I went to Krakow on recommendations of many people that I met along my journey backpacking through Europe. Krakow and Warsaw are the two largest cities in Poland and the principle attractions for tourists. Krakow located in the south of Poland, however, was closer to the circular route of the rest of my journey through Europe. My journey to Krakow consisted of two train rides that carried me from Prague through eastern Czech Republic where I would transfer in Katowice to a smaller train to Krakow. The train wound its way through some of greenest country that I had yet seen in Europe. There were many forests and fields along the journey as well as heavily developed industrial areas. I thought a great deal about history as the train carried me through this land of sorrow.
Poland, through the centuries, has been through countless trials which have tested the mettle of these proud people. Poland was absorbed by the Russian Empire during the Napoleonic Wars as punishment for siding with the French. Poland would not be an independent nation again until the reapportionment of Europe after World War I. Poland would again be dragged into war in 1939 as the Poles were on the receiving end of the full fury of the blitzkrieg. Poland was completely subdued by Nazi Germany in weeks and its Jewish population was among the first rounded up and exterminated in Europe. The overwhelming majority of Polish Jews did not survive the Holocaust. After the war Poland, like most of Eastern Europe, next suffered the horrors of Soviet Occupation. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, however, Poland has enjoyed a rare spell of independence and peace. I was highly intrigued to visit a place that had been the stage of so much history, and looked forward to my stay.
After the change in Katowice, several helpful people boarded the train advertising hostels in Krakow, including transportation from the train station. As all of them were young I figured that they must be students working a summer job for the hostels. This observation was further confirmed when I learned that during the year the hostels doubled as dormitories for local universities. After learning about the facilities and prices of a few places, I chose my hostel and lined up with the rest of the tourists who were going to the same place. Once the long, hot and bumpy train ride came to an end I was soon settled in a hostel located fairly close to the center of the city with free kitchen, laundry and internet access for the equivalent of $12 per night. I was soon to find that the prices of everything in Poland were a welcome blessing to my beleaguered bank account.
I was exceedingly hungry when I arrived so one of the first things I did in Krakow was head straight to a butcher shop to buy some Polish Kielbasa. Back home I had always loved Polish kielbasa but found that it was always so expensive for a few links. In Poland, I soon discovered that homemade kielbasa tasted infinitely better and only cost about a dollar per pound. Needless to say I bought several pounds which I merrily boiled and ate with sauerkraut and mustard throughout my stay in Krakow.
After a few days in Poland I really began to feel the differences in the country. The climate is cool and damp. It rains a great deal; in fact, several times during my stay I had to take cover under some awning or covered walkway from surprise downpours. Everywhere are the reminders of the nation’s often dark past. From the window of my hostel I could see huge communist housing blacks, cheap corrugated tin shacks, industrial smoke stacks and nuclear power plants. Any wandering off the beaten path in Krakow quickly leads to endless streets of utterly non-descript dilapidated buildings or outright slums. Poland is unique demographically as, unlike any place I had yet visited in Europe, it is extremely insulated. There are very few immigrants from Asia or Africa. The Polish people are also very distinct in appearance. Some people are extremely large grim faced peasants who look as though they could smash through walls with their strength and vitality. There are also many petite blonde women with distinct Eastern European faces. The people seem somewhat aloof and rarely during my visit did I spend much time chatting or mingling with the locals.
Krakow is a very easy town to get around. The old town is very small and highly centralized. A quick walk from my hostel down town led to the oldest portion of town. Old Town Square, an enormous public square filled with merchants and gigantic flocks of pigeons, is the heart of Krakow. At the center of this square is the Cloth Hill Market, a palatial market filled with vendors selling some of Poland’s most beautiful handicrafts. The wares for sale at the market are extremely reasonable prices. You can buy hand carved wooden chess sets for less than ten dollars, vanity boxes for less than twenty. Poland also sells enormous quantities of Baltic amber, which literally washes ashore on from the Baltic Sea. Merchants sell coveted sterling silver and amber jewelry at extremely reasonable prices along with hand crafted crystal ware. Surrounding the Cloth Hill Market on the perimeter of the square is an excellent selection of bars, clubs and restaurants. In the neighboring streets are statues of Polish heroes and martyrs, churches and cobblestone promenades lined with more shops and restaurants.
Not far from the town square lies Wawel Castle. Wawel Hill is an ideal fortification, with a commanding view of a bend in the Vistula River below. Human beings lived on Wawel Hill as far back as the Paleolithic era. During the medieval period, Wawel Hill was a bustling center of trade and, recognizing this, the first Polish kings built their palace on the hill. The current incarnation of the castle was first built during the 16th century by King Sigismund I. The King engaged the best German and Italian artists to build his Renaissance masterpiece. Today the palace exists as a masterpiece of different artistic styles. The castle, a natural fortress is surrounded by large brick walls. It is a comparatively squat castle but does boast a number turrets and cupolas of green copper that are, perhaps, its signature feature. Its interior courtyard is surrounded by a fine two tiered arcade with windows that look out over the city below.
The nearby cathedral of St. Stanislaus and St. Wenceslaus is the final resting place of many Polish monarchs from the medieval period. The cathedral is Poland’s national sanctuary and was almost the burial place of Pope John Paul II. Much like the castle, Wawel Cathedral was commissioned by King Sigismund I-who is himself buried there-and executed by various Italian architects and artisans. It is considered one the finest examples of Italian renaissance architecture north of the Alps.
