Monday we went Auschwitz. It’s not something you do on holiday for fun and entertainment, but it is something you have to do while you’re in Krakow. And it’s very difficult to describe the experience. There aren’t really testimonials from the survivors, or pictures of humans suffering, as you might expect after seeing these in a documentary. The place stands for itself, and the remnants of the belongings of those who died there. The sun was shining while we were there, and trees grow outside many of the buildings now, in such stark contrast to the horrors that occurred there. You’re given a bit of background about the war, the concentration camps, and then you begin to see things that impact you in a way words just can’t: the suitcases carefully packed with all the things a family would need to live in a new place while starting their new“job”, the tens of thousands of shoes the dead removed before entering the gas chambers for a “shower”, the 400 kilos of human hair harvested from the dead to be made into textiles – some still in plaits. You see the rooms of the German officers compared to those of the Jews. You see rooms where it is impossible to sit, rooms where you cannot stand, rooms in complete darkness, all used to gain“confessions” or for punishments. You see the wall where the “unfit” were immediately shot. You see the gas chambers and crematoria. Then you’re taken to Auschwitz-Birkenau. This is where the scale, the magnitude of it all, sinks in. The plot-shapes and chimneys are all that remain of most of the buildings that housed hundreds of thousands of Jews, expanding out and out and out. The bunks and bathrooms of a few buildings still remain, evidencing the atrocious living conditions. The barbed fences and the watchtowers still stand, dividing the camp into“controllable” areas. The train tracks leading straight to the gas chambers still run through the camp.
The day didn’t leave us wanting to explore Krakow’s nightlife, but we did still have enough of an appetite later in the day to eat dinner. The hostel staff recommended a place called Koko, which had a basement pub with old stonework. I enjoyed my duck stewed with apples, though nobody else seemed to get what they thought that ordered (I don’t think the menu translated particularly well to English), and Niamh, who hates sauce on her food was slightly horrified when her“vegetables” turned out to be 3 different types of coleslaw. My “salad” was the same thing, though I quite enjoyed it. So Niamh and Caitlin got dessert elsewhere to assuage their stomachs, and I ordered mulled mead – yum.
Our last morning in Krakow we toured a bit of the cathedral at the castle, explored the Dragon’s Den (cool old caves leading to a dragon statue that breathed fire every now and again), and returned to Schindler’s Factory to actually go through. There are only about 2 rooms of the original place – Schindler’s office rooms – but there are a lot of artifacts from the war. I think to get the full value of the place you need to speak Polish or have an interpreter, though, but still quite interesting without. We also ate some traditional zapiekankas while walking around town, which are bread with cheese, mushroom, ketchup, and meat if you prefer. Then we took an afternoon tour of the salt mines. I don’t know that I ever realized salt is mined before. You can obviously obtain it by boiling salt water down, but it’s strange to be licking cave walls and having them taste salty, or to see stalactites and stalagmites of salt. We only went down some 120-metres, but apparently the mines go down past 300-metres. And the part you tour is full of old mining equipment, chapels where the miners would pray before and after their shifts, the occasional dragon or dwarf, and underground lakes. One cavern has such great acoustics it’s used for concerts. And one chapel is absolutely magnificent (check out the pictures below…..whenever I get them attached…..).They even have chandeliers and statues made of salt crystals. You walk down nearly 400 steps to start the tour, but at the end you get to go up an elevator, a dodgy elevator indeed, though even Caitlin (who hates elevators and heights) survived being crammed in like sardines and shooting up at 4-metres a second. Quite a unique place.
We went back to the place where we’d gotten dessert the night before, but this time for dinner. There was more mulled wine, and I had the best dinner so far of the trip – roast venison that was so tender it just fell apart on the fork, potato dumplings, and cabbage with raisins and honey. Now it’s off to Berlin!