Wednesday, August 12, 2009


Well breakfast this morning lived up to the promise of our waitress last night. It was fabulous and such a feast compared to the last couple of motels. There were cereals and juice and yoghurt and fruit to start, then a full range of cold meats, cheeses and salads, then hot dishes - scrambled eggs, sausage and a polish sausage in cabbage and the PANCAKES (crepe style). Ooh, now I am really full!

It is raining. Perhaps fitting as we head off to the former concentration camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau. It is only 5 km down the road. Well, yes, it was only 5 kms down the road from the hotel BUT. The signposted road to it is shut - they are working on the bridge it seems. And there is no detour marked. So we remember passing the camp on the way in yesterday and try to re-trace our route as Kate does not have it in her list of POIs (places of interest). After driving around for an hour unsuccessfully, I go back to the POIs and find another one for Konzentrationslager - sounds close enough so I choose it. It would have taken us to the back gates of the camp, but luckily we see a sign pointing the way before we get there. I am really pi**ed off - an hour of driving wasted for no good reason. Surely a detour sign is not asking too much!

But before we set out on our frustrating drive, we had driven in to the centre of Oświęcim to see what there is to see. Not much. Drab and untidy with lots of kredyt agencies and discount stores tells us that this is not a high income area. After finding a parking spot in Oświęcim we discover we lack coinage to feed the meter. Michael eventually finds a 'Microbank' whereby the Teller reluctantly changes a 'fifty' for some change. Feeding the meter in return for a parking billet we head off to view the sights.

Our first stop was to visit the tesselated roofed Catholic Church and to view its interior. Well, any opportunity to snap a few pics of this church's interior and architecture was somewhat thwarted...entry into the knave was barred by grills and a gate. However, parishioners were able to participate in their observances by the available pews. As there were a couple of parishioners in prayer we left them to their peaceful endeavours after lighting electric 'candles'. We normally light three, but as Michael only had a 5 złoty coin, when he put it in the slot through the grille, as though by magic, the next 5 'candles' sprung into light. So we have two available - I'll dedicate them to the highest bidders! We walked around the town centre for a short while longer, and decided to press onto our next objective - Auschwitz Konzentrationslager.

"I do not believe in God; its existence has been disproved by Science.
But in the concentration camp, I learned to believe in men." - Jean-Paul Sartre

Nothing can prepare you for the onslaught on the senses by the magnitude of the single-minded intent to irradicate the world of a race. Not Dachau. Certainly not Terezín. And in no way ever, any book you have read or documentary you have watched. And speaking very generally, there is so little we know.

I mean, Auschwitz was not one camp. There was Auschwitz I - Stammlager (the main camp in the town of Oświęcim), Auschwitz II - Birkenau (in the nearby village of Brzezinka) and Auschwitz III - Monowitz (in the village of Monowice) and a system of more than 40 sub camps.
Auschwitz was surrounded by an area of 40 square kilometres known as the Auschwitz Concentration Camp Zone of Interest, under Special Police supervision, in an effort to isolate what was happening from the outside world - so Mum, there is part of the answer as to why you never knew what was happening.
Auschwitz's role was an ever evolving one - formerly a deserted military base, first it was used for Polish political prisoners before becoming the fear of millions of people living in nazi-occupied lands.
The numbers are numbing. While we can never be sure of the final numbers because the nazis detroyed records (or for many Jews, never kept records) the most accepted figures are:

- 1,400,000 prisoners were murdered of whom 1,100,000 were Jewish
- Soviet prisoners-of-war, Gypsies, Czechs, Yugoslavs, Frenchmen, Austrians, Germans, Polish political prisoners but mostly Jewish.
- 232,000 children of whom only 650 were alive at liberation - that's less than 0.3% - not even 1% lived. Oh my god the children, why the children?
- 1942 - by then the Allied forces knew for sure of the existence and operation of the camp.

The managers of the Auschwitz-Bireknau State Museum in Oświęcim administer the site very sensitively. And although there are signs saying children under 14 will not be admitted, there are plenty of them there with their families. Why would you take a child into a place like this????
You can only go through the site with a museum guide (entry is free but the tour costs!). The various language groups are broken down to about 20 people per guide. Everyone puts on headsets and carries a receiver. The guide talks quietly. There is no reason to be loud. Signs ask for respect and silence, but many people ignore this. Most of them younger - but I can't criticise - at least they are coming here, witnessing the horror.
While we are being led through the camp, there are at least 20 - 30 other groups as well. If you consider that these tours are operated every hour, that is a lot of people.

