Another Planet

Trip Start Aug 31, 2009
Trip End Jan 08, 2010

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Flag of Poland  , Southern Poland,
Friday, November 27, 2009

The train ride from Prague to Krakow was interesting to say the least.  As the train barreled on we commented to each other "Well, this is depressing".  Of course, Poland itself isn't depressing, in fact it's quite beautiful, but the combination of dreary weather, fog, and third-world-like train travel made our journey a bit depressing.  We had to change trains in the Polish town of Katowice which was an experience.  This was the first station we'd seen that didn't have an automated "Arrivals" and "Departures" board.  Neon lighting from the 80's and a random perfume shop filled the station.  Strange men babbled to us in Polish.  We couldn't wait for our next train to arrive...until we saw our next train.  The trip from Katowice to Krakow was arguably our most painful ride, not only did it creep along at a low, low speed but the car we rode in smelled slightly of urine, the bathroom toilet didn't actually flush (enough said), and was littered with garbage from train riders before.  All in all, a unique train experience compared to what we've become accustomed to.  I was grateful to arrive in Krakow, it is a small city so we were able to walk through the town square to our apartment in the south-east part of the city.
The next day we wandered through Krakow, through a few town squares and up into the Wawel Castle area.  We passed countless cathedrals and vodka restaurants, the two staples of Polish living.  We ate dinner at a place called Cherubino and had a night cap at a bar near our apartment.  The bar had a violin band of four young guys, they were actually pretty good.  One of them sang, in Polish of course, and the rest just played violin but they were very entertaining, we could have listened to them all night.  I would have never guessed such wonderful, lively music could come out of four violins.
I think we were all dreading what our second day in Krakow had in store for us - a trip to Auschwitz Concentration Camp.  We walked back to the train station and boarded the train to Osweicim, a town the Nazi's "renamed" Auschwitz once they invaded Poland.  Even though Osweicim and Krakow are only separated by 40 miles or so, the train ride takes an hour and half due to the number of stops it makes.  Once we arrived in Osweicim we walked another 25 minutes to get to the camp.  It was an overcast, blustry day, appropriate weather given our activity.  Once you walk through the gates of Auschwitz you can read various signs marking atrocities commited by the Nazis.  One sign showed where dead bodies were often displayed as a "reminder" to the other prisoners. Another sign marked the square where "roll-call" took place; if one prisoner was missing everyone had to stand in the same place until the prisoner was accounted for, often for 12 hours at a time in freezing temperatures, which obviously resulted in deaths all by itself.  As you keep walking you have the chance to go into many of the bunkers which now house various exhibits.  The exhibits we visited were atrocious to say the least.  I saw pictures of the mutilated bodies of prisoners subject to "medical experiments"; a baby with his prisoner number tattooed on his arm; I read stories of medical experiements conducted on a 17-day-old infant.  Usually any children brought to Auschwitz were immediately sent to the gas chamber, they were of no use to the Nazi's, but they kept any twins or triplets alive, at least temporarily, to conduct experiments on.  Another exhibit showed the belongings of prisoners that the Nazi's were to disinfect and send off to Germany; literal rooms full of combs, suitcases, shoes, baby was awful.  Sterilization experiments on women, pressure chamber experiments in which prisoners eardrums were burst just to see how long it took them to die, death by purposeful starvation; it was everyday life for millions of people.  Jewish people living in Nazi-created ghettos, hiding in attics or cellars for YEARS didn't even believe the gossip going around town that the Nazi's had set up camps just to kill people in. People in the middle of all this evil still couldn't believe it was real, no wonder I have a hard time processing it myself.  Seeing these images and reading these horrific things made it real for me how sadistic these people were.  I think as humans it is hard for us to process or even believe that some of this actually happened, visiting death camps like Auschwitz is a good reality check and I think everyone needs to see it, it has changed me forever.
The next day we got up early and took the 10 hour train ride back to Berlin.  It actually went by pretty quickly, I read a book written by a Holocaust survivor that Wendy picked up during our visit to Auschwitz, it was gripping and awful and hard to read at times.  I truly can't imagine what it must be like to have lived through four concentration camps including Auschwitz, have your family ripped apart, watch helplessly as people close to you suffer and die, and then one day be liberated and expected to go on with your life as normal.
All in all, our visit to Poland was a good learning experience.  I'm not sure if I'll be back to Eastern Europe any time soon, but it's always good to stretch your boundaries and your comfort zone and go someplace you never thought you would.  Although Poland wasn't the "funnest" or most lively place we've visited, we are so lucky to have the opportunity to have visited and had this experience.  Before we know it, we'll be back to our sheltered lives in cozy Missoula but we'll always have experiences like these to reflect back on, and for that I am thankful.
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