Krakow, Poland and Auschwitz

This entry is part 7 of 9 in the series Northeastern Europe:

  1. Northeastern Europe – Introduction and Our Route
  2. Gothenburg, Sweden
  3. Copenhagen, Denmark
  4. Tallinn, Estonia and Helsinki, Finland
  5. Vilnius, Lithuania
  6. Warsaw, Poland
  7. Krakow, Poland and Auschwitz
  8. Prague, Czech Republic
  9. Northeastern Europe Photos

Krakow has emerged as a pretty popular, low-cost tourist destination in Eastern Europe, for two pretty different reasons. It is the city where Schindler’s List took place, and is accessible to two of the largest concentration camps (Auschwitz and Birkenau). It is also has a big party scene. Its old town and Jewish quarter largely survived WWII, so it has a much more authentic feeling to it than the capital, Warsaw, which was completely rebuilt with Soviet versions of an “old town”.

Photos of those saved by Oscar Schindler

Photos of those saved by Oscar Schindler

Our first afternoon there we joined another free walking tour of the Jewish quarter, which took us to both Kazimierz, and the Jewish ghetto where thousands of Polish Jews were forcibly relocated to during WWII. Kazimierz has actually retained much of the authentic look, although it is also now a trendy area for bars and nightclubs. It was interesting to see several of the synagogues still remaining from pre-WWII. The Jewish ghetto had been largely torn-down and rebuilt, although there were still some places where you could see the large walls the Nazis built. It was tough walking through there, knowing the history, but there were several interesting monuments to the dead scattered throughout the area. Tragically, while Krakow was formerly one of the largest Jewish populations in the world, there are now only a few thousand Jews that call Krakow home. Our final stop was Schindler’s Factory, which is now a WWII museum (and there’s no factory equipment to be seen). You could still imagine the walk the workers had between the ghetto and the factory, even though it is now modern and artsy.

This shows, just a bit, how big the camps were

This shows, just a bit, how big the camps were

We woke up early on our first full day to visit Auschwitz and Birkenau, two of the biggest concentration, work, and extermination camps of the Third Reich. It goes without saying that it was an incredibly powerful experience, and you always felt like you were on hallowed ground the entire time you were there. Over a million Jews and other prisoners (of the 1.3 million housed there) were killed, either from exhaustion or the gas chambers. It was incredible how systematic everything was. Auschwitz is the name of the entire area of camps, of which there are Auschwitz I, Auschwitz II, etc. Only Auschwitz I remains; the others were burned down by the Nazis before liberation. We saw barracks and medical facilities where prisoners were housed and tortured – very powerful. Afterwards, we went to Birkenau, which was a massive camp that existed solely for extermination. There were several barracks you could walk through that housed prisoners strong enough to work, but most powerful were the train tracks going right into camp, where prisoners were sorted into those who could work and those who couldn’t. We could then follow the path from the train tracks to the remains of the gas chambers and crematoriums, which the Nazis also demolished before skipping town.

Here are some pictures, as I think they start to show it a bit better than I can describe it. One thing that was impossible to capture, however, was just how big the camps were, especially Birkenau, as you can see from the panorama above.

Not to discount the significance of any of the history, but we actually didn’t find the experience there as powerful as it could have been. There were thousands of tourists there, so there was little intimacy with any of the exhibits. You were forced to go with a guide in a large group, and most of the tour was facts about the prison and the prisoners. What was lacking was any sort of oral history. We thought the killing fields and Tuol Sleng prison in Phnom Penh did a great job of explaining and analyzing what and why genocide happened there, and they did so with tasteful, although incredibly graphic, accounts from prisoners, family members, and even former guards. With all of the oral history available from this time in history, we thought it would have made such a significant place tell a much more powerful story. Honestly, the combination of watching Schindler’s List immediately before going to Poland, and then visiting the sites to actually see where it happened, was of much greater impact to us.

Tasty infused vodkas

Tasty infused vodkas

Anyway, after a few hours of unwinding, we went out for a nice dinner in the Kazimierz district, where we tried one of Poland’s most famous dishes, the pork knuckle. We have had lots of tasty food here, and this was no difference – plus it all comes with cabbage that is really tasty. The restaurant, Restauracja Starka, also made their own infused vodkas, and we really enjoyed the ginger, but did not like the horseradish. We then went down to the bar district to have a few drinks, and found a place with draft beers and shots for only 1€ each. We had a few beers and eventually struck up conversation with some Poles at the table next to us. One thing led to another, and shots of traditional Polish vodkas (cherry and blackcurrant) were ordered. It ended up being a rather long, drunken night of “cultural exchange”.

Krakow castle

Krakow castle

We woke up pretty late the last day, and spent most of the day hung over. We did walk down to the Royal Castle before grabbing dinner and taking a bus to the Polish/Czech border, where we were spending the night before heading to Prague. The station was the most confusing we’d ever been to. We bought our ticket and then waited a few minutes before and went to the platform, only to find the bus was completely full (not just of seated passengers, but standing as well) and the driver refused us a seat, even though we had a ticket. It turns out that the way these local busses work is that you have to get to the bus at least 15 minutes before it leaves to claim your seat, and then they open it up to anyone to buy up the rest of the seats (and standing spots) on the bus. We gave up and just bought tickets for the next bus, which was equally packed and hot, but fortunately we got seats (Sara is a champion at pushing her way through crowds and getting a good spot in line). It was exhausting and stressful, and our hangover from all the Polish vodka didn’t help. We had a good time in Poland, but we learned our lesson: don’t drink vodka with the Poles!

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