Sunday, October 7, 2012

Adventures in the EU: Poland

This is going to be a long one, folks.

I had absolutely no idea what to expect with Poland. I've never ventured to Eastern Europe, and never actually thought I'd make it there, but I'm so glad I did. There were some things I could have done without, like the two by two plane with propellors that we had to take from Berlin to Krakow. I'm not even going to pretend that I didn't panic a little when we drove out to that bad boy. But when your plane has propellors and you barely have to walk up any steps to get on, you try and stay calm. The Dash (as air berlin has named this gem) was not the greatest experience of my life, but I survived. It would have been kind of a shame if I had died in a firey plane explosion. Not that those thoughts ever entered my mind as I tried to listen to some 1D over the propellor noise. Please. Air Berlin tried to make up for sticking me on a toy plane by giving out heart shaped chocolate at the end of the flight. Very sneaky, air berlin, you have now won me over. Kind of, not really, but the chocolate was a nice touch.

My first impression of Poland was a little sketch. It was dark, foggy, and there was barbed wire surrounding the airport. It probably didn't help that we were a little thrown off our usual awesome swag wagon by the surprise dash in the Dash...and that Polish sounds a whole lot like Russian. A stray dog also ran up the road near the airport. Normal? But we made our way relatively easily to our hostel, which actually ended up being by far the nicest hostel I've stayed at. Plus they helped us order pizza. So brownie points to you, 4 Friends Hostel.

The next morning everything seemed a little less scary, but we were also heading to Auschwitz and Birkenau, so that was that. Our tour group picked us up and played the most depressing documentary of my life in the van during our drive. I'm actually putting the warning out now that if you are looking for a happy post, stop reading, or just skip to the last paragraph. Seriously.

It's hard to say what I thought of Auschwitz. They have turned Auschwitz main camp into a museum of sorts, but I'm not really sure if what it has become is entirely, hmmm what's the word, appropriate? I kid you not, that food is served right outside the camp in a little fast food hut. That actually disturbed me a lot. There is also just a ton of people there, especially school groups on field trips. And like any kid under the age of fifteen, a field trip just means a day off from school with your friends, not a time to reflect on the history of your country and the world. I think for that reason I found it hard to take it all in when I was standing in the middle of this former concentration camp. A few times I just stood there wondering why I wasn't feeling anything. I think it's also that I have learned about this for so many years, that I just really couldn't connect that I was finally there. It's hard to describe everything I felt while walking through Auschwitz.

In one of the blocks is housed the most well known of the displays: the shoes, the hair, the suitcases. Those legitimately gave me goosebumps, and still do as I think about it an entire day later. We weren't allowed to take pictures of the hair, but it was allowed at other items, yet I couldn't bring myself to turn a lot of it into a spectacle. Therefore, I left with limited photographs. I can't begin to describe what it felt like to stand in front of those displays, especially the hair and suitcases, that stretched so much farther and were piled so much higher than I ever hoped imaginable. It was just so heartbreaking and sickening.

We were also given the opportunity to go inside an actual gas chamber. This was by far one of the eeriest experiences of my life. We were told that after fifteen or twenty minutes in the gas chamber, everyone would be dead. I can't help thinking about just how long that is. I guess I always imagined, or just wanted to imagine, an instant death for those in the gas chambers, but fifteen or twenty minutes of suffocation had to be absolutely unbearable.

"Work Makes You Free"

Zyklon B gas 

walls of the Jewish prisoners

The Killing Wall

After Auschwitz we took a five minute shuttle to Birkenau, a subcamp, and main killing center of Auschwitz. Birkenau has not been turned into a museum and sprawls over a much larger region. I found it to be much more moving, and just a much more appropriate way to commemorate the tragedy. As we walked along the railroad tracks towards the large memorial at then end, it just felt so surreal. It was odd to see the photographs and then realize that you were in the exact same spot. I don't even know. Birkenau itself was much more silent and eerie. The memorial itself was quite beautiful, the inscription on the stone translated into many languages. There were flowers and stones laid everywhere, which was so nice to see. Though I was obviously very moved and saddened by the whole experience, it wasn't until later that night and the days after that I really started to feel everything that I couldn't seem to when actually in the camps. I started to look at the few pictures I took that day later in the evening and just had to stop. I'm not sure why it took so long for me to really react, but it's an experience I'll never forget. I recommend that everyone ventures out there at some point, especially Birkenau. You would never ever regret it.


Remains of the gas chamber

Luckily things got happier that night when we went into Krakow. Everything is so cheap there so we were psyched to have a real sit down dinner. It's been a while since I didn't have to feed myself. We stuffed our faces with pasta and gelato and walked around Krakow's beautiful main square. I'm not sure if I ever plan on returning to Eastern Europe, but I'm so glad I saw Krakow and can officially cross visiting Auschwitz off my extensive bucket list.

Sorry this was crazy long.  I had a lot of thoughts. A much less heavy and more ridiculous Berlin post is on it's way.

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