Krakow and Auschwitz-Birkenau

Reliving the Glories and the Horrors of Poland’s Past

Reluctant to leave the serenity and natural beauty of Zakopane behind us,Llew, Chriselle and I bussed it back to Krakow arriving in the city at mid-morning when we made our way to the Jewish Quarter of Kazimerz where our hotel was located (below left).

Without wasting any more time, we began our walking tour of Krakow, ancient city of Slavic invasion and modern city of the Holocaust. It is so amazingly laid out with its superbly designed pre-war buildings forming a compact circle in the center of the Old Town and completely ringed by parks and gardens around the Vistula River.

Ryneck Glowny or the Main Square is the center of tourist interest but before we arrived there, we stopped to see the medieval Church of St. Andrew (with its surprisingly Baroque interior—obviously a later renovation) and the Church of St. Peter and Paul with its giant statues of the twelve apostles adorning its entrance. Right opposite is Archbishop’s House where Pope John Paul II, once Archbishop of Krakow, spent several years of his life. Arriving in the Main Square, we found it brimming over with tourists and with the local population, who enjoying a bank holiday, had brought their kids out to be entertained by jugglers, comedians, etc. on the street.

The medieval Cloth Hall  (left)dominates this largest square in Europe by its stolid presence but the oddly shaped spires of the Basilica of St. Mary (below left) are an unmistakable presence in an adjacent corner. Since it was the Feast of the Assumption, we attended the 1 pm. Mass at St. Mary’s, amazed to find the church jammed to capacity in a moving display of devotion to Catholic faith.

 Unlike the other countries in Europe that we have visited, Poland’s faith in Catholicism is alive and kicking, fuelled no doubt by the fact that the Head of the Church for over quarter of a century was a local boy! We were struck by the perfect behavior of the Polish children at mass, the gusto with which responses to prayers and hymns were made by the entire congregation and with the many flower offerings that the people carried to the altar for blessings. Llew was delighted to have his wish come true—to hear mass in an ancient ornate church where the devotion of the people matched the magnificence of the interior for the triptych altarpiece by Gothic artist Veit Stoss was one of the most moving we had ever seen and matched the total grandeur of the cathedral. Later that evening, we heard the bugler blow his bugle at the sounding of each hour from a window high in the church’s left steeple.

After lunch that afternoon, we bussed it to the Wieliejcka Salt Mines, just a half hour’s ride away. Eastern Europe is rich in underground salt mines developed centuries ago through faults in the earth that also caused the spouting of hot thermal springs. Indeed, salt was an invaluable resource as early as the Middle Ages and added enormously to the wealth of the Slavic nations, causing them to be invaded often. The Wieliczka (pronounced “wee-leej-ka”) Salt Mines were believed to be a dowry gift of Hungarian Queen Kinga to the people of Poland when she married their king. Later canonized by the Catholic Church, we were amazed to find that together with St. Barbara, she became the patron saint of the miners who toiled hundreds of feet underground to mine salt.

Our fascinating guided tour in English took us deep into the bowels of the earth. As we tunneled through many yards of passageway, we steadily descended down to 130 meters, all the time fascinated by the fact that the floor and the walls around us were pure, hundred percent salt. Devoutly wed to their Christian faith, the miners, over the years, carved out life-size salt statues of their beloved saints and heroes and eventually created an entire cathedral underground in which every single item from the candlesticks to the chandeliers, from the altars to the flooring is made of salt. It was truly mind-boggling to see this working church exist so many hundreds of feet below the surface of the earth, a place in which about fifty wedding are solemnized each year (left).

The Mines also contain a museum which detailed the development of various salt crystals and the methods and techniques that were used to mine salt and carry it up to the earth’s surface, including, quite awesomely, the use of horses underground to pull cartloads of recently mined salt. Happily, a real antique elevator, actually used by the miners while the mines were still in use, carried us back to the top. Not surprisingly, the entire venue is protected under UNESCO’s World Heritage status.

