Sunday, January 10, 2010

Krakow, Poland, Part I: Sleeper train, Auschwitz and the Wieliczka Salt Mine

I think Kt summed up the night train from Prague to Krakow best when she wrote, "went to sleep in Czech Republic..woke up in Poland.. most productive nap ever." I didn't actually sleep much because I was so excited, but it's a good idea! I sort of felt like I was at summer camp, but it was moving and no one wanted to play.

We pretended to sleep, at least.

I read a lot! I'm pretty sure all the train travel in my future is going to do wonders for my literary repertoire.

After we checked into our hostel and ate free breakfast around 6:30 am, we booked tickets to Auschwitz and the Salt Mines for that day. This was not quite as happy as the sleeper train (by a long shot), but definitely world shattering. And by this I mean I almost started bawling on the bus just from the movie about Auschwitz before we even got there. Damn. I know I learned about concentration camps and the Holocaust in school...Maybe I forgot it all, didn't pay attention, or maybe they just never got into the details of exactly how horrible everything was, but being there and hearing stories of how many people were killed, the manipulation, torture and sheer mass of former residents' belongings (and hair) right in front of me was intense. There are not even words. This is the entrance to Auschwitz. The motto over the gate, "Arbeit macht frei," translates as "Work makes you free."

These are the buildings people were kept in. We went in most of them, but weren't allowed to take pictures. I think the most memorable room for me was one where they stacked up a fraction of residents' shoes, hair brushes, glasses and hair in separate rooms. In each room, the item went from floor to ceiling. When people first got there (sometimes they even made them buy their own train tickets, telling them they were going to work camps), they took their belongings and separated them to use for themselves. Once people were killed or when women first got there, they shaved their heads and used/sold their hair to make textiles for the German armies. I honestly can't even process the level of exploitation involved in these acts.

Two layers of a barbed fence, a wall and a watch-tower.

This was also really intense. Found in a courtyard with blocked windows so no residents would see what was happening, this was a wall specially created so people could be shot in front of it.

After Auschwitz, we went to Birkenau about 10 minutes away. This was another, bigger concentration camp created to ease congestion at the main camp. These train tracks were used to bring people to the camp through the main gate. Also to take them to gassing rooms that no longer exist beyond the trees. Prisoners were told they were going to shower and made to strip naked then brought to these chambers that even sometimes had fake shower heads installed. Once they were in there, they were locked in and gassed with Zyklon B, a highly lethal cyanide-based pesticide used as an instrument for extermination.

Large cabins, originally design for horses with no insulation, where people slept in three layer bunk beds, a few to a bed, with access to bathrooms only several minutes a day.

These were the toilets. As you can tell, absolutely no privacy whatsoever. Because people were fed rarely and poorly, they often had a variety of gastrointestinal problems. One of the "good" jobs was cleaning out these toilets because you could go to the toilet as much as you wanted and got to work inside.

View from the watch tower.

After the intensity of visiting Auschwitz and Birkenau, I was sort of happy we had a less depressing point on our itinerary to cheer me up. I stole all these pictures from a friend we made at our hostel, Pedro, who was nice enough to send them along. The Wieliczka salt mine was definitelly an impressive site. This is the main ballroom, hundreds of meters underground. Everything is made of salt: the chandeliers, the stone floor, the alter and the pictures on the wall.

Close up of the chandelier made of salt.

Statue made of salt and Kt and I!

I don't remember what this is, but there's Kt and Pedro!

I mean, you HAVE to lick the walls, right?!?! You don't walk into Taco Bell and not eat tacos, do you?!?!

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