Sunday, May 9, 2010

4th Stop-Krakow: Salt Mine Tour and Auschwitz

Thursday-April 1st, Day 1-Getting there + Salt Mine tour
First off: Getting to Poland...
The first train brought us to a platform in Germany still, where we had to wait 40 big deal. (Except that of course the bathrooms cost money everywhere to use: .40, .80,it varies)
We found the platform just fine.
However....with our second stop we got off on this dark, deserted area where a main train station was supposed to be. It definitely was not there. There was an old, small, falling apart, wooden building there. There was a middle age man and an old man that had also gotten off on that stop. Luckily they spoke English (which is hard to come across in Poland). Turned out we had gotten off one stop too soon. The middle-age man said the station was not within walking distance. There were no cars, no taxi's or buses, or basically civilization in sight. He offered to drive us, he seemed normal, and we had flat out, no other options. We would miss our connecting train. Since the older man was his dad we felt a little bit better about the situation. His car was parked off to the side behind the old building. Luckily it fit all of our luggage. Chrissy and I got our keys out just in case-the only potential protection we had. He was a type of doctor who worked in Germany and lived in Poland. We told him we were staying in Madrid (lie) and going back there after our stay in Krakow (lie)-just to be safe.
But it all worked out-and we finally arrived at the main train station, which was indeed very, very far away. We thanked them and Chrissy tried to hand him gas money but he wouldn't take it. We were so lucky they were so nice. There would have been no way we would have made it to the station otherwise.
We went in and Grace and Chrissy went down the steps while Emily and I looked for an elevator. I was trying to carry my suitcase as least as possible because it was packed with Grace and I sharing. We didn't find one, but while we waited for Grace and Chrissy to come back, 2 security guards or something approached us and tried to talk to us in Polish... finally the word documents came out of one of them and we knew they wanted to see our passports. They spent a LOT of time looking at them, along with our visa-and then scanned them through one of the machines they were holding. When Chrissy and Grace came back they did the same. They then checked the people next to us-so at least it wasn't just us.
I had taken out some zloty's from the ATM, but of course it only gave me huge bills. And to use the bathroom it only cost a very small portion of that. I really needed to use the bathroom-the actual exchange place would not break my large bills. (She didn't speak any English, and I, obviously, speak no polish). Chrissy's cousin had given her this tiny booklet that had pictures in it of a variety of situations for when there is a language barrier. It worked but the lady refused. The bathroom lady didn't have change but was at least nice and pointed to the counter across from the bathroom to try there. That woman also did not speak English, but with the picture cards she finally broke my 50 zloty so I could use 2.50 of it to use the bathroom. And then I ran to the bathroom. At that point I was so so so tired of having to constantly pay to use the bathroom in each city we had visited. (In Berlin we took advantage of using the Starbucks ones for free).
After that crazy, language barrier event, we sat in a small dining room for a bit. A couple people got something to drink. We stayed as in there for a while until we started getting looks from the lady working at the counter.
It was then time to board our train, and so we headed that way. It definitely reminded me of the train Harry Potter takes. We were able to get one of the rooms to ourselves--and then situated our stuff so people wouldn't want to come in even if they could.
I struggled a bit to sleep, and right when I was about to, someone came by to check and stamp our tickets. Then that occurred every couple hours on this night train--possibly after every stop we took. Annoying? You have no idea lol. I slept with my ticket under me so I could easily hand it to them each time. One time Grace couldn't find hers and the guy had to wait like 5 minutes and turn on the light for us. Somehow it had gotten on the ground under some of our luggage (which we had put in between the seats so we could each lay across from one side to the other).
Once we arrived in Krakow we found our hostel pretty easily. It was okay...the Internet didn't work on the 3rd floor like they claimed. The towels were free to use-so that was a nice change. We had a 4 suite-which was great compared to some of the 10 bedrooms we had stayed in. The showers were hot and had good water pressure (nice change). Our hostel was clean-but about 3-4 sets of stairs and no elevators = not fun with a lot of luggage.
We took off to see the town (old town) while we waited for our Salt Mine tour at 4:30 that afternoon. We first saw Wawel Palace which was a gigantic and pretty place. You had to pay to get in each individual part-so we just walked around the courtyard.

