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Saturday, November 13, 2010

Poland for Auschwitz

Well another late post, this trip was aver a month ago now. Gosh, time is flying by for us. Ryan however did not come on this trip. I went with two friends, Reneé and Taylor. We were heading to Krakow with the main destination of Auschwitz. Ryan said it wasn’t on the top of his list, so he stayed back, but went on a little road trip all on his own to Lake Garda in Italy. I’d tell you to check his blog to see how that trip was, but I think everyone reading my blog who wants to read his knows he has stopped posting.
So we arrived in Krakow late at night but with the help of a German girl and Turkish man who now live in Krakow we were able to find our hostel with ease. And we quickly changed and prepared for bed.
The next morning Reneé had to wake me up because I was finally sleeping soundly in the morning. You see we had all had a horrible nights sleep because someone in our room was the worst snorer I’ve ever heard in my whole life. I thought Ryan was bad, but his snoring is more like purring in comparison to that man. Thank goodness I have blocked the actual noise from my mind at this point, but in the night when I was happening everyone in the room with the three of us was awake and growing closer and closer to attacking this guy. I even started wadding up sheets of paper I had and throwing them at him to try and stop him. Taylor was on the bunk above his and shook the bed violently, but nothing stirred him and nothing stopped him. It was awful. So when he finally woke up and stopped and I fell asleep I was so tired I didn’t wake up until Reneé nudged me and said I better start getting ready for the day.
On our first day in Krakow we headed out to explore the city. We thought a great way to get a lay of the land would be to join the free city tour. However after maybe 45 minutes we basically ran away. The tour had been boring from the get go. The guide was not entertaining and spent at least 10 to 15 minutes right off the bat telling the group why he was such a great tour guide was because he was certified and he paid all this money to take tests and blah blah blah as we stood in the fridge temped weather shivering. Then after awhile had passed Reneé was up front walking by him between one site and the next because she is a ridiculously fast walker. And out of the blue this guy said, “do you believe in evolution.” Reneé was so taken aback by the question that she just sort of stuttered. He then went on to say that the reason Polls and the rest of Europe hate Americans is because we are idiots for allowing people to choose between evolution and creation. He stated that obviously evolution is the only logical option and anyone who would believe otherwise is stupid and any country that would allow people to choose something so illogical is also idiotic. She was so flabbergasted she didn’t know what to say. But she tried to gather her words and told him that she believes one of the great things about our country is that we allow people to make that type of choice, that our country is founded on freedom and one of those freedoms is to choose a religion and if a person’s religion leads them to believe in creation then they are free to do that. He didn’t let down though and instead of saying something like, well I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree, he said, “well you’re wrong but we don’t have to talk about it anymore.” Can you believe that? So as soon as all this happened we turned on our heals and ran away from this crazy Polish man. Has it never occurred to him that he works only for tips and when he says offensive things to people he will make less money. We weren’t the first people to leave the tour either.
So then we just wandered. We found a Polish restaurant and has some perogie (Polish dumplings filled with different things. Taylor and I shared and ours had mushrooms and cabbage. Reneé’s had potatoes. And they were delicious. Eventually we found our way to the castle but we didn’t pay to go inside because the exhibits didn’t sound interesting to us. And we went in a beautiful very dark and gothic church on the castle grounds. And after that we decided to head to a tourist information center to find out what they recommend to do in Krakow because we realized it was still afternoon and we were running out of ideas.
The nice woman there gave us a great idea to go see Schindler’s factory. If you have seen the movie Schindler’s list you know whom I’m talking about. If not and you want to watch it prepare yourself with a box of tissues. With a great map from the TI and Taylor’s impeccable navigation skills we easily reached our destination on the great tram sytem Krakow has.
The museum was very interesting and showed a very different side if Oscar Schindler. The movie, as I remember it, left me with the impression the man was a hero through and through for paying to get Jews and others out of concentration camps to come work I his factory. He paid not the captives to work for him, but the Nazi party to allow them to work and make things for the soldiers. He did do heroic things, but I know see the man for who he was and he was no saint. He actually was imprisoned for embezzlement early on before he started doing his good works. And I believe he was a bit of a womanizer. The Polls definitely painted a realistic picture of him in the exhibition that is housed in what was formerly his factory. But despite his flaws he did save a great number of people and at the end of it all he looked at his wedding band and thought that if only he had sold that he could have saved a few more people. I think it shows that we are all capable of great things. He was just as human as the rest of us are today, but he started to notice what was going on and he did something. The whole time I was in the exhibition I kept thinking, what would I have done if I lived during that time? My fear is that I am often so disconnected from the news and the rest of the world that I wouldn’t have paid close enough attention to realize something drastic needed to be done.
