I pulled into the Greg & Tom Hostel only to encounter the nicest receptionist ever. Anna immediately put a positive spin on the hostel and Krakow. I got my bottom bunk, unpacked, and headed out to poke around a bit to get my bearings. Krakow dates back to the 7th. century and has traditionally been one of the leading centers of Polish academic, cultural, and artistic life. Home to 300,000 students, it is very much a college town. It was also fortunate to be spared the destruction that was visited upon so many cities in Europe, an as a result is dripping with charm from street, square, and thoroughfare. In the Old Town, Krakow boasts the largest Medieval Square in all of Europe. It’s 200 x 200 meters or 600 x 600 feet for those who haven’t cozied up with the metric system. An easygoing city with a lazy pace, some have referred to the people of Krakow as the Slavic Italians because of their tendency to be less than industrious, but in a pinch they have no problem getting things done.
Having suffered a thousand years of war, the Poles have finally caught a break for the last thirty years. Unfortunately they had to get through WWII first, and I made the decision to deal with the painful stuff on my first day in order to have the time to get my head back in order.
OŚWIĘCIM – AUSCHWITZ II
OŚWIĘCIM – AUSCHWITZ
Oświęcim is the name of the Polish town that is Auschwitz when translated into German. This is the path leading to Auschwitz II Birkenau which was a combination concentration/extermination camp. I took the day tour on my first day when the weather was overcast since I just didn’t picture visiting it on a sunny day with birds chirping in the trees. Like me, you’ll have to get through this before moving on to the charming streets of Krakow. Of course, you have the choice of scrolling past the proceedings at light speed. I’m sure the prisoners would have appreciated the privilege of fast forwarding past the crushing agony of everyday life in Auschwitz however most were dispatched to the gas chambers without even having spent the night.
The entrance of Auschwitz Birkenau that spelled doom for thousands who crossed its threshold in cattle cars.
THE GATES OF HELL – Though hundreds of thousands passed through them, few survived to tell the tale.
THE ENTRANCE TO AUSCHWITZ-BIRKENAU
Prisoners were offloaded about 200 meters ahead on the right.
This is one of the original cattle cars used to transport Jews, Poles, and other prisoners to the camp.
All cars were locked from the outside in this fashion.
This freight car has been placed here to commemorate the Jews deported from Hungary who were murdered by German Nazis in the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp. More than 400,000 Jewish men, women, and children were deported from Hungary in similar freight cars in more than 100 transports during the spring and summer of 1944. On arrival, most of them were murdered in the gas chambers here.
This freight car was donated and conserved by the family of Hugo Levy who was murdered here in May 1944.
Upon exiting the crowded, stinking, and inhuman conditions of the freight cars, the prisoners breathed fresh air and saw live prisoners in the camp giving them a sense of hope. They were instructed to sign their names on their luggage so they could be reunited with their belongings later. This was all a ruse to lull them into a false sense of security before the selections took place. Most were sent directly to the gas chambers, about a five-minute walk straight ahead. There they were led into an anteroom where they were instructed to disrobe for a shower. Then they were ushered into the gas chamber which was disguised as a large communal shower complete with fixtures and shower heads. The Zyklon B(pesticide) pellets were then dropped through chutes and dissolved into a gas which caused all of the occupants to suffocate in agony. The bodies were then taken next door where they were burned in the crematoria.
GUARD TOWER LINED THE CAMP PERIMETER
This is what remains of the gas chamber and crematoria. It was destroyed by the Nazi’s before they fled the camp as the Russian Army approached.
Conditions were so deplorable at the camps that many prisoners committed suicide by throwing themselves into the high voltage electric fences. To add to their suffering many guards would shoot them before they reached the fence in order to earn extra leave for stopping a prisoner trying to escape.
As if not put through enough by overwork, disease, starvation and constant fear of being killed these doomed prisoners on the bottom bunk had to fight off fearless rats the size of cats who vied for their decaying flesh.
ONE TINY STOVE HEATED THIS WHOLE BARRACKS
SIX PEOPLE PER LEVEL
ARBEIT MACHT FREI – Work Sets You Free – Usually it was death doing the job.
GATES TO THE TENTH RING OF HELL
This is where the camp orchestra played marches to help prisoners keep in step as they went to and from work.
BARRACKS HOUSING PRISONERS
A LITTLE JUSTICE IN THE PHOTO BELOW
ENTRANCE TO ONE OF THE SURVIVING GAS CHAMBERS
EMPTY CANISTERS OF “ZYKLON B” USED TO GAS PRISONERS
THE CREMATORIA – THIS IS WHERE IT ALL ENDED
A mere hundred meters from the gas chambers you can see a house peeking out of the woods. That is the residence of Rudolph Höss who lived there with his wife and children.
Later That Day In Krakow
A little relief at the MOCAK modern art museum before visiting for a little lift at the Shindler Museum.
Due to lousy WiFi here in Krakow, this post has been delayed. Good news, fast wifi in Warsaw. Krakow post should be ready by Friday night. Also additional commentary on Auschwitz. Need to pace myself on that one I’m afraid.