Archive for August, 2009|Monthly archive page

Krakow / Auschwitz / Wieliczka

I spent a long weekend in Poland, traveling to Krakow and the surrounding region. There’s really too much to see in such a short trip, ideally I’d try to spend a week or two, and combine it with perhaps Lviv across the border in Ukraine. But for a quick trip, and for an introduction to the country, Krakow is an ideal place to start.

Krakow is glorious, and having arrived at night, I experienced that buzz and giddiness of being in a place for the first time, as I wandered through the old town during a heavy rain shower, looking for a restaurant to eat at. You see the old structures, the square and church off in the distance, and it’s just a hint of what’s to come.

Central Krakow is an absolute masterpiece, still comparatively inexpensive, with an Old Town untouched by the world wars and full of historic structures, and plenty of excellent bars and restaurants. Nearly everyone in central Krakow is fluent in English, and it’s full of visitors from everywhere, mostly Europe, but an increasing number of Americans and people from Asia. It’s also Poland’s spiritual center, where the former archbishop Karol Wojtyla became Pope John Paul II.

The Old Town is built on a regular grid plan, pretty rare for European cities. At its heart is the main square (Rynek Glowny), and enormous square surrounded by many distinguished structures, while another 600 m south is Wawel Hill, crowned by the royal palace and the cathedral, with a view of the river. The entire Old Town is crammed with churches of all sorts of architectural styles, and as the city was not heavily damaged in the war, what’s here is authentic.

Jesuit church of Sts. Peter and Paul

Jesuit church of Sts. Peter and Paul


St. Mary's Basilica (Kościół Mariacki) and the Cloth Hall (Sukiennice)

St. Mary's Basilica (Kościół Mariacki) and the Cloth Hall (Sukiennice)

I visited Prague 10 years ago now, and Krakow is quite reminiscent of a slightly smaller version of the Czech capital, with many similar features. The major church in the main square in Krakow is much like the old clock tower in Prague. Both cities have a fortified castle and cathedral on a hilltop next to Old Town, both cities have an atmospheric Jewish quarter, although Krakow’s is better known because of the film Schindler’s List. And each is quite crowded with visitors from everywhere. They’re both very charming cities, with their share of must-see sights, and a certain gloomy, Central European flavor to them.

Oh, and the food. I had dumplings every single day I was there, Georgian-style khinkali the first night, followed by pierogi the other days. I personally preferred the khinkali, big and doughy with a nice spiced meat filling, which went with the really nifty, slightly sour fruit sauce, and of course a glass of Georgian wine.

So I also spent a day visiting Auschwitz, a 90-minute trip west of Krakow, and closer to Katowice. I caught a minibus to Oswiecim, one of those minibuses, and the driver navigated the way there. It’s straightforward on a map, but given the way signs are marked in Poland, it’s easy to get lost. And he drove like a madman, which as I understand, is the typical mode of driving in Poland.

The sheer number of visitors, and the obligatory tour guide made it feel less like a memorial than a tourist site. It was a circus of less-than-interested visitors quickly shuttled from place to place, tons of tour buses out front, and definitely did not do justice to the gravity of a place like this.

That said, Auschwitz is divided into two (originally three) sections, the original prison camp, converted from Polish army barracks, the sprawling Birkenau complex, and the Monowitz site located adjacent to the industrial area (bombed by the Allies). The original Auschwitz camp is quite small, orderly, and almost elegant in its design, with mature trees lining the rows of buildings. The areas underground, especially in the so-called “death block”, are reminders of what took place here. In the basement of Block 11 is a memorial to St. Maximilian Kolbe, for volunteering to die in place of another prisoner (who incidentally, lived to age 94).

Entrance to Auschwitz, with the Arbeit macht frei slogan

Entrance to Auschwitz, with the Arbeit macht frei slogan

The photos on the walls of the barracks are perhaps the most powerful statements. The average lifespan of a prisoner was 2-3 months for the males, and perhaps 1 month for the females. Some survived a matter of one day after their photograph was taken, some survived a couple of months, and one hardy fellow made it for nearly two years. After a short period of mugshots, the authorities deemed it too expensive, and they were tattooed afterwards. Once the mass exterminations began, the people were processed within minutes, not even ‘registered’, and executed a matter of minutes to hours later.

