Ever since I arrived in Europe I’ve heard about Poland and its second largest city, Krakow. My best friend, Pamela told me last year that Krakow was worth visiting, an opinion that my boyfriend and friends agree upon. So we embarked on a long weekend in Krakow; from Thursday to Sunday we explore the city, its restaurants and bars and the historical sites. We were lucky that the weather played a lot in our favor the first couple of days, in order to take the photos that we wanted.
I am sure that most of you know a little about Krakow, but I will tell you anyways. As I mentioned in the previous paragraph, it is the second largest city in Poland after the capital Warsaw; it also is the country’s academic and cultural hub. The entire old town centre of Krakow is part of the UNESCO World Heritage list, everything is very old and very well preserved. It is also the city of churches – actually 86.7% of Polish citizens are part of the Roman Catholic Church – and temples; I didn’t know, for instance, that Karol Wojtyla (AKA Pope Jonh Paul II) was the archbishop of Krakow before becoming the Pope, and due to this his photo is all over the place.
Another thing that caught my attention was the amount of nuns and priests per square kilometre. I am not kidding, seriously, wherever you go around the city and whichever random alley you walk in, there will be a nun eating ice cream, or talking to her nun best friends at the market square, or you’ll see a priest cycling to go to “work” or joking around with his priest friends. They where everywhere, in every corner, all around and from all the Catholic Church branches i can possibly think of. I guess I got amused by it because I have lived in two very Catholic countries such as Venezuela and Brazil and I didn’t see as many priests and nuns as I saw in Krakow; and now that I live in a secular country like the Netherlands, where religion is not as important as in other countries, I am not at all exposed to religion.
It was very funny, though to see each other really looking forward to see a nun or a priest, so we could take photos of them. I somewhat felt like a priest stalker, it sound terrible but that’s the way it was.
Aside from the nuns and priest and godly signs everywhere, we had our doses of Second World War history, focusing only on “the Jewish question” and the concentration camps, that’s why we went to Auschwitz Museum. Mario had been there before, and I asked him about it, but he just told me that I needed to see it without spoilers (I love spoilers, really). Well, it’s kind of hard to really express how I felt when I was there. Since we were with a tour, the visit to the concentration camp was divided into two: Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau.
As you all may know, this was the main concentration cam in Europe during the WWII. Before the conflict, it served as the Polish army artillery barracks. Besides,the town (which original name is Oswiecim) was an important industrial and transportation hub, with a railroad system that served the whole country and other places in Europe. So, the Nazi’s didn’t choose this place out of the bloom, they were very intelligent in finding a place that was already done and with a very good access.
During the first years, the barracks were mainly use to house all the people, POWs, and anyone the Nazi party would consider the enemy. As the war kept going and the Nazi’s kept conquering other nations and bringing more people to Poland the place started to get smaller and smaller, so they decided to build Auschwitz II-Birkenau, which was a sister camp just a couple of kilometres from the main one. The, again, the Nazi’s didn’t move a single finger to develop the new camp, what did they do then? They demolished an entire village and with the work force they had in their prisoners, they build a much larger concentration and extermination camp.
The most impressive thing about the camps isn’t even the amount of people that were killed and tortured there, but all the other things the Nazi’s did with the bodies and the people’s belongings.
For starters, when people arrived there from all over Europe (some already death), women and men, children and elderly went to the hairdresser and get their heads shaved completely (you could see and entire room fill with human hair).
Whatever they had that was gold or silver was taken from them – from rings to teeth, all their clothes, even baby clothes, shoes, glasses, kitchen ware, suitcases. EVERYTHING! They were not allowed to keep their stuff.
Something that made me cry instantly was the baby clothes and baby shoes. They had no consideration whatsoever for little humans life. Now, you would ask yourself, what did they do with all those things? The answer to that is even more macabre, and yet very understandable if you think of the moment in time we are talking about and with a very cool head, emotionless sort of speak. All the things that belonged to the prisoners: clothes, hair, shoes, metal stuff, etc.,were used. In a state of war there is a shortage of everything you can possibly imagine, even food, so the Nazis had to take care of the Germans first before taking care of other people, and this is something that you usually do when you are in a state of war, first you take care of yourself and then – if possible – of others. The hair was used to make fabrics for wool for the winter; the clothes where sent to the families in Germany, as well as the shoes; all the metal stuff where used to make part for machines and artillery; and the ashes (of the incinerated bodies) were as well used, but as fertilizer for food.
Nothing was spared or left behind. After learning all these details I thought (and still stand bit) that the Nazi party was the most efficient and effective human machine ever. Were they cruel? Yes. Where they inhumane? That too. But there is no doubt that they were very smart and intelligent to find the resources they needed in the most unthinkable of things: other individuals.
There was not much left at the cam in Birkenau, just some women barracks and the rails. The gas chambers where destroyed after the camp was liberated, on its site is a memorial to honor the victims… After that trip to Auschwitz I realized that war can bring the worst out of people, I am not saying that the Nazis didn’t do wrong, they did, big time, but the Americans, the British and the Russians did very bad things as well, is just that they “won” the war, and usually “history is written by the victors” as Winston Churchill once put it. Just imagine if the Germans had won the war? Then everyone would be talking about the concentration camps and Gulags in the US, Great Britain and Russia; but that’s another story.
In the next chapter about Krakow, I will talk about the salt mines in Wieliczka and our ultimate cocktail adventure at Le Scandale.