Whoever Saves One Life, Saves the World Entire

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April 29th 2015
Published: May 3rd 2015
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Our flight was at 6am from Edinburgh. That meant getting up at 2.30am. There was no way I was staying up all night, plus we wanted to be able to explore when we arrived as we would arrive at about 10am, so we had the full day. We arrived in Edinburgh, parked the car and off we went. The flight went without a hitch and actually arrived early. Our transfer was waiting for us and our very chatty driver told us a bit about what to see and do and that he had just learned in his English class the day before what a Glasgow Kiss was. We checked in and were happy to hear that our apartment was available to us and we did not have to wait until 2pm. The apartment was really good. Very modern and fresh with a wee kitchen, bedroom and shower room. A king size bed, a flat screen TV and located in the main Square.

The main square was lovely. It was huge with restaurants surrounding it. Old style horse and carts parked up waiting to take you on a clipity clop ride. There was a great church which dominated. Rob loved this church. It was quite impressive but it was mainly because it sat at an angle to the square that he liked it. Every hour the bells would toll and then someone would appear at one of the tiny widows at the very top of the steeple and play a trumpet out of it. Then they would move to the next wee window and play again. There was a pattern to it but I am unsure of the reason. We took a little wonder around and went for something to eat in the square. Unfortunately it was bloody freezing, so we sat inside instead of on the square. We had a mixed platter of Polish food which consisted of fried cabbage, sausage, more sausage, fried meat like schnitzel, potato, stew. It was massive amount of food. We also ordered white sausage and cabbage, as it was a starter and we had not realised how big the main would be. We ate as much as we could and it was fairly cheap at about £15. Then we headed back to the apartments to get some info on how to get to The Schindler Museum. From the square you can walk and it takes about 20 minutes at slow pace. This let us see a bit more of our surroundings as well. We found the factory and it was immediately recognisable from the movie ‘Schindler’s List’. The main building, which is now a museum, was indeed where Schindler worked but the factory building was actually another building at the back and that no longer exists. We paid in, approx £4 each and made our way around. It was quite a strange museum. Very little of it was about Schindler or the Schindler Jews. It was mainly history of the war and the effects and atrocities it had on Krakow. It was also very unclear what was real and what was re-creation or just props. Still it was worth the time and money even just for the building. It was strange to be confronted by the Nazi flag/banner hanging in one of the rooms. It was even stranger to be walking through a very large room which floor was completely decked out in Swastika tiles.

We headed back to the main square, buying some supplies on the way as we had a wee kitchen and an early start in the morning meant it would be easier and quicker just to fry up some eggs. I had heard about a tour you can do of the sub terrain. Turns out it was directly under the main square. It was an excavation which had been dug over a five year period about 5 years ago. It was interesting to see the various layers of pavement through the centuries as they had been built on over and over. You could see the pavement from the 13th century and then the next layer above jumping a century or two. They also found loads of artefacts, mainly jewellery as well as many, many graves including vampire graves! You could be considered a vampire for as little as having crooked teeth! It was kinda interesting but to be honest, I came away thinking it really wasn’t worth the 5 years it took to excavate and the major disruption it must have caused to the square or the money it must have cost to do.