The collection of Jews’ personal effects, luggage, clothing, hair, also illustrated the utterly undignified end of these people. Their property, down to gold fillings, was all recycled. Hair was used for textiles, the cremated remains became filling for ponds and fertilizer, and their possessions were sorted (by fellow prisoners who were later killed) and bound for sale, and the gold was melted next door to the gas chambers and crematoria, bound for banks. Such was ‘efficiency’.

Ruins of Birkenau

Ruins of Birkenau

And as for disabled veterans, those who served in World War I and were incapacitated, and were Jewish, well, they met their end for being ‘guilty’ of being disabled and Jewish. So here were people who served with distinction on the German side in the last war, only to be executed by fellow citizens 25 years later.

The Soviet POWs were further isolated in a block enclosed by barbed wire within Auschwitz. Out of 15,000 who were brought there, 92 survived to the final roll call.

Auschwitz perimeter

Auschwitz perimeter

Birkenau, 3 km away, has more impact. It sits half-ruined, and the design revolves around efficiency, in this case, efficient processing of persons marked for death. This was mass execution, more accurately mass extermination done in a way resembling an assembly line. People were unloaded off of the trains, onto a ramp, given a quick “inspection”, and their fate was decided, destined for slave labor or for immediate gassing. Not surprisingly, as this was intended as a death camp, little thought was given to living conditions, the swampy ground made it malarial in the summers and a muddy mess in the winter. The ones who were allowed to live a bit longer were housed under appalling conditions, in prefabricated wooden structures meant for horses, maybe 50 horses, but stuffed with several hundred prisoners under leaky roofs, with no working heating, and dirt / mud floors.

Barracks, Birkenau

Barracks, Birkenau

Ponds containing human ashes, with the ruins of the crematoria in the background

Ponds containing human ashes, with the ruins of the crematoria in the background

Such was this period of unforgettably dehumanizing behavior. But unfortunately, plenty of people forget this, as a smaller scale but vicious repeat of this occurred in Bosnia during the Yugoslav civil war, with the images of executions, starved prisoners, and concentration camps shown to the world in living color, on television.

I also visited the Wieliczka salt mine, and this represents a completely different side of human behavior. This is simply extraordinary, despite the number of visitors, especially the numerous chapels carved out of rock salt, deep underground. Wow, it’s quite something to see a chapel with a 30 m roof, carved out of salt, then to realize that you’re seeing this more than 100 m underground. Other nifty stuff includes plenty of underground lakes and numerous sculptures honoring all sorts of people from Goethe to the John Paul II. Yes, there’s definitely the touristy aspect of the salt mines, but it’s fabulous, and well worth the steep admission cost.

St. Mary's Basilica and Adam Mickiewicz statue

St. Mary's Basilica and Adam Mickiewicz statue

The dark side of the human character permeates the region, tinged with the cynical, whether it’s the Nazi period, or the era of Communism and martial law. Poland had a very rough 20th century, where the excesses of the German invaders was followed by 45 years of fear and repression in the shadow of the Soviet Union. The roads are still a mess, the driving habits will make you religious, and unemployment is high.

Berlin Philharmonic tickets!

I bought a ticket for a Beethoven / Shostakovich program, with Sir Simon Rattle running the show.

I was shocked at the price, 72 Euro for a very average seat (behind the orchestra, so with probably an odd acoustic experience). Yes, they are one of the top orchestras in the world, but this sounds rather pricey to me.

So I had an unscientific look at different orchestras and their single ticket prices (that I could find):

Chicago Symphony Orchestra – 22 – 199 USD.
New York Philharmonic – 30- 104 USD.
Detroit Symphony – 23 – 69 USD.
Boston Symphony – 29 – 105 USD.
San Francisco Symphony – 35 – 135 USD.

And four years ago, a standing room ticket to Barber of Seville at the Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires: 2 USD.