11, the “prison within the prison” where fatal punishments were administered.  I hesitate to go into detail about the ways in which prisoners were tortured and executed here; words fail to convey the depravity of it all.

On the second floor of Block 11, there was a small respite from the horror, in the stories of the camp’s underground resistance movement, and specifically Witold Pilecki.  Pilecki, already a war hero, was a founding member of the Secret Polish Army and the only person to ever volunteer to go to Auschwitz.  At the time, reports about what was going on at Auschwitz were murky and unverifiable; the Nazi camps were thought to be merely labor camps.  Pilecki was given a pseudonym, and inserted himself into a round-up in Warsaw.  He was taken to Auschwitz, where he organized the underground resistance movement which performed a number of invaluable tasks such as distributing extra food and medicine to prisoners, gathering intelligence, and, perhaps most importantly, smuggling that intelligence out of the camps.  Pilecki then successfully escaped the camp and was never recaptured, something only a handful of others were able to accomplish.  His information on the goings-on in the camp, known as Witold’s Report, was so terrible that it was at first thought by the Allies to be rife with exaggerations, a point that is still met with some resentment.  Still, the idea that, even in such desolation and despair, there were people working to give some shred of hope to the condemned prisoners here restored the faith in humanity that, until this point, I had been losing at an alarming rate.

At that moment, we checked the time: we only had a half hour to get out of the camp and back to the train station, or we’d be stuck in Oświęcim.  As we walked briskly to the gate, Jim remarked dryly on how great it was that we were able to leave of our own accord.  We fell silent then, thinking of the millions who had no such luxury.

About halfway to the station, it was becoming clear that we would have to run the rest of the way or we wouldn’t make it.  So we ran the remaining half-mile or so at high speed, during which I was made uncomfortably aware of how out-of-shape I’d become on this trip.  We hopped onboard with literally one minute to spare; as I was huffing and puffing, pacing up and down the aisle so my heart wouldn’t explode, the train lurched forward, and we began the winding journey back to Kraków.

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A Day Trip Worth Its Salt

After our much-needed day of rest, with our time in Kraków drawing to an end, we had two destinations we had to reach.  The first, we decided, would be the Wieliczka Salt Mines, about an hour’s bus ride outside of Kraków.

I had looked up the mines on cracow-life.com (a great resource if you’re ever in the area) and was immediately intrigued.  Underground chapels?  Salt statues?  Subterranean lakes?  Count me in.  More than that, I was drawn in by the comments left by past visitors.  Overall, they were enthusiastic and complimentary; the only ones that deviated from the norm were those left by American visitors (“The lines are too long!” “The ceilings are too low!”).  In fact, the comment directly preceding the one I would eventually leave said, “… it had to be an American who has given this wonderful place a bad review.”

Well, that settled it.  I was determined to go, and to enjoy it, and to show the world that not all Americans complain incessantly about minor inconveniences.

We had a tricky time figuring out where to catch the 304 bus out to Wieliczka; once we found the stop, we had a little time to wander around, and so we meandered over to Old Town.  As we drew nearer, we saw a sign advertising a familiar European pastry.

Well, looky here...

The woman in the window didn’t want to make eye contact, however, and I wasn’t bold enough to knock at first, and so we continued wandering.  As we came back around, and started making our way to the bus stop, we passed by it again.  I still really wanted one, but the lady in the window was making it very clear that she did not want to make any unless she really had to.  Jim told me to confront my fears about speaking Polish and go up and ask for one; after all, she was sitting in the window– she was clearly there to do a job.

Drawing a deep breath, I went up, and she looked at me but didn’t open the window, so I knocked. “Przepraszam, jedno cynamon, proszę.” She looked unenthused and told me it would be 10 minutes.  I said fine.  Ten minutes turned into twenty, and “cinnamon” became “cheese and onion”, which was more expensive and also not what I wanted.  By the end of the transaction, I was extremely annoyed.  Any talk of facing my fears was met with sullen resentment.  Plus, as a consequence of my desire for chimney cake, we missed the bus we were trying to catch, and had to sit and wait for the next one.

Once the bus got going, I promptly fell asleep, and woke up 30 minutes later in much better spirits.  Before too much longer, we arrived at our destination.

The entrance was positively crawling with tourists of all different ethnicities.  At first we couldn’t even determine where to buy tickets, until a friendly man at the door directed us through the throngs and into the building.  There, we found the ticket counter and paid our US $20 apiece.  The waiting room, too, was packed to the gills with tourists and schoolchildren.  We weren’t really sure what we were waiting for; there was an English tour happening shortly, but we were afraid any announcements would get drowned in the din.  Soon, a tiny and adorable Polish woman caught our attention, and ushered us toward a group of a dozen other visitor; together, we made our way to the lift.

The lift is one of the things that the Americans on cracow-life absolutely hated.  It’s a bizarre contraption made up of four compartments, two stacked on top of two more, and each compartment fits nine people snugly.

