In the summer of 2014 I had the pleasure of visiting Kraków for a few days, and managed to secure hot and sunny weather for the duration of the visit too, at no extra cost! For those unfamiliar with it, Kraków is in the south of Poland, with the Tatra mountains visible on the southern horizon – or at least, they are if you’re a few floors up! The suburban sprawl isn’t too bad – on my first visit a couple of years previously a taxi from the city centre to the airport took about 20 minutes in rush hour – hardly what you would call congestion! The city itself is centred on a medieval market square which has over 800 bars, cafes and restaurants around it: some are in the basement, some are upstairs, some are indoors and some are outside. The old city is surrounded by high walls, which are in really good condition, and the old moat around them has, for the most part, been converted into parkland with shady seats, fountains and walkways.
At the edge of the walls, to the south west, is the impressive Wawel castle. It stands high above the river Vistula, Poland’s longest. It’s easy to walk round the castle, for some of the time on the ramparts, and it’s also possible to tour round the inside, though I didn’t take that opportunity.
I decided on a very full day for my first day, visiting Auschwitz in the morning / early afternoon and the salt mines at Wieliczka afterwards. I did both as part of the same trip with one of the many tour companies, and deliberately chose to fill my afternoon / early evening with the mines in order to lift my spirits slightly after the Auschwitz visit.
I’ve mentioned that part of the trip in earlier blogs (see here), but the more detailed version is here. On the hour long drive to Auschwitz, we were shown a film of the history of the place, including footage from within the camp during the war and some which was taken after the Russians had liberated the site. Some of the film was very harrowing, suffice to say that I had to look away a number of times.
On arrival at the town of Oświęcim (Auschwitz in German), we were taken to Auschwitz I, which has the infamous wrought iron gates with Arbeit Macht Frei above them. Our tour took about an hour or so, and in that time we were guided round a number of the buildings there, including the site of the first test of Zyklon-B gas (on Russian prisoners) and the Black Wall in the courtyard between buildings 10 and 11 where people were shot. The effect of rooms full of discarded shoes, or suitcases, or hair, or glasses or prosthetic limbs etc is difficult to describe, save to say that most visitors were silent and lost in their thoughts. The end of this part of the visit was marked by seeing the gallows at which the former camp commandant, Rudolf Höss was hanged in 1947, and by walking into the original gas chamber and past the two ovens which were used in the early part of the war.
We were then bussed about 10 minutes away to the Auschwitz II camp, known as Birkenau. On walking from the car park to the main gates, the sheer scale of the site is slowly revealed, with row upon row of identical wooden barracks inside a seemingly never ending fence. I have to confess to being very light headed and giddy as the enormity of the site struck me. After walking through the stone archway of the main building, where the railway tracks still run, the platforms where so many people were sorted into those who would die immediately and those who would live, albeit for a short while, came into view. Our tour turned right and visited two of the barracks buildings, one containing the wooden bunks that the prisoners were crammed into, the other was the washroom: both were shocking in their scale, their lack of facilities, in their sheer cruelty – it must have been a living death. We then made our way up to the platform, then further on to the edge of the forest where the four crematoria had been. These were blown up as the Russians neared the camps, so all that is left is rubble, but their size was not difficult to see. At this point the tour ended and we headed back to the bus: there was a very sombre mood and not much talking on the trip to Wieliczka, which is a small town just south of Kraków.
People have been mining in and around Wieliczka for hundreds of years, starting with salt water springs and gradually burrowing deeper. The mine was still working as a commercial venture until recently, and there are over 280 kilometres of tunnels in the mine. It’s now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We entered the mine down 378 wooden steps to a depth of about 65 metres (over 200 feet), and began the tour. We visited various chambers and gradually descended until we were about 135 metres underground, walking about 3.5 kilometres in the process. The mines were pretty much a consistent temperature. I’d read that it would be cold and had a long sleeved jumper with me, but didn’t need it. The various chambers and passageways had all manner of carvings and tableaux, all painstakingly made from the salt that surrounded us. There were also a number of churches / chapels, including the famous Chapel of St Kinga, complete with salt chandeliers and frescoes carved from the walls. Towards the end of the tour we visited a chamber which has hosted the world’s lowest hot air ballon flight and bungee jump, before heading for a number of underground souvenir shops and cafes. Getting to the surface was relatively easy – a 30 second lift brought us out about 10 minutes from the mine head where we’d gone underground a couple of hours earlier. It was a fascinating visit, though I’d say that those with limited mobility or ability to stand for long periods might not be able to do it. It definitely helped my mind get back on an even keel after the horrors of Auschwitz earlier, and meant I could have a pleasant evening back in Kraków.
The following day was spent walking through the Jewish quarter, exploring the old streets, before crossing the river and visiting Oskar Schindler’s factory, made famous by the film Schindler’s List: I’d watched that for the first time, and read the book that inspired it, Schindler’s Ark, shortly before making my trip. Being able to relate the place to the camps from the day before, and seeing photos and artefacts of people I’d recently read about enhanced the experience, one which I found to be very emotional. It was another fascinating tour, though only a third or so of it was related to Schindler’s actions, with the remainder being a history of that part of Poland both before and after the Second World War. That was an unexpected treat, and very enjoyable. On the way back to Old Town, I passed through what had been the Jewish Ghetto, though very little remains. The Memorial Chairs which stand in Plac Bohaterow Getta are a very moving reminder of what had once been there.
On the whole, I got a lot out of both days, but it wasn’t until weeks and months later when the enormity of what I’d seen and the human cost started to sink in properly. I’m still affected by it today, and it reinforced the views I’d held beforehand that genocide, hatred, torture, xenophobia, bigotry and all other forms of discrimination and subjugation were abhorrent and that we as individuals should do what we can to stop and prevent mistreatment of one person by another, whether by single people, gangs, nation states or whatever. We should not be afraid to stand up and be counted, and to speak out when we see wrong being done.