Afterward we headed to the Market Square which actually turned out to be a great thing. At first we only saw flowers and a couple carts emphasizing on dragons (after a statue somewhere in the Palace). We saw some sweet street performers that looked like NYSNC initially, but then they broke down individually. They were really good and had to be really strong for some of their dance moves.

Chrissy had seen another part of the market so we headed that way. We found great souvenirs there.
After the market we rushed back to the hostel for our Salt Mine tour--they pick you up from your hostel/hotel. Once there our guide walked us through fairly quickly. We walked down a TON of stairs to get below to the mine, and then there was an elevator at the end to lift everyone back up. To give you an idea of how far down we went:

Everything-literally-was made of salt. We got to try a piece of a wall at one point-I kid you not. The sculptures were all made of salt. The smooth parts on the wall were like marble because of all the people touching them over the years. The sculptures were 95% salt, 5% some other stuff.

They have to be careful and maintain the air down there carefully and consistently because otherwise the salt statues start to melt. They had reenactments down there as well.

We were shown a couple small churches-but the main one we saw was so big-and could be rented out for weddings.

Even the chandeliers were made of salt, it was pretty crazy.

The sculptures in the Salt Mine weren't even done by artists, but the miners after their long days at work. It was just incredible to be that far underground and to have everything be made of salt.

After the tour, like mentioned earlier, there was an elevator to take us back up. We rode the bus back and got off on the main square. There we searched until we finally found a restaurant to eat dinner at. I got vegetable pie, a water, and a coke. My dinner was 9 zlotys which equals to about 6 euros-for a meal, a water, and a coke (you have to pay for the water in Europe). But the price was not bad at all.
We then looked in the market again that had different things now for the evening like food, etc. Afterward we headed back to the hostel and called it a night. It had been a long night of traveling and a big day--and the next day we were going on a tour to Auschwitz.

Friday-April 2nd, Day 2-Auschwitz
***Before reading this part of my blog-please keep in mind the following will be going into detail about Auschwitz and my experience there***
Today we woke up and packed our things to put in their luggage storage (which was actually a shed) then we got picked up for our tour to Auschwitz.
On the bus there we watched a documentary. It was hard to stay awake on the hour bus drive, but I managed to because I figured when would I ever be going here again.
It was hard to see some of the pictures they showed and know we were about to see the concentration camp.
They dropped us off and we went on with a tour guide.
We were not allowed to take pictures inside any of the buildings-and given the history of where we were, it was important to respect this. So any photos will be of the outside and the barracks, and towards the very end when we were at the wooden barracks-we could take pictures.

The places I'm about to describe are inside the brick barracks where they have now turned them into the following.
We went into one or two places that had rooms full of people's belongings from when they were taken here and stripped of everything once they got off the train. It was absolutely terrible to see. There was a glass wall and you looked through it to see into another room. One room was completely full of shoes of all sizes, belonging to both men and women. One room was full of all the people's luggage/suitcases, again from when they got off the train and were separated and either forced to the camp or sent to the gas chambers-which they were told they were going to for a shower. About 75% of the people were sent to the gas chamber right away-mostly women and children and people not suited for working.

One room was full of combs and brushes. Another one-very difficult to see-was a case full of human hair. The Jews were completely shaved of all of their hair and then the hair was used to make other things. Our tour guide said they even used their bodies as fertilizer and that nothing went to waste. It was horrifying.

One room had baby clothes.

Another room had large photos of women and children and how thin they were and how much weight they had lost was underneath their picture. Starvation was one of the main causes of death. They only brought them to the camps to work and to die.

