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Haunting me – Auschwitz & Birkenau

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I wrote this on the evening after visiting Auschwitz & Birkenau and I felt that it needed to be shared. I was feeling a little ‘creeped out’ by the whole experience so excuse the mournful tone.

I’m having trouble sleeping tonight. Every time I close my eyes all I see are visions of Auschwitz & Birkenau scorched into the back of my eyelids. Today we visited two of the death camps that I’ve heard so much about. It felt so wrong that the sun was shining on this place, yet despite it being a bright and sunny day full of curious tourists I still felt an eery stillness walking around.

Before arriving there, I kind of felt it was a little wrong to visit a place which was the resting place of millions of Jews. Did people really get a kick out of this? I wondered. Now I’ve been there however, I can’t emphasise just how important it was to go and see the camp with my own eyes.

We need to remember. We need to be educated. We need to pay our respects for those who perished and the few who risked their lives for the sake of others.

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Inside one of the buildings at Auschwitz, there was a wall of photos of some of the men and women registered into the death camp. Some, though only having just arrived showed signs that they had been beaten; some wore a blank expression and some (and the ones that really got to me) were faces of men and women wearing genuine smiles with what seemed like no inclination of what was soon to happen to them.

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Of about eight hundred jews who tried to escape, only about one hundred and fifty managed. It didn’t matter how long it took to search for an escaped prisoner, the Nazis would carry on searching even if it took a whole year.

We learnt about the medical experiments performed on the jews for various purposes and how a lot of the prisoners would end up physically handicapped and thus  would meet their end much faster because they could no longer work and were therefore deemed useless to the Nazis.

We learnt about Maximilian Kolbe, a Polish priest who died as a prisoner in Auschwitz. When a prisoner escaped, the prisoners in the camp would be punished. This was to discourage other prisoners from having even the notion of thinking about escaping (and also because they were just merciless bastards). On this occasion there were ten Jews selected to be eliminated in the starvation bunker including Franciszek Gajowniczec who began sobbing for his wife and children. Maximilian stepped forward and asked to take this mans place. Oddly enough, the officer agreed and the priest was thrown down the stairs into the starvation bunker and left to starve. Whilst the other prisoners were gnawed at by their thirst and hunger (often drinking their own urine and licking the cold walls) the priest would pray.

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After two weeks only four of the ten were still alive.  The Nazis grew impatient as they needed the cells for more victims so an executioner was sent to inject a lethal dose of carbolic acid into each of the men. Maximilian was the last to die and whilst fully conscious, he lifted his arm to receive the shot. A true saint

Franciszek Gajowniczek survived to tell the story and died in 1995 at the age of 95.

After putting pen to paper, I finally managed to get some sleep. I won’t ever forget my visit nor will I forget the fluttering wings of the butterfly that danced past a gas chamber that day.

On another note; try to be respectful if you go. Taking pictures of you smiling next to a display case of glasses (or whatever) just makes you look like a fool.

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The land of everything and more

Ah Krakow.

It’s been over a year since I was there but I can still remember the city quite vividly despite my terrible memory. It’s a place that has something for everyone’s tastes whether it’s history you enjoy, vibrant cities or wonderful food.

Here’s what we covered in a week:

We took a walk around the city by foot. We went in July so the weather was fortunately perfect for a bit of walking.

There’s also free walking tour from Market Square every day which has been highly recommended. Just look out for someone holding a sign post!

We soaked in the atmosphere at Rynek Glowny (Market Square), the largest medieval square in Europe. I could have spent all day just walking around, sipping on cappuccino’s and watching the world go by.

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You can take a horse-drawn carriage for a ride around the city. I was extremely impressed by the care that the owners obviously take of their horses. Maltese karozzin drivers should take note!

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We succumbed to the touristy part of ourselves and took a buggy ride around the city (it was my mums’ idea). It’s not the cheapest but it’s pretty fun and you’ll probably get to see more than if you were walking by foot especially if you’re there for a really short stay.

We got to sneak a peek inside St Mary’s Church (Koscial Mariacki) for free but I would recommend paying the small 6 PLN fee for a ticket since that’s the only way you’ll be allowed to take photos. Honestly, I don’t say this about many religious buildings but this was really something.

We sat with our coffees at a cafe close by to the church tower and listened out for the bugle call. It’s every hour so you’re bound to hear it at some point but we wanted to play ‘Spot the bugler’ too. He’s a bit tough to see if you’re short-sighted (and don’t happen to be wearing your glasses). I’ve read quite a few different stories about the bugler call but the one that my parents told me is that a bugler was sounding the alarm and was cut short when a Tatar archer shot him in the throat, thus his alarm was cut short. Now, whenever the bugle is played it stops abruptly to commemorate that moment forever. I hope I got that right, if I didn’t then I’m sure I’ll be corrected at some point.

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Eat Polish food. Namely potato pancakes and pierogi! The food is delicious and they cater really well to vegetarians too which initially surprised me. For pierogi try the popular Babci Maliny, so cheap and the place is really quirky. Click here for their website…oh yeah and be prepared for the musical introduction.

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Visit the local Farmer’s Market. The fresh fruit and veg are a sight for sore eyes…and taste great too.

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Take a stroll along the Vistula River before heading Wawel Castle to meet the fire-breathing dragon! Ooh.

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Meet some dwarves in the Wieliczka Salt Mine.  It’s the home of some pretty fantastic sculptures and an underground Cathedral (all made of salt). It’s quite enchanting and I kind of felt like I’d stepped into a Tolkien book. You’ll have to go down a lot of steps to get there, I didn’t count but our guide said there were about 400+. You’ll also have to go with a guide so I would suggest pre-booking the tour and saving yourself the big queue at the actual entrance to the mine. I didn’t take many pictures and I had left my camera…bring yours! You’ll also have to pay about 20 PLN for a photography permit although you could probably get away with not buying one if you’re discreet…I really shouldn’t be saying this sort of stuff should I? Oh yeah, and lick the salt, just because.

Head to Schindler’s Factory to scrub up on your history (and learn tons more in the process). The exhibition tells the story of Krakow under Nazi occupation from 1939 – 1945. This museum is probably one of the best I have seen; It was informative, captivating and moving. You’ll need to allow yourself about three hours to explore and the couple of short films that they show are worth watching too.

Pay your respects by visiting Auschwitz – Birkenau, the death camp which was the last place that so many jews saw…and feel thankful to leave.
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Notes:
We went to the salt mines and Auschwitz-Birkenau with Cracow Tours and I would totally recommend them. I was feeling sick on one of the days so was going to have to cancel and do the trip alone the next day but they rescheduled at the last-minute for all four of us to go the next day together instead without any hassle at all. The guides are also brilliant too!
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Poland – Krakow

In 2012 I visited Poland and wrote about it in my old blog. It turned out to be a very special place and one that I want to share here.

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Poland was quite honestly never a country I had thought about visiting…at least any time soon. It was a place I associated only with its terrible history and as much as I enjoy reading and watching documentaries about the war, I didn’t want to put myself into direct contact with the remnants of it. Thankfully my parents had been once before and loved it so much that they invited me to join them for a second visit. They didn’t need to ask me twice!

We arrived in Krakow thirty minutes ahead of schedule after a cosy two-hour trip crammed between two strangers; one of whom was almost falling asleep on my shoulder and the other who spent the entire flight playing Sudoku and what I decided was ‘political Hangman’ on his iPad. Each to their own I guess! Once out of the airport we had already arranged a taxi pick up to take us to the apartment we had rented. It would have been simple enough to take the train but we decided to opt for convenience (laziness) on this occasion.

Our apartment could not have been located in a better place! Well, not unless you plonked it in the middle of the Market Square. It was just a 5 minute walk into the city centre so nothing was far away. The apartment itself was beautiful and truly a home away from home and I’d recommend it over staying in a hotel to anyone.

Information about the apartment can be found here.

Krakow is a beautiful city rich in character and magic. There’s a certain buzz that you get from walking around that I haven’t quite felt anywhere else; it’s kind of hard to describe but I guess it’s a feeling of belonging. The atmosphere gently lures you in with welcoming arms and Pierogi at the ready. Be ready to fall for its charm!

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