A Travellerspoint blog

11: Arbeit Mach Frei

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Early start to a very tough day. Auschwitz is a good 2 hr drive from Krakow so early today I was picked up from my hotel and taken out to the concentration camp. This is probably the toughest blog I will write and will also be quite detailed (for those of you who will never be able to come and see for yourselves) therefore this could be quite confronting for some readers.

The camp itself was divided into 4 separate sections all on the outskirts of the Polish town of Oshwiz. The residents of this town were all evicted so that the area surrounding the camp was only SS soldiers. Originally the camp was for Polish political dissidents and Russian POWs but by 41 the camp was massively increased to also accommodate the “Final Solution”. Auschwitz was chosen as the main camp for the Jewish problem mainly because of its location. When you view a map of Europe it is clear that Auschwitz is pretty much in the centre, it was already an established Polish military camp and it already had extensive rail links. Most of the Jews who were exterminated here were either from Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia but some were sent from as far away as Norway and Greece (over 2000km). Over 1.5 m people died at Auschwitz before the camp was liberated by the Russians.

The start of the tour is through the first of the Auschwitz camps (and the original). It is the camp with the famous gate sign “Work will set you free”, and it is the camp that housed the “workers” for the surrounding industries. The people who lived in this camp were fed on ½ litre of coffee for breakfast and a bowl of soup for dinner (the soup was mainly water with a hint of veges). Most who entered the “work” camp did not survive longer than a couple of months. They were beaten daily by the guards and were required to do very manual work for more than 15hrs a day. With almost no clothing and no food the mortality rate was very high.

Most of Auschwitz 1 is now a museum housing the remnants of possessions of those who died within the gas chambers. There is a whole room dedicated to discarded shoes and suit cases of those who died.. and when I mean shoes I mean thousands upon thousands of pairs of shoes. The most chilling (and I really struggled to keep my breakfast down) exhibit is a room filled with human hair. They estimate that there is over 2T of human hair in this particular room and that therefore equates to over 150,000 people’s heads of hair.

For those readers who don’t know, all prisoners of the camp were forced to strip, remove all valuables and had their heads shaven before they entered the camp. There are also many photographs that line the walls of the museums.. these photos were taken by the SS and survived the war because they were not burned and destroyed as they were supposed to be by members of the camp. (The photographic lab was manned by concentration camp workers and they defied the SS at the end of the war and did not torch the precious negatives). These photos were used as evidence during the Nuremberg trials as well as are evidence today of the horrible atrocities that wee committed here 60yrs ago.

After leaving the museum exhibits we drove across to Auschwitz- Birkennau. Birkennau was the main extermination camp and is at least 2km square.. It is absolutely enormous. It is also where the famous “Death Gate” is located.. the one in all of the pictures of the SS guard post that the trains used to drive underneath. This camp could contain over 100,000 prisoners. Most of those who entered this camp were immediately sent to the chambers. When the trains pulled up, everyone was off loaded (many were already dead inside the cattle trucks) and their possessions relieved from them. One SS doctor would then make the recommendation of whether they lived or died. Those who lived, were sent into the camp to become “workers” the others were herded to the end of the platforms and to the chambers.

This might sound gruesome but after hearing about the camp itself I think I would have preferred to go straight to the chambers. You see, the people were told that the first step of “resettlement” (the Jews thought they were being resettled here in Eastern Europe and that the camp was just a staging area whilst they got moved to their new lands and houses) was for everyone to have a shower and get clean after being in the trucks for so long. In fact, some of the people were given soap and towels so they probably did believe they were going to have a shower. They stripped out of their clothes and were then herded into the gas chamber itself. Kyclone B crystals were then dropped into the air vents and about 10min later the chamber was opened, ventilated and the bodies were removed and cremated.

Apparently up to 80,000 people per day could be exterminated at Auschwitz. That number just staggered me.. There were originally 4 chambers and crematoriums. All 4 were demolished by the Nazis before the Russian’s liberated the camp. All that remains today of the chambers (and in fact most of the Birkennau camp) is rubble.

I can’t describe how haunting Auschwitz is. I felt it was fitting that today’s weather was so poor.. it was quite overcast and cold.. I couldn’t imagine visiting the camp in bright sunlight, it would somehow feel inappropriate.

After more than 4hrs walking amongst the ruins and the museum we headed home. It was a much more subdued group who sat on the bus on the return journey.

Posted by weary_feet 10:30 Archived in Poland Comments (0)

10: Barbican

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Spent a lot of today in an internet café organising more of my holiday/ skype-ing people on the phone.

