By Ernest Barteldes
We arrived in Krakow in the early afternoon and set out to locate our hotel, which was not far away Krakow Glowny, the main transit station in the city,. Google maps played a few tricks on us, but once we found the right street we made our way there. It was a very hot day compared to the much lower temperatures we’d experienced in Zakopane, so before we checked in we stopped by Pod Kurem, a small restaurant we’d happened to walk by . The place seemed to be patronized by folks who worked around the area – mostly offices, small businesses and hotels that catered for users of the long-distance trains that stop there, so the prices were quite reasonable. We had planned on just sitting down for drinks, but we realized we were hungry enough to eat so Renata ordered kotlet schabowy (pork cutlets) while I went for a hearty goulash. The food was very satisfying, and then we checked in at our hotel, which was just a couple of blocks down the street.
The room was nothing to write home about – a comfortable enough bed, a TV and free but spotty WI-FI. There was a single bar next door, but in its favor it was very conveniently located and in a very quiet area. After settling down, we headed over to the nearby Jordan Park, the home of the monument built in 2014 for Wojtec, the bear soldier adopted by the exiled Polish army during World War II.
I stumbled upon his story on a piece on the Krakow Post, one of the few English-language online publications in Poland before our 2014 trip. I was fascinated by the story of how he became a soldier, holding the rank of private and even drawing a salary, which went for his keep and the beers he enjoyed (he also learned how to smoke). He was trained to carry ammunition in the front, and after the war he remained in the care of the Edinburgh Zoo until the end of his days. We reached the park by tram in only a few minutes and walked around for a while until we found the monument.
Unlike most of the busts of Polish heroes that populate the park, the monument for Wojtec is quite majestic – it is over six feet tall, and before him are his steps and the steps of soldiers marking the different battles he participated in. After admiring the monument, we checked out the grounds and saw the other busts – including those of Pope John Paul II, Marie Curie and others.
We walked around Krakow’s Main Square for a while and then returned to our hotel. The next morning, we woke up early and ate breakfast at a Lunch Bar Tu, a diner we’d discovered the previous day and headed to downtown Krakow, where we took my Iphone for a quick repair – the device had stopped charging in Zakopane, and I found a place called iMad , the only service center in the area that could look at it. After a brief exam, the tech told me that some dust had gotten into the circuits, but a quick clean was enough to get it up and running. He charged me PLN 10 (about $3.00) for the service, and we were quickly on our way.
A few blocks away was a fruit and vegetable market, and we decided to explore it a bit. Strawberries were in season, and their smell was everywhere, since vendors sold them by the kilo on almost every street corner. After buying some, we returned to our hotel, had a bite and went over to the train station to get tickets to Oswiecim – the city where the former Auschwitz Concentration Camp – is now a museum.
From the first time we went to Poland, I had wanted to visit the former concentration camp, but on that visit we didn’t have the time. The second time we were not quite prepared to do it, but as the cliché goes, three times is the charm – so we settled on going.
Admission to the museum is free, but reservations need to be made in advance. I got tickets online, and our appointment was for 5 PM. We took the PKP train for the 90-minute ride to Oswiecim. It was an uneventful but very slow ride on what was mostly a commuter train.
There was a single sign telling you where to go, and when we learned that city buses were horribly delayed, we chose to take the 15-minute walk towards the camp’s location.
I had always thought Auschwitz would be in an isolated location, but in fact it is in the middle of a residential area, with apartment buildings and a church right in the surroundings. After a while we thought we were walking in the wrong direction until we saw a sign pointing to the museum’s location, and then we walked a few yards into the entrance.
We had our tickets scanned and went through airport-like security in what seemed to be a nondescript building. After exiting that building, we faced the famous gate with the infamous German words “Arbeit Macht Frei,” or “Work will set you free.”
We walked through it and began to explore the different buildings, which are mostly dedicated to the memory of the different people that came here to suffer and die, beginning with Soviet POWs, then Poles, Gypsies and finally the millions of Jews – victims of Hitler’s “Final Solution.” Each of the structures tells a story – we hear the voices of various victims who ended up here written on the walls of each exhibit, including Anne Frank in an exhibit dedicated to the Dutch Jews brought here.
Towards the end of the camp are the places where the most horrifying acts happened, beginning with the gallows were several Poles were hanged, and a re-creation of the black wall used for summary executions by firing squad (the original was removed by the Nazis towards the end of the war). In an adjacent building were the places where prisoners were tried, stripped and then shot. Inside other parts of the building were the starving cells – one in which Polish priest (and now Saint) Maksymilian Kolbe was taken after he offered to take the place of a man originally sentenced to die there because he had a family.
After that we get to see the gas chambers and crematorium where people were taken for “showers” after being brought on cattle trains. Gas was released and they quickly died – the bodies were then systematically cremated in the same building.
It is at that moment that it hit us. We were standing inside the building where millions of people were gassed and incinerated – many of whose names are completely lost to history, since the Nazis did not record the names of those who were immediately killed after arrival.
We walked out and found a bus back to Krakow just outside the museum, where we pondered on where we had been. After reaching our hotel, we visited the bar next door for a quick drink.
We still had a full day in town, so we headed over to Schindler’s Factory on the other side of the Vistula river. Located in what used to be a mostly industrial area, we had a hard time actually finding the location, since the city of Krakow does not post many signs on where to go.
The Schindler Factory is not a museum totally dedicated to the memory of its namesake, but a museum that tells the story of how Krakow fell to German powers and how life was like under occupation done in rich detail. As we went along, we learned about life for the Jews in that city’s ghetto and how Schindler made life for at least some of them bearable.
Halfway into the tour, we see a replica of Schindler’s office and a memorial made from roughly 1,200 pots – the approximate number of people he saved through the efforts depicted on the Stephen Spielberg movie Schindler’s List.
We left the factory and walked over to the nearby Makaronarnia, a restaurant we accidentally discovered during our previous trip. As I described then, it is a nice little Italian restaurant clear out of the more touristy area. The meal was as usual very satisfying – Renata had a risotto while I went with a more traditional pasta dish. From there we headed to Wawel Castle to get a few souvenirs (way cheaper than downtown) and then it was back to the hotel.
We took a late-night flight back to Warsaw –While booking, I could not find a flight that would connect more directly to our trip home to New York on Saturday afternoon, so we stayed overnight at a nearby hotel that offered shuttle service to and from the terminal.
We had plans to head to the Old Town, but we realized it was time to rest a bit, so instead we explored the surroundings. There was an outdoor clothing market mostly operated by immigrants – it was one of the few times we saw people of Chinese and African descent interacting with Polish folk. I tried to find a Poland T-shirt, but they were all themed around the Euro Cup. Renata did find a few things she was interested in.
Eventually it was time to head to the airport, so we took the shuttle bus and headed back to the airport – it was time to check in and come back home. It was a great trip, but there is so much yet to discover in Renata’s homeland.