Auschwitz-Birkenau: The Nazis’ Most Notorious Concentration Camp

The next day, we took a bus from Krakow to embark upon the most disturbing part of our travels—a visit to the Nazi concentration camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau, one of the most notorious places on earth—what the last Pope referred to as the “Golgotha of Modern Times”. Though I had been to Dachau concentration camp near Munich, Germany, twenty years ago, Auschwitz is so much more vivid and graphic in the manner in which history has been preserved through a living museum that honors the helpless dead. See the entrance gates (below left) with the motto that says, “Abandon All Hope”.

Our visit began with the screening of a film in English that described the liberation of the camp by the Soviets in 1945, after which our guided tour in English took us through the blocks of red brick buildings that were built by the Polish military as part of their barracks prior to the German invasion.

These buildings (left) have been converted into museum space displaying extremely moving tableau containing spectacles, hair, hairbrushes and toothbrushes, enamel pots and pans, footwear, leather suitcases, rattan baskets, etc. of the thousands of Jews, Magyars, political dissenters, homosexuals, mentally and physically handicapped persons, and gypsies that were imprisoned here and then either put to hard manual labor or selected for immediate extermination in the gas chambers, then incinerated in the ovens, as part of Hitler’s “Final Solution to the Problem of European Jews”. The guide expertly educated us about the inhuman methodology that was part of the Nazi machinery. This included the unspeakable scientific experiments carried out on children, especially twins, by Dr. Joseph Mengele, who after the war, escaped to Brazil and died of natural causes only in 1971, never having served a day for his crimes against humanity.

In that context, it was heartening to see the gallows upon which SS Camp Commandant Rudolph Hoess was hanged  (left) after he was identified by a British soldier, two years after the war ended. He was brought to trial and convicted to death in the same venue upon which he had caused so many innocent men, women and children to be butchered.

We even saw the cell in which Polish Catholic priest Fr. Maximilian Kolbe was imprisoned and finally shot at the Wall of Death (below left) right outside the block where the Gestapo conducted their trials and passed sentence.

A shuttle bus then took us to Birkenau (above right), the neighboring camp that was built to accommodate the millions of prisoners that poured in on the cattle trains.

This vast acreage of land was converted into space for hundreds of wooden barracks to house prisoners in bunk-beds (left) under the most horrendous conditions imaginable. Our guide pointed out the toilets that prisoners used, the trenches they dug, the single brick fireplace that provided heating in the most brutal of winters in each barracks while the prisoners slept in the same clothes they worked in contracting tuberculosis, pneumonia and typhus that killed them off on an average within two months of their arrival in the prison. This coupled with constant hunger and brutal punishments caused a very high rate of suicide in the camps—many prisoners preferring to get themselves electrocuted on the barbed wire that surrounded the camp or be shot by the guards poised in the watch towers (below left).

Finally, we entered the dreaded chambers where the extermination of all prisoners was carried through the use of poison gas and where their bodies were then cremated in the ovens (below right). Most of us were speechless as we viewed these remnants of a horrific past. Though I had been to Dachau Concentration Camp near Munich, Germany, twenty years ago, Auschwitz-Birkenau had a far more humbling effect on me not merely because of its vast size that emphasized the extent of the atrocities perpetrated here but because I was visiting it in  the company of those most beloved to me–my husband and daughter. If anything the visit made me realize just how precious they are to me.

 Our visit to Auschwitz silenced us so completely that the return bus journey to Krakow was filled with contemplation for us all. Difficult though the visit was, we’re glad we went and saw for ourselves the inhumanity and cruelty of which man is capable.

Return to Krakow:

The Wonders of Wavel Castle and Cathedral

Our stay in Krakow ended with our exploration of Wawel (pronounced “Vah-wel”) Hill where the major monuments of tourist interest are the stunning Cathedral and Royal Castle approached by walking past lovely English-style gardens that provided many photo opportunities.The Cathedral (left) dedicated to St. Gereon is one of the most spectacular that I have ever seen with its many spires, domes, cupolas and buttresses and I could not stop taking pictures. It was the venue for the coronation of all Poland’s kings and was also their final resting place. The magnificent silver casket containing the mortal remains of St. Stanislaus, Poland’s patron saint, dominates the center while the royal crypts approached by descending the stairs to the basement house ornate tombs of former royalty.

