International Writers Magazine: Europe
Ying -Lan Dann
"Oh my God,
this is worse than a concentration camp", calls a Jewish-American
woman clamoring over her abundant luggage to reach a bottom bunk-bed.
Her partner Tomasz, from Northern Poland agrees, "This is communism",
he says gesturing to the bunks stacked three high on each side of
the train compartment.
The irony of the
womans statement seems lost on her as a mixed energy of angst
and bemusement descends on our cabin. The Berlin to Krakow night train
Poland has in fact been a republic since 1918 and a democracy since
the Iron Curtain was drawn open in 1989. And despite his derisive view
of our nights lodging, Tomasz suggests that things in the Central
European nation are better now than they have ever been.
"20 or 30 years ago, we never imagined it would be like this in
Poland, Its much better for us now its normal",
he says, referring to the ease with which Poles can now travel and work
in other European cities. And Polands ascension to the European
Union in 2004 means that, like-wise, foreigners are choosing Poland
as a destination for work, study and travel.
One hour into our 12 hour journey, we cross from Germany into Poland
to little fan-fare. The unfamiliar West Slavic local town names tacitly
hint our transition, but it seems that the once famous border between
Russian-occupied Poland and Germany is now basking in anonymity. So
casual is the crossing these days, passport stamps have been relegated
to the attic.
"I only miss getting the stamp in my passport, its sort of
a badge of honour", laughs Krakow based American, Emily, our fifth
cabin-mate who is making the trip home after a weekend in Berlin.
Like a growing number of foreigners, Emily stumbled upon Poland during
her studies and has since fallen in love with Krakow, the nations
former capital and third largest city.
"This little city is an oasis that people dont know about,
but when they come, they cant seem to leave", she says.
With a permanent population of around 700,000, the once salt-rich city
was founded more than 1000 years ago.
Following a rolling tumult of occupations by the Russian, Prussian and
Austrian empires during the 18th century, the metropolis regained independence
in 1918, only to be eyed as a prize once again by Adolf Hitlers
Third Reich, during the Second World War.
Despite Hitlers invasion across Poland, Krakow mysteriously escaped
obliteration by Germanys occupying forces; the city is still rich
in its 1000 years of architecture. This sets Krakow apart from other
Polish cities, such as war haunted Warsaw, the nations northern
capital that still nurses its bombed out city scars.
Some say that Soviet troops, who reclaimed Poland from the Germans in
1945, saved the city from destruction by pushing back German troops,
preventing the detonation of an explosives network believed to circle
the city. Those legendary explosives were never found, leading some
skeptics to believe that perhaps the tale was fabricated to strengthen
the Russian cause. Another story suggests that the Germans had huge
caches of valuable art-work stored in the city in anticipation of claiming
it and the city, once the dust settled in the region.
"It has always been a mystery to us why we were not bombed. But
the Germans always considered Krakow a German city
may be that they planned to live here when the war finished", says
Katrina, a Krakow based tour guide.
After rolling through the night, the train massages us into Krakow Central
station at about 9 am. In its low-lying sun, the "Old City"
appears as a labyrinth of light and shade, while the sugary steam of
warm pastry drifts from the bakery stalls that dot the town. Footsteps
pulse about the cobbled streets, protected from traffic noise by a well
kept grassy verge that represents the course of the former medieval
Before heading off to discover this Polish pearl of a city, we are invited
to join Emily for breakfast at Dynia, one of the citys countless
cafes. "There are little gems all over the city," she enthuses.
"There is so much history here".
history is palpably alive at Polands concentration camps,
built for mass human extermination by the Germans during the Second
World War. The Auschwitz and Birkenau concentration camps are an
hour west of Krakow. Established during Hitlers reign in the
area, the historic sites were designed for the incarceration and
extermination of Jews, Gypsies and homosexuals who did not conform
to Hitlers image of an ideal society. UNESCO listed, the vast
compound has been preserved as a museum and memorial since 1947
and is the last resting place of many of the victims.
Today, benign in
their mute orderly rows, the prisoner dwellings of Auschwitz do well
to hide their macabre mechanisms. We are told that until the last days
of the concentration camps operation in 1945, the Germans
worked hard deceiving prisoners who entered the gas chambers of death
in ignorance; prisoner details fastidiously recorded in some macabre
and perverse sense of order within a world of moral chaos. Local residents,
not displaced by the war, were equally ignorant of the real purpose
of the camps, seeing only the beautification going on with mass tree
plantings around the camp.
"You see, this is how cynical they were. They wanted the place
to look nice, while over there they were burning people", says
our guide David, gesturing to a grass covered gas chamber. And he suggests
that even until the times of their deaths, prisoners were led to believe
that they would survive. "I heard about a prisoner, who was led
up the gas chamber and couldnt work out where she was, because
it looked so nice with planter boxes on all of the windows", he
But despite efforts to disguise their activities, we are told that people
in the area suspected what was going on. Billowing smoke from Birkenau,
the second and much larger camp, gave it away.
"One woman told me that she could see the smoke rising here. People
knew what was going on, but they couldnt say anything, because
if they did theyd end up here", says David.
Constructed with a limited supply of stolen bricks from the homes of
displaced Poles, about half of the prisoners quarters at Birkenau
remain standing today. Un-insulated, a chill rattles through the quarters;
almost a whisper from the sad souls who once called this horror home.
When bricks ran out, the last dwellings built at Birkenau were crude
arrangements of pre-fabricated timber horse stables with dirt floors
and brick ovens used for heating. In an ironic twist, most of these
concentration camp timber quarters were disassembled and their timbers
re-used by locals returning to their home region during the post-war
housing crisis. Today, a warped landscape of ruinous chimneys is all
"When the war finished, there were no other choices (for building
materials), so people came and took the timber to re-build with, and
those ones are all thats left" says David, pointing to the
shells that remain.
Despite their historic significance, the death camps are probably not
on every visitor to Polands list of must sees.
Fortunately not all of Krakows attractions fill one with such
We return to the city and make time for a quick snack, before beginning
the second half of the days tour, a trip to the equally fascinating
salt mines that were once the basis of the cities great wealth.
Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1978, the Wieliczka Salt
Mine is a subterranean assemblage of tunnels and chambers that one enters
about 15 kilometers from the Old City. Quarried for the prized mineral
since its establishment in the 13th century, the complex winds for some
300 kilometers below ground, reaching depths of 327 meters, of which
only 10% is revealed to the public.
While the mines immensity carries on in the mind only, it is perhaps
the extraordinary treatment of the salt-structured spaces themselves
that is most provocative. "Everything here is salt, the walls,
the floors, and the sculptures, all of it", assures our guide.
We are told that in the early days, salt miners had died inhaling gases
released by flames, leading the Roman Catholic workers to prey before
each days work. With only salt at their disposal, they then began
whittling huge cathedrals filled with deities and chandeliers; the deceptive
opacity of rock salt irradiant when lit. Still used by worshippers today,
St. Kingas Cathedral is the largest and perhaps the most lavish
cavern, with floor and wall tessellations meticulously carved and polished
to mimic granite.
"Please dont touch the sculptures, but you can lick the walls
if you like", invites our guide, "And you can all take a piece
of salt Rock home with you".
When we return to Krakow at about 9pm, we find that the streets have
mellowed since morning. Accept for the comforting glow emanating from
bars and restaurants, the Old City is quiet and I remember some advice
that Emily offered us during our journey the night before. "If
you get a chance, go to the old town in the morning, when no one is
awake and youll have the whole city to yourself".
DB - Deutsche Bahn (www.bahn.de)
Krakow Tours (www.krakow-tours.pl/)
Dann April 2008
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