I did do some site seeing early in the morning and later in the evening, so here goes. Started the morning by renting an iPod DIY see Krakow audio guide. This enabled me to ramble at will throughout the old town learning about the sites of Krakow.

Started my ramble at the Old Town wall. Unlike Warsaw, most of Krakow is original and was not damaged during either war. Most of the Old Town wall was pulled down in the 1800s and the moat was filled in. This area surrounding the Old Town has been converted to a park. There is just one remaining piece of the wall, St Florian’s Gate and the Barbican. St Florian’s gate is the original entry into the town of Krakow. It was originally joined to an outside Barbican (round fortification) by a draw bridge. Now this area is filled in and a cobblestoned street joins the two areas.

The Barbican itself is quite interesting, you can go inside the fortification and pretend you a soldier on duty.. you need to be both a skinny and short soldier to work comfortably in the barbican as it is built for small people! When you exit the Barbican you can then enter the battlements of St Florian’s gate and take a good view of Florian’s way down to the main town square. Similar to Warsaw the original town walls were manned by members of each of the working guilds so there was a tower dedicated to the cloth makers, the fishermen, the soap makers and some other random guilds! All in all the Old Town Wall had more than 25 towers protecting the city. Now only 2 towers remain and the Barbican. I’m glad some of it remains because it makes the town feel quite medieval.

Spent the remainder of my touring day wandering down to the Wavell castle. Wavell was built in the late 1400s and is what I would call a true mediaeval castle. For starters it is pretty big and takes up at least 4 city blocks! It is the hereditary home of the Polish Kings and Queens and is also home for the Bishops of Krakow (the most famous of which is John Paul II- who was bishop just after WWII). Wavell was also home for a big bad mean dragon, who legend says ate all of the town’s virgins and livestock. It wasn’t until a shoe maker (didn’t catch his name on the iPod) slayed the dragon by staking a sheep out in front of his lair. The sheep had been killed and was filled with sulphur (because apparently sulphur would make the dragon thirsty). The dragon ate the sheep and was instantly thirsty, he went down to the river and drank so much water that he exploded! The shoe maker was an instant hero and for his reward he was able to marry the princess of Krakow and later became king of Krakow and the townsfolk of Krakow lived happily ever after (of course). Anyway the dragon’s grotto still exists today at the foot of Wavell castle. The symbol for Krakow is therefore a mighty dragon!

I didn’t get a chance to venture into Wavell because it had closed by the time I got down to that end of town but I’m sure I’ll get a better chance later in the week.

Turned in early tonight as I’m off to Auschwitz tomorrow and therefore have an early start.

Posted by weary_feet 11:38 Archived in Poland Comments (0)

9: A Day of Stories

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Off to Krakow today (Krakow is actually pronounced Kraakov- which sounds better in my opinion!). Train was pretty uneventful (except that I couldn’t quite work out where I was supposed to sit.. a nice Polish guy helped me out). Arriving in Krakow was an awesome experience. For starters, the central station lets you out into this huge shopping mall.. so there was me pulling my case behind me through this huge mall! Just a crack up! Directly out of this mall is the Old Town.

It puts Warsaw’s Old Town to shame (and Warsaw’s is pretty nice!) I know I’ve said it a few times, but Krakow is probably now my favourite city in Europe.. The Old Town is just incredible.. If you haven’t been here, and you like old architecturally interesting buildings, you need to put it on your list. I am lucky enough to be staying right in the Old Town so I can really soak up the vibe. Finally, the sun had decided to come out so after stowing my stuff (I’m staying in a hotel by the way—I need my own space for a few days—I’m sick of people waking me up at all hours) I went for a wander through the city in a t-shirt and shorts (yup they’ve made a re-appearance).

Like I said it just blows me away.. the city is incredible (and didn’t suffer as much damage during the war as did Warsaw). Walked down the main street “Florianska” to the main square of Krakow. Wow what a square. It’s at least 200m wide and deep and it is just one big square ringed by outdoor cafes! In the middle of the square is a huge building that used to be the cloth merchants house but now houses heaps of souvenir shops. The square is the main hub of the city and is packed with tourists and pigeons! Krakow is a very old city (circa 1000 AD was when it was founded) and so has many legends. One of the legends says that there was a Prince of Krakow who started a quest to save the city. He left his trusty “men” behind to guard the city whilst he went looking for troops (or something.. I tuned out during the middle of the story).. Anyway to go on his quest he needed money so he approached a witch who lived outside of the city to get some money.. She gave him the money on the proviso that he left his men as collateral. If he didn’t return to save the city then his men would turn into pigeons.. Well clearly the prince didn’t return to the city because there are more pigeons in Krakow than anywhere else I’ve seen yet! They are so bad that when they take off you have to protect your face in case they run into you! (and yes I did get hit by one—on the leg—when a kid decided to make them scatter).

