Krakow and Oswiecim (Auschwitz)

Jun 13, 2010 by glennji
With only one day in Krakow, we decided it would be best to (temporarily) eschew our “independent travel” principles and join a guided tour of the Auschwitz complex — the Nazi concentration camp where over a million people were murdered in the name of “racial purity” between 1940 and 1944.

Arriving at Krakow at 7:15am — early, but still 45 minutes later than expected — we walked the short distance to our hotel, Maly-Krakow, and met the lovely Polish woman at reception. Yes, we can check you in now; yes, you can leave your bags here until your room is ready; and yes, we can organise a tour for you! Dziekuj?!

And so, a little tired and a little smelly, we boarded an air-conditioned van with 6 other tourists from local hotels and headed out of town. After an hour and a half of driving, and a little nap along the way (we weren’t the only ones — I think three of the others were backpackers and on our EuroNight train), we were glad we hadn’t tried to find our own way there! Especially so when we saw that, in order to actually enter the Auschwitz I museum-memorial, you had to be part of a guided tour!.

For the next two hours we wandered with our group (and others who came in different vans) around the Nazi death-camp, learning more than we needed to know about the atrocities committed by humans against humans in the years of World War II. We saw and heard about the horrible living conditions, appalling punishments given on a whim to prisoners by the Nazi SS soldiers, and (finally) the liberation of the camp by Soviet soldiers in 1944. It was a sobering experience, and the uncomfortable heat of the day (at least 35 degrees, with very little shade) seemed somewhat appropriate — Auschwitz is something that should be “experienced” rather than “enjoyed”.

After Auschwitz I we were taken to Auschwitz II, the largest complex and the one where the most horrible atrocities of WWII were committed. Look it up in Wikipedia, if you want more detail; suffice it say that at some point I stopped trying to understand or imagine it, and just let the sights and sensations flow directly into my head for later contemplation. (e.g. how long will Auschwitz-Birkenau need to be a tourist memorial before the number of people who walk out the front gates equals the number of those who entered in closed rail-cars, and never left?)

We were dropped back at the hotel afterwards, and took a short walk into Krakow Galleria — a shopping complex — to buy lunch (delicious, giant salad rolls and a dessert that was kind of a pikelet with cream and fruit) and supermarket supplies for dinner. The rest of the afternoon we spent in the apartment-hotel, hiding from the heat and dozing. I uploaded the Budapest photos, but was too emotionally drained (and physically tired) to write anything. We had an early picnic dinner — radishes, ham, tomato, salami, smoked cheese, gherkins and pickled asparagus — and an early night, although neither of us could sleep until the thunderstorm broke in the night. Tried to get some photos of fork lightning over the church next door — the wrath of God smiting non-believers? — but have about a thousand quick-shutter frames to go through before we know if we managed it.

The next morning — today! — we beat all records and rose too early for breakfast (!), so packed our bulging packs whilst waiting for the kitchen to open. I’ve tied up a rough swag and attached it to the outside of my pack, as we had to make room for our Trans-Siberian supplies: instant noodle, cup-a-soup, powdered milk, tea, coffee. Oh, and two Polish beers I’d never seen before, despite the burgeoning Polish community in London — we gotta have our luxuries, after all.

Fed and watered, we took our leave of Krakow and headed to the train station. A couple of 1st class tickets (the difference was some 20zl each) on the fast train to Warsawa, where we will stock up some more and catch a night train to Moscow.

Dee points out that we’ve now been on the road (rails?) for two weeks; it feels simultaneously shorter and longer than that.

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