As I said, our guide, Petr, talks quietly. Flatly. Without emotion.
But with passion. His use of language is interesting. Nazis instead of Germans. Death camp as well as concentration camp. Murdered. Beaten. Starved. Stripped. Shaved. Selected.

It is emotionally a very hard journey we make. And all the time, I can't help but think that the 'powers' in the world knew about this. For at least 3 years, people were murdered while the allies knew. And you must understand, it was the Russians who liberated the camp at Auschwitz, not the English, not the Americans.

It is the detail that gets you.
- The mound of jumbled, ensnarled, broken and twisted glasses.
- The long heaped row of prosthetic limbs.
- The floor of a room covered to about a foot deep with shaving brushes, hair brushes, toothbrushes.
- The pile of human hair that extends the length of a room, shaved from the heads of women and destined for local industries in carpet making, wig making, cloth manufacture.
- The Prayer Shawls.
We are led through room after room in building after building that once 'housed' these poor people seeing with our own eyes the evidence of cruelty and horror. And if I ever meet anyone who wants to deny that this 'holocaust' ever took place, well, I won't be held responsible for my response.

Our tour through Auschwitz I lasts 2 hours. We then leave as a group for Auschwitz II - Birkenau for another 1 hour tour. And now it is pouring. Very apt that as we enter this place that will forever be remembered as evil, that even the heavens are weeping.
I have had enough. There is a lot of uneven ground here, and although there is less to see, it is still quite a walk, and to be honest, my emotions have peaked and I am not sure I can take the next hour. So I take the coward's (?) way out and wait outside on the one bench that is there. In the rain (but at least I have my umbrella).

And the only reason that there is less to see here is that the nazis, knowing that the Russians had almost reached here, bombed and burned the evidence of their work. This site, like much of Auschwitz I has been left as it was found. Michael reports that in particular, the ruins of the Crematoria and gas chambers, the unloading patforms, the pond into which ashes were tipped, the washrooms and latrines bring horrific images into your heads. As with Dachua, there is only a small proprotion of the infrastructure of the barrack buildings still remaining.

Auschwitz was bombed once - an it appears to have been an accident by allied bombers who were targetting German factories in the area. One of the former prisoners has been recorded as saying it would have been better that the camp had been targetted.

And so, better educated, but totally numb with horror and pain, we are glad to leave this place. But more glad that we came. We have bougt two books -
Illicit Letters from Auschwitz by Janusz Pogonowski - a Pole from Cracow who at the age of 17 years and 10 months was sent from a local prison where he had been arrested in the street as a result of the nazi operation against the Polish intelligence, to Auschwitz. One month later he and 11 other prisoners were hung on the parade ground as a reprisal for the escape of 3 other prisoners. These secret letters describe his dramatic experiences and the yearning for his family. They quite simply are heart-breaking in every sense of the word.
The other book is titled London Has Been Informed - reports by three Auschwitz Escapees. I haven't started it yet, but the title got to me.

So we head off with the rain matching our mood, for Kraków. Just over an hour later we reach the city about 7:30 pm. Magical Kraków as it is marketed. We are staying at the Hotel Jan, about 150 metres from the main market square. But there is no parking anywhere near us so we drive around trying to determine which is the closer. We eventually park about 700m away and traipse with our stuff arund to the hotel, but not before we haggle with the parking attendant and get the price for 48 hours down to 195 PLN (złoty - about €50!) while 24 hours will cost you 165 PLN! Up to our room to discover that the internet connection is not working - no good! So back down to change our room. That done, we quickly unpack and head out to find something to eat.

We end up at the Ristorante da Pietro on the edge of the market square. The first Italian restaurant in Kraków and one of the few still open for dinner at 10 pm! Our choices:
Chleb Czoskowy (Garlic bread) to start
Rolle di Pizze - roladki z pizzy z nadzieniem z podsmażonych pieczarek, szynki i sera (pizza rolls stuffed with mushrooms, ham and cheese) Michael
Quattro formaggio pizze - z czterema rodzajami sera (Pizza with four kind of cheeses) Maria - and finished by Michael!
We finish with profiteroles and coffee before walking back down the street, dodging the fairly noisy and inebriated young groups.

We ask the night porter if there are always so many police on duty as we saw quite a few while eating - he shrugs and says that this is not so many! They are there to keep the peace but only intervene when you "start to puke on the street"! His words! Also on the streets this late are the now common horse drawn carriage rides for tourists - yes, even the horses work late here.

PS Take a gander at these 'shoes' that two of our fellow tourists were wearing today. Wonder how comfortable they are on stony surfaces - despite the hard sole!

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