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The International Writers Magazine: Europe

Berlin-Krakow Night Train
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 woman’s statement seems lost on her as a mixed energy of angst and bemusement descends on our cabin. The Berlin to Krakow night train rumbles on.

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 night’s 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, It’s much better for us now – it’s normal", he says, referring to the ease with which Poles can now travel and work in other European cities. And Poland’s 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, it’s 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 nation’s former capital and third largest city.
"This little city is an oasis that people don’t know about, but when they come, they can’t 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 Hitler’s Third Reich, during the Second World War.

Despite Hitler’s invasion across Poland, Krakow mysteriously escaped obliteration by Germany’s 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 nation’s 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 German’s always considered Krakow a German city…so it 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 fort.

Before heading off to discover this Polish pearl of a city, we are invited to join Emily for breakfast at Dynia, one of the city’s countless cafes. "There are little gems all over the city," she enthuses. "There is so much history here".

Recent history is palpably alive at Poland’s 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 Hitler’s reign in the area, the historic sites were designed for the incarceration and extermination of Jews, Gypsies and homosexuals who did not conform to Hitler’s 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 camp’s operation in 1945, the German’s 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 couldn’t work out where she was, because it looked so nice with planter boxes on all of the windows", he says.

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 couldn’t say anything, because if they did they’d end up here", says David.

Constructed with a limited supply of stolen bricks from the homes of displaced Poles, about half of the prisoner’s 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 that remains.
"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 that’s left" says David, pointing to the shells that remain.
Despite their historic significance, the death camps are probably not on every visitor to Poland’s list of must sees.

Fortunately not all of Krakow’s attractions fill one with such great unease.
We return to the city and make time for a quick snack, before beginning the second half of the day’s 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 mine’s 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 day’s 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. Kinga’s Cathedral is the largest and perhaps the most lavish cavern, with floor and wall tessellations meticulously carved and polished to mimic granite.
"Please don’t 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 you’ll have the whole city to yourself".

DB - Deutsche Bahn (
Krakow Tours (
Babci Maliny (
Dynia Café (
Ying-lan Dann April 2008

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