Central Europe - Krakow and Auschwitz
Pros: interesting places like Auschwitz-Birkenau,
a lot of outdoor cafe, overwhelming and very emotional
Cons: several very sad
industrial towns, lots of cold communist era concrete residential
Sunday, Oct 05, 2003 15:34
We left Berlin around noon and headed across eastern Germany toward
Krakow. Eastern Germany was very dull. Flat brown and grey landscape
with little to see. There was a lot of construction so instead of
autobahn speeds it was slow going.
Driving in Poland was slower than eastern Germany. Since Poland
has joined the EU it is undergoing a face lift -- so lots of construction
there too. When we entered Poland, the highway turned into a road
comparable to a U.S. 2 lane state route, with big frost heaves from
the harsh winters. While driving, we noticed some different road
signs. Unfortunately we didn't get pictures and haven't been able
to find them on the Internet, but here are some descriptions:
* One sign looks like a car has flipped into some giant potholes
* Another sign looks like a car is being blown off a windy wet road
* And the one we really can't interpret: Remember when you were
a kid and would come up behind somebody and sharply strike your
knee against the back of the other locked person's knee and the
other person would sort of collapse? There's a road sign in Poland
that looks like a car doing this to a person. What's up with that?
Along the roadside there were people sitting every 50 yards or so
selling forest mushrooms and berries. We later learned that the
forests in Poland are public land and that people are free to pick
the forest produce and sell it. It was lunch time so we pulled off
at a rest area, but didn't even get out the car. When we pulled
in it looked like something from "Deliverance." There
were very dirty, ill-kept people waving cartons of cigarettes at
us, hanging on porches in front of broken down huts, and several
nasty looking food stalls. We dodged the cigarette wavers, got back
on the "highway", and lived on fruit and pretzels for
We drove through several very sad industrial towns on our way to
Krakow as well. It was very depressing. Very dirty, lots of cold
communist era concrete residential buildings, everything falling
apart -- it just looked like an awful place to live. We also drove
past huge fields with wheat and/or corn as far as the eye could
see. We guessed that these were communist era collective farms.
When we finally reached Krakow, it took an hour to find the center
and our hotel, but once we found it - what a treat! Krakow is a
very old town that escaped destruction in WWII. The town's main
square is the largest medieval town square in all of Europe (800m
wide by 1200m long). It actually feels like two squares because
there's a 16th century cloth hall in the center that divides the
two sides. One corner is dominated by the 14th century St. Mary's
church, from which a trumpeter plays an unfinished bugle call every
hour. The call is unfinished in commemoration of a 13th century
trumpeter who was tooting an invasion warning to the town when his
throat was pierced by a Tartan arrow -- at least according to legend.
In another corner of the square stands the Romanesque St. Andrew's
church from the 11th century. It is the only building in Krakow
to withstand the Tartan attack of 1241.
Surrounding the perimeter of the square are a lot of outdoor cafes.
It's a wonderful place to sit and watch the street performers. On
Saturday morning, after breakfast that included cottage cheese,
tomatoes, and cucumbers, we took a self-guided walking tour of the
town and had lunch on the square. After lunch we visited Wawel Hill
where there stands a Wawel Castle with a large beautiful garden
outside and a big open plaza in the middle of the castle itself.
Wawel Cathedral is also quite large but is so crammed with stuff,
including the tombs of over 100 Polish kings and queens, that it
actually feels small.
At the bottom of Wawel Hill is the tourist sculpture for the city
of Krakow -- the infamous dragon that was eating its way through
the city until it was slain by Prince Krak.
Anybody who goes to Krakow, absolutely MUST visit Auschwitz-Birkenau
- which we did on Sunday. It is absolutely overwhelming and very
emotional. We got lost getting there (it's not well marked and our
directions were not very good), but it was worth the effort. The
Auschwitz camp is actually in the town of Auschwitz and is not as
large as people might imagine. There are about 30 brick prison blockhouses,
about 12 of which now house parts of the museum. The museum was
extremely crowded while we were there in the middle of the day,
but still worthwhile. There is a film showing the liberation of
the camp by the Soviet army. Then a tour, in English, described
a lot of what happened in the camp and makes no bones about the
fact that over 1.5 million human beings were murdered a the Auschwitz-Birkenau
complex. With each of these people came their belongings -- belongings
that the Nazi's then kept for themselves. There are rooms showing
the suitcases, with people names and towns written on the sides.
There's an area full of eyeglasses. Another full of shoes -- hundreds
or thousands of shoes in a heap. And a large pile of human hair.
The hair was used to manufacture all sorts of textiles -- blankets,
rope, and other necessities. What is shown in the museum is only
a fraction of what was found when the Soviet's liberated Auschwitz
and that was a tiny fraction of what had been pilfered and already
"reused" or destroyed.
Although the name Birkenau is not well known, it is this part of
the complex that is more visibly familiar (think Schindler's list)
and is more infamous for the sheer magnitude of the number of people
who were murdered here (estimates range from 1.2 - 2.5 million.)
Birkenau is larger than is imaginable without going there. Most
people have seen pictures of it on TV, in books or in movies, but
until you are there and walking around the complex it is impossible
to grasp the enormity of this place. What is even harder to grasp
is that most people who came to Birkenau didn't stay long -- many
were killed within days or hours of arrival. There were four huge
gas chambers each of which held 2000 people and the camp could hold
200,000 inmates at one time. Although much of the camp was destroyed
by the retreating Nazi's, the chimney's of the prisoner's quarters
still stand - almost as far as the eye can see. Walking along the
railroad track from the entrance to the crematoriums in the back
(over a mile) adds to the sense of enormity of these horrors.
Visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau is mandatory for Polish 14-year olds
and most return in their last year of school as well. It is a very
sobering, moving experience that should not be avoided.
The next day, we continued left Krakow and drove straight south
through Slovakia to Budapest, Hungary.