Another room and along the wall was full of photos of people who had died-picture upon picture upon picture.
They had large photos in a lot of the rooms and our tour guide would explain some of them.
One photo we saw at the end was a picture of women and children who were in line for the gas chamber. They had them stop and look at the camera for their documentation-as they were in line to die.
We walked within these brick barracks and saw the fence that imprisoned the Jewish people inside and the watch towers.
We saw the place where the Nazi's pretended to give trials - some only lasted a few minutes, and then the execution wall was right outside that building.

On the lower level of that same building we saw different rooms where people were murdered. There were starvation rooms and suffocation rooms-where there was not enough oxygen for the amount of people they forced into each room. They were mostly all small, cement rooms. But every place the Nazi's crammed as many people as possible in to kill them.
Our tour guide told us that people would throw themselves on the electric fences to stop their misery.
We saw the crematorium and gas chamber. The Nazi's didn't bomb it because they didn't think anyone would ever figure out what they had used it for.

We stood in the place where the Nazi's shoved people in and killed them with gas. One of the rooms we had seen was all of the cans of the chemicals they had poured in to gas them.
It was absolutely horrifying. I found myself unable to talk and just absorbing all the horrible things that these people had gone through not that long ago. Words could not describe any of this.
People knew what happened in the gas chambers. People knew what happened in the camps or figured it out once the war was over.
Our tour then took us back onto our bus and to a different section of the camp to where the train had dropped off the Jewish people and where the wooden (and worse) barracks were.
There was a memorial there, but otherwise I believe everything was the same.

In front of us was the train tracks where people got off. To our right and left were gas chambers that the Nazi's had bombed trying to cover up anything they had done-but it didn't work.

One other thing about the gas chambers at the end of the tracks: Our tour guide told us that they used to run trucks (along with bought the property surrounding the areas) so that any neighbors would not hear the screaming and either would the people just arriving at the camps. But after time the smell of the dead people was too much, and there was no hiding the terrible things they were doing.

We walked toward the one on the left. They were both identical. There was one long part where they shoved everyone in-as many people as possible-and then funneled them through. I believe our tour guide said about 2000 people the forced in. If they showed any resistance they would be shot right then and there. Absolutely terrible and horrifying.
We then walked along the railway track and to both sides were remains of the wooden barracks-mostly just the brick chimney left. Surrounded by electric fences and watch towers.

In the middle of the tracks we stopped and our tour guide talked some. We were standing right next to the spot that people had gotten off the train and been separated and many had been sent to their death. It was unbelievable and never in my life did I think I would be standing there thinking and learning about the people who had more then just suffered and lost their life.

At the end of the tracks we went into one of the remaining barracks. In one of them-the sanitary room-there was a cement block about 2 ft thick that ran down the length of the room. There were 2 rows of holes right next to each other all the way down it. There were three of these in one wooden barrack. This is where thousands of people were forced to use the bathroom, only allowed seconds I believe, to actually use it, as the Nazi's forced the line to move fast with absolutely no privacy. And at the end was basically a non-existent system for sanitation. It was terrible.

The next wooden barrack was where people would sleep. These barracks were originally made for horses. But they made so many people fit into just one barrack where wooden bunk beds lined the walls. At least 400 prisoners in one wooden barrack that was only supposed to hold 25 horses when it was designed.

At the very end of track left there, there was a tower we could go up to the top of and see a view of the camp. The camp went on for a long time, stretching out so far. It was terrible.

Our tour was then over and the ride home on the bus was quiet.

When we returned we got off at the central market in Krakow. We eventually found a place to eat. I ate a typical Polish dish that was like ravioli with cottage cheese and potatoes.
It had been really cold that day-we then headed back to the hostel, got our stuff, and headed to the train station. We didn't have to wait too long there. At the grocery store we spent our last bit of zloty's.
Grace ordered chips and salsa from a Mexican restaurant, from an English menu, and got fries and salt...very, very strange. And it wasn't a mistake, their chips and salsa for some reason, was fries and salt.
We were lucky again on our overnight train to get a cubby/room to ourselves. Luckily they only checked our ticket once that night so we weren't constantly woken up.

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