Trip Start Dec 29, 2005
Trip End Aug 20, 2006

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Flag of Poland  ,
Monday, March 13, 2006

An overnight train brought our group of five into slushy Krakow for a weekend trip further into Eastern Europe. We first explored Old Town Square, nearby markets, and bakeries. Later was a tour through several parts of the city. The Jewish Quarter consists of several synagogues and a Jewish cemetery surrounded by a "wailing" wall made of pieces of old tombstones after the Nazis left the area in shambles. One synagogue was nothing but a museum, as our guide pointed out that virtually no Jews lived in Krakow after nearly all Polish Jews were murdered at Auschwitz when they had previously consisted of 1/4 of the Krakow population. The Jewish Ghetto is the tiny area of the city in which the Nazis forced the Jews into before shipping them off in groups to their "new home and job". Two small sections of the surrounding fence remained, the top shaped like Jewish graves as a signal that this was their cemetery. As the sun set we finally made it to Schindler's Factory, where thousands were saved during the holocaust, as shown in "Schindler's List".
The second day was a bit more lighthearted, starting out with a bagel shop (bagels were first made in Poland) run by an American expatriate. We couldn't help from raiding the place of "Original Bagel" posters and stickers. Don't worry, we also picked up bagels from street vendors to get the real experience. A nearby temporary market had all types of antiques, including old coins I couldn't leave behind. There were also Nazi pins, antique lamps, and all kinds of junk and treasures sold by older men. Later on we made it to Wawel Castle which served as the royal family's residence before the capital was switched to Warsaw. During a tour of the armory we saw various medieval weaponry including spears, shields, crossbows, early guns, armor, cannons, etc. All types of gold and silver pieces were housed in the connected treasury. A large, beautiful cathedral on the grounds had a bell tower that we stepped over and ducked under rafters while climbing up flights of stairs to find. A walk downstairs underneath the cathedral took us to a network of crypts of kings and their families. Very fun to see items and architecture from the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries.
That evening we walked through an enormous salt mine where figurines and rooms had been carved deep inside by miners in their off-time. The mine included a cathedral, monuments, statues, a dance floor, and a later-added gift shop and restaurant. This mine had made Poland a rich country in the Middle Ages and no doubt still brings in a huge revenues, now by tourism. Afterwards underground restaurants near Near Old Town served piping hot spiced beers and wines. The dumplings were amazing. The people spoke and little more English than in Prague and were much more friendly.
Early Sunday we took the hour drive to Auschwitz and toured the largest concentration camp of the holocaust. Beginning with one of the first gas chamber / crematorium buildings, we moved on to go through several barracks-turned-museums. Rooms of shoes, toothbrushes and shaving brushes, pots and pans, luggage, hair, and gas canisters somehow personalized the victims' tragedy victims and demonstrated the vast numbers of those exterminated. In the early afternoon we took a short ride to the much larger Berkinau section. Rows and rows and rows of mass-housing units could be seen, as well as a forest of brick chimneys previously belonging to the wooden buildings (left unused all winter), after the SS attempted to torch the evidence of their crimes. A long bitter-cold hike trudging through the snow showing the formidable conditions people lived and worked in, led us to the remains of the larger gas chambers / crematoriums. Train tracks led straight through the front gate to these dungeons of death where countless innocent people were gassed, cremated, and scattered onto nearby fields. The weakest were killed upon arrival while others only lasted months, lacking sufficient food, clothing, and sanitary conditions. Everyone should see this, to keep fresh in the consciousness of humanity so as to ensure we do not allow this to happen again. Our WWII vets' service cannot be overstated in light of putting a stop to this organized extermination which lasted for FIVE YEARS.
Overall, Krakow was a cold, fun, interesting, depressing, and educational experience I would recommend to everyone.
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