We made an early start, to drive to Oswiecim, to visit the infamous Nazi death camp of Auschwitz. We were surprised at the steep charges for the car park, which we thought belonged to the hotel. “Privat”, they said. “Kriminal”, I replied, but they didn’t care. We drove to Oswiecim, listening to one of the CD’s I had bought the other day, of Jewish sounds of the Cracow Klezmer Band. It seemed to be the right music somehow, with a rather sad, melancholy tune.
Oswiecim itself just seemed an ordinary town, nothing remarkable, other than the signs to “Auschwitz museum”. We followed the signs, along with many other motorists and buses. At Auschwitz there were large car parks and we were pointed at the next slot. We passed on the cheaper car park off the main road, the yellow-shirted attendants doing their best to compete with the official car park across the road. Lots and lots of visitors, and it felt more like going to a Florida theme-park, minus the jumbo drinks. The visitors centre was suitably sober, built of grey stones. It was not very well organised but we managed to find the till to pay for a guided visit at 11.30.
First we were shown the short documentary, a rather dated 30 minute film with an old British narrators voice and sombre music accompanying the images. Gruesome, chilling black and white footage, delivered rather factually. A “death factory” does describe this place accurately. Somewhat grim-faced we walked out again and went to wait by the tills for the start of our tour. We were split into buses, our group going first to visit Birkenau – Auschwitz II, a short bus ride away. At the entrance we were split into two groups again, and we stuck with the short girl who had an efficient manner and a charming accent to her excellent English. The gate to Auschwitz II is the bit most often seen in films and documentaries, with the view of the train tracks running through the centre of the brick building into the camp beyond.
As at Majdanek, some wooden sheds remained, off to our right. Only about twenty of the several hundred that had originally been built. All that remained of most of them was now a brick chimney. Barbed wire fencing was everywhere. We toured the site, one of the many tour groups being led around. The presence of the hundreds of other visitors and the pleasant sunny weather made it a much less chilling experience, rather sterile even. Yes, we saw the very basic sheds, intended for cattle rather people, the rows of latrines, and our guide did her best to convey the horrors of the camp. At the back of the camp we were shown the ruins of the gas chambers and she told us how train loads of people were divided and “selected” – those who would work, those who would die – and marched straight off to the efficient “processing” building to undress, fake showers in the gas chamber, drop Zyklon B in and seal the chamber, then move the dead bodies to the ovens. All the work was performed by other prisoners.
We returned to the buses and were taken back to the main site for the second half of our tour. This looked “civilised” compared to Birkenau, with brick buildings of two storeys, and paved paths between the buildings. But inside the buildings were some incredible sights. The multitude of visitors did something to remove the impact. In a sequence rooms we saw the collections of thousands and thousands and thousands of shoes, piles of glasses, hairbrushes, suitcases, pens and, most famously, human hair. A mountain of human hair was piled up in a huge space behind a glass wall, the pile reaching right up to the ceiling. In other buildings we saw the cells in the basement, with stories of torture, starvation, and of a priest who gave his life to take the place of another prisoner in a two-week starvation cell. The priest survived the two weeks and was immediately executed, but the prisoner whose life he saved went on to live until 1998! Somehow this single fact was a victory over the Nazi evil, and it lifted the human spirit. It was a story that shone out in the surroundings of this death factory. We continued the tour, the last visit being the experimental and first full-scale gas chambers. It was horrible to walk inside them.
After the tour we had lunch at the cafeteria which had the character of a communist era canteen rather than an efficient tourist facility. Tasty pancakes and roast pork. On our way back to Krakow we made a detour via Wadowice, a small unassuming provincial town which was Pope John Paul II’s birthplace, and now a bit of a pilgrimage site. We parked at a lot set back from the immediate centre and walked to the main square, with an ornate church at one end and, next to it, the house where Karol Wojtyla, a.k.a. Pope John Paul II, was born and grew up. There was a long queue at the house, which was open for visitors, so instead we went for a coffee and a cake next door, sitting in the courtyard with lots of greenery, right next to the house where JP2 etc. We tried the local cream cake, Ness posted a card, and then we continued on our way, returning to Krakow. I called Mischa and True North (re. sale of Morty which is dragging on) from the hotel, and we stayed in our room for a while. Later we went out for dinner and walked to the Kazimierz area, a good twenty minute walk, into the not-so-nice parts of Krakow. Back to Szeroka square. The Klezmer Hois was full, or rather, we were too late. Further along the square we were lucky to get a cosy little table pour deux at Alef and were just in time to catch the tail end of the Klezmer band’s performance, and had a very tasty Jewish meal. I had choulent, a kind of bean stew, and Ness had meatballs. An excellent ending to a worthwhile day, although not exactly with the most “cheerful” sightseeing we have ever done. Oh, I nearly forgot: we finished the day with a drink in the red-and-gold aperitif bar, mainly so I could get a picture of it. The only other customers were three past-it tarty Polish ladies with faces covered in thick make-up, perfect material for the picture!