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Two Years & Twice Around the World...  

Polish Flag POLAND


September 21. KRAKOW  It was Sunday and we went to the old square early in the morning to enjoy a coffee before mass at St. Anne's Church.  It was so peaceful that it didn't even seem like the same place - only a handful of people and fewer pigeons.  We bumped into the New York threesome from the night before who were some of the only tourists in sight.  As it got closer to 8:00 people starting filing into the church and the square started to come to life again.  Yet another newly wed couple was posing in the square.  We couldn't figure out if they had gotten married early in the morning or were still left over from the previous night.  The hejnał (bugle call) went off on the hour, as it did every hour.  A time worn tradition a bugler plays from the windows of the tallest tower of St. Anne's, once in each direction.  The call ends abruptly each time to symbolize when a 13th century bugler had his throat pierced by a Tatar arrow.

The mass given at St. Anne's was, of course, in Polish but the rhythm was no different and the hum of the organ vibrating through the towering ceilings was truly celestial.  We took seats towards the front in dark wooden chairs.  It was a magnificent church with colorfully painted walls and the same star-like motif on the ceiling that we had seen in the Franciscan monastery. 

Once we emerged from the church the square was feeling more in full swing.   Having spent a good amount of time in the old town we moved our sightseeing to the Jewish Quarter of town, Kazimierz, originally a separate town were the Jewish community was forced to settle in the 15th century and became a refuge for Jews feeing all corners of Europe and by WWII the Jewish population accounted for 30% of Krakow.  The area stood to the south east of old town so we took a trolley to reach it.  Not far off, but not clearly marked on our maps, stood Schindler's factory. Our Canadian friends from the night before told us there was a market on Sunday mornings and the food in Kazimierz was quite good.  We went to take a look for ourselves.  The area was more run down than the old town but was showing signs of improvement, giving it a more Bohemian/up-and-coming feeling.  It was become a popular place for people to live once again, albiet not an entirely Jewish community.  The market was of the more modern variety, selling clothes, shoes and other practical needs.  We found a good Polish sausage vendor but the blazing sun had us hovering in the shade to keep cool.

We took in the major streets around Kazimierz where some Jewish restaurants were clustered and some old synagogues.  The Remuh Synagogue, built in the 16th century, is still used for services today but most of the others are now museums.  The interior of Remuh was quite small but the more impressive history lied outside in its old graveyard of Renaissance grave stones, still well maintained and in tact.   We also visited Izaak's Synagogue which had some faded remnants of once delicate and lovely wall designs.  The second floor gallery, where women sat, was also still in tact but little else remained.  Today it houses a moving documentary about Jewish life during the war and the holocaust.

Not far from Kazimierz was Krakow's Ethnographic Museum, a little gem of a museum with the bottom floor dedicated to reconstructions of traditional farmhouse, somehow carefully built into separate rooms.  The top floor had an assortment of all kinds of things about life in early Poland and the peoples who lived there.  The most interesting parts that I found told of the pagan traditions and other locally derived customs that have been incorporated into Christianity and have spread around the Christianized world - like colored eggs and Christmas caroling. 

Returning to Rynek Główny we visited the museum on the second floor of the Cloth Hall but one of the most important works was out for restoration.  And, we finally took a hike up the Town Hall Tower.  The view from Wawel was more impressive but we did get a different perspective of life in the square.  With another last wander around the smaller streets of old town we had just one final task to complete before we retired to our dormitory.  We went to buy our train tickets to Prague.  Much research had revealed that buses didn't make the trip outside of tourist season so it would have to be the train.  The only direct train was a night train, which had horror stories of Czech border guards gassing the trains in the middle of the night to rip off the passengers.  The ticket lady seemed determined to sell us this ticket in spite of numerous requests for a daytime option.  Resigned to our fate we were walking away when were heard someone at the next window buying a day trip ticket to Prague.  A bit pissed off we took a deep breath, put on smiles, and returned to our window.  Shaking her head the ticket lady said there was only a night train.  We pointed to the next window and she clarified that then we would have to transfer.  Somewhere along the line we lost her on "Is there ANY way for us to get to Prague during the daytime?"  We exchanged our tickets and called it a day.  We had laundry to do....

