A Travellerspoint blog


Kraków and Auschwitz

Learning from History

sunny 84 °F

I try to research my destinations before I get there. I kinda dropped the ball with Kraków. I knew in general what I wanted to see but I hadn't really timed it out properly. So, when I got to Kraków, I headed to the Old Town Square to get started with my to-do list. As I approached the square, I happened upon a free walking tour of the city. I did this in Edinburgh and really enjoyed it so I decided to give it a try here. The tour lasted 2 1/2 hours. We walked all over the Old Town from the Barbicon (1/2 block from where I'm staying) to the main square, the university - where Copernicus and Pope John Paul II studied and ending at Wawel Castle. Our guide had interesting stories at all the stops and hints on what to come back to see later.

St Mary's Church

The Barbicon - the last remaining city gate

Collegium Malus - the college both Copurnicus and Pope John Pail II attended (neither graduated from here though)

Wawel Cathedral

After the tour I was starting to drag. As much as I appreciated my sleeper cabin on the train from Prague, I just can't sleep well on a train. I did notice a definite difference between the tracks in the Czech Republic and Poland...the Czechs have slightly smoother tracks than the Poles. Both are better by a huge margin than the Georgians though!

Old Town Hall Tower

I wandered around the Old Town a little more then checked out the Rynek Underground Museum. It's a cool museum that shows parts of the medieval city square and artifacts found there. The city's ground level has been raised over 10 feet so you can touch and see the actual foundations of the original buildings.

Tuesday, I planned on checking out the castle and the Jewish Quarter. Many of the castle sites require a timed ticket - you can't enter until a certain time. Once again, no photos are allowed. I did try to sneak a few with my phone but the attendants were eagle-eyed and caught me almost every time. I was amazed that they still have many original paintings and tapestries hanging in the rooms and very few barriers! I could get my nose within 1/2" of them to see closely if I wanted. However, my favorite rooms were those that were "papered" with tooled and painted leather. Beautiful!

One of the bed chambers

One of the castle ceilings

From here, it's a short walk to the old Jewish Quarter. As I stated earlier, I hadn't researched well enough. It appears I got here during Rosh Hashanah and several of the sites were closed. I was still able to walk around and get a feeling of the place in preparation for my trip on Wednesday to Auschwitz.

A door number in the old Jewish Quarter

The Old Synagogue

I'd like to say I was prepared for Auschwitz-Birkenau. I'd be lying. I had visited Dachau - the first Concentration Camp - last year when I was in Munich. That was an eye opener. This was heart-wrenching. When I visited Dachau, I was with a tour group from Munich and I felt we had been rushed and that I had been cheated of being able to really connect with my feelings there. I swore I was going to do this right. I got online to book my visit directly with the Auschwitz Museum. You can enter the site without a guide, but you can't visit Birkenau nor many of the buildings at Auschwitz without one. I needn't have worried about feeling rushed. Our guide walked us through quietly explaining the massiveness of what we were seeing. You could hear the care for the victims in everything he said.

Thousands of eyeglasses left from the victims

Suitcases from those who thought they were just being relocated

I knew there were two different areas, Auschwitz and Birenau. I didn't realize the buildings at Auschwitz were former army barracks and are multi storied brick. Birkenau is what we all think of when we think about Auschwitz. Birkenau is where the Nazis honed their art of mass extermination. The enormity of the camp hits you as you enter the gate. Most of the original buildings are gone, but you can still see the chimneys where the buildings once stood. They seem to go on forever.

Buildings at Auschwitz

The 'women's' camp at Birkenau. Men and women were in separate camps.

One of the actual cattle cars the Jews were transported in

At the end of the tour, our guide answered the question many of us had asked him during the tour...Why is he a tour guide there? He explained that his great-grandfather was a political prisoner at Auschwitz for 9 months. He was transferred out to a camp in Austria for another year before being released. His Grandmother has been a guide there for over 30 years and he felt drawn there to tell the story so people will remember.

Plaque at the site of the gas chambers which were blown up by the Germans as they left.

I noticed, as we rode back to Kraków how different everyone was. On the ride there, everyone was talking and a couple girls were even singing along with their phone. The bus ride back to Kraków was silent. Everyone was quietly taking it all in and dealing with what they had seen and heard.

I know this day will stay with me for the rest of my life.

Posted by Jengt 23:06 Archived in Poland Comments (0)


A Phoenix rising from the ashes.

sunny 83 °F

As I landed in Warsaw, I wondered what type of city I'd find. I knew it had been heavily bombed during WWII and was pretty much leveled. However, they still have an Old Town. How? They rebuilt!

Castle Square

After seeing Krakow's old town - which had been spared from the bombings, I wasn't sure what I'd find in Warsaw. They've done an amazing job of building back using historical records and photographs to recreate as much as they could. Wandering around, you can barely tell it's not all original. Of course, there's much of Warsaw that couldn't be rebuilt exactly. However, they have not lost their roots.

Field Cathedral of the Polish Army

I had a long list of places to see in Warsaw so I hit the ground running as soon as I checked into my hotel in the Old Town. There were old squares, churches and city walls to see! The Old Town and New Town are divided by the old city walls - some of it still standing. However, that's the only way you can tell the difference. They both date to approximately the same time period.

Barbican and the old city walls

Nuns of the Holy Sacrament Church in New Town

The next day I put my Fitbit to the test. I was unable to decipher the public transit map so I put my feet to work. There were several museums, monuments and churches I wanted to see as well as remnants of the former Jewish Ghetto.

Monument to the Warsaw Uprising

Segment of original building with shrapnel and bullet scars

Palace of Culture and Science - a nice viewing terrace in the tower

One of the few remaining sections of the Ghetto wall

I definitely learned more about Warsaw before, during and after WWII. At the Warsaw Uprising Museum there were some very interesting displays. One of the most touching was a short film showing a simulated 3D "fly over" of Warsaw after the war. How the residents of that city had the heart to start over again is amazing. There were so few buildings left standing. It's not like a block here and there was destroyed...the entire city was decimated.

I did intersperse some beauty during my day of museums and monuments. Not far from the Old Town is Saxon Park. There once was a palace here but it was destroyed. The remaining gardens are a peaceful respite in the middle of a busy city.

Saxon Garden

Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers - in Saxon Park

For my last day in Warsaw, and for this trip, I decided to take it a little easier. I only had a short list of places to see and several were in the same place - Lazienki Park. On the southern edge of Warsaw, it's a sprawling park with palaces and beautiful landscapes. I could have spent a full day here just wandering and recharging. It was the perfect antidote to all of the sorrow I had seen in the previous days.

The Orangery in Lazienki Park

Palace on the Island

Ballroom in Palace on the Island - the summer palace

It may seem odd, but I had kept the site closest to my hotel for last. The Royal Castle was, quite literally, 15 feet from the front door of my hotel. The castle had been destroyed during the war. However, most of the furnishings had been hidden away just as the war started. They have faithfully rebuilt the castle as it was in the 17th century. It was truly a beautiful site to see.

Throne room in the Royal Castle

Ballroom in the Royal Castle

So here I am, on my way home. It's been a whirlwind two weeks. I came here to 'see the sites'. What I've seen is beauty, pain and hope. I think I'll treasure hope the most.

Rainbow on Castle Square

Posted by Jengt 17:24 Archived in Poland Comments (0)

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