The red gates are the two lower compartments. You can kind of see a staircase going up behind the gates, to the left; that's how you reach the two upper compartments. The whole thing's hilarious.

It’s definitely not for the claustrophobic, but salt mines probably aren’t ideal for claustrophobes anyhow.

Once we got off the lift, a process that occurs in stages due to the stacked compartments, we were in a cavern that was pleasantly cool and dim.  Our guide extolled the virtues of the mineral-rich air and the constant temperature in the mine, and we began what would ultimately end up being a 426-foot descent into the earth.

These cauliflower-like salt patches are a result of the evaporation methods currently used in the mines.

As it turns out, getting good pictures of a mine is not the easiest thing in the world, but we tried to capture what we could.  Most of the statues were carved by miners.

Salt veins and a bit of a chandelier made of-- you guessed it-- salt.

This is me with Casimir The Great. Also made entirely out of salt.

There is a myth surrounding the origin of the mines, wherein a Hungarian princess, Kinga, was to marry the Prince of Poland.  As a dowry, she asked her father for a salt mine, since Poland had none.  On the way to Poland, she stopped at the mine she was given, and dropped her engagement ring into it.  Upon arrival into Poland, she ordered a well to be dug.  Soon, salt was discovered underground.  The legend goes that, as they were digging and discovering more salt, they soon uncovered a ring– Kinga’s engagement ring.  From then on, Kinga became the symbolic protector of the mine and those working in it.

St. Kinga, as she's known.

Kinga’s importance in the mines is emphasized by the eponymous Chapel of the Blessed Kinga, an underground worship area that still holds Sunday masses.  The Chapel is the grandest of all the chapels in the mine (there are several), and everything, down to the “tiles” in the floor, is carved out of salt.

The Chapel of the Blessed Kinga, as seen from the top of the staircase.

Over a thousand salt crystals make up this chandelier.

Me and Salt Pope John Paul II.

What appears to be a tiled floor is actually just tile shapes etched into a salt plateau.

The tourist path through the mines is so well-trod that it’s easy to forget that, since the 1200s, this was an actual working mine (excavation stopped in 1996, though the mine still employs hundreds of workers).  As tends to be the case with mines, conditions were hazardous.  When toxic gases would build up in the upper reaches of a cavern, the miners had to crawl on their bellies while holding long torches with which to ignite, and thus eliminate, the gas.  This often led to the miners igniting themselves as well, but there wasn’t exactly a choice about it.  Horses, used to power the excavation process as it became more sophisticated, spent their entire lives underground since there was no way to move them.  Fascinating stuff.

My favorite room was probably the Weimar Room, which featured a mini-light show above a brine lake, while Chopin played overhead.  Very soothing.  Unfortunately, it was too dark for pictures.

After a couple solid hours of being ushered purporsefully through the mines– the tours are so regimented, we were told, because they actually only travel through a small section of the mine, and if tourists were allowed to meander at their own pace, they’d likely end up lost underground– we were led to a large cavern with a gift stand, and told that we were near the lift back to the top.  We could either head straight to the lift, or go to the mine museum; our tour guide was setting us free.  Jim and I decided not to visit the museum (it seemed redundant after 2+ hours of walking through the mines) and headed instead for the bar (!!) where we would determine our next move.

On the way to the bar, we passed this.

A salt emblem of the Unesco World Heritage sites admitted around the same time as the mines.

A couple bottles of woda gazowana later, we decided it was time to go home, so we waited in line for the lift, behind a pack of twenty or so loud, possibly Italian high-school aged kids.  They were singing football chants and laughing raucously, which annoyed me instantly because of the ringing acoustics of the mine.  Soon the line opened and we were led, by another guide, to where we would catch the lift.  As we walked, the football chanting continued, but slowly I found it more endearing, because they were genuinely enjoying themselves.  They joked around with the tour guide, despite the language barrier, which I also found endearing.

On the way to the lift, we turned a corner and came face-to-face with two archetypal miners, complete with lighted hardhats.  They were standing over a tray of rocks, from which we were each encouraged to take a sample.  In fact, the tray was full of salt crystals in various forms, which I thought was fantastic– we were being given souvenirs of the mine by the miners themselves!  After we each thanked them for their generosity, we continued to the lift.

We got to the waiting area and stood around.  The lift is definitely a slow affair, so we had a bit of time to kill.  The kids continued their singing, and eventually ended up teaching the chant to our guide.  Once he learned it sufficiently, there was enthusiastic applause, and then they asked him if he would teach them a Polish song.  He was hesitant at first, but then taught us “Sto Lat“, the Polish birthday song.

As if on cue, the lift appeared just as we had all finished applauding our halting group rendition of “Sto Lat”, and we began the comical process of packing in, nine at a time, into the tiny lift compartments.

Back above ground, the sun had set and we made our way to the bus stop, satisfied.  We headed back to our neighborhood, stopping at a Delikatesy (or “delika-teezy” as we started calling them) for things to cook for dinner.  Bedtime was going to come early tonight, because tomorrow, another day of travel awaited: we were headed to Oświęcim.

