How Many Polaks Does it Take?

Trip Start Apr 09, 2006
Trip End Jun 09, 2007

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Flag of Poland  , Lesser Poland Voivodeship,
Friday, August 4, 2006

Krakow is one of the gems of Eastern Europe and I've very much enjoyed my time here. The weather has been a bit crazy....jumping from highs of 35-36C one day to only 22-23C the next, we've had a bit of every weather.

The old town here is magnificent. The Rynek Glowny is the largest medieval town square in all of Europe (it's about 200m by 200m) and is dominated by the 16th-century Renaissance Cloth Hall, the 14th-century St. Mary's Church, and the 15th-century Town Hall Tower. The old town is surrounded by a park on all sides. What was once the moat has been filled and turned into a wonderfully shaded retreat. Luckily for us, the city remained unscathed during WWII.

Seriously three thumbs up. You've gotta head here if you're in the area.


Oswiecim (osh-FYEN-cheem) about 60km west of Krakow may be unfamiliar to most, but the German name for the city, Auschwitz, is not. This was the setting for the most extensive experiment in genocide in the history of humankind.

I departed Krakow in a shared minibus with about 15 others, all of whom were locals. I had gone to bed early the previous night to make sure I was well-rested; I was expecting my day in Oswiecim to be draining. The minibus departed at about 8AM for the 1.5 hour ride. It was sunny and already warm. The countryside surrounding Krakow is in the full glory of harvest and the ride was stunning. A patchwork quilt of corn, wheat, plowed fields, and trees covered the rolling hills. In some cases, combines worked feverishly to process the harvest, but many times teams of farmers were cutting and raking large sections of crops by hand.

I was enjoying the view when I realized that I was tense. My legs were stiff and my shoulders were actually hurting a bit. I remembered seeing a man standing alone holding a sign at about mile 18 of my first marathon. Most signs were cheering on some runner or displaying some simple message like "RUN STRONG". The sign I saw simply said "relax your shoulders". Until that point, I hadn't realized that my upper body was tensed...I had been focusing solely on my legs and feet pounding the pavement. As I sat on the minibus to Oswiecim I felt the exact same feeling in my shoulders, as if I had held them tense for 18 miles.

I tried to loosen up. I knew the history and I knew what I was about to see. I visited the Halocaust Museum in D.C. before leaving The States. Despite it all I still felt uneasy.

I arrived at Auschwitz to thousands of tourists. Auschwitz was only partially destroyed by the fleeing Nazis, so many of the original brick buildings remain. Each of the barracks contain's one big museum. Although interesting, the displays were no better (and in many cases I would say inferior to) those in DC. Perhaps it was all the crowd-dodging, but I really didn't feel that uneasy any more. I started to write off the day as one of those times when you build up an event in your head so much that the actual experience is...not as powerful as you had expected. I don't want to sound as if I was disappointed. It was very somber and moving.

I then hopped on the bus for the 3km ride to Birkenau. It was actually here, not Auschwitz, where the extermination of huge numbers of Jews, homosexuals, disabled peoples, and those deemed dangerous to the Third Reich took place.

The vast, purpose-built site contained over 300 prison barracks and four huge gas chambers complete with crematoria. Each gas chamber held 2,000 people and electric lifts raised bodies to the ovens. The camp could hold as many as 200,000 people at one time. The statistics (and words) do not paint the picture of the size of Birkenau. It's difficult to describe the level of...disgust...I achieved while walking for hours through the site. At the far side of the camp, opposite the main entrance at the end of the rail line stands an international memorial to those who lost their lives. I stood there with perhaps 8-10 others looking down the rail line, the barbed wire, the vast number of barracks. The clouds had blown in over the past few hours and the gray sky was somehow fitting. Just then we heard the sound of a nearby train travelling through the town. We couldn't see the train, we could only hear the unique clickity-clack sound of the cars moving over the rails. A sound that ushered in so much death. That faint sound was the final straw that brought many to tears.
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