November 8, 2018 – November 11, 2018
Every November, a group of expats from Amsterdam embarks upon a journey to a foreign land to explore the history, enjoy the local cuisine, and do a little partying. In 2016, we went to Hamburg, the 2017 trip was to Edinburgh, and this year we headed to Krakow. Although there is plenty to see and do in Krakow, the primary historic draw was to visit Auschwitz. It was such a humbling and horrifying experience, but I think it is important to see firsthand.
We arrived in Krakow late Thursday night and checked into the PURO Krakow hotel, located in the Jewish district of Kazimierz. Everything in Krakow is cheap, especially the lodging, so we got a great deal on this hotel. Our tour to Auschwitz and the salt mines started bright and early at 8:20 on Friday morning, so Thursday was uneventful.
We had a group of 7 for the tour and thought the maximum group size was 8, so we anticipated being basically on a private tour for the day. Some of the group was running a few minutes behind, but we didn’t think too much of it. We got outside at 8:28 to a furious Polish man screaming that we were so rude for being 8 minutes late and basically that it was going to ruin his whole day. I am very much a stickler for following the rules and showing up on time, but I have to admit he was definitely blowing things out of proportion. He also made us all throw out our newly purchased coffees. The next stop we made was to pickup two girls about our age and we had to wait on them as well. So even if we would have been on time, I guess the blame would have been placed on them. These girls got to keep their newly purchased coffees. After two more stops our group was complete and the bus was full.
The drive to Auschwitz was about 1 hour and we watched a video about the camp on our way there. The video was informative, and basically a precursor for everything we would hear about during our tour. It was helpful to have an image to go along with the stories that we heard.
Our bus arrived at Auschwitz and my initial impression was that it looked like a gated community. There were several uniform brick “houses” in a row that were a few stories tall and a few bigger buildings meant for recreation.
Then I saw the gates, and the barbed wire, and the warning signs, and suddenly felt like maybe this wasn’t such a happy place after all. The whole place was eerie and it felt stuck in time.
Walking through the largest of the death camps where over 1 million people died was a morbid and terrifying experience. Auschwitz was originally chosen as a site for the “Final Solution” because of its location in the center of occupied Europe and convenience of train connections nearby. During the operation of the camp, each brick building held 700-1000 people, which resulted in extreme overcrowding. But most people who were brought to the camp didn’t even live to see the brick buildings.
There was a selection process upon arrival. The elderly, children under 14, and pregnant women especially were deemed unfit for work and sent directly to the gas chambers. They were told that they would be taking a shower after their long journey so many went willingly. It’s estimated that 75% of the people brought to Auschwitz went this route. The rest were sent to work.
The best chance for survival at the camps was if you were able to work in the warehouse (nicknamed “Canada” as a symbol of richness). Here you could find spare food from the luggage of new prisoners and got to work indoors. These prisoners were also kept cleaner than the rest since they had to be in close proximity to the guards. Regardless, the average prison worker only lived 3-6 months after arrival. There was a hospital quarter located in the camp, but it wasn’t where you went if you were sick, it was where medical experiments were conducted on otherwise healthy people.
Walking through the blocks felt like a haunted house because it’s impossible to imagine that humans could actually do this to each other. Throughout the history of the camp, only 200 people successfully escaped from Auschwitz due to the high fences, weakness from malnutrition, and many guards keeping a watchful eye. If a person did escape, then their cellmates would be shot on the spot for “helping”.
The camp was liberated by the Russian army on January 27, 1945. The Nazis had already burned much of the evidence and only 10% of the SS officers were charged with a crime.
There are two main camps at Auschwitz, the first one we visited was Auschwitz I and the second Auschwitz II. You could tell a stark difference between the camps. Whereas the first one seemed like it could have potentially been a slightly better than dismal place to be, the latter was extremely dismal. There were rows as far as the eye could see of rickety wooden structures.
Construction began on Auschwitz II in 1941 by prisoners from Auschwitz I when the already established camp was at maximum capacity. A train brought new prisoners to the camp frequently. The train ran basically through the middle of the camp and about 3000 people at a time got off of the packed cars and had their fate decided. The details of the stories that we heard are too horrible to put into words, but there was one hopeful story about prisoners revolting and burning one of the crematoriums.
Even a month later, reading back through my notes about our tour makes me sick to my stomach. The visit is definitely not for the faint of heart, but I know it is an experience I will always remember.
After boarding the bus again we were all silent for a bit, just trying to take in everything we had seen. It was about another hour to the salt mines and I think the reflection period was important.
For as much of a fuss as our driver made along the way about being late for everything, we showed up 45 minutes early to the salt mines tour. Because we were all a bit down, we decided to head to a nearby restaurant and sample the local drink, vodka. The two girls who boarded after us also joined. They had been in Poland for a few days and taught us how to say cheers as we downed our vodkas. Na Zdrowie!