Next day we were up super early as our pick up for Auschwitz was at 8.30am. We got on the mini bus and there were no two seats together left. Rob sat at the front with a woman who was on her own and had decided she would sit on a two seater and not move to accommodate couples/friends. We arrived about an hour later. The group met with our guide and we began where you would expect, at the gates inscribed with the words ‘Arbiet Macht Frei’ (work sets you free) as I am sure you have all seen in history books/TV/movies etc. It was surreal. We walked through the camp as the guide explained what we were looking at and what was done here. Some of you may not know that Auschwitz is made up of three separate camps, Auschwitz I, Auschwitz II and Auschwitz III. This was the first camp, originally a barracks for migrant workers to Poland at the turn of the century and then as army barracks for Polish soldiers. So the buildings already existed and were convenient and centrally located for the Nazis to use as a concentration camp. At first, only Polish political prisoners were held here. Each prisoner had their photo taken and records of each of them were kept. The photos are now hung on the walls of one of the buildings. They soon stopped taking photos as this was too expensive and started tattooing them instead which is why the photos are only of Polish political prisoners and not of the Jews which were imprisoned later. We went into one of the many ‘barracks’ which held the ‘prisoners’. This one had been renovated to an extant to allow for a kind of museum. There was a mass of information and photos. Many of the rooms housed the collection of belongings which had been pilfered. They sorted all the belongings into piles. Piles of spectacles, piles of suitcases, piles of pots and pans, piles of shoes, piles of prosthetic limbs, piles of brushes. The most poignant of these piles was the 2 tonnes of human hair that filled a room. Their heads were shaved and the hair was sold in kilos to make material from. Nothing was spared. They used everything. The piles we saw were only what was found after liberation.

One of the ‘barracks’ we went to was 95% original. The rooms had the wooden bunks and wash sinks and toilets. We went down to the basement and were shown the solitary cells were they were tortured and starved to death. They had ‘cells’ that were nothing more than 3ft x 3ft, meaning they had to stand for days on end. This was one of the places we were not allowed to take photos out of respect. Unfortunately we were rushed around the camps, missing out many of the buildings but the tour did visit the most important and was very informative. I am a completionist though and would have liked to have gone around myself, and taking it all in. We ended the first camp with a visit to the gas chamber, aka ‘Krema’, again no photos allowed. It was just a big concrete room but paying attention to the ceiling showed a few small ‘skylights’. This was where they lowered in the Zyklon B. Zyklon B was a pestacide, it looks a bit like blue cat litter. When it reached 26 degrees it turned into a poisonous gas. It took sometimes as much as 20 minutes to kill everyone, that’s if they put enough in. Sometimes there wasn’t enough and they would take much longer to die or they would do it again. Through the next door were the furnaces where the bodies were incinerated. This chamber could kill up to 340 people at once. Near the ‘Krema’ was a wooden gallows. This was not gallows used to kill prisoners, this was the gallows used to hang Rudolph Hoess shortly after the war. They hung him in between what had been his large house on the camp grounds, where he brought up his children and the ‘Krema’ where thousands of people were being gassed and then burned in the furnace with the smoke billowing from the huge chimney as his children ran about playing in their garden. I must say, I don’t understand the whole ‘you can’t take photos in this room’ thing. They are making a large profit out of these tours and I am not sure what exactly is disrespectful about a photograph. It’s a room. Yes, many, many people died in it but they also died all over these camps. I just don’t get it. I also later read that the ‘Krema’ was not original and had been reconstructed.

We moved onto Auschwitz II (Auschwitz III has almost nothing left of it and is not open to the public). This is the camp with the railway lines that go right into it. This camp was purpose built and is 20x bigger than the first camp. It was very strange to be walking on those tracks with that building behind me. On the right was the men’s camp and on the left, the women’s. All of the men’s camp was destroyed by the Germans just before they fled. The men’s barracks were all made of wood, so they were burned down, except for the chimneys which still remain. They have built several reconstructions from the wood remains of the actual bunkers. The women’s were mainly brick built and are mostly intact. All of the 5 gas chambers and furnaces (Krema) were blown up by the Nazis in order to try and hide evidence as the allies ascended. They lie untouched in their exploded state. I struggle to understand this. Why did they bother to blow up the Krema but leave mounds of paperwork evidence and most of the barracks. Their behaviour was strange for an army that believed what they were doing was ok and right. I believe this is what many of the Holocaust deniers use as evidence it didn’t happen, I would hate to be mistaken as one, cause they are mental but I did leave with a lot of confusion. The main thing I don’t get is why they bothered to imprison them at all. Many were registered when they arrived, the healthy, young ones. Many were sent straight to the gas chambers. Why not send all of them to the gas chambers? Why bother registering them and feeding them or build barracks for them when the intention was to wipe them from existence. It doesn’t seem very ‘efficient’ or logical.

