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Monday, December 3, 2012

Poland, Part 2: From Castles to Concentration Camps

On the Wawel Castle and its Dragon, Kraków

On Sunday I woke up with my muscles aching from the day before, yet I felt great. Excited to wake up to greet the day, a breakfast of freshly made pancakes and stewed apples waited for me. Then, Justyna and I wrapped up warm and set off to the centre of Kraków to explore.

Walking along the Vistula River (which is the longest river in Poland) we enjoyed watching people strolling along its banks, seagulls screaming and diving into the water. A gigantic hot air ballon rose above the buildings, half-hiding in between the folds of a light fog, bathing everything in a mysterious, pastel pink-yellow glow. We made a brief stop at the Manggha Center of Japanese Art and Technology ( )- a large, low building shaped like a wave and produced by the famous Polish film director Andrzej Wajda in 1995.

The Wawel dragon is a well-known character in Polish folklore as he ate up all the young maidens of the region. He lived in a cave underneath the Wawel Castle, and one day King Krakus promised his daughter´s hand in marriage to whomever slayed the dragon. One day, a cobbler´s appretice stuffed a lamb with sulphur and gave it to the dragon, who became so thirsty that he gulped down half the Vistula river, and then rolled over and died. So, it was a happy ending, as the cobbler´s apprentice married the princess, and the dragon´s cave is now a shop for tourists.

Above, Wawel castle stands, still and quite overlooking the river, with picturesque green ivy climbing up its scarlet bricks. Legend has it that on December 24th, all the deceased kings of Poland gather here to celebrate in an underground chamber. A strange architectural jumble with a variety of styles competeing for attention, the styles include a mix of Renaissance and Gothic (which is like the Koeln cathédral meeting St. John´s ´co-cathedral in Valletta - can you imagine?) but somehow, it works, carrying off a unique sense of peculair beauty. The chapel was surely one I was particularly thrown off by, I had never seen the likes of it before. With marble sculptures bearing the graceful, decorative, curvaceous lines characteristic of the Baroque era, yet housed in the tall, solemn, pointed arched of the Gothic style, combined with painted wood, gold leaf, and plaster crown mouldings, this was an artistic treat for anyone with a cultured eye.

Day 3... "Arbeit Macht Frei"

That morning, I hopped on a train to Oświęcim (Oz-vee-chiym). A small, typically unimpressive Polish town. Several old, ugly, and hopefully derelict buildings dot every corner, and people are walking about the market. Doing their shopping on a Monday like any other. Yet, this small town comes with a big story; it was once the home of the largest of all the concentration camps belonging to Germany.

The camp is split into two parts which you can visit. Following a friend I made on the train (a light-hearted, chatty Australian filmmaker), I first went to Auschwitz I, which consisted of the original camp (and is now the main museum), and then Birkenau (Auschwitz II) which was the extermination camp, opened later in order to ease congestion at the main camp.

I spent all day there, yet still, I cannot describe to you fully the profound effect this place had on me. It was not just the knowledge that, over a million people were murdered there, oh, no. What really got to me was the fact that... the buildings were pretty... orderly, cute red-brick structures, a lush green lawn, people hanging around talking, laughing, taking photos, buying postcards*.... who would ever believe, who would ever imagine - had it not been written on plaques everywhere - that such atrocities were committed there? That less than a hundred years ago, all kinds of actual human beings, real men, women, and children, lived and breathed and squirmed and died there, the ground, this lush green grass that you walk upon, is probably still drinking their blood!

I pictured men lining up, the scarlet walls spattered with shards of skull and bits of brain as the bullets entered their heads, how the women watching from behind the bars must have screamed, like their souls were being ripped out from their bodies, I imagined children starving slowly to their deaths, their skin sticking to their bones, to the insides of their cheeks as though they were trying to imitate a fish sucking in water. But no games of pretend for these children, Hell was their reality. Where the morning greeted you with not warm blankets and mummy´s kisses, but with the saltiness of tears and the warmth of flowing blood.
(*Yes, buying postcards. You can now send your mother a picture saying 'Ich war hier!' with the wrought-iron words "ARBEIT MACHT FREI" in the background.)

I walked into one large room whose walls were covered with photos, side by side, frontal portraits. The room was filled with wire structures in the shape of human beings walking after each other, backs bent. The haunting structures were clothed with prisoner´s uniforms, and the headlessness gave the eerie impression that ghosts were present. I watched the other tourists casually strut about, nonchalantly, popping gum bubbles noisily, and wondered if they knew that the eyes of ghosts were watching them.

Another large room, a very long, rectangular one this time. An attendant forbids me to take photos in this area. The room is dark, dim, and the little light which is present has a strange colour because there is some kind of purple filter on the glass of the windows. One third of the room is taken up by a gigantic display case, with angled yellow light cast on what seems to be piles upon piles of woolly intestines, mostly a dusty colour, a mix of brown and grey, with the occasiocal light streak of whitish-yellow. Completely mystified, I ask my friend what this thing is. He looks at me and shakes his head.

"It's human hair", he says. "Used by the Germans as raw material for the textiles industry... you know, to stuff pillows, make ropes with. About two tonnes of it."

I feel extremely naseous. Even more so, when on the other end of the room, a much smaller case displays a collection of long braids, different colours, blonde and auburn and chestnut brown, cut off from the heads of young girls.

I leave the room... walk away from the building...past the to the toilets....

Sitting with the door closed, and I can do nothing but cry.



  1. My tea got cold as I had to stay still for a while after reading this post. Both the place and its history are well known to me, yet it's hard to believe that something that horrifying could take place so close to where I live now. To bad there are many people like those you write about, who can't empathize with suffering of Auschwitz prisoners. This reminds me of one Polish soldier, Witold Pilecki who played significant role in revealing Holocaust to the world: . He did a lot but there's still much to be done.

  2. Hey Łukasz, I appreciate the feedback... I've heard about this soldier before, although only briefly - they mentioned him when I was there. I think that people nowadays are ery disconnected from reality, they see war, starvation, disaster, every day on the news, we become so used to it that we learn how to sit down to breakfast with starving children on the screen... have you ever read the work of psychoanalyst Erich Fromm? You might like him - check out this quote by him:
    Poland really opened by eyes to this. I am so glad I visited - I learned so much! I cannot thank you and Justyna enough!!