Krakow and Auschwitz

Trip Start Jul 28, 2007
Trip End Sep 02, 2007

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Friday, August 24, 2007

With heavy hearts, we left Hungary early in the morning.  Our route took us through Slovakia, though we did not stop there (no currency... the Euro will be wonderful for tourists when everyone has it.)  We crossed the border into Poland and were immediately charmed -- quaint country villages with lovely homes, old ladies riding bicycles in dresses, little girls walking their cows down the road... it felt like a time warp.  We drove through beautiful countryside into Krakow.  After some creative driving (Krakow has recently made some of their streets pedestrian-only and our GPS didn't know that), we found our hotel and nearby parking.

First item of business was dinner.  We went to a milk bar (formerly subsidized by the Communist government, now cheap but good quality eats).  I had schnitzel (yes, again... but this time chicken) and Attila ordered a pork hock and saurkraut.  Finally, after four weeks and five countries, Attila has found good food.  Finger lickin' good!  After dinner, we strolled around the town, exploring the town square, market, and side streets.

In the morning, we drove to Osweicim, the Polish town forever cursed with the German name, Auschwitz.  We started our tour in Auschwitz I.  It was originally built as barracks for the Polish army, so it is mainly brick buildings.  Several of the barracks are now home to museums and memorials, built by the countries of the victims (Poland, Czech, Hungary, as well as the Roma and Jewish communities).  We then toured the exhibitions about the camp itself.  Most disturbing was the "Evidence of Attrocities" display.  I had heard about these rooms before I came, but I was shocked by the magitude.  One room holds piles and piles of shoes... it is impossible to explain the sheer number.  To look at each shoe and think of the miles walked... it was heart-wrenching.  Another room was ful of piles of human hair.  The Nazis shipped huge sacks of hair to Germany to be made into felt.  A sample of the felt (in the form of a Nazi uniform was on display).  There were also rooms of suitcases, hairbrushes, posthetic limbs and crutches, and a display of children's clothing and toys.  It was indescribable.  I wish I could post some photos, but cameras are not allowed inside, and a mere picture could not do the display true justice.

After finishing our tour of Auschwitz I, we took the tram to Auschwitz II - Birkenau.  Birkenau was built as a death camp -- to execute the Nazis "Final Solution" and to temporarily hold prisoners until it was their time to die.  The camp itself is quite bare (local residents raided the camp of building materials after the liberation in 1945) but it is massive.  Again, I thought I knew a fair bit about the camp before my arrival, but I had no idea of the sheer scale.  It is huge.  I can't even think of anything comparable, because it is not only huge, but relatively empty.  We walked towards the back of the camp where the crematoria once were.  The Nazis attempted to destroy the crematoria with dynamite as the Russian forces closed in (except for Crematorium IV, which was destroyed in an inmate uprising... watch the film The Grey Zone).  The remains of the crematoria are still there with the shower rooms, ovens, and change rooms still visible.

It was an amazing experience to come here.  Many people thought I was strange for making this a priority on my trip to Europe, but I am so glad that I came.  I will never forget it and I hope that I will have the opportunity to pass on what I learned and experienced.

Feeling hot and spent, we headed back to Krakow.  Attila was ready for some more pork hocks, so we went back to the Milk Bar.  After supper, we toured the Wawel Castle.  Being that it was a Saturday, the castle grounds were full of bridal parties getting their photos done.  We explored the grounds and took the cavernous journey down the hill to see the dragon (Legend is that the dragon plagued the castle by eating all the livestock, so the prince fed the dragon a sheep full of sulphur.  The dragon ended up with such bad heartburn that he drank from the river until he exploded.  A fire-breathing statue of the dragon sits at the foot of the hill.)  We went back to the Market, looking for good deals on souvenirs and strolled the town some more until we conceded that it was time for bed.  Off to Czech in the morning!
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