It was really interesting talking to them because they were both hostesses on private yachts. They spend their summers in places like Greece and Croatia catering to the needs of rich people, while also getting to live the life of luxury. After my week on a yacht last summer as a passenger, I’m not sure I would want to make this a full time gig, although I suppose the yachts they are staying on would be a little nicer than what I was on.
The tour of the salt mines started with a descent down about 350 stairs into the caves. The tour guide encouraged us to lick the walls, but at our own digression as there are millions of visitors each year who also lick the walls. I took a chance and it was super salty.
I wasn’t really sure what to expect of the salt mines, but it was actually super impressive. The caves were massive and we really only scratched the surface on our 2 hour tour. We saw the elaborate chambers chiseled out of rock salt, underground lakes, unique salt sculptures, and even a whole church where weddings are conducted.
The mines even had their own restaurant and like 3 different gift shops. I purchased some salt and our friends got a salt clock and a salt heart.
The most fun part of the tour was the elevator ride out of the mines. Nine people at a time are crammed into a very small space and we were the first group to go. We could not move, but at least we knew everyone in the elevator with us. We went up a few feet and stopped. This was at the same time one of the guys in our group jumped and we thought we were stuck in the mines. Really, they just load 3 more cars of people into the elevator and all 36 people ascend at the same time. The journey is not for the claustrophobic people and took about 45 seconds. I was glad once we got out of that elevator!
Luckily the salt mines were only about a 30 minute drive back to Krakow because the crew was getting antsy and it was a long time to be stuck in a van with a guy who hated us. He dropped us off first.
Another couple joined us for dinner bringing the grand total to 9. We dined at Pod Aniolami which had a nice mix of traditional Polish foods. I especially enjoyed the pierogis, a type of dumpling filled with various fillings. We sampled a few other dishes and also wine, lots of wine. It was a really fun dinner with a great group of people. Afterwards we wandered to a nearby beer garden.
Saturday morning started with the usual walking tour of the city center. Everyone was moving slow so only Tyler and I and another couple made it to the tour. A few others did a different tour of the Jewish district only.
On the walking tour we learned that Krakow was founded in the 11th century, but was under many rulers over time. We just so happened to be visiting the city during the Independence Day, November 11, 1918, marking 100 years of Poland. I was actually a little nervous for this because my Polish colleague told me that there were usually riots during the Independence Day (instead of fun fireworks) and since it was the 100 year anniversary it was expected to be HUGE. Although Poland was independent in 1918, it was still under communist rule from 1945-1989.
I was not very into this walking tour and can only tell you one story from the whole time: The Dragon is a city symbol of Krakow because in the olden days, there was a dragon hiding in a cave under the hill. The King invited all of his knights to get rid of it and he would give his daughter as a reward. All of the knights died fighting the dragon, so a poor shoe maker killed the dragon by stuffing a sheep with sulfur and offering it to the dragon as food. The dragon exploded. The end.
Here are some of the things we saw during the walking tour.
On a tip from a local Polish colleague, we headed to Przystanek Pierogarnia to get the best pierogies in town, and everyone met back up once again. They had sweet and salty platters and we opted to get two salty and one sweet. The salty platters included: pork, spinach and cottage cheese, lentils and carrot, and bacon and potatoes. The sweet platters included: cherry, quark and cinnamon, and strawberries with a bit of sour cream on top. My mouth is watering just thinking about these delicious dumplings. We were so stuffed after eating a huge plate.
Because we had seen most of the city on our tour, we headed to check out the local bar scene. Our group split up as some people wanted to see the city center before it got dark, but we did manage to sample a few shots of wodka together first.
Tyler and I went to a local pub called House of Beer to wait for our friends to be done sight seeing and tried some local beer. Everyone met back up again at yet another vodka bar called Vodka Cafe and really the night is a blur. We tried some more of the amazing local food and ended up at a club late night dancing. The bad part about waiting a month to write my blog is that the details have become a little fuzzy.
On Sunday, everyone was leaving at different times, so Tyler and I explored the Jewish quarter. I was a little worried about going into the old town because that’s where the protests were expected to happen, and since we had already spent the whole day on Saturday exploring it, it was a nice change of pace to check out the Jewish district. We had a great Polish brunch and then went to check out a local market.
The Jewish district had a number of old, but beautiful synagogues and we did our own walking tour to see all of them before checking out a brewery and heading to the airport.
Krakow was such a wonderful and charming city with street after street of old, beautiful buildings and delicious food aplenty. Coupled with a visit to Auschwitz and the Salt Mines makes for a great trip.