Cracow and Auschwitz
Tuesday night I arrived in Cracow and was met at the train station by my very charming host Anna. What is it with Poles that makes them so welcoming? I’ll probably get lost when I arrive in Vienna, I’m not used to finding my way on my own anymore haha.
Once we got at Anna’s place and while going there we talked about a lot of things. Before we were even home I already had a plan for my whole stay in Cracow which is very unusual for me! We stayed up until 2 am talking about movies, sisters, traveling, french canadian celebrities (which are very much liked in Poland!) and talked some more after we went to bed. She had written in her profile that she loved to talk and she does but I enjoyed talking with her as much. And it made me happy that I would see my sister in a week.
Getting lost in Cracow
On Wednesday morning I was supposed to go on a walking tour made by one of Anna’s friends. I say supposed to, because I took a wrong turn and got lost. After walking for an hour and half, having no idea where I was because my map was so lame and then figuring out I was in a totally different part of the map from where I was looking I finally found my way to a tourist office. There I booked a trip to Auschwitz for the next day and also asked where the tour group was at so I could maybe join up with them.
I was very lucky in my bad luck because the tour was back in the old market square, 2 minutes walk from where I was at the time I asked. So I managed to catch up with them. The tour guide realized I was the very nice canadian girl that had so many people calling him. First Anna to see if the tour was taking place the night before, and then the lady at the tourist office. Good thing I caught up! I was becoming famous by then!
The cheapest hostel in Cracow
The first major thing I saw on the tour was a modern sculpture in the old market square. It consists of a hollow head that the artist intends to be very interactive. Meaning he wants people to touch the sculpture. He therefore learned a lot of backpackers spend the night inside it to shelter from cold and rain, that people make love inside it and that it is also very controversial. The Poles don’t like it. But it’s worth a lot so the town doesn’t want to give it up.
Pope John Paul II
Then we walked to the former residence of the pope because John Paul started his career in Cracow and most of the towns churches have some connection to him. We also learned his story and how he was the first non italian pope in over 400 years. He was also a polish pope while Poland was under a communist regime which prunes no religion at all. And to top it all, he was studying to become an actor in the beginning, so he had a lot of skills to lead his people. That made him one of the best popes in while.
Then we headed to the Wawel Castle and got to see the great buildings and the nice view of the city from up there. We also saw the Wawel Cathedral, which is an amalgam of a bunch of different styles of architecture.
We also got a story. The story says that one of the major chakrarm of power from the Hindou culture has been buried under the Wawel castle. And people go to a wall to touch it and get a recharge of their interior force. We therefore all went and touched the wall you see in the picture above. No wonder it looks so dirty!
What castle can be called a castle if it doesn’t have a dragon? Wawel had its own dragon that used to live in a cave under the castle. It was defeated but It now has a statue in front of his cave and it breathes flames every few minutes.
Barbican, take 2
After the end of the tour, I headed back to the main square and up the path the tour had taken in the first hour to see what I had missed. Therefore I headed for Cracow’s Barbican, the medieval fortress. It has been very well preserved and was quite impressive.
I also got to see a bunch of other churches and statues. I headed for the train station to book my ticket to Vienna and then went back to the tour meeting point for the next tour: Jewish Cracow.
The jewish tour
There I met up with Anna who had finished her classes for the day and wanted to learn about the history of her city. We headed first to Kazimirez, the jewish quarter and got the history of Jews in a short conduced version. In short, they have been always scape goats and persecuted. Therefore they moved to Poland (which originally comes from hebrew and means “Stay here”) and they were very well treated i comparison to other places. They used to live near the market square but a fire blamed on them was enough to have them moved to the close town of Kazimirez (which is now a district of Cracow). There they lived happily until world war 2 when they were moved to the Ghetto. Only 97 registered jews remain in Cracow where 60,000 thousands lived before the war. It is unbelievable.
While the guide showed us the nightlife of Cracow, which now lies in the jewish quarter, she gave us a break to get something to eat if we wanted. I therefore, on advice from Anna, got a Zapikanka, a half french baguette with mushrooms, melted cheese, ketchup and another topping (I chose Bacon). And you know what? I like it, even though it was FULL of mushrooms.
Ghetto Hero Square
It took a while to get my order though and the group had left. Therefore Anna had to call the guide to know where they were. Yes, the same one. Another call on my behalf. I became the inside joke. We joined up with the group at the Ghetto Hero Square. The place were jews used to be assembled before heading out to camps. An installation of forgotten chairs now occupies the square because that’s how it used to look like, when people catered their valuables and belongings, thinking they could bring them with.
Remains of the former Ghetto Wall
Then we passed by the Ghetto wall, or its remaining part and were told that every year there was a march by it an to the work camp to commemorate the lives that were lost.
The last stop was Schindler’s old factory, now turned into a museum. I have never see the movie but I might want to, now that I know a bit more of the story. But I shall not spoil it for you. Go rent the movie!
Polish Movie night
After the tour, Anna and I headed to a bar where there a showing of a Polish movie with english subtitles. The movie was titled “All that I love” and was about a Polish punk band formed of teenagers, during the 80’s and under the communist regime. It was very interesting but it ended in such a manner that I’m not sure what the plot was. We both had no idea why it ended where it did. So it’s not about me not understanding the language …. weird!
The next morning, I headed to the meeting point of my scheduled Auschwitz tour. On our way with the bus we watched a movie about the liberation of the camp. It was very hard and made out of footage filmed by the Soviets when they arrived there. It shuffles one’s priorities to realize what you have heard about so much actually happened and to real people and with unbelievable cruelty.
The first part of the tour was in the infamous Auschwitz I, the camp with the “Arbeit macht Frei” quote. The guide was thankfully pretty detached and it wasn’t as hard to walk in that place. It still gave shivers to think of the people walking these grounds.
We saw the death wall’s reconstruction, the piles of glasses, suitcases, shoes and hair, the prison cells and the former gas chamber and crematorium.
We also learned that when someone escaped the camp, 10 people at random from his dormitory were killed by starvation in his place. When a man that was picked cried that he was a family father and didn’t want to die, prisoner 16670 stood up and requested to be killed in his place. The guard agreed. 2 weeks after the beginning of the starving, he was still alive and ended being killed with an injection to his heart.
Auschwitz II – Birkenau
The second part of the tour was to the bigger camp Birkenau. There, mostly everything was destroyed and has now been reconstructed to commemorate. It was rather chilling anyways to see the size of it and the rail tracks that led to the gates. We also saw the inside of a wooden barrack and the bunk beds in which 8 people were stacked as well as a latrine barrack with 3 rows of holes in a cement block.
I shall remember the place for ever and do not recommend it to someone that wishes a happy untroubled trip. But I believe it was very well presented and its important that people remember. I understand better now and less at the same time, how human beings can be so cruel to others of the same kind.
When I got back to Cracow I was exhausted and slightly sick. I waited in the mall for Anna to finish her classes and spent an hour in a café where I had a hot chocolate that resembled more of a Fondue than chocolate milk. This gave me a bit more energy and then I went back home. I spent the evening attending couchsurfing needs and chatting and reading. It felt great. I find I have felt more like a normal person in Poland than in any other country so far. I shall remember it like a home away from home and will miss the nice people I met there.