Right next to the Factory was a wine shop so on our way out we stopped in there. They were having a wine tasting that night, but we didn’t have anything to do in this industrial area for the hour until it started, so they were kind enough to let us each taste a red wine from Georgia since their tasting would be Georginian wines. And that is Georgia the country. It was a very unique red wine and I liked it, but Taylor loved it and bought a bottle. Then we took the tram back to what we thought was a winery but turned out to be a restaurant that served wine. We still had a couple glasses there. We asked the waitress for a dry red. She recommended something that we thought, sure, why not. But when she brought it we couldn’t believe how sweet and fruity it was for what she told us was a dry red. So the next one we just ordered and didn’t ask for input. After both were finished she asked which we liked better and all of us emphatically told her the second one. Her response was, “oh you really do like dry red wine.” Uhhh yes, that is what we told you and that is what we said we wanted.
Most places I go I like to look up vegetarian restaurants in the area and I did stumble upon a couple in a travel book I had looked at before we left that were in Krakow. One just happened to be a few doors down from the “winery” so that is where we ate dinner. It was SO GOOD! I had a stuffed red bell pepper, more perogies, and a brusselsprout salad that was cold. I have never had cold brussel sprouts but this was absolutely outstanding. They were cooked of course and pretty garlicky with a little diced red pepper for color, simple but flavorful and fantastic. Yum!
On the way back to the hostel we stopped for a night cap. Actually I don’t know exactly what a night cap is, but we stopped for a cocktail at a bar Taylor thought looked fun earlier in the day. It was pretty disappointing though. It was empty of people, smelled like smoke, and our drinks were disappointing. Taylors Tequila Sunrise tasted like straight up orange juice over ice and my Cosmo was good, but very small. Reneé was most please with her white Russian I think. Oh I guess we had one more drink because we hadn’t used our welcome drink coupons at the hostel’s bar the night before, so we went to have our free beer there. I am probably making myself sound like a lush, but I promise that I normally don’t drink this much and also everything we had was more spread out that it sounds so non of us even had a buzz.
The next day was our day to see Auschwitz. We could have paid to do a tour that picked us up in Krakow for the day but decided to be money savvy and do everything on our own. So we walked to the bus station and took the 1.5 hour bus to the camp. At the camp it was super cheap to do the guided tour of both the Auschwitz and Birkenau camps. I’d never even heard of Birkenau, but apparently many of the main concentration camps had sub camps and Birkenau was a sub camp of Auschwitz. And it was where more of the gas chamber deaths happened than Auschwitz.
Originally Auschwitz had been a Polish Army Camp, so the buildings although old now are still strong well built brick buildings that have plumbing and hardwood floors. I learned that most people who came to Auschwitz survived because in comparison the conditions were actually quite nice. Just being inside the brick walls kept to much body heat inside that it helped to keep people alive. At Auschwitz we also were able to go inside a gas chamber. This chamber had not been used for a long time even before the war ended so it was not demolished by the Nazis before the camp was liberated. It was… I don’t know how to put words to what it feels like to be in a room where you know the way people were murdered right there where you stand.
Birkenau is a whole other story. There are very few barracks left but all the chimnies remain to show that at one time rows and rows and rows of one level wooden shacks basically stood on this massive piece of ground. The “bathrooms” where in a wooden shack that had “toilets” of just wooden holes cut in a board all one next to the other and back to back. Can you imagine? And with all the awful diseases people would get and have to use the bathroom, but of course there were rules to how often you could go and how long you could stay in there. Our tour guide, who was fabulous by the way, said one of the better jobs a prisoner could have was to clean the “bathroom” building because at least it meant they could stay inside since winters get so cold. And with a job like that you’d have a better chance of surviving longer.
