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Published: July 23rd 2008
Mat: Dave, Trace and I hopped on a sleeper train on Friday the 13th and trundled our way south and east towards Krakow in Poland. Our cabin was pretty lush, a three bed sleeper. After a couple of "goodbye Germany" beers we headed to our bunks and woke up heading in the opposite direction. Not sure how this worked, but we did arrive in Krakow.
Krakow was spared from bombing in WWII, so its beautiful Old Town has survived. Its central Grand Square has been the hub of the city ever since its Old Town developed the present grid of streets in the 13th century and the huge 10-acre square is the largest of all Europe’s medieval cities. Everything in the Old Town is within walking distance, and there are good food spots, and a great jazz bar that kept Dave entertained.
Apart from hanging out in the old town and Jewish Quarter, there were three places that I found most interesting were: the Auschwitz concentration camps, the Wieliczka salt mines, and the Russian-sponsored socialist utopia of Nowa Huta.
While, like ever other westerner, I have been very aware of the horror of the holocaust, I have really
Looking towards the "Death Gate" to Auschwitz II - Birkenau
This is where the prisoners would disembark once inside Auschwitz II
been able to identify with it. World War II was well before my time, a long way from NZ, and I do not have any Jewish friends. It is not something you can really get to grips with by being given figures of the number of dead and so forth. Our trip to the two main camps of Auschwitz changed this of course.
Auschwitz-Birkenau was the largest of Nazi Germany's concentration camps. It comprised of three main camps:
Auschwitz I, the original concentration camp which served as the administrative center for the whole complex, and was the site of the deaths of roughly 70,000 people, mostly Poles and Soviet prisoners of war.
Auschwitz II (Birkenau), an extermination camp or Vernichtungslager
, where at least 960,000 Jews, 75,000 Poles, and some 19,000 Roma (Gypsies) were killed. It was the largest of all the Nazi extermination camps.
Auschwitz III (Monowitz), which served as a labor camp for an I.G. Farben factory.
Like all German concentration camps, the Auschwitz camps were operated by Heinrich Himmler's SS. Prisoners were transported from all over German-occupied Europe by rail, arriving at Auschwitz-Birkenau in daily convoys. Arrivals at the complex were separated into two main groups
"Work Will Set You Free"
The gates to Auschwitz I
- those marked for immediate extermination, and those to be registered as prisoners. The first group, about three-quarters of the total, went to the gas chambers of Auschwitz-Birkenau within a few hours; they included all children, all women with children, all the elderly, and all those who appeared on brief and superficial inspection by an SS doctor not to be fully fit.
One thing that was apparent when we visited was that the smoke from the two main crematoria would have been readily visible to the arriving prisoners. It seemed strange that train-load after train-load of people were executed without any form of resistance. Our guide pointed to the fact that the biggest factor in reassuring new prisoners of their safety was that they could see the large number of existing prisoners in the camp, and their barracks. The Nazis had also done a good job of limiting knowledge of the gas chambers for most of the war. To get prisoners into the chambers, SS personnel told them that they were to take a shower and undergo delousing. Some people had travelled for 10 days in cramped trains to get to the "camp" so were very eager for a
Krakow's Town Square
14th century Basilica of the Virgin Mary in the background
shower and clean clothes. The victims would undress in an outer chamber and walk into the gas chamber, which was disguised as a shower facility, complete with dummy shower heads. After the doors were shut, SS men would dump in the cyanide pellets via holes in the roof or windows on the side. In the Auschwitz Birkenau camp more than 20,000 people could be gassed and cremated each day. A number of "privileged" prisoners worked in the gas chambers and were responsible for assisting in directing prisoners to the chambers, as well as moving the newly dead bodies to the nearby crematorium. I find this job hard to contemplate. If your average holocaust survivor experiences guilt at simply staying alive, imagine how the experience impacted on these guys.
The day after visiting Auschwitz, Trace and Dave chilled out in Krakow while I headed out to the salt mines that everyone seemed to recommend. It was definitely worth the trip. This place has been mined for salt for 700 years. Yes, 700 years. Even tourism has been here for a long time - Copernicus visited the mines apparently! The tour I went on through the caves took a solid two
The Wieliczka Salt Mines
A surreal church carved out of solid salt 150m below the surface
hours, and only encompassed 2% of the entire mine system. The whole system is 300km long and gets down to 320m deep. Basically the whole place is just a warren of tunnels and chambers winding through solid salt. There is even a massive church, with everything from the alter to the last supper sculpture carved from salt. Crazy. Go there.
On my salt mine day I also caught a minibus to the town of Nowa Huta, an imposing, no-nonsense Soviet-designed town. Following establishment of the People's Republic of Poland in 1945, the Communist authorities had encountered substantial resistance to their new regime from middle-class Krakow who essentially, like many other countries in eastern Europe, were having communism forced on them by the Russians. To "correct the class imbalance", the Russian-backed authorities commenced building a satellite industrial town to attract people from lower socio-economic backgrounds to the region, such as peasants and the working class. In 1954 the Lenin Steelworks was opened and in less than 20 years the factory became the biggest steel mill in Poland. The reasons for building such an industrial town near Kraków was mostly so its population could act as a counter the more ideologically
independent populous of Krakow, and did not really make sense economically (coal had to be transported from Silesia and iron ore from the Soviet Union; the products were shipped to other parts of Poland since local demand was relatively small).
The design of the town is incredibly utilitarian, even by soviet standards. The main avenue leads through the intensive housing blocks and ends at the massive steel works. It was also designed to act as a modern fortification in case the West invaded. Balconies in the housing blocks have nooks for snipers to station themselves in, and other cunning defensive tricks. Classic. Ironically, in the 1980s Nowa Huta became a gathering place of for the solidarity movement, and due to Nowa Huta's design it proved very difficult for the authorities to suppress there.
The caravan of Ward's next stop was Vienna. Stay tuned.
Oh, and I just found out that I have been accepted as a full member of the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors
after writing up a 100 page application with case studies etc. Good news.
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