We went into one of the women’s barracks. It is fully original. All the wooden bunks remain. It’s almost impossible to imagine this is where they slept, that this is possibly where Anne Frank, for example, stood only 70 years ago. Auschwitz was made into a museum in 1947! Only 2 years after the war ended. I find it amazing that they had the insight to realise the importance of this horrible place so soon after. It’s difficult to write about this place. I’m almost numb when I think about it. It’s just too surreal. My brain won’t allow me to understand or to accept this really happened, here, on the soil I’m standing on. We were reminded that these ‘museums’ exist to remind us what happened here and to make sure it does not happen again *cough* Palestine *cough*. The irony.

It was a fascinating, horrific, important but long day. I was exhausted. We went for something to eat, sitting on one of the tables on the square as it was really warm and had some Polish dumplings and a cocktail. Then we headed to our apartment and were so done-in we just lay in bed internetting and then watched Schindler’s List. It’s a long movie and a mistake to embark on at 10.30pm when you are up at the crack of dawn for another tour.

This time it was the salt mines. This is a major tourist attraction in Krakow. The mines are ancient and are 300km long dating back to 13th century and was a working mine until fairly recently. There are 340 steps down to the first level. We seen 20 of the 2000 chambers and walked 2km. There are loads of salt sculptures and many of the chambers are now chapels with salty Jeebus and Mary. This tour was very long and very boring. I didn’t get it. Once you’ve been in a working silver mine, where death is an actually threat and the ‘chapels’ have statues of the Devil and TNT being blow up around you, it’s hard to find other mines interesting (see Potosi, Bolivia 2011 blog).

Once again, exhausted (man, i’m old and unfit), we headed to The Hard Rock Cafe for some food. I was all Polished out, don’t judge! I ordered a Magical Mystery Mojito, took a sip and then proceeded to spit out some broken GLASS into my hand. The waitress was standing there. I said to her, is that glass, showing her the shards on my finger. For a second I thought it might be sugar you see. She said yes and I then informed her it had come out of my mouth! The manager appeared immediately, apologised and they got me another drink with double shots. That was it by the way. We got our full bill including the cocktail!!!!! I have had my entire bill written off because food was late to the table so you can only imagine what I expected for BROKEN GLASS IN MY DRINK!!!!! We left and I immediately wrote an email to Hard Rock.

So back to the apartment by about 4pm and fell asleep for 2 hours. We got some food in the square around 10pm and back to bed again for our upcoming last day. It was a free day as such, so we slept until we woke up without alarms (9am). Today we visited the Jewish Ghetto. This is where the Jews were moved to, before the camps, to live while the Nazis took residence in their homes. A couple of buildings remain from the time which you can see in photographs which have been placed in the memorial square. We joined a free walking tour half way through that so happened to walk past us. The guide was very informative. We even walked back to Schindler’s Factory (which is just across the road) and listened to some information on Schindler. Some of it seemed to be his opinion rather than fact though. He felt the film was not exactly accurate, portraying Schindler as such a good guy. He reminded us of the scene at the end were he says he could have saved more had he sold his gold Nazi party pin or his car. The guide pointed out that the Nazi pins were not actually gold and that he doubted Schindler would have wanted to sell the car he escaped in. He also felt that Schindler was in fact, purely a business man who was there to make money and when he heard that the war was being lost he realised that making himself look good by saving his workers would maybe save his life. He went onto make the more important point though, that, whatever his motives ‘whoever saves one life, saves the world entire’. He saved ‘the world entire’ 1098 times.

The walking tour ended and we went to the Jewish district. It was pretty. We then went onto the Wawel Castle. Again, pretty but looked boring so we didn’t get tickets. After another large Polish lunch, we headed to the airport and back to my own bed ahhhhhhh .

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11th July 2015

Hello Tina and Rob
Fantastic to see you blogging again. We are so eager to go to Poland. Really enjoyed this blog.

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