During my wander around the main square I discovered a free walking tour that was about to leave for the Jewish Quarter of the city. Considering I was already there (and the tour was free) I decided to tag along and see the Jewish part of Krakow. The main Jewish part of the city is called Kazimierz. This is not the part of the city that housed the ghetto! But it was the part where the Jewish people lived. It is also where Schindler’s List was filmed. Oscar Schindler did live and did save Krakow Jewish lives (about 1100 in total).

The Jewish quarter still feels like an old part of the town. It has tiny little streets and many Jewish synagogues. At the time of the war Krakow had almost 70,000 Jewish inhabitants. By the end of the war only 2500 remained (1100 of which were saved by Schindler). During 1940 most of the Jewish population were moved from Krakow to areas outside of the city to work on farms. The remaining inhabitants were forcibly removed in 1941 to another part of Krakow (across the river) and the inhabitants of this area of Krakow were also moved, into the Jewish houses! This area had a wall built around it with only 4 guarded exits. The wall chillingly was built in the shape of grey tombstones. Some buildings made up the side of the walls and these had any windows bricked in so that there was no escape from the ghetto. There was only one polish man who was left in the ghetto. HE was the owner of the pharmacy and he bribed the guards to let him stay there. He was awarded a medal from the Jewish people after the war for the heroic acts he took to save lives and smuggle Jews out of the ghetto.

The most famous of the ghetto heroes is probably Schindler. He was of course a member of the Nazi party and was also a member of the secret police. His views changed during the war and he ended up saving many people from Auschwitz under the guise of needing “workers” for his factory. Apparently it was the only business venture that he had that did not go bankrupt.. mainly because his labour was free!

Another hard yakka day ended up with me having a polish dinner with some other members of our walking party. A good way to end my birthday!

A final note to those reading.. Just want to send a big shout-out to everyone who sent me birthday wishes and in particular the gang at Arnott's who sent me my very own birthday greeting.. Thanks team! (Anyone would think I still work for you guys :) ) IMG_2118.jpg

Posted by weary_feet 11:11 Archived in Poland Comments (0)

8: Basalt Rocks

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Nice leisurely start this morning as I had no real plans but to view more of the Old Town and to see some more of the sites of the Jewish Ghetto.

My travels took me back through the heart of the Old Town to the only remaining piece of the Old Town Wall. I feel a bit sorry for the local Warsaw folk.. it wasn’t until just before the first world war that they “rediscovered” the Old Town Wall during archaeological diggings. Once discovered, the town decided to uncover more of the Old Wall and to begin the slow process of renovating and rebuilding the wall. It wasn’t until the mid-20s that the Wall was officially “re-unveiled” to the world as the Old Warsaw Town Wall. Less than 15 years later the wall was turned into complete rubble by the Nazi’s during their bombing blitz, and the painstaking task of rebuilding the wall did not commence until the mid-50s.

You can now walk through a part of the wall to see some of the history of the wall itself; from medieval time’s right thru to modern day when it was re-opened to the public. Back during medieval times the wall (and the 20 or so watch towers surrounding Warsaw) were manned by members of the guilds. Each guild had a certain part of the wall that they were responsible for guarding. There was no city guard as such each guild had their own bit of wall that they were required to defend! There are also many photos showing exactly how decimated the Old Town was during the war.. In one photo the only building left standing amongst what you would assume is at least four city blocks is a catholic church (and it looked like it had suffered some pretty heavy damage).

From the Old Town Wall I wandered throughout the “New Town” which appears to be just as old as the Old Town! Basically, back in the 1500s the King decided to start expanding Warsaw and so the New Town was born. The New Town was not surrounded by as good fortifications as the Old Town and mainly peasants and poor business people lived in the New Town. The New Town is filled with Catholic Churches and two different working cloisters! (Actually all of Warsaw is filled with churches, but the New Town has a church on nearly every intersection.) Nun’s in habit isn’t something you would see regularly when walking about in Brissie but here in Warsaw it isn’t uncommon and now I understand why. Within a space of 400m there are two different nunneries.

It’s a sad story but many of the churches in the Old and New Towns were used by the Warsaw Resistance during the war as places of refuge or make-shift hospitals. During the uprising (1943) the Nazi’s discovered that churches were being used as places of refuge and so started systematically targeting the churches in both towns. Thousands of people were killed when most of the churches were bombed and destroyed. Most of the bodies were never recovered and the total number of dead (or the names) is unknown.

