Shortly before leaving Slovakia we saw the only real evidence of ugly concrete block towers of apartments, but they were more than made up for when we drove through a ski area and saw a number of beautiful old wooden houses. Even the roofs were made of wood intricately slatted to keep out the chilly elements. Surrounding it all, the rolling hills were dotted with triangular haystacks fading away into the distance.
Entering Poland was a brief look at our passports and nothing else. The scenery continued to be fairytale meadows and farmlands with neat houses and barns and beautiful churches with bulbous towers topped with gleaming crosses a regular feature of every town. Most villages have a religious shrine of some shape or form as you enter and exit and the other thing I noticed was how immaculately maintained all the cemeteries were. We saw a few people in traditional dress in the villages, which was a first!
Our first stop was in Kracow. What a fabulous city! Rynek Gowny is apparently the largest medieval town square in Europe (whatever that means). Nevertheless, it was filled with people and had a fantastic vibe. There was an excellent photographic display of birds and the migration in the one corner and at the other end was a gorgeous young lady up on stage singing what I can only describe as "musical" songs to an enthusiastic audience and her voice filled the main square.
The centre of the square houses the Cloth Hall which had a lovely souvenir market on the ground floor selling beautiful wares including wooden chess sets, exquisitely delicate decorated eggs and Christmas baubles, glassware, jewellery and eye-catching displays of fiery amber. The square is surrounded by stunning old buildings and the sidewalk cafes were filled with thirsty tourists soaking up the sun and the beer. The essential tourist trap of horse-drawn carts filled the air with clip-clopping, while a long queue of waiting steeds stood placidly at the northern end waiting for their turn. St Mary's church dominates one corner and had beautifully intricate bell towers.
There were also people in traditional dress playing music. We left all the buzz behind and went to see the castle on Wawel Hill. We didn't go inside, but it was enormous and along with the cathedral overlooks the city and the surrounding green parks. We will definitely return to Kracow and give it the attention it deserves.
Our next destination was more sombre - the State Museum of Auschwitz-Birkenau in Oswiecim. We spent over three hours (and could have spent a lot more time) wandering through the grounds of what is one of the most infamous and reviled events in history.
As we drove up we were surprised at the solid brick structures which form Auschwitz I - Oswiecim (formerly deserted pre-war Polish barracks), we had expected something more makeshift or prefabricated. It was first set up in 1940 to detain Polish political prisoners but the scope grew considerably and the Nazis deported people from all over Europe, (mainly Jews, but other nations, including over 20,000 Gypsies). At one stage in 1942 the camp held 20,000 people! It became the "parent" of a generation of camps. Auschwitz II - Birkenau (just 3km in the village of Brzezinka) was built in 1941, covered 175 hectares and contained over 300 buildings including 4 permanent gas chambers and crematoria, two temporary gas chambers and cremation pyres and pits. It had approximately 100,000 prisoners in August 1944. Auschwitz III - Monowice, was established on the site of a German chemical plant where they used prisoners as slave labour. The motto above the entrance gate read with cruel irony Arbeit Macht Frei ( Work Brings Freedom).
We found it inconceivable that such terror could be inflicted on such a vast scale. It was the biggest centre for the mass extermination of Jews, the majority of whom were killed in the gas chambers immediately upon arrival and for whom, therefore, there are no camp records. As a result death statistics for the period vary. However, the most commonly quoted number of deaths in the Auschwitz camps is 1.5 million!
Many of the Jews believed they were being relocated and came to Auschwitz with their valuable possessions, all of which were appropriated for the Reich. The Nazis burnt down 30 of the warehouses when they fled the camp but the liberating Soviet Army discovered many goods still remaining including seven tons of human hair. Among the most hard-hitting parts of the museum are seeing the hordes of suitcases, brushes, shoes, cooking implements, glasses, prosthetics and the human hair on display. It really brings home the human element of it all.
Not to mention the walls and walls of photographs of prisoners, young and old - looking into the camera with despair. After 1943 prisoners were no longer photographed, instead they were tattooed with an identification number.
Walking around the grounds, through the buildings and seeing the exhibits gave us a real sense of how appalling the conditions were, particularly during the winter months. It was no surprise to see that the lifespan within the camps was so short! The gas chambers were just one method of extermination, long slow deaths from hunger and disease were another. The other disgustingly inhumane activity which took place was medical experimentation. Men, women and children were subject to various forms of torture and the key perpetrator Dr Mengele avoided prosecution by fleeing to South America!
Two especially chilling sections to visit were the Death Block and the gas chambers. The Death Block was the prison within the camp. The ground floor and basement are in their original state and it was very sobering to see how and where people were tortured, punished and killed. Even a minor infraction of camp rules could find prisoners sent to Death Block. We found, in particular, the punishment of the standing cells, abhorrent. Four people stood confined for many days and sometimes weeks within a solid walled cell measuring just 90cm by 90cm. During the day they were still subject to hard labour and returned to the cell directly afterwards. Outside the death block was the execution yard where today lay floral tributes in remembrance of those who suffered there.
The Nazis used Cyclon B to kill their victims (hundreds of empty cans were on display). 2,000 people would be crushed into the 210m2 chamber and within 20 minutes they would all be dead. If the crematoriums couldn't cope with the number of bodies they were burnt on huge funeral pyres. There is no way of explaining how despicable the events were and how such atrocities could be committed.
The museum was well presented and the guide book we bought for just US40 cents was clear, concise and gave a good basic summary. It was a very worthwhile and thought provoking visit - a must!