Our memories are growing increasing fuzzy as we cast our minds back upon our past sojourns. This instalment is from February 2012 when we visited the unique Polish city of Krakow (pronounced Kra-koff as we soon found out!). We were not alone on these ventures – at the time Tim & Shelley had just moved to London and were living with us so they jumped on board. We introduced them to the beauties (and terrors) of Ryanair, armed ourselves with Polish Zloty’s and took flight!
It still never ceases to amaze me how I can be working one day, and that evening be pulling my suitcase over the bumpy cobblestones down the back alley of some european city. That was our story again as we navigated our way from the bus station in the freezing cold to yet another airbnb win. God Bless google maps. Our apartment was in some old communist block with high ceilings and creaky doors. In what was my favourite local greeting (to date), a man who must have been about 70 ushered us inside, complete in a long coat and top hat. Of course he didn’t speak a word of english so he proceeded to show us the ‘features’ of the flat grunting and pointing with much enthusiasm. The next morning he brought us fresh pastries (in his top hat again)… what a legend!
We headed out that night, walking into the centre of Krakow’s old town. I have to say I was pleasantly suprised. Everyone said it was a pretty city, unlike the rest of Poland’s bombed out and rebuilt city centres, however I was not prepared for how charming it would be. It had a soaring church, a spacious square flanked by horse and carriages, the obligatory pigeons and a large marketplace housed in the most exquisite ancient building. Despite the cold we meandered around, finding several local buzzing restaurants and watering holes. I won’t even attempt to describe what we had for dinner because I couldn’t pronounce it and had no idea what it was… but the beer was good, and we discovered we were rich when the whole bill didn’t even top the equivalent of 10 quid. This was our story for the rest of our time in Poland – everything was unbelievably cheap, and I finally got to feel what it was like to be rich and order whatever the hell I wanted off the menu. Good sensation!
The next day we thought we’d try out the free walking tour of the city. We were repremanded about our awful pronounciation of ‘Krakow’ and shown the highlights of the city as well as taught about some of its past. I found it a colourful little piece of the world, rich in culture and history. I particularly liked Warwel Castle, ornate, mismatched and full of personality. I promised the guide I’d recommend his tour – it’s a year late, but there you go I kept my word! Actually it was really good – despite the formidably low temperatures he was entertaining and kept us from bailing for a warm cafe! We changed it up by not only thoroughly combing the old town – but wandering outside the boarders of the city. We were rewarded by finding this splendid little bar called “The Alchemist” which served the most sinful hot chocalates you’ve ever seen. Think of it as what a thickshake is to a milkshake – superior in every way! The bar was everything you could have wanted from a place called “The Alchemist” – creaky, candlelit, secretive, filled with old timber beams and glass jars – complete with potions (aka my hot chocolate).
Most people who visit Krakow will team it up with a visit to the infamous concentration nearby – Auschwitz Birkenau. I won’t go into the history because you likely know it, and if you don’t you have a responsibility to go and get yourself educated about it. The Haulocaust fascinates me, if only because it is such recent history. It is unfathomable to think this evil was able to take place at a time when my Grandparents were alive. That being said, there are atrocities happening all over the world today that are a severe violation of human rights. I suppose it highlights the statement Edmund Burke made, that ‘all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing’.
I wanted to visit Auschwitz since I started studying WWII at school. I would check out books on the Holocaust and pour over them, trying to figure out how it was that people stood by and allowed the systematic anayalation of a generation of Jews. I have been able to visit so many historic and important sites since moving to europe, but perhaps none so chilling as this. I was really nervous the whole way there, I have never been filled with such apprehension. People walk around the place like zombies, unable to speak to one another, shaking their heads, some with tears running down their faces… as people are all united in trying to comprehend the unspeakable evil that took place on that very ground. Exhibits of artifacts from the victims were a sober reminder that every life taken was a real life, with a real story and a real future that was brutally stolen from them.
The rattling wind, the piercing cold, vast ruins, dark and empty buildings, and the chilling stories culminated at one point: the gas chambers. Although they were bombed out, covered in snow, and barely recognisable, there was an audible hush amongst all the visitors as we tiptoed past the spot where millions of lives ended. However the main thing I took away from the experience as I looked around, was that evil lies in the heart of man. Although infamous, that very earth and very place where millions were murdered, was not in itself evil. I could have been standing anywhere on planet earth. The evil is what we bring to a place, it’s man and all his failures. It is pride and cowardice and the emptiness we feel deep inside. We can take that anywhere.
Auschwitz is just geography.
The important lesson to take away is to not forget. We must remember so that history does not repeat itself. We owe Auschwitz that much.