After spending a few hours wandering about drinking in the sites of the two towns I ventured out to see the remaining Jewish sites. At the moment there is no Jewish Ghetto museum (it is under construction and is expected to be finished in Late 2012) there is only a few monuments to the horror that occurred here during the war. There is a monument to the Ghetto Uprising. During Mid 1942 almost 300,000 people were deported to Treblinka. Originally, the Nazi’s told the Jewish community that the people were being transported “East” to “Labour Camps”. By early 1943 the remaining Jewish population had discovered the truth of what the “Eastern Labour Camps” were and so many of the remaining inhabitants of the ghetto rose up and started to attack the Nazi soldiers to try and prevent the remaining Jewish citizens from being sent to their deaths. The revolt lasted less than 5 months before the Jewish resistance collapsed. The remaining leaders of the resistance decided to commit suicide rather than be captured by the Nazis. The location where they committed suicide has since become a monument to the Jewish resistance. On the avenue leading to the monument is a number of basalt rocks. On these rocks is inscribed the names of some of the members of the resistance as a commemoration of the sacrifice they made to try and protect the remaining few Jews. Only 1500 of the Warsaw Jews survived the war.

My last stop was another monument. This monument depicts the gate through which the Jewish people would have passed on the way to the “Eastern Labour Camps”. They were herded onto trucks (after leaving this gate) before ending their journey in a railway car at Treblinka.

As you can imagine my day ended fairly heavily. Although there isn’t much remaining of the Ghetto it is incredible to think that so many people lived in this area at one time and within the space of one year they were largely all wiped out. Tomorrow I’m off to Krakow with the express reason of seeing Auschwitz. I’m sure it is going to be a tough couple of days.

Posted by weary_feet 10:58 Archived in Poland Comments (0)

7: WEARY Feet

sunny 24 °C
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Got an early start this morning as I planned for a big day of sightseeing around the city. I had two goals for today; book my train ticket to Krakow for later in the week and see the Resistance Museum.

This seemed to work as the station was on the way to the museum. The plan was sound, but until I actually started walking I had no concept of how far the Resistance Museum actually was from the Old Town. To put it in terms most of us can relate to- the museum would have been at least as far as New Farm is from the Gabba.. And no (for those of you who know me well) I’m not in any way exaggerating.. I could actually be underestimating the distance.. I walked and walked and walked and walked.

Finally made it to the museum to discover that they had closed the interior of the museum to the public because they were showing VIPs through!! I was able to see the outside exhibits but still… It was funny, but I wasn’t angry I was just so tired.. it was almost comical that I’d walked so far to see this museum to discover that it was closed!

On the way back I stopped in for a well-deserved hour long break in this shopping mall where all I did was eat lunch and read my book (geez I needed that break—and god did my feet hurt when I started walking again!).. Also bought my train ticket.. Another amusing story; I waited in line (like a good communist does) for quite a while to get my ticket.. I’d already read the timetable so knew which train I wanted to catch. Got up to the ticket window to have a huge language barrier.. The lady behind the register had no idea what I wanted.. I tried miming, writing it down.. to no avail. She also indicated to me that no-one else spoke English either!!! (this is the main train station in the country and not one of the 10 tellers spoke English!) I had decided that the stars just weren’t aligning today and so had resigned myself to walking the 40mins back to the hostel and getting the lady at reception to write it down for me so that I could walk back the 40min to buy my ticket.. Just as I was leaving the station a beggar stopped me to ask for change to catch his train.. I did the whole “shake head, nyea polish” only to have him say to me “you speak English?” Anyway cut a long story short I paid him to go up to the teller and buy my ticket for me.. The most profitable $5 I’ve ever spent in my life!!! He even took me into the station to show me where to catch my train! What a nice beggar! (And how is it that a beggar speaks awesome English and the lady behind the register speaks none!!!!!—the beggar was laid off work in IT and now can’t get a job.. poor dude)

Also stopped off at the only remaining piece of the Jewish Ghetto wall. The Ghetto actually took up a fair amount of the space of the main part of Warsaw.. when you actually walk it (and I’ve walked half of it) you can appreciate how big the ghetto actually was.. Sadly, almost 300,000 Jewish people were taken from the Ghetto to Treblinka death camp and were exterminated.. The Jewish population before the war was over a third of the total population of Warsaw and once it had ended only 1500 remained alive..

Almost nothing remains to remind you of the horror that occurred in Warsaw but the little that remains is chilling.

Returned to the digs and spent the evening showing a young Aussie dude, Polish food. Poor bloke had only been eating McDs and Pizza Hut because he wasn’t game to try the local fare . Anyway early night as every bone in my body is aching!

Posted by weary_feet 10:38 Archived in Poland Comments (0)

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