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Concentration camps and subterranean labyrinths in Poland

April 29, 2013

I never thought I would be running around a bus station asking around where DSC_1813the bus to Auschwitz was, but there I was in Krakow, doing just that. I felt that if you have the opportunity, it’s important to go and bear witness, but it was a strange experience and I’m still not really sure how to put it into words. First impressions: the car park was surprisingly rammed with tour coaches, just beyond this car park there is a hotel boasting three stars – who on earth would stay there? And the Albeit Macht Frei sign is smaller than I imagined.

I read Primo Levi’s If This is Man/ The Truce some years ago and to be honest, I think reading that was a more powerful experience than actually being there, in the museum part at least (there are two sights – Auschwitz I, the museum, and then Auschwitz-Birkenau, the more intact and more harrowing site).

The guide hurried a herd of us round, past the piles and piles of suitcases, shoes and human hair, and then before I knew it we were standing in the gas chamber. It would have been nice to have spent some time alone, processing it all at one’s own pace, but I guess the sheer volume of visitors prevents this.

At Birkenau you see the intact train tracks running under the entrance building and stopping abruptly a few hundred metres from the destroyed gas chambers, which is the thing I found most chilling. We were standing, the guide told us, on the place where the ‘selections’ were made. Part of me felt they should have just raised the thing to the ground, such an awful place is it, but I guess there are good reasons for keeping it there.

I fell asleep on the bus back to town and woke up to find that the radio was playing ‘Runaway Train’ by Soul Asylum, a song I used to listen to incessantly when I was a young teenager. God, but now, all I could think of were those train tracks and in my mind I saw the pictures in the museum of the kids and teenagers who were sent there, flashing by like the pictures of runaway American kids did in the pop video. I had to put on my sunglasses and turn to the window to save myself from drawing strange looks.

Krakow main sqaure

Krakow main square

I won’t remember Krakow for just Auschwitz though. I was couchsurfing with the lovely Agata and her boyfriend, Piotr. We discussed Lech Wałęsa over beer, Agata told me what it was like being a kid under communism and they took me to a great Polish milk bar (milk bars are cheap canteens that survived the Communist era). I was expecting Poland to be tough for vegetarians so was delighted by the ‘pierogi’ – a staple Polish food of dumplings, they come with meat fillings but also ‘rushki’ (potato and cottage cheese) and with spinach and cheese. Only a few zloty and super cheap! Potato pancakes with a creamy mushroom sauce was another great veggie Polish dish.

The next day I arrived in Warsaw. I’d read it isn’t the prettiest city, but wasn’t

The crap 'botel'

The crap ‘botel’

expecting it’s ugliness to almost bring me to tears. At first glance it seemed to be dominated by hideous shopping malls and huge roads. I was staying in a ‘botel’, a boat turned into a hotel though hotel would be rather a rich word for this particular place. It sounded nice on paper, being on the river and all that, but I wasn’t expecting this stretch of the river to be separated by about six lanes of traffic from the ‘mainland’. Warsaw is not a pedestrian friendly city and God help you if you’re in a wheelchair. It takes about twenty minutes to cross a road, and often pedestrians are forced underground where they must navigate subterranean labyrinths of cheap shops and fast food joints, just to get from one side of the street to the other. I badly needed to do some laundry but after three hours of walking around, only to be told by some snooty woman in the pay-per-item laundry I had been mistakenly directed to, that ‘there are no launderette in Warsaw’, I was so frustrated I felt like committing a random act of violence, or just plain bursting into tears.

The next day, Warsaw grew on me. The botel gave me a really useful map, which directed me to the best paczki in the city. Paczki are sort of like doughnuts. The bakery was down a very gentrified street, but there, just as the map described, was the grubby awning and the queue of people outside the hatch. Unable to decipher the labels, I pointed at the type that looked nicest. The one I got was was so fresh it was still warm and contained cherry jam and some kind of sweet cream cheese filling. I almost forgave Warsaw for having no launderettes. Then I went to the Zacheta art gallery and checked out their cool textiles exhibition which featured an Cold War-and-space-themed installation and a rug-crossed-with-Space-Invaders thing. By the end of the day I wished I could have stayed here a bit longer. I think Warsaw has something cool going on under the underground subway hell.


Groovy art installation

Groovy art installation

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Jim Przedzienkowski permalink
    May 2, 2013 2:47 pm

    The concentration camps were established on Polish soil by the German Nazis and should be stated as such.

    • admin permalink*
      May 2, 2013 3:19 pm

      Everyone knows that and I don’t think this blog post disputes it?!

      • May 3, 2013 9:18 am

        Teenagers and first impressions are what come to mind for me. The blog doesn’t dispute where the concentration camps were located, it unfortunately misinforms its readers instead. Because of the potential for confusion, journalists in Canada are now required to distinguish between Poland and ‘Nazi-occupied Poland’ in all their writings.

        Otherwise, glad you liked your visit. I can relate to my travel days and trying to find an open laundry in Koblenz!

        • admin permalink*
          May 3, 2013 10:36 am

          Thanks for the feedback and for taking the time to read the post! I’m not a journalist though and am only writing this blog to give people an insight into my travels, not to inform people about the Holocaust. I can’t imagine many teenagers read this blog anyway – I don’t get that much traffic! I do advise people to read Primo Levi’s book. In my opinion that’s a great way to learn about what happened.

          • May 3, 2013 11:39 am

            Sure, the only problem is that some folks, particularly in the west, still confuse Poles with Nazis due to outdated and inaccurate phrases. There’s a growing impetus to better inform readers not about the Holocaust, which is well documented, but about the above. That’s why you’re hearing from me. Will have a look at Levi’s writings. Cheers!

      • Iwona permalink
        May 6, 2013 3:40 pm

        Actually, the problem is that far from “everyone” knows that! German has morphed into Nazi, which has morphed into “Polish”. Nonetheless, enjoyed reading your impressions. Unfortunately, the Germans obliterated Warsaw and the communists rebuilt it, but actually some very charming areas can still be found.

  2. admin permalink*
    May 7, 2013 1:08 pm

    Thanks for all your comments. I assume when you say ‘The West’ you mean North America. I am European and here I don’t believe there is any confusion regarding who the Nazis were. In the UK, rightly or wrongly, it at its most base is a common source of comedy, and we still have distasteful football chants about the Germans. It’s disappointing to hear that you think some teenagers are so ignorant of history. However, I am not going to edit this post. As an independent writer, I believe I have the right to judge what amount of information I give the reader, and the right to assume what they know already. You’ll note in another post I talk about various Hungarian reformists such as Imre Nagy, but do not feel the need to explain who he was or the context of the Budapest Rising. These blogs are just short posts about my travels and if people want to know more about stuff I assume they are able to Google it.

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