We also climbed into the bell tower to see the Bell of St. Sisigsmund. Proceeding to the Royal Castle, we found ourselves in one of the most picturesque Renaissance courtyards reminiscent of Florentine architecture (above left) in the many storeys of arched doorways. Inside, the rooms were filled with sacred relics and treasures such as golden monstrances and chalices, loads of arms, armor and paintings.

Since our hotel was situated right in the heart of Krakow’s Old Jewish District, Kazimerz, we spent one morning exploring it thoroughly and visiting one of the oldest synagogues—the Remuh Synagogue (left) where Hassidic Jews were deep in prayer. Because Krakow had 126,000 Jews in 1940 living in Kazimerz, an area named after Good King Kazimerz of the 1400s who permitted this persecuted race of people to live in his city undisturbed, it developed a distinct ethnic ambience. After the Holocaust, only 10,000 Jews returned to Krakow, most of them having met their end in the concentration camps. Today, Kazimerz still consists of quaint squares, synagogues and Jewish restaurants. We dined one night at Ariel, a Jewish restaurant that served a traditional Klezmer Dinner. This consisted of a trio of Jewish musicians who played traditional instruments and sang songs in Hebrew, Yiddish and Polish as the visitors joined in while wine was served and orders for dinner were taken. Over a very tasty meal of Cabbage Leaves stuffed with Mushrooms and Chicken with Mushrooms and Plums, we had a chance to participate in the lifestyle of an ancient race of people whose culture and religious heritage is more vigorous today than it ever was before despite the tragedy of their near extermination.

We did not leave Krakow without shopping for Polish amber jewelry in Ryneck Glowny, the ancient covered market in which traders in the Middle Ages plied their wares. Amber is a natural resin produced by the fossilizing of trees, branches, etc. over centuries through natural processes at the bottom of the ocean. Most Polish amber comes from the Baltic Sea. At the suggestion of my brother Roger and his wife Lalita, we dined at Chlopskie Jadlo, a rustic chain of restaurants that serves country style Polish meals. The soup sampler I ordered consisting of four scrumptious soups—zureck, mushroom soup, cabbage soup and Russian borscht—was extremely good.

We ended our visit to Krakow, a city that truly stole our hearts away, by strolling along ul. Florianska or the Royal Way (left) , stopping by Florian Gate, the Barbican and the Churches of St. Dominic and St. Francis where evening mass was in progress.

What we most loved about Poland were the people. They were good, kind, decent human beings who treated us with the utmost courtesy and respect. Taxi-drivers, in this day and age, helped us unload our baggage from their trunks, whole busloads of passengers would get involved when we asked for help in finding our destinations, children were so perfectly well-behaved on the streets and in church that we thought we had regressed some thirty years ago to an age when parents were still in control and kids were disciplined. Every man on the streets resembled the young Lech Walesa what with their florid faces and bushy, handlebar moustaches! We’d heard everyone raving about the beauty of Prague, but so few have spoken to us about Krakow. This made the city truly an unexpectedly heartwarming surprise. So it was with tremendous sadness that we left Krakow for the next lap of our tour, departing from the main train station late at night to take a sleeper train into Prague, capital of the Czech Republic, where we arrived early the next morning.

Bon Voyage!


Tatra Mountain Resort

(With Chriselle outside a typical wooden chalet home in Zakopane in the Tatra Mountains)

Following the course of the beautiful Blue Danube past plum orchards, vineyards and sunflower fields, Llew, Chriselle and I left Hungary and traveled north passing Szentendre and Vyserhov, where we spied King Mattias’s hilltop fortress in the distance, to cross the border into Slovakia. Bratislava, the capital, where we made a brief stop, reminded us very much of suburban Bombay with its apartment building blocks–relics of Communist occupation–and its factories spewing exhaust fumes into the air.

