In the continuing story of my business trip to Poland and the Czech Republic, I pick up on the last third of my trip, after a weekend in Krakow and a week of work in a luxury resort in the Czech Republic.
Thursday, May 16, 2019
My colleague and I spent the morning in some final meetings, had another long, agonizing lunch with the waiters who would not speed things up, and then Lee and I departed in another harrowing taxi ride back to the Ostrava bus station. This time it was harrowing because the driver took her slow time and we got there with just two minutes to spare. Stress!
The bus ride back to Krakow was as lovely as the outbound trip, and we landed once again in our adorable boutique hotel in the Jewish district. That night we had a wonderful Israeli vegetarian dinner at Hamsa, which looks like the city’s oldest restaurant.
Friday, May 17, 2019
First thing this morning was tackling the Wawel castle and cathedral. It is a gorgeous, well-preserved fortress with layers and layers of architecture. It was also mobbed with school groups, ugh. Still, we managed to walk the whole thing, go into the Royal Apartments, visit the whole Cathedral including the crypts and bell tower (a tight squeeze!), and underground ruins from the very first church built on this ground in medieval times.
That afternoon, after an awesome lunch at a super cool medieval-looking restaurant, Lee and I boarded a bus tour to the Wieliczka Salt Mine. A UNESCO World Heritage site, this mine was in operation from the 1300s to 1996! Initially, the mining of salt was big business, as salt was highly valued in society and was even used to pay the miners (that’s where the word ‘salary’ comes from!). Over time, salt obviously lost its stature and became more commonplace, so in more recent centuries, the miners who worked 12-hour shifts without coming back up to the surface for breaks spent their free time carving sculptures out of the salt.
We descended over 700 stairs and 50 flights to get down to the good stuff. There, we saw a variety of recent sculptures as well as equipment left behind showing how they mined and processed the salt.
The most important and incredible part of the mine is the Chapel. Miners hand-carved (not using dynamite) this massive room out of salt over the centuries and carved an altar, apse, pulpit and wall-to-wall artwork out of the salt. It is impressive to be in.
That night back in the Jewish district, we had an awesome food truck dinner. My kielba (hot dog) with mac and cheese was amazing.
Saturday, May 18, 2019
On our final day, we went to Auschwitz. The town in Polish is called Oświęcim and it’s 1.5 hours from Krakow. I couldn’t be that close to it and not go. To be honest, I didn’t really know much about the camp and everything that went on there. Catholic school doesn’t really focus on what happened to the Jews.
I knew it would bum me out, but it had to be done. I will never regret going. I learned SO much. It is an experience that simply changes you.
On the bus ride there, we watched a documentary about how the Nazi regime rose to power and how the camps came to be. We then spent 1.5 hours each in camps I and II, which are just a few minutes away from each other. There were a total of 4. Auschwitz I was actually a reuse of old military barracks from WWI. Auschwitz II was built when they ran out of room in camp I.
We walked all over and through both camps, but they were entirely different. Auschwitz I is very much in tact, and most buildings contain museum exhibits you can visit. This is the view from the outside before we went in. The building on the right is currently where you go through security, but I’m sure it was barracks and offices for the Nazis back in the day since it was outside the fence.
Next, we passed under the infamous sign. I know it’s not the original but it is no less creepy. I still can’t believe I was there and walked right under that sign — as a Pole, of my own free will.
We walked in at least a dozen different buildings to see exhibits that took you through the whole history of the place and how people were treated. We saw people’s papers with made-up reasons for their imprisonment. We saw ledgers of people’s names, that they gave up on after a while because why bother writing down people’s names when they went straight from the train to the gas chamber?
We toured the prison building, where we saw the cells for solitary confinement, the cell with absolutely no light, the cells that held “political” prisoners who were starved. Right next to that building was the courtyard with the firing squad wall and two tall posts with hooks on them where they hung people up by their arms to torture them.
We passed the building where the “gynecologist” performed sterilization experiments on Jewish women. We saw barracks that still had the beds and bathrooms in them — beds stacked three high with straw and super thin blankets, and bathrooms that were more like pig troughs.
Then sh*t got real.
When people arrived by train, they brought just one suitcase or bag of their most precious or useful belongings with them. Later in the war when people were going straight to the gas chambers, they were told to drop their bags right there on the train platform and were then sorted into men/women and children. A “doctor” then spent one second per individual looking at them and deciding whether they were young/strong enough to work in the prison labor camp or whether they went straight to be gassed.
A whole other crew sorted the people’s belongings, raiding them for valuables and distributing everyday items like clothes and brushes to the Germans back home or to the Nazis. Massive floor-to-ceiling displays of belongings showed only what was hastily left behind at the end of the war when the Nazis got caught and fled. Imagine the total amount of it all…
There were also displays of hundreds and hundreds of brushes, bowls and mugs, eyeglasses, shoes, Jewish prayer shawls and…HAIR.
After the Nazis gassed groups of women, they walked into the gas chamber, where their bodies were piled on top of each other, and in addition to pulling out gold and silver fillings, they ponytailed and cut off their hair. They sold the hair to companies who made BLANKETS OUT OF IT.
Their hair was more valuable than their lives.
That image of piles and piles of hair four feet high, of all colors and lengths, will never leave my mind.
To top it all off, we toured the GAS CHAMBER. Yes, I walked through a gas chamber and the connecting crematorium. Again, typing this a month and a half later, I still cannot believe it.
Auschwitz II is very different, as it’s a vast expanse of buildings, most of which were made of wood so they have disintegrated. Of course, I took a picture of the famous entrance with the train tracks that go straight into the camp.
Here, we walked outside, past rows and rows of barracks that are gone.
Past an example of one of the train cars that brought people here as if they were cattle.
To the back of the camp where there is a memorial statue and the ruins of the gas chambers. Here, the Nazis knew the gig was up and blew them up before they left.
Here are some of the barracks up close, and a view of what they looked like inside. They had to be freezing in the harsh Polish winters, as there were just two tiny room heaters in the middle of each building.
So, that was an experience I’ll never forget. We returned back to Krakow’s city center at around 4pm, giving us enough time to still roam around some more. I bought many more souvenirs for myself and others, we further explored the area around the city center and found some cool additional buildings to see, and we stumbled upon a gay pride parade.
And lastly, despite a pretty big bummer of a day, and learning that from the over 2 million Jews who were living in Krakow before WWII, there are only 200 left, this sight in the Jewish District made me hopeful and happy for the future of this beautiful town and country, and this beautiful culture, full of youth and promise: