A Travellerspoint blog

Poland

Lublin and Majdanek Concentration Camp


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Today was my final day here in Poland before heading to Scotland for a week of relaxation (and drunken debauchery with good friends!). My plans for today revolved around taking the train to the city of Lublin, in the eastern region of Poland (I was surprised to see how far east the city truly is). The train departed shortly before 08:00 and arrived around half-past 10.

Upon arrival at the Lublin train station I set off towards the main attraction in the city: the former concentration camp of Majdanek. The camp was about an hour-long walk from the station; my path led me through a somewhat shady looking residential area that was run down, even passing by a shanty area near a stream. I made my way to a main street and soon arrived at the camp.

Majdanek is a very impressive memorial/museum and I was quite surprised by the number of tourists at the site; this area was rather out of the way and not a major tourist destination. Many of the tourists were carrying large Israeli flags; I couldn't tell if they were actually from Israel or Jews showing their solidarity with Israel. The entire complex was free of charge, which was quite nice. The first sight was a massive monument at the location of the former gates to the camp: a gigantic stone sculpture that was quite impressive.

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I followed the exhibit path down from the gate monument, down to the location of the old camp buildings. The first building turned out to be the gas chamber and shower facility. The building used to be separated into two different ones: the showers and then the gas chamber. Majdanek never concealed the gas chamber as a shower, so the shower room was an actual shower. The gas chamber itself was smaller than I had expected, but I could only imagine how it would appear packed with people about to be murdered. The Nazis initially used carbon-monoxide to kill the victims, before switching to the Zyklon-B gas. Interestingly, the camp guards initially used Zyklon-B to disinfect the inmates' clothing. One room housed a massive amount of old Zyklon-B gas canisters.

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Outside of the gas chamber was the selection field, a smallish area where the new arrivals would be sorted out: those who would live would go to the showers for disinfecting; those unfit for work would go to the gas chamber. Moving up the row of buildings, some had interesting exhibits about different aspects of the Nazi occupation: life in the ghetto, liquidation of the ghettos, the Lublin occupation, etc. One building had a huge collection of shoes from the victims killed during the ghetto liquidation.

One of the most interesting (and disturbing) buildings housed a memorial to the unnamed victims of the camp. Inside was a large art installation of balls made of barbed wire; some were suspended from the ceiling with one light inside each ball, while others simply laid on the gravel flooring. Playing over speakers were voices speaking Polish. It was haunting. The room was quite dark and I did my best to capture the memorial.

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I continued to walk down the rows of buildings; one the left side sat the double fence of barbed wire and the now empty fields where the old inmate blocks used to stand. One field had several recreations of the block housing and it was shocking. All of the buildings, including those with exhibits, all resembled small barns: no windows, dark, and very stuffy inside them.

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I finally reached the other end of the camp (a walk that took about 30-40 minutes) and saw the crematorium, the location of which was quite surprising. The gas chamber and the crematorium were on complete opposite sides of the camp from one another; the bodies from the gas chamber would thus have to be openly transported to the crematorium. The other camps that I had visited combined both functions into one building complex. The crematorium was one of the largest that I've seen, with a large collection of ovens. Adjacent to the oven room were the rooms where inmates would thoroughly search the bodies for any valuables.

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Outside the crematorium was one of the most amazing and powerful memorials that I've seen at a concentration camp: a massive mausoleum for the victims of the camp. It was a large circular structure with a domed roof; there was a small open section on the terrace where visitors could look inside... which was filled with soil that was mixed with the ashes of the camp's victims. The ashes had been buried by the Nazis; when the mausoleum was erected, the soil was turned up and preserved.

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I walked toward the old town area of town, which was just over an hour's walk away. The heat was quite intense and I stopped in a local grocery store to buy a bottled water and a Popsicle, which gave me some much needed energy. When I reached the old town area, I walked around and admired many of the old European buildings. There was some sort of festival going on, with food stalls lining the main pedestrian street. I walked over to the Lublin Castle, which was formerly used as a prison.

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I stopped at an Irish-style pub for lunch, where I had some traditional Polish dumplings. The meal was... disappointing, sadly. I'd seen this dish advertised in several restaurants all over Poland and finally decided to give them a try. This version was quite bland and tasteless; adding salt and pepper didn't really help either.

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After lunch I started making my way over to a square that had a Holocaust memorial, but found the area under construction and thus I could not access the square. I turned back toward the train station, hoping to make the earlier train back to Warsaw (my original ticket was for 18:00, but the earlier train left at 16:00). I arrived back at the train station and just missed the earlier train. Thankfully there was a small cafe in the station where I enjoyed a mango smoothie and spent the next couple of hours relaxing. The train arrived in the station quite early, allowing me to board the train about 40 minutes early so I could rest and relax.

The train back to Warsaw was quite unpleasant. There was a mother with two young kids sitting in the same car as me; one of the kids was quite well behaved, but the little girl was absolutely awful. She was around three and never shut up during the entire 2.5 hour journey; I'd truly hoped she would fall asleep. She would jump around on her seat, stand on the table between seats, and would scream/screech at the top of her lungs repeatedly - all with the mother doing nothing to stop her. The mother didn't try to quiet her, talk to her about using an "inside voice" or anything; she just sat there. Bitch. The girl would also start throwing a tantrum for no discernible reason; she'd sit in a seat and start screaming and toddler crying (just to get attention); again the mother did nothing. Everyone in the car was quite put out with them.

One of the perks of working remotely is that it makes these long train trips (or flights or layovers) seem like nothing; the time speeds by, thankfully.

Posted by Glichez 12:11 Archived in Poland Comments (0)

Warsaw


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I caught the train to Warsaw early this morning, leaving Krakow at 08:20. The train was different than the one I had taken to Krakow and, despite following the same direct route, it took slightly longer to reach Warsaw. I spent the time on the train getting some work done, which helped to pass the time. Upon arrival in Warsaw I made my way to the hotel; I arrived too early for check in, but I was able to store my luggage.

It was another hot day in Poland and I would be out in the heat all day today as I explored the city. As I set off into the city, my first brief stop was outside the Palace of Culture and Science, which was quite near the train station. It resembled similar buildings that I had seen in other former Soviet cities: the 1950s Stalin Soviet style. The entire complex was rather large, with a square and fountains in the front.

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I was quite a ways from the old town area (I had chosen a hotel close to the train station to make my departure to the airport easier on Monday). The walk through the city was nice; I was surprised by how large and modern Warsaw felt. The city was almost completely destroyed during the Second World War, so the city had been steadily rebuilt ever since. Among the modern buildings are the random older-style buildings. My progression through the cities of Poland resembled my progression through the Baltic States:

Tallinn - Gdank
Very old European, Gothic cities with a lot of charm

Riga - Krakow
A blending of old Europe and modern Europe

Vilnius - Warsaw
Large modern cities with a small taste of old Europe, which is lost in the bustle of the modern side

oh, and then there's...
Kaunas - Kaliningrad
Garbage

I walked through the city and found my way to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, located in a massive square at the end of a very nice park. The tomb is a small structure with an eternal flame and two guards on either side; the structure has a roof, so the guards are not exposed to the sun and heat. Listed on the pillars around the tomb are the names of battles where Polish soldiers served. Several military personnel were setting up some rope barriers in the square, which seemed odd. I found out later that some sort of military parade was going on, though I've no idea why.

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I spent a few minutes walking around the park, which had a large fountain and some beautiful flowers - very vibrant! Scattered around the park were benches that would play classical music when a button was pressed; the composer Chopin once lived in this part of Warsaw.

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Nearby was the presidential palace, which was quite impressive. It was larger than I had expected. Across the street was some sort of protest movement; they had several large signs spread out on the ground and hung up. Directly in front of the palace was a large cross on the ground made out of jars with candles.

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By this point I was needing a break, so I stopped for lunch at a local cafe. The cafe served traditional Polish food and I went with Polish sausage with sauerkraut. It was incredibly delicious, as was the beer that I enjoyed with the meal. Sitting next to me was an older couple who sat silent during their entire meal, not speaking once; the woman ordered a beer and 7up, which she then mixed together! Yuck!

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After lunch I reached the traditional old town, where I saw the Warsaw Castle and some of the old city walls. The square in front of the castle was nice and full of tourists. In one area, a woman was singing and some people were dancing the tango (badly) as she sang. Right next to that I saw a man running around in a thong and fishnet stockings; he was stopping to take pictures with female tourists. It would have been amusing had he been attractive!

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I continued to explore the old town, stopping briefly in the main market square, which is simply a collection of old buildings and full of sidewalk cafes. I stopped to grab an ice cream before venturing further on. I found another section of the city walls and was able to walk around them for a bit.

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I left the old town area and made my way to the former Jewish ghetto. In random areas I would find memorials with pieces of the old ghetto wall. Along the ground was a marker embedded into the sidewalk marking out where the wall had once stood. I took a short detour into a park that I stumbled upon nearby, finding a rather nice building that turned out to be the Krasiński Palace. This was the most interesting and beautiful building that I saw in Warsaw, with a lovely garden attached to it.

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As I started to leave, I noticed a sign on the street indicating that the memorial to the Warsaw Uprising was nearby, so I decided to follow the signs and find it. The memorial was much further than it appeared, but it did allow me to discover the military parade. I only saw the very end of it, but there was a large group of military members on horses making their way down the street (which was consequently full of horse shit!). I finally managed to find the memorial, but discovered that I'd gone to the wrong memorial! I've no idea how it happened and the memorial I found was dedicated to the heroes of Warsaw; it was... ok, but not worth the detour and significant backtracking.

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I had one last sight to see on my list: Umschlagplatz, which was a holding area where the Nazis kept the Jews before deporting them to the concentration camps. (It turns out that I passed by the memorial to the Warsaw Uprising on my way there, but didn't even realize it). However, I did stumble along a different memorial during the very long walk to Umschlagplatz: the Museum of Independence at the former Pawiak Prison. The prison was a former Tsarist prison and was used by the Gestapo during the 1940s, imprisoning and killing thousands of people. The prison was destroyed during Nazi reprisals after the Warsaw Uprising; only a small section of the main gate and walls remain.

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When I reached Umschlagplatz I realized that it was worth the long walk. The memorial was in the shape of a walled-in courtyard with signs along one side of the memorial. It was toned-down and somber, but very effective. When I reached the memorial there was a group of younger tourists laying around the memorial, goofing off and not showing any respect for what the memorial commemorates; they were all in their late-teens and should have known better. When the group was leaving, one girl refused to get up from lay down on the memorial; I couldn't tell what language they were speaking, but I could tell that she was indicating that she just couldn't go on; she was offered food and water, but she refused; it was clear she was being a drama queen. Thankfully she eventually left and I could finally take some good pictures.

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Posted by Glichez 12:21 Archived in Poland Comments (0)

Delving into a Salt Mine, and Schindler's Factory


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This was my last day here in Krakow and I had another full day of touring planned.

I booked a half-day tour to the Wieliczka Salt Mine, which is about 30 minutes outside of Krakow. The driver picked me up at 09:00 and, after one last pickup of additional tourists, we headed out to the mine. The driver, who resembled Christoph Waltz, made some very inappropriate comments during the short drive, including some anti-gay comments: "Here in Poland we don't like the modern family. Two men and a dog. We don't like such experiments." He was talking to a couple sitting at the front of the car and went on to explain how important religion is to the Polish people and how family is man and woman. I know that Poland (and most of Eastern Europe) is very conservative on many social issues, but I didn't expect for our tour driver to be spouting out this crap. Thankfully he was just the driver and we went off with a different guide at the mine.

The Wieliczka Salt Mine was a salt mine began work in the 13th century, but it ceased operation in the late 20th century. The mine has gradually been opened to tourists over the past 200 years. We were given personal audio devices so we could easily hear our guide as we explored the mine. The beginning of the tour had us walking down 54 levels of stairs (7 stairs per level, total of 378 stairs). The mine's temperature is a constant 14-16 degrees Celsius year-round, which was quite nice since today was going to be another hot one.

Throughout the mine were several statues and monuments to show what life was like for the miners working in the mine. There were also statues of mythical figures, including several gnomes/dwarfs. Salt deposits covered the walls and we were able to taste the salt; it wasn't too strong. However, there was some running water in the mine (naturally running through the mine); we tasted this water and it was much stronger - far saltier than sea water too!

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There were several chapels scattered throughout the mine as well, including a gigantic chapel that is still in use; it regularly hosts weddings. In the large chapel there were several religious carvings in the rocks, including one of the last supper. At the end of the chapel was a statue carved from pure salt, which was rather spectacular. The room also had three large chandeliers hanging from the ceiling.

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We continued to walk deeper into the mine and came across a large salt lake; the water has such a high salt content that a human would simply float on the water. One of the final rooms that we saw was the largest of the excavated rooms. It was supported by massive wooden structures and had a massive 8m tall chandelier hanging from the ceiling!

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We made our way back to the surface via elevator. We saw barely 1% of the entire mine complex during out tour; the entire mine extends for over 287km (178mi)! We met up with our driver and made our way back to Krakow. To avoid hearing any more off-color remarks, I put in my headphones during the drive (I listened to recordings of The Howard Stern Show).

Upon arriving back in Krakow I headed out to visit the old Jewish ghetto area of town. There were not many parts of the old ghetto that remained (or that we obviously part of the ghetto in the 1940s). There was a small square near one of the entrances to the ghetto with a nice memorial: a series of large - and empty - chairs appeared throughout the square. Down the street from the square was a small section of the original ghetto wall. Seeing the wall was rather moving; I couldn't imagine what it would be like to live inside the ghetto, walled up like that. I was initially surprised to see that the wall had some design included with the top of the wall; I had imagined it would be a plain wall with barbed wire or something (similar to how simple and crude the Berlin Wall was). I later found out that the top of the ghetto wall was meant to resemble a tombstone, which thus gave the wall an even darker symbolism.

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My final stop for the day was the museum at the Oscar Schindler factory (yes, that Schindler from the movie Schindler's List). The factory isn't located in the best part of town; it is still a manufacturing section of town, but there were numerous tourists around. The factory was actually smaller than I had expected. Inside I bought a ticket to tour the museum, which is explored on your own.

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The museum is one of the best museums that I have ever visited! It thoroughly details the occupation of Poland during the Second World War. Included with the numerous artifacts and pictures were dozens of explanations of the events that transpired. One of the most interesting areas covered what everyday life was like under the Nazi occupation. Most of the time we just hear about the awful treatment of the Jews (which was undeniably horrendous), but life for the average Polish citizen was not pleasant as well. The section explained the changes in shopping, going to restaurants, even using public transit changed for everyone.

The first areas, covering the initial attack and occupation in the fall of 1939, included numerous Nazi and Third Reich artifacts: several flags, books, portraits of Hitler, guns, signs, etc. One room even played the music that the Nazis would blast over the public loudspeakers during the occupation (I recognized one piece as a military march - it was used in the film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, during the book burning scene in Berlin). Even the floor in this area was covered with swastikas - literally!

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Throughout the museum were personal stories recounted by survivors and victims of the Nazis, along with their pictures all over the wall. The section concerning the treatment of the Jews was especially moving; the area was quite dark; pictures were everywhere, along with personal accounts of the events in the Krakow ghetto.

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There was surprisingly only one small area of the museum dedicated to Oscar Schindler; I don't feel it truly represented what the man did - it definitely didn't adqeuately explain what his "list" did to save the Jewish lives. Perhaps the museum relies too heavily upon the film to convey that. There was one sign about his "lists" - plural, not singular. I couldn't quite decipher what it all meant, but there were multiple lists and it was clear that events didn't transpire exactly as the film showed; this made me wish the section was larger so I could learn more. There was a replica of his working desk, across from which was a very nice memorial listing out all of the people that he saved.

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There were some very interesting pieces in the museum, including Nazi propaganda posters and examples of Christmas presents from the war years - even an Adolf Hitler marionette!

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At the end of the museum was a room filled with statements from survivors and victims in various languages. The final room had photographs of many of the people that Schindler was able to save.

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I was really surprised by how spectacular the museum was; everything was in both Polish and English, making it easy for me to understand everything that was displayed. The level of detail that went into creating the museum and detailing out all of the events from the war was amazing. I could easily have spent an entire day at the museum; I had to rush through the last half since it was getting late (and I'd spent so much time reading everything during the first half!).

I made may way back to the old town for a quick dinner and one last stroll through the main square. Oh, and there was a guy playing the piano on the street... wearing a horse head mask.

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When I got back to my hotel I received a rather unpleasant email concerning my safari tour of Africa: the tour price had increased $200 due to a new tax imposed by Tanzania. The government imposed an 18% VAT on safari tours and provided only a 1-week notice before it was implemented. Since the excursion into the Serengeti is in Tanzania, this caused the price to jump. Hardly good news one week prior to leaving on the tour.

Though this bad news was offset when I received my electronic ballot for the November election! I'll be able to print it out next week while I'm in Scotland and get it sent in before I leave for Africa! Huzzah!

... and now there are loud and obnoxious Italians in the courtyard outside yelling and screaming at one another...

Posted by Glichez 10:48 Archived in Poland Comments (0)

Auschwitz Visit


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Today was the first of several days that focuses on the Holocaust, a history that is sadly unavoidable when visiting Poland.

I was picked up from my hotel around 07:30 and we started the hour-long drive out to Auschwitz. En route we watched a DVD about the Soviet liberation of the camp in late January 1945; the film interviewed the cameraman who was with the Soviets and was the first to film the camp and the survivors. It included several scenes that he filmed, many of which I had never seen before; it was not easy to watch, especially when they showed the dead bodies (and the Soviet doctors performing autopsies; this was used as evidence against the Nazis after the war).

We arrived at the Auschwitz I camp and I was surprised how much the surrounding town had built up around the camp. During the Nazi era, nothing was allowed within 40km of the camp complex. This was to help keep the activities of the camp secret. When the camp was being built, the Nazis relocated the Polish population and cleared away the buildings they left behind. The Auschwitz I camp, though, utilized the buildings that were already on the site.

I was surprised by how small the Auschwitz I camp was. This was the first camp of the larger complex (Auschwitz II - Birkenau would grow to be about 20 times larger than Auschwitz I). Our group met with our camp tour guide and we were given individual headphones and receivers so we could hear her speaking as we walked around together.

We made our entry into the camp through the main gate with the famous "Arbeit Macht Frei" sign ("Work sets you free"). Walking past the barbed wire fencing and entering the camp proper was somewhat eerie, knowing that thousands of people had made this same walk and had never left the camp alive.

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We made our way through several of the camp blocks, which had been converted into museums. There were several pictures and artifacts from the camp on display, as well as a map of the European camp complex that fed Auschwitz. There was an interesting glass container on display - our guide explained that it contained the ashes of some of the camp victims. There was a display case with a small metal container and dozens of small pellets next to it - Zyklon-B gas pellets and the container that it was transported in. Next to this was a larger case full of empty Zyklon-B containers from the camp.

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There was one room where pictures were forbidden: on display was a fraction of the human hair that was found when the camp was liberated. There was one display with the hair and an example of the cloth fabric that was made using the hair. The primary exhibit was a large room full of human hair; the mound was immense. After this we were shown a room with several suitcases and dozens of shoes that were taken from the new arrivals at the camp. The final room showcasing the looting the Nazis carried out contained hundreds of pots, pans, and other kitchen tools.

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The next block building was the so-called "Death Block" where several prisoners would be kept before being sentenced to execution. The walls were lined with the ID photos that the camp guards used to take of the new arrivals (this process would be replaced by tattooing the inmates' numbers on their arms). The photos had their birth date, occupation, date of arrival at the camp, and date of death. So many of the people died within only a few months (a year max) after arriving at the camp. Seeing all of their pictures put a more personal touch to the horrors of the camp. One photo really struck me: it was of a woman who was grinning in her photo; it was the only one I saw that showed any emotion (the rest were dead-pan stares). It made me wonder what made her grin in the photo: defiance against the Nazi cruelty? Ignorance as to what was in store for her?

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The basement of the Death Block was the only other area where photos were forbidden. We were able to see the cell where a Franciscan monk was placed to starve to death; he volunteered to take the place of a fellow camp inmate who was sentenced to starvation. The monk survived for an unbelievably long time and the Nazis eventually had him killed. The other inmate survived the camps.

We were also able to see some of the standing cells: small, windowless rooms of 3m by 3m where the guards would force four or five people to stand in overnight. To enter the cell, the inmates had to crawl through a small door along the floor. The inmates would often die of suffocation; if an inmate survived the night, they would be sent to work the next day and be brought back to the cell the next night; this cycle would continue until they died.

In a courtyard next to the Death Block was the execution wall (today it is a reconstruction). This black wall was where the executions would take place. The block building next to this one had it's windows blocked out from the outside so the inmates couldn't see what was happening (though they could of course hear the gunshots). Up to 200 people could be executed here each day.

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Next we saw the roll call square and the small guard tower for the guard responsible for the roll call. It was here that the inmates were counted every morning and evening. If there were missing people or any inmates committed any infractions, they could be forced to stand in this square for hours; the longest time spent standing was 19 hours.

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There was one somewhat good sight that we got to see, if there's anything good to see at such a place: the gallows where the first commandant of the camp, Rudolf Höss, was hanged after his trial. He left the camp in 1943 and went into hiding after the war; thankfully he was soon captured and brought back to Poland for trial and execution. He was brought to Auschwitz for his execution; a fitting place for him to meet his fate.

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We made our way through the camp to our final stop: the gas chamber and the crematorium. This facility wasn't destroyed by the Nazis when they evacuated the camp, so we were able to see everything. The gas chamber in this camp wasn't disguised as a shower, that was saved for Birkenau and other death camps. We saw the holes in the ceiling where the gas pellets would be dropped into the chamber. A door opened directly into the crematorium where the bodies would be burned. I found myself wondering how many bodies each of the ovens could hold at a time: the gas chamber could kill a massive number of people in 20-30 minutes, but the ovens seems quite small to handle that kind of volume. It's scary to think of such a methodical murder and disposal of human beings.

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We made our way out of the Auschwitz I camp and then drove over to the Auschwitz II - Birkenau camp complex.

Auschwitz-Birkenau is the camp that everyone thinks of when they speak of "Auschwitz" - the train track leading into the camp; the deciding area where the guards would point to the left or right (the gas chamber or the camp); row after row of barracks.

We entered the camp along the train tracks running through the main gate. The tracks ran into the middle of the camp: on one side was the original camp area (later turned into the women's camp), on the other side was the enlarged camp area (expanded into seven different small camps for different prisoner groups). Along the train tracks was one cattle car - an original car that was used to transport the prisoners to the camp. The car was amazingly small; to think of 60+ people crammed into such a place for days at a time is unthinkable.

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The larger camp area is largely in ruins now; the block buildings had been built of wood and were burned down by the Nazis when they evacuated. The only things that remain are the foundations and the chimneys. In the women's camp are several brick buildings that had survived; the bricks used for these blocks came from the former Polish homes that were demolished to build the camp.

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We walked along the train tacks, down the path "to the left" that thousands of prisoners had made over 70 years ago. At the end of the path were the ruins of two more crematoriums; the Nazis blew up the buildings prior to evacuating the camp in 1945. Much of the complex is still visible and the ruins have been left untouched. We could see the long room where the prisoners would undress; the would turn into a side room where they would be gassed; the bodies would be brought up on a lift to the ovens that were above ground.

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Between the two ruins is a beautiful memorial to the victims. The various sculptures are designed to represent the burial markers for each of the areas where the victims came from. At one end of the memorial was a sculpture that was supposed to represent the oven chimney. Along the memorial were signs, all stating the same thing in different languages (one sign for each language spoken by the various victims).

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We walked into the women's camp, walking among the rows of blocks. On the way we passed by a small memorial and a pool of water. The water was pooled in an area where the ashes of victims were buried; now the ashes are in the water.

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Inside the women's camp we were able to enter one of the blocks - the one for children. Most of the children who came to the camp were immediately sent to the gas chamber, but those who weren't stayed in this special block for them. We were able to see the crude bunk beds where they would be crowded into. One inmate was allowed to paint some happy pictures in the block for the children and the paintings are still on display.

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This concluded our visit to the Auschwitz camp complex. It was a sad, depressing and very moving couple of hours. I'd visited the Dachau camp outside of Munich in 2001 and this brought back many memories of my time visiting that camp.

We arrived back to Krakow shortly after 14:00 and I spent the afternoon walking around the old town area. I stopped at a Georgian restaurant for a late lunch. I ordered a meat dish with some rice; as a starter they brought me some traditional Georigan bread and sauces (spicy, mayo-based, and garlic).

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After lunch I did some more exploring and saw some more street performers around the main square. One group was dressed in traditional Polish clothes, playing some pretty music and a woman was signing with them. I stopped to listen to them for several minutes.

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I finally stopped by Starbucks to relax with a coffee and read. I treated myself to a pumpkin-spice frapuccino! I spent some time reading before finally heading back to my hotel for the night. On the way back I found a large sculpture of a head in the main square; I'd walked by this area yesterday and didn't see it (not sure if I was just oblivious or if it was moved there today).

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I did venture to the shopping mall near the train station during the afternoon as well. My beard trimmer finally died early the morning and I needed to find a replacement. The razor itself still works, but the charger broke. I plugged it in to charge before I showered, planning to let it charge during the day. After the shower, right before I left for the tour, I noticed a strange smell and saw that the charger light wasn't actually on, despite being plugged in. The smell was coming from the plug and when I pulled it out, it was very hot. I'm not sure what happened, but I decided not to try plugging it in again. Thankfully I found a new razor for less than $10 USD!

Posted by Glichez 11:18 Archived in Poland Comments (1)

Krakow Exploration


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Today I had to leave my hotel around 05:15 so I could make the 45 minute walk to the train station. I left before the buffet breakfast started, but the hotel staff packed me a nice bagged breakfast to take with me! It had two meat and cheese sandwiches, some fruit, yogurt, orange juice and a candy bar; I was really impressed and grateful!

I took a different route to reach the train station that what I walked yesterday on my way in; this time I went through the old town area, which was quite nice in the pre-dawn light. There were only a few people milling about, including the city's cleaning service (they power wash the streets and sidewalks at night to keep them looking nice). I passed a red-light house and saw one of the girls leaving, which was... interesting. There was also a pub still open and a couple people drinking beer.

I reached the train station in plenty of time, so I ate half of the breakfast and did some reading before heading out to catch the train. My ticket was in Polish, but I was able to decipher my seat number (045) and found the car with my seat; it was at a small table, so I got out my laptop and spent the journey working and listening to music.

We made a stop in Warsaw, where many people got on the train. A family came to my seats and said they had booked them; we compared tickets and found that my ticket was for car 5 and I was in car 2! The woman was quite nice about it and helped me find my way. I moved my stuff down to car 5 and found my seat... and there was someone sitting in it! I had to wake her up, but she was very nice and moved. The rest of the journey went quickly. The man sitting next to me was from Krakow, but has been living outside of Chicago for over 20 years!

Upon arrival in Krakow I made the short walk down to my hotel, a nice place located in a private courtyard just minutes from the old town area. After dropping off my luggage, I went out to do some sightseeing in the city.

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My first stop was the Warsaw Castle, which was only about ten minutes away. It was a very impressive complex, with fortifications, a cathedral and a palace all within the castle walls. Apparently the Austrians made some major changes to the buildings and destroyed much of the old castle when they occupied this area of Poland in the 1800s. The restoration work is amazing. The central courtyard was quite nice, with three levels of balconies running around it.

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I bought a ticket to get into the castle, but found the ticket process to be somewhat convoluted. There are several sections and exhibits in the castle, and each one has its own separate ticket that is priced differently; they had no all encompassing ticket for the castle. I bought a ticket for the state rooms; the crown treasury and armory; and the dragon's den. I wanted to see the royal private apartments, but apparently the tours were only in Polish and German and the cashier wouldn't sell me a ticket (I'd have been happy to see them, even if I couldn't understand the tour). No photos were permitted in the areas that I visited though.

My first stop was at the state rooms. These were a series of very nice public rooms that were used in the palace for formal receptions, visitors, and other such functions. The first few rooms were rather plain, with some tapestries hung up; the rooms grew increasingly more impressive as the tour continued. The throne room was especially nice, as was the grand ballroom (which doubled as a meeting room for the state senate).

I next visited the crown treasury and armory, which was as impressive as it sounds. There were not many jewels - certainly no crown jewels - but there was a very large collection of royal artifacts and belongings: gold and silver cups, decorations, holy icons, etc. Most of them were from the 1600s and 1700s (the period before Poland was partitioned by Russian, Austria and Prussia). The armory was the true highlight of the entire castle though. The collection of weapons, dating back to the 1500s was incredible! Massive two-handed swords, pikes, pole-arms, smaller (and more ornate) swords, maces, cannons... the armory had it all! Some of the cannons were intricately designed and looked rather stunning.

Finally I descended into the dragon's den... To reach this area underneath the castle, I had to walk down a very long spiral staircase; I found myself getting dizzy as I walked down the stairs! At the bottom I found myself inside a small cave that was built into the stone hill the castle was built atop. It was quite cool in the cave and a tiny bit spooky; it was fun to imagine that a dragon could have lived there!

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The dragon's den exited at the base of the castle, right next to the Vistula River. I started to walk into the old town area and was quite taken with the city. It had the same old European charm of Gdansk, mixed with the feeling of a large city; it was an interesting combination. Everywhere I looked I saw old-style buildings; horse-drawn carriages were everywhere as well. I passed several churches on my way to the main square.

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The main market square was one of my favorite areas of the old town. There was a large and impressive church in one corner, a large building in the center (this building was the old "cloth market" that was used when the square was a working street market), and at the opposite corner was another church. The square was massive; it was used as a market for years before the Second World War and this tradition was maintained, even through the communist times. Now the square was lined with restaurants, souvenir shops, and stores. In one corner of the square was a small memorial: it was an old water pump with a sign to remember a protester who committed self-immolation in the 1980s.

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Several street artists were performing around the square: signing or playing the guitar. One performer caught my eye though: he was simply blowing bubbles, over and over again. He had a home-made tool that he was using to blow the bubbles: two long sticks tied together with a series of strings and loops. He would dip the strings into the bubble solution and then wave it through the air. This would create dozens and dozens of bubbles in mere seconds. Little kids were flocking over to that area, running after the bubbles. I decided to give him the few coins that I had in my pocked (maybe the equivalent of $1 USD).

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I had one last loop to make on my sightseeing journey for today. I headed further north to a nice park just outside of the old city walls. This area had fewer tourists, which I rather liked. As I was walking through the park I came across an old fortification. Across the street from the fort I spotted a large monument with several statues around it. I ventured over to get a closer look and was really intrigued by the statues, especially one of a knight lying dead at the bottom.

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By this time I was quite hungry and I walked back to a restaurant that I had noticed near the castle. It looked to be a Polish-German restaurant; they were serving German beer in liter mugs, so how bad could it be?! I walked in and sat down... and then waited for several minutes for someone to come by; later on I realized that this was one of the few European restaurants where the hostess seats the guests - you don't seat yourself! I ordered a liter of Pilsner Urquell and the schnitzel for dinner. When the food arrived I was blown away by how massive the portion was - it could easily feed two people! The couple sitting next to me were equally shocked and we joked about the size of it. I managed to eat about 3/4 of it before I had to stop.

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Now I'm relaxing at the hotel, hoping to get some sleep tonight before heading out early for a guided tour tomorrow.

Posted by Glichez 11:45 Archived in Poland Comments (0)

Gdansk, Venturing into Poland


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Today was the first of several early mornings that I'll have over the next week. I was up and out of the hotel by 05:30 so I could reach the bus station in time to catch my ride to Gdansk, Poland. The bus station had no signs in English, but I was able to match up the Russian name on the signs with my tickets to find my way. None of the departures signs inside the station listed my departure, which made me nervous. Thankfully, about 10 minutes before we were to leave, the small shuttle pulled up. The shuttle was quite small (and not comfortable to ride in); there were about 10 of us making the 3.5 hour journey to Poland.

The first half of the journey went smoothly and we reached the Russian border control around 08:00. We all had to exit the bus, collect our luggage and go through the customs controls. The bag scans went quite fast, but during the passport control I again was held up. Similar to when I entered Kaliningrad, the guard made several calls after seeing my USA passport; I was asked to wait several minutes before she was cleared to let me pass. By this point all of the other passengers had made it through with no issues.

The Polish border proved easier for me, though more involved for everyone else. I was whisked on through, my passport was stamped and the guard didn't speak a word to me. The other passengers were carefully questioned and each one had their thumb prints scanned. The last person in the group was held up and thoroughly questioned and examined. I'm not sure how her issues were resolved; we were brought back out to the bus while she was waiting. One of the Polish guards was very attractive: a little shorter than me, brunette, muscular (his sleeves were rolled up, tight on his impressive biceps), killer smile. Had it not been at the border control, I would have pulled a "creeper" and snapped a photo!

The remainder of the trip seemed to drag on, probably because the shuttle van was unpleasant to ride in. I was quite pleased when we arrived and I was able to make my way to my hotel. The hotel is located in a complex with the Academy of Music, which is rather nice. It was about a 45 minute walk from the bus station, but near enough to the old town.

Gdansk is everything that I wish that Kaliningrad had been (and what it should have been). Both cities share similar histories (former German cities, turned over to "communist" rule after the Second World War). Right away I was struck by the old European feel to the city. I walked along a small canal, through an old city gate and into a large pedestrian street.

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Cafes and shops lined the street, with beautiful buildings surrounding everything. In the middle of the street was a large building with a tall tower; at the base of which was a really pretty fountain. I had to wait for some very obnoxious older women to finish taking a few dozen selfies before I was able to take any pictures of the fountain.

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I decided to climb the tower; the stairs proved to be quite a workout! There was a small museum about the city in the building as well, but my focus was on the tower. By the time I reached the top I was sweating and out of breath, but the views were well worth the effort. The city stretched out before me and it was amazing. Quite close by was the main cathedral of the city; the top of the tower provided the best views of the cathedral.

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After descending the tower, I went to the cathedral. The cathedral was almost completely destroyed during the war, but it had been painstakingly restored. The interior is rather plain, but this is offset by the amazing exterior of the building.

Nearby the cathedral was a small fountain with four statues of lions, right outside an ornate building that somehow survived the war. There were pictures showing the rubble of the city, but with the building still standing with little observable damage to it. Walking through the city I was able to see some more older buildings and city gates. One of the more interesting buildings was the old docks with an old crane for unloading the boats.

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I decided to take a boat through the canals and up to the area known as Westerplatte, far to the north of the old town. There was a ferry system that transports people between the two locations. The pickup area was quite crowded with other boat tour services; somehow I got confused and I bought a ticket for a tourist boat and not the ferry. My boat still went by the Westerplatte area, so I wasn't too upset about the mixup. The boat sailed through the modern docks, which was quite interesting to see, especially the boats in dry dock being worked on. The trip culminated in seeing the monument at the Westerplatte, before turning around and heading back to old town.

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After the 90-minute boat trip I spent some more time walking around the old town, admiring the charming architecture. Signage all over the place was in Polish, English and (to my delight) German. I always love to see German anywhere I go and this made me happy for some reason. I encountered many, many young people playing instruments (for money) on the street. Rather than just playing the guitar, as so many people do, these kids were playing orchestral music on violins, cellos, etc. There were several small groups playing; my favorite was a quartet playing classical music in one of the city gates. They were incredibly talented and it was a treat to listen to them play.

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I stopped off at a local restaurant for dinner, sitting in the outdoor patio, but away from the pedestrian area (learning from Vilnius). The restaurant specialized in a Polish type of baked potato and offered dozens of varieties. I went with the "three samples" option, which was recommended for first timers; the dish had three types of toppings on the gigantic baked potato: veggies, meat (bacon) and Tzatziki. Each section was amazing, but my favorite was the Tzatziki. I devoured every bite of the food, along with two Polish beers.

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Back to the hotel for an early evening; I've got to be up by 05:00 again to catch my train to Krakow!

Posted by Glichez 09:26 Archived in Poland Comments (0)

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