Arriving in Breclav in the Czech Republic where we needed to change trains, we found ourselves boarding a spiffy Russian one. Our cabin, exclusive to the three of us, contained sleepers or couchettes that were remarkably comfortable and bathrooms that were spotless. This was to be our hotel for the night as we sped past Slovakia and entered Poland where we went through one of the toughest passport checks we’ve ever had. Eastern Europe is still unaccustomed to seeing South Asian tourists with American passports crossing borders without visas and we were something of a novelty for these people who stared at us everywhere on the streets and in the shops, particularly fascinated by the fact that despite our ethnic appearance, we spoke perfect English!

We arrived at Krakow, former capital of Poland, as dawn was breaking over the city, but we did not pause there for long, connecting immediately into a bus that took us south, back to the Slovac border to the resort town of Zakopane that nestles snugly at the feet of the beautiful sheep-studded Tatra Mountains. There, we made our home in a chalet-style log cabin in a pension called Krakowiana right off the main street of ul. Krupowski.

Zakopane was packed to bursting for the long weekend (The Feast of the Assumption is a national holiday in devoutly Catholic Poland) with local Polish people and tourists who thronged its main street (left). This is the winter capital of Poland as it offers world-class ski runs. The late Pope John Paul II, beloved son of the Polish people, often skied, hiked and trekked in the Tatras in his younger days. While we were there, the Annual Festival of Mountain Folk was in progress and the little mountain town was filled with highlanders in colorful traditional garb walking the streets with their sheep in tow.

Indeed, Zakopane is a sheep-rearing community and everywhere we went, we saw roadside stands selling mountain upon mountain of smoked sheep’s milk cheese that we apprehensively tasted and found to be perfectly scrumptious (left). Sheepskin throws, footwear, walking sticks, carved wooden profiles of mountain folk, wooden beaded jewelry, etc. were just some of the handicrafts sold in the huge craft fair that was mobbed with visitors. This was the perfect place to people-watch as carriages drawn by sturdy mountain horses took people clip-clopping around the town.

The cuisine of Zakopane was especially wonderful and we partook of two superb meals there. Lunch comprised of Polish sheep sausage and delicious hamburger patties washed down by Zywiec beer. For dinner we chose a cavern-like restaurant called Karczma Zbojecka, highly recommended by Lonely Planet for the quality of its grilled meats. Here we sampled grilled sheep’s milk cheese and zureck, a sour white soup—both of which were lip-smacking good. Llew’s mixed grill featuring pork chops, bacon and onions and my plecki (pronounced “platzki” meaning fried potato pancakes) were also delicious. This time we washed our meal down with Tyskie beer, the other brew for which Poland is famous. Chriselle sampled the local wines everywhere we went while I stuck with the beer, knowing that these regions are particularly famous for the quality of their hops and their ancient brewing techniques.

Zakopane has a very distinctive style of architecture seen in the chalet-like houses that dot the green-clad hillsides. Gingerbread trim distinguishes these structures that are made more remarkable by their attractive colors and the window-boxes from which a profusion of blooms spill out. If you’re looking for something fun to do, try simply walking down the main avenue, browsing for souvenirs in the stores that line the street or popping into the church that stands at the very end of the road. There are hundreds of stall selling sheepskin jackets, coats and throws, sturdy walking sticks, bright red wooden beaded necklaces and of course, sheep’s milk cheese. An interesting souvenir here are hand carved wooden plaques made on the street while you stand and watch. Sold for a song, one such plaque made a very unusual addition to our bounty of travel buys. Another unique souvenir are marble statues of the late Pope who is deeply revered in these parts. You will have the happiest time fingering these wares as beaming salesmen and women, eager to please, chatter about in a language we wish we could have understood.

Of all the countries we visited, Poland was the most reasonably priced in terms of restaurants and hotels. While the quality of the meals we consumed was always the highest, we never felt as if we’d burned a hole in our pockets.

Get to Poland while the going is good. It won’t be long before its entry into the European Union will jack up prices and bring crowds flocking to its pristine mountain resorts. Bollywood has already discovered Zakopane.Winter scenes in some of the newer films are shot on location in these resorts which try hard to replicate the snowy wilderness of Kashmir.

This entry was posted on April 12, 2006, in Poland.