europe2003 PII, Day 16
Today was a day of some frustration, then high emotion, both good and bad.
There seem to be only 3 specialty bike shops in urban Krakow. In spite of phone calls and some preparation, it took us almost three hours and two of those shops to get a) one to tune up and hold onto Charlie and my bikes until the end of August when we come back for the Moscow run, and b) another to box up three bikes for the return to the states.
After that our priority “tourist” destination was Auschwitz. It has a lot more impact in person than in a book or a movie. It’s a complex of 3 main camps and about 37 supporting facilities spread out over a large area about 35 miles west of Krakow – certainly a lot bigger and more complex than I thought. A place where the Nazis/Germans killed about 1,500,000 people between 1942 and 1945, 15,000 people per week, steadily, over 3 years.
The rationale is in the first plaque. They primary effort was to completely exterminate Jews in Europe, but they also killed anybody they didn’t like including Poles, Russians, POW’s, gays, etc. Steve and Bob are standing under the famous “Work will make you free” sign at the entrance of Camp 1.
They started out killing in small scale, and experimenting with mass murder. The next photo is of a courtyard where “thousands” of people were shot to death. It’s next to a building where they did the first gas chamber experiments plus a variety of other torture and killing tests and practice.
They then built a bunker with “showers” on one side and ovens on the other. Groups of people in the dozens were herded in, poison gas dropped in through a hole in the roof, and then the bodies were taken and burned in furnaces in the same building. Photos of those gas and incineration chambers follow.
You don’t talk much walking around these places. Nobody smiles. You hold your breath involuntarily as you look at the cells and exhibits – something akin to gasping.
By 1942 this scale of operation was completely inadequate, so the Germans set up Auschwitz 2 – Birkenau. Trains from all over Europe arrived here, going through the gate below into a rail yard where people were taken off the trains and 70% were immediately killed without further registration or tracking, using futher improved techniques. Nearly all the rest were killed, too.
The Germans were efficient and didn’t waste anything. When the Russians liberated the place they found “tons” of hair and warehouses full of luggage, shoes, glasses, clothes, etc. (We have many more pictures and a couple of purchased videos if you want more on this.)
And to add insult to injury, the Poles were then “liberated” by the Russians and had to endure communism for the next 45 years. You can still see the effects of all this in the run down infrastructure, 30% unemployment rates… For Eastern Europeans in general and European Jews in particular this has to be the defining moment in their history.
We didn’t get back to Krakow until around 5PM. To segue out of the morbidity, here is a photo of the most popular car around, a Fiat designed – Polish built tiny car where you and three of your closest friends can sit shoulder to shoulder while the lawn mower engine clatters you along.
The five of us walked around town and explored Runek Glowny (the main square), which dates to the 13th century and includes St. Mary’s Cathedral, a magnificent market building and much other notable architecture. Following is a shot of Sylvie, Susie, Steve and Bob walking on a Krakow street, then one of the carriages in the square – St. Mary’s is on the left and the market building behind the carriages.
We bought the ladies little bouquets and had some Polish cocktails in a square-side café. The picture includes a happy Steve.
Then it was over to Cyrano de Bergerac Restaurant for our last meal in Europe. We toasted ourselves, had a great meal, and went back to the hotel to pack.
As you can see, the mood improved considerably from what it was during the afternoon. The last thing we had to do was leave the Pollera Hotel at 5:30AM so Susie, Lisa and Bob could catch their flights, and Sylvie and Steve could begin their 14 hour drive to Paris.
That’s the last photo of europe2003 part II – the terminal building of John Paul II airport in Krakow. The picture makes it look big, but in spite of the fact that Krakow is Poland’s 3rd largest (and prettiest) city, the airport is quite small – only 6 check in counters, 2 gates, no jetways… The only international flights are to London, Chicago and New York.
Charlie and Bob return to Krakow on or about August 28, 2003 for the final 1,400 mile push through Poland, Belarus and Russia to Moscow. It will be a psychological and physical challenge. Next update is in 2 months. Thanks for joining us.