The Good, the Bad and the Struggling

Trip Start Nov 05, 2010
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Trip End Ongoing

Flag of Poland  , Southern Poland,
Thursday, July 19, 2012

Crossing from Ukraine into Poland was easy. Sasha and Dasha befriended a Polish family on a local bus from Lviv. Since they had a baby we all were allowed to bypass a line of "ants" traveling from Ukraine to Poland to sell cheap booze and cigarettes. We could see them lining on the up Polish side with each man, woman and child holding a bottle of vodka. No wonder why Ukrainians have a reputation of desperate drunkards in Europe!

A Polish family that we met on the Ukrainian side, a mother, two teenage daughters and a baby boy, were really nice to us. We were offered a place to stay in their house if our train to Krakow did not run that afternoon. Luckily it did and they helped us to get tickets. We were amazed how well the young people spoke English. Finally, Dasha could speak to people on the street again! She took some time reading while Sasha went to explore the Peremisl town centre on foot. When we met again on the platform, there was a freaky hail storm that caused a major delay to all through trains including ours.

We arrived to Krakow late at night. Our host Chris has instructed us to board a streetcar heading towards his house. There was no ticket machine on board so we got a free ride. Four stops only and we were happy there were no inspectors checking tickets. We had no city map but some friendly stranger walked us to Chris's house a few minutes away.

Krakow turned out to be a beautiful city. It has no traffic congestion in the centre since many streets are pedestrianized and trams work very efficiently.  Even though they don’t always have an exclusive right of way they are usually on schedule. The vehicles are not overcrowded and most people can get a seat. Some new vehicles are supplied by Bombardier, years before Toronto is due to receive the same new streetcars. The city centre, about a kilometer in radius is surrounded by a greenbelt full of mostly harmless drunks.  The market square is really a great work of architecture and always has street fairs and performers. Almost each street is a masterpiece of architecture as the city was spared during the WWII.

We were surprised by the quality of the Polish restaurant scene. There were lots of Asian, Indian and vegetarian choices. Prices were less expensive than in Ukraine. Lots of organic vegetables were outside small stores. The Poles love their fruits and berries!

The most famous sight, Wawel Palace, was right at the city centre. That was a residence of Polish kings prior to the development of Warsaw. The most famous Poles are buried under the Cathedral. Surprisingly, we found a late president of Poland who died in a plane crash in Russia a few years ago buried there as well. The river views were nice and the compound was teeming with tourists from all over the world. Krakow is a major tourist destination these days.


While in Poland Sasha realized he can speak Ukrainian to older people. They understand it since it is similar to Polish. It was more difficult to understand their answer. He used to believe that Ukrainian is useless outside Ukraine but it turned out to be closer to most Slavic languages than Russian. The latter is not widely understood in Poland since nobody really has practice in that language after school. Our host Chris was an exception. He used to live in Russia for some time.

There were lots of travel agents offering trips to Auschwitz. They did not hesitate to lie that there are long lineups and admission is expensive for individuals. Access to that eerie sight is free and there are no lineups. Regional buses run regularly and take just over an hour. We have seen huge crowds on arrival and were told that we will have to come after 3pm to the main camp if we are not on a guided tour. We went to the Birkenau in the meanwhile, a satellite camp which is much larger than the main one.

Birkenau had a set of railway tracks that lead to the concentration camp. No prisoner was ever released by the authorities. The moment cattle cars have arrived the prisoners have undergone the selection process. The elderly, the sick and children were led straight to the gas chambers. The facility was destroyed by the SS just before liberation and was never rebuilt. Only ruins of the crematorium are signed in Polish, English and Hebrew.

The camp was huge and housed tens of thousands of inmates in extremely crowded conditions. Each barrack was a converted stable and had up to five prisoners on each bunk. The heating was very rudimentary and it was unclear how the wretched ones have survived in winter. The barbed wire was everywhere and it formed sub camps within the camp for women, Gypsies, POWs, Poles and Jews. It was electrified and many have found a way out of hell by “going to the wires”.

When we returned to the main camp we could see artifacts stolen from the victims. Mountains of hair. A barrel of spectacles. A floor full of suitcases. Each one had a name and address. People were carrying their personal stuff into the camp hoping to return home one day. There was a wall of pictures of mostly Polish prisoners with names, a date of “admission” into the camp and a date of death. An average life expectancy in the camp was four months. Jewish prisoners were not photographed as they were subject to extermination.

Visiting Aushwitz was a grim reminder of injustice and lack of human rights. Learning about how innocent people were poorly treated and brutally killed broke our hearts.  With this awareness, as individuals and as a global community, we must make sure this never happens again. The international community needs to take active steps in eliminating those who do not have a disregard for human life.  On the bright side if there is a small dim of light, many Jews were able to escape the wrath of the SS.  Their stories of struggle against adversity have inspired many. Most are still struggling with the trauma and pain endured at this time.

***
Many see Poland as a destination for Holocaust tourism. It has much more to offer. There are lots of hiking and camping opportunities. They have many beautiful castles. The people are very friendly and easy to talk to.  It can be said that Poland is a country much affordable by European standards.

Highly recommended,
SD
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