Also in Birkenau there is a gate that opens for a train to come through and the tracks lead into the center of the camp. When the train stopped and people disembarked they believed they were coming here and could stay with their family, they had packed bags, they thought everything would be okay. Of course this was a lie. A man stood and as each person stepped forward would point left or right. One direction meant they look capable enough so kept them here and they will work. But for everyone else who was pointed the opposite direction they were taken to the gas chambers. Once at the chambers they were told to undress in one room and that they’d be bathing, to remember where all their things were because they’d be coming back to them shortly. I guess the only good thing you can try to take from this was that they really weren’t afraid for days or even hours before arriving. Everything seemed good I’m sure until the gas started pouring into the chamber they were ushered into. The killing was quick. But what took a long time was taking the bodies to be burned and that took a very long time otherwise I’d be afraid they may have wanted to kill even more people at Birkenau.
Another way people often died was not at the camp but when they made the march to other camps, which could have been days and days of walking. This was particularly the case when they expected the liberation was coming and they tried to move as many prisoners as they could before hand.
I always had thought that Anne Frank had died at Auschwitz, but actually no she was moved and died at a different camp.
Overall it was a very somber place. Seeing the gas chambers at Birkenau although destroyed was heart breaking. And there are pond still a murky gray where all the ashes of these victims were dumped. This history is very worthy of us paying attention to because I would hope we never let anything happen like this again. And yet, think of the genocides we often don’t think about in the world. And what are we all doing about it?
We took the bus back to the city and decided to try another of the vegetarian restaurants I had written down. This one was awesome too. Everything was premade and on a line like a cafeteria. You choose what size plate you wanted, which also indicated how many dishes you could tell them you wanted as you went down the line. I can’t remember each individual dish but I know we all three really enjoyed our meal. Afterward though we were pretty tired from the day so we went back to the hostel. But since it still felt too early to go to bed Reneé and Taylor got a beer in the bar and I sat with them while we chatted awhile until we did feel it was a decent time to go to bed.
The next morning we got up with enough to time to go into town one more time before we headed to the airport. Reneé also likes to get to airports when she flies hours and hours before the flights are suppose to leave. Although I do find her a little excessive in how early she likes to get places clearly I should also take a lesson from her and maybe come up with something in the middle ground after my missed flight and a huge headache from yesterday.
This morning I was able to get online at our hostel and see that there were flights on Lufthansa to Athens today that I was hoping they could just cancel our other flight from Porto to Frankfurt and Frankfurt to Athens and rebook us on that one. All the flights I looked at to Porto were around $800 a person so there was no way were could try and go there to save part of our trip and also fly out to Athens tomorrow night as planned. So I called Lufthansa and although the woman wasn’t rude on the phone she wasn’t helpful either. She said she could not change our flight. So I asked if we took the train to Frankfurt if we could get on the second leg of the journey and she said we better not do that because when we don’t show up in Porto they will cancel our itinerary and they won’t allow us to get on in Frankfurt either. I asked if there was anyone on her end or in Frankfurt specifically I could talk to explaining our situation and that we could be in Frankfurt for the flight. She said no, no, no, no, no.
There was nothing to be done, period. There goes my opinion that Lufthansa is known for great customer service. I am highly disappointed in them right now because they didn’t offer to do anything, she didn’t even offer to help me find a flight that would work for us. I even offered to pay for switching and she just said no it was not possible. I have been feeling lately, and maybe it is partially because I’m in Europe and not America, that the idea of customer service has gone out the window. Especially now that so many companies do so much online I’ve on numerous occasions not been able to find the help I need. If I go to a website wanting to contact someone first they want me to read through all the frequently asked questions and if my questions isn’t one of them after reading for awhile I have to hunt down their email or phone number and sometimes I don’t have any luck with that. And if I email I often haven’t heard a reply. Ugh, it is so frustrating and I’m just sick of it. I sometimes wish things could go back to a simpler time. It seems but a faint memory to me, but I bet many of you reading this have much more vivid memories of a simpler these tech savvy life. Of course there are reasons it is great. If it weren’t for Internet I wouldn’t have this blog to keep everyone up to date on this. But it would also mean I’d have to hand write letters to people. I guarantee you wouldn’t get many from me, but doesn’t it make you feel special sometimes to just get one. Anyway this is my little rant.

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