September 22. KRAKOW "Death camps at Auschwitz"  Visiting the death camps at Auschwitz is not something someone really wants to do but rather feeling like they must do.  The reality of the terror that was reaped by Nazi Germany is impossible to every comprehend and by seeing where the atrocities took place should serve the morbid task of never letting people forget.  With that in mind I wasn't prepared for the tourist attraction that it has become.  While it is necessary and important that people go to learn more about what happened it has also become very structured and educational, somehow sterilizing what was once a hell hole.  Perhaps that is what is most appropriate but still not what I expected.

The visit began with a fifteen minute video about the release of people from camp, showing the treatment they were subject to during their imprisonment and telling the stories of the horror of experimentation and mass murder that was coldly carried about by the Reich.  It was moving and as I kept my eyes glued to the screen I was periodically interrupted by the couple in front of me kissing - yes, kissing!  It was aggressive necking but it still obscured the entirety of my view each time their lips met.  The first time was shocking, the second time was unbelievable, and the third time was totally intolerable.   Each act made my blood raise further and further until at the third encounter I snapped and hissed at them that it was not an appropriate place for that.  Rob glared at me because people nearby had heard me but I still felt vindicated.  Others had seen them too and it was just not right.  It wasn't mandatory that everyone view this film and given the morbidity of its content I had to wonder what kind of people could be compelled to kiss during it.  Moreover, I had to wonder why people is such a uncontrollable lovey-dovey state were visiting Auschwitz at all.  It isn't exactly a good date destination. 

Still fuming we filed out of the small theater and walked towards the main gate to the Auschwitz camp and over it was a metal sign that spelled out "Arbeit Macht Frei" which meant "Work makes us Free".  To the right and left layers of fence and barbed wire sealed off the compound.  The brick buildings inside were filled with different exhibits dedicated to the many peoples who were affected by the holocaust.  There were examples of the dismal and unclean living conditions, hellishly small cells, wash areas where people were cleaned before they were killed, a black wall against which people were executed.  It was not new knowledge for me.  After seeing movies like Schindler's List there is little left to the imagination.  That movie conveyed with such power and explicit detail the horror and sickness of it all that these museum exhibits couldn't match the effect.  However, the one exhibit that I found particularly moving and disturbing was the one building full of displays with the belongings of those murders not so long ago.  The living conditions exhibit was a re-creation and the nasty cells were not dirty and rank as they once were but these things, these stack and piles and mounds of belongs were things once owned and touched by the people.  There was an entire case the length of a 20 foot room full of hair.  Another large case held shoes, another displayed glasses, the next had toothbrushes, and the most chilling and gut wrenching of them all were the piles and piles of baby clothes.  In some insanely perverse sickness of mind, body and soul the people of the Reich somehow thought they would reuse these intimate items after they exterminated the people.  It gives the image of an entire population of Charles Mansons, not just one freak of nature but an entire population all in one place and time.  How could it ever have happened?   

Rob headed back around 2:00, satisfied with his fill of evil and horror. I pursued it further and took the bus to nearby Birkenau.  The bus schedule was poorly designed and after waiting some time I was only allowed a half hour at Birkenau before I had to take a return bus to meet the bus back to Krakow.  Had the bus done an entire loop, Birkenau-Auschwitz-Birkenau, each hour it would have made more sense but I had to make due with my half hour.  The 175 hectare grounds was not something to covered in a half hour, though.  At one time it housed over 300 prison barracks but the Nazis had done a pretty through job of destroying most of the compound as they retreated.  Auschwitz, on the other hand, was left mostly in tact.  The large gas chambers at Birkenau were left in rubble but still revealed their immense size, massively larger than Auschwitz.  When I arrived I took a view of the whole area from the tower at the entrance.  It just seemed to big and so unimaginably horrible.  Train tracks led straight into the middle, the final destination for countless numbers.  What Birkenau lacked in remaining structures it made up for in its vast feeling of a wasteland frozen in time.  My half hour wasn't enough to even skim the surface but I was impressed with enough of a picture.  I was ready to go back to Krakow.

I met Rob in the town square.  We grabbed a gyro (quick and cheap) before trying to make our reservations to fly home in November.  It was a unreasonably difficult task to make a phone call from Poland but after several frustrating attempts we had our reservations.  We were off to Prague the next morning.

POLAND Warsaw Sept 16-17 Krakow Sept 18 Sept 19 Sept 20 Sept 21-22

CZECH REPUBLIC Prague Sept 23 Sept 24-25 Cesky Krumlov Sept 26 Sept 27-30

AUSTRIA Vienna Oct 1 Oct 2

HUNGARY Budapest Oct 3 Oct 4 Oct 5-6