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Kraków, Part II

Our days in Kraków continued in line with the rest of the trip: wandering and eating.  We became familiar with the kebab stands that served falafel sandwiches (which isn’t all of them, surprisingly, and the ones that do use strange ingredients like green olives and corn).  Adding to the whimsy of our wandering were a couple strategically-placed bubble machines around Old Town.

This bubble machine is attached to a locked bike. Why? Why not??

After a day of wandering, we’d return home to our hostel.  This was the first time we’d stayed in a hostel the whole trip (conversely, our last trip to Europe was spent exclusively in hostels), and getting used to the group dynamic was slow going at first.  There was a group of Hungarian girls who checked in a few hours after we did, and they were bound and determined to befriend everyone they encountered on our floor.  Particularly endearing was how they said “Hallo!” for “Goodbye!”; incidentally, I ran into them all over town while we were staying there, and could instantly recognize them by the chorus of “Hallo!” that invariably followed.

Another hostel moment: we stayed in one night, and the guy on the other side of our wall was comparing versions of “Ne Me Quitte Pas“, quite possibly the saddest song in the world.  First came a version done by a female (who sounded at first like Édith Piaf but ended up being someone else), and then the consummate version by Jacques Brel… and then another, live version of Jacques Brel, and so on.  We could tell that our neighbor was exorcising some demons, because by the third version, he began to wail along in a cadence suggesting the involvement of copious amounts of wine.  C’est la vie.

By this time, St. Patrick’s Day weekend was upon us.  Neither Jim nor I are heavy drinkers, but we did want to get out and enjoy the weekend, so we set our sights on music.  On Friday night, we went to a place in Kazimierz called Poligamia to see what the website described as an “Irish duo playing Celtic tunes”, which was a bit misleading; we were expecting “Whiskey In A Jar” and instead got contemporary original songs about bike-riding and such.  But the duo was in fact Irish, and the music wasn’t bad, so it wasn’t a total bust.

On Saturday, Kraków had Irish fever in a bad way.  Everyone was wearing green, and the weather was starting to get nice so every outdoor patio seat in the Square was filled.  Being the beer enthusiasts that we are, on perhaps the beer-drinkingest day of the year, we decided we wanted to check out CK Browar, a brewpub just off the Square.  We descended into the cavern and found some unreserved seats.  I ordered the weiss beer, and Jim had the porter, and to accompany the beers we decided on a basket of fried things.  I found the weiss to be pleasant, if unimpressive, but Jim’s porter was acrid and immature-tasting.  We finished the beers and the fried things and moved on to Cztery Pokoje, a little coffeeshop where there was to be blues music that evening.  It ended up being another duo, this time a girl singing and a guy playing guitar.  Their set was comprised of tried-and-true blues tunes, and they were very talented, but we weren’t feeling particularly engaged so we left.

On Sunday, I decided to hit the streets and do a little busking.

This is my busking face. I wear sunglasses to hide the terror in my eyes.

I did all right for myself.  I sold a CD to an American couple who happened by, and made about $16 in an hour.  Since busking makes me nervous, I was very pleased that it went so well, and went home to tell Jim all about it.  We decided to ride the celebratory wave over to Harris Piano Bar, a place on the Square that promised live jazz.  Upon entering and descending the staircase into the venue, you pass a giant statue of a reclining, tuxedo-clad Louis Armstrong.  A good sign.

The music was great.  As you might guess from reading the blog, I’ve developed a soft spot in my heart for raggy jazz performed by middle-aged, middle European men, and this band delivered exactly that.  Jim and I toasted to our success in selecting the winning venue.  At some point, we befriended some guys from Belfast who were on holiday.  We drank and traded stories, and once the show was over, we took turns singing songs (and continuing to drink).  I don’t exactly remember how we parted ways, but it was tremendous fun.

Less fun was waking up the next morning and realizing that it was Moving Day.  We enjoyed our time at the hostel but missed having a kitchen in which we could cook, so we had made plans to cross the river and stay in the Podgórze neighborhood.  After some confusion, and some water, we packed ourselves up and headed to the flat.

I didn’t realize, until a day or two later, that this was the actual Kraków ghetto, although I’d begun to suspect it based on the melancholy of the surroundings.

The entryway to our flat.

The flat itself was quirky and fun.  It was a studio, with a glass-top stove (the second one we’ve dealt with so far) and some funky photos on the wall.

This one was visible from our bed.

I don't get it but I love it.

Once we arrived, we promptly dropped our things and slept the rest of the day, emerging after dark to hit up a pizza place, Delecta, that Jim spotted on our way in.  The pizza did wonders for our sad bellies; always trust an Italian restaurant that grows its own basil on the windowsill. 🙂

Our time in Kraków was already winding down, and our day of rest meant we had to make steadfast plans to visit the two places we knew we had to see before we left: the Wieliczka Salt Mines, and Auschwitz.

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