After my walking tour through the principle monuments of downtown Krakow, I spent a few days relaxing, shopping and enjoying myself. Luckily my hostel was filled with lots of young people looking to have a good time and I had no problem finding people to hang out with. My two roommates and I went to dinner at the John Bull Pub, which is a old English pub and restaurant located on Old Town Square. One night another group of guys from the hostel and I also discovered an extremely cool underground bar, Club Uwaga, which had been dug into the earth below Old Town Square. Club Uwaga has antique chandeliers, sconces, large wooden tables and various stone chambers to discover as well as good music and reasonably priced drinks. Although I was only in town for four days, I got the distinct impression that in Krakow there are plenty of options when you want to have a good time and enjoy a night of music, drinking and dancing.
On my third day I returned to the train station in order to buy a ticket to the small town of Oswiecim. Oswiecim is a small, industrial town located about forty miles from Krakow. It has a small population but very good rail access to the rest of Europe. These are the very features the Nazis recognized in Oswiecim in 1940 when they built their first and most infamous concentration camp there. The Polish refer to the town as Oswiecim but the camp as Auschwitz.
The train ride was long and bumpy. As the train came to a halt in Oswiecim, I stepped down to the platform in what appeared at first glance as an extremely small and forlorn town. Since I had just missed the bus to Auschwitz and it was located less than a mile away from the station, I decided to walk. There were many factories and empty lots but very few people or residences. I could not help but think how perfect this town was suited to the vile purposes of the Nazis. No bombing missions or spy planes would ever find this small place in the middle of the Polish countryside. As I approached the camp I began noticing abandoned chemical works from the war. The large rectangular buildings still stand intact but with broken windows and instruments strewn haphazardly inside. Finally I came to the camp.
You have to enter through the visitor’s center. The walls are covered with quotations from various international dignitaries about Auschwitz and the Holocaust. I purchased a guide book and made my way out toward Auschwitz I. The first camp at Auschwitz was originally a barracks for the Polish Army. In 1940, as the Nazis were looking for a location to test out their proposed methods for the “Final Solution” Auschwitz was mentioned. The first prisoners were Polish political prisoners. Later came Soviet POW’s. As the SS perfected the grisly methods of torture and murder that would become the hallmark of the Holocaust, Auschwitz I became the template upon which later death camps would be based. While Auschwitz I held as many as 20,000 prisoners, the Nazi’s quickly exhausted its capacity and soon realized that they would have to construct a larger camp. This led to the construction of Auschwitz II, a few kilometers at Birkenau. Birkenau would be the principle camp in which the vast majority of the 1.1 million Jews killed at Auschwitz would die. A third camp was also established at Monowitz; this camp was placed under the direction of the German chemical manufacturer IG Farben and was designed to use the slave labor of the camps to produce synthetic rubber.
During my visit I was able to walk around and photograph Auschwitz I. As I approached the camp I was able to quickly discern the infamous “Arbeit Macht Frei” inscribed over the entrance gate to the camp. The complex of buildings looked like it could have been anything: a hospital complex, a modest school or research facility. The buildings were constructed of a plain red brick with wooden roofs. The most telling feature, however, was the labyrinth of barbed wired electric fences that surrounded the place. Small signs with skull and bones signaled the danger from these fences. Today most of the buildings are exhibits detailing different aspects of camp life. One building houses monstrous collections of shoes, eye glasses, hair and prosthetic limbs take from prisoners. Another building shows the sleeping conditions-burlap sacks and straw placed upon wooden floors and wood planked sleeping bunks. Yet another building housed illustrations created by artists who had been in the camps of daily life and death in Auschwitz. I visited the bathrooms, kitchens and infirmary where thousands of people received just enough food, medical care and sanitation to keep them barely alive. The furthest blocks from the entrance, however, were reserved for the worst. The last block in Auschwitz I, known as the “Death Block” was devoted to the uses of the Gestapo. The German Secret Police used this block as a means of torture and murder for thousands of various political prisoners. Some prisoners were placed in cells too small to lie down, others were suffocated and still others were starved to death. In a courtyard adjacent to the Death Block, thousands of prisoners were lined up against a stone wall and shot. These places, bathed in respectful silence, are a living shrine. The flag of Israel flies over the remnant of the stone wall where people were shot.
The crematorium is outside the fence. It is a small, squat structure, but from its roof rises the ominous spire of its chimney. The Nazis destroyed the crematorium when they evacuated the camp but the Polish government has restored the building and its ghastly implements. Inside one can see the shower room where people were gassed. The ovens were also reconstructed meticulously. They resemble any kind of furnace at first glance. Installed on the floor, however, are short tracks leading to the ovens where the SS had once installed carts designed to convey bodies into the oven more conveniently. Everywhere in Auschwitz is the same disgusting efficiency with which the SS blithely did away with countless human lives. Once outside again, I felt some small measure of comfort to behold the scaffold where Rudolph Hoss, first commandant of Auschwitz, was hanged in 1947 for his crimes against humanity.
Visiting Auschwitz was no easy matter. The place does not necessarily exude evil; it actually seems rather pedestrian at a glance. Surrounding the camp are large trees and green fields stretching into the distance. However, knowing what happened there, recognizing the camp as the embodiment of the evil to which men can sink, makes it very hard to stand. I took very few pictures and most stood in stunned silence just to be there. I do feel that it is the duty of anyone who is able to see these camps at least once in their lives. They should see them and tell other people what they saw.
I spent my last day in Krakow lounging around town. I bought some souvenirs and gifts at the Cloth Hill Market. I did research at an internet café about my next destination, Slovakia. I enjoyed visiting Poland. The country bears many scars, but it is recovering and growing into its own. The Polish people are proud and determined to make their nation a successful part of the EU and they will succeed. As time goes by, more and more Poland will become a cultural treasure to behold.