Trip Start Nov 06, 2012
Trip End Dec 21, 2012

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Flag of Poland  , Malopolskie,
Thursday, December 13, 2012

Day 35 - Wednesday 12th December

Waking up to a snowy, grey morning in Krakow, we sought some shelter from the cold and hunted some breakfast in the local shopping mall. A simple bread roll was all we mustered though, as we had to be quick to get back to the hotel for a tour we had booked earlier. We were headed to the town of Ocwiecim, where we would visit the remains of the Auschwitz concentration and extermination camps.

Piling into a Tarago-like people mover, Lauren and I, along with 2 other couples headed out of Krakow along the snowy roads through forests to the camps for a guided tour of both Auscwitz I, and Auschwitz II (also called Birkenau). A DVD was played inside the car on the journey out which provided a very good background to the subject, from Nazi policies, the construction and operation of the camps, the transport of people to the camps, the Nazi's attempts to cover up the use of the camp toward the end of the war and the final soviet liberation of the camps. Survivor testimonies and photos of the camps we're confronting and truly set the scene for us to witness these places.

On arrival to Auschwitz I, we were allocated a tour guide and in a group of approximately 30, we entered the camps through the chilling gates labelled with words "Arbeit Macht Fret" - work makes you free. Auschwitz I was formerly a Polish military barrack before being converted by the Nazis into a concentration camp. This was the main administrative centre for the entire Auschwitz complex, and as it was mostly intact after the war, it now serves as main museum , with the original barrack buildings containing a vast array of exhibits detailing the horrific atrocities committed by the Nazis.

Some of the exhibits were for background information, such as numbers of people killed here, where they came from, and what "undesirable" type they were cast under. Then came the hall of photos of the victims, men women and children. These original mug shots were taken by the Nazi's, and now these are hung together in a moving exhibit. Each photo details their names, dates of birth, occupation, where they came from, and finally date of death. The stares in every photo is haunting. The next exhibits were the most moving of all, piles of human hair (to be used for products by the third reich), prosthetic limbs, children's clothing, baggage, shoes (men's, women's and children's) and kitchen pans. Pictures describe this better than words, so I'll leave that for the photos to tell.

Later around the grounds we were guided into a concrete structure which looked like an air raid bunker. It was inside where our guide told us that this was the gas chamber for this camp, with a capacity of 700 people. It was mind boggling. Looking up, we were able to see the chutes where Zyklon B pellets were dropped in on the unsuspecting victims, who were going in expecting to be showered and deloused. A set of rails on which a trolley ran led into another room, where bodies would be loaded into a furnace to be burnt. The clinical and calculating manner in which these mass executions were carried was mind numbing. On exiting the gas chamber, our guide pointed out the place immediately adjacent to gas chamber the where Rudolf Hess, a significant Nazi figure in the running of Auschwitz, was executed after the Nuremberg trials in 1947.

After some lunch (not that we had a full appetite after what we'd just seen), the Tarago provided a lift for us across to the main camp, Auschwitz II - Birkenau. This was constructed as a mass extermination camp by Heinrich Himmler as an answer to the Final Solution. This place was much bigger than Auschwitz I, and was simply a killing factory. Guided along the train tracks from the entrance of the camp to the end of the camp, to each side stand remaining prisoner huts, we all took a minutes silence as we traced the path which people took if they were sent to the gas chambers. At the end of the tracks now stands a memorial to all who died here, and to the sides stand the ruins of crematoriums destroyed by the Nazis in attempt to cover up their acts. It was a moving visit to this place but glad we came at the same time.

Heading back to Krakow in the darkness, we were just about nodding off to sleep! We found some quick dinner in the town mall before having a look around the old town square, with its beautiful tower and christmas markets. It has been a draining day, but I'm sure we'll sleep well tonight in the Red Brick Apartments, where we are staying for our Krakow visit.

Day 36 - Thursday 13th December

After such a full on day yesterday, today we looked forward to just exploring the town. We grabbed some breakfast from a street vendor before heading out into the cold (-7 average), but clear skies and no wind made it more pleasant than yesterday's grey and blustery conditions.

Walking through the town square, we headed toward the Wawel Royal Castle. Built on Wawel Hill (a high point in Krakow) in the 14th century, it isn't your typical castle, but rather a series of structures built around a central courtyard. Here we visited Wawel Cathedral, which is over 900 years old and has served as a place to carry out the coronation of Polish monarchs, and also their burial place. An interesting note is that Pope John Paul II carried out his first mass there in 1946.

Leaving Wawel Hill, we strolled along the Vistula River toward the Jewish Quarter of town, where we found the holocaust memorial. Set on the site of deportation to Nazi extermination camps such as Auschwitz, the memorial consists of empty chairs, each of which represent 1000 victims (presumably from Krakow).

Onward along the river we headed, eventually winding back into town past Wawel Hill again. Ending up in the town square again, this was an opportunity to do some tourist shopping, and try the local food at the Christmas markets. The Polish sausage was very nice!

Freshening up at the hotel, we found a nice Mexican restaurant not far from the town square. An excellent meal consisting of two mains, two deserts and drinks came to 85 Zylots, equivalent to 24 AUD! The food and service was fantastic and they well deserved their tip!

Our final time in Krakow was spent in the old town square, where we could get a few last pictures of the place at night. Overall a very good place to visit with friendly people. We have got an early flight tomorrow, leaving our accommodation at 0430 to fly to Amsterdam. Hooroo Krakow, it been well worth the visit!
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