There are cities around the world that bear scars of their troubled past. I’m thinking along the lines of Hiroshima’s Peace Park, The 9/11 Memorial in New York City and the former site of the Berlin Wall. For Kraków, and the surrounding area of Southern Poland, there is no scar deeper or more visible than the death camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau. No one goes here as part of a holiday to find enjoyment, but to learn and pay tribute to what happened to over 1.1 million people some 70-odd years ago.
The trip out from Kraków doesn’t take too long, especially if you book a tour that picks you up from your hotel. The advantage: you don’t have to think about getting there and back as everything is sorted for you; the disadvantage: the driver put on a short documentary about the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau which meant half of the journey there was spent watching footage of the camp – including what looked like the autopsies of a newborn baby and a young child. I get why the ride there might be spent learning some history of the camp, but that was a lot to see at 8:30 in the morning.
It’s hard to talk about visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau as so much of it is about the feelings. By now we all know what happened from TV, books, films and school – but it’s a profoundly odd place to visit, especially on a beautiful sunny day in May. For a lot of the tour the closest analog I can find from my own experience is when I went to Herculaneum as a student. In what is now actually quite lovely surroundings, something devastating and unthinkable happened. It’s trite to say this, but it really does feel haunted.
This is all surface stuff when walking around Auschwitz’s immaculate brick barracks. Once you go inside and see the conditions of the cells, the piles of belongings that were recovered (including a whole room of shaven hair… which I cannot find an adequate word to describe) and, eventually, the gas chambers – everything suddenly becomes incredibly real.
Honestly, I didn’t feel right with the idea of taking pictures inside the buildings – especially the gas chambers/furnaces and rooms containing the possessions. I know that lots of people around me were snapping away, but in certain places The feeling of it being disrespectful outweighed my own morbid curiosity.
So that was Auschwitz. Birkenau, due to it being mostly destroyed, feels incredibly different. I have seen those famous train tracks in so many films (like Shoah and Schindler’s List) and even listened to a classical album about makes reference to the train journeys (Different Trains), which makes it incredibly weird to see in real life. It’s a similar sort of haunting feeling that I got from the Peace Pagoda in Hiroshima.
The big thing for me at Birkenau, rather than the remains of the demolished gas chambers and the memorial, was all the chimneys. A massive field containing a sparse forest of brick chimneys that are the remaining parts of the wooden barracks that were burnt down in the vain attempt to conceal the war crimes that were occurring.
Like I said before, it’s difficult to put into words just how this visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau made me feel. It was only a few hours after leaving that I made the contesting that this was where Anne Frank died, which means I have now seen her home, read her diary and seen the place she was killed. That human connection there is probably what ended up affecting me the most.
On the way back I slept on the minibus. After that morning it was probably my brain feeling the need to refresh itself so I could compartmentalise a bit and enjoy the afternoon.
For the afternoon we took the opportunity to visit St Mary’s Basilica in Rynek Główny. After all, I’ve already spent part of an evening watching the swallows hunting for insects in the dusk, so I might as well see the inside.
Well, the inside is beyond beautiful – especially the main alter piece by Viet Stoss. The level of detail in the wood carvings depicting the many sufferings of Mary (especially the work put into them beards) are beyond a lot of what I’ve seen before. Considering this is the minor church of Kraków compared to Wawel Cathedral, it surprises me how St Mary’s is the more impressively decorated. Some of the portraiture feel like something I have seen in Orthodox churches, but maybe that’s more the Baroque style coming through.
Sadly the tower was closed when we went, so we exited and headed to the Cloth Hall to do some souvenir shopping. Honestly there is so much that I wanted to buy, but regrettably we only brought hand luggage – meaning that I’ve had to stick to a few items that are not breakable (which ruled out a lot of Christmas decorations and ceramics). Still, I found a bunch of nice things before I we headed back to the hotel to have a bit of a chill before dinner.
When I want to try roe deer in the UK, it’s likely that I, going to pay £75 for the meal, in Kraków my share of the meal came to about £20. Just stunning. It’s gotten to the point where I feel like 70 zloty is too much for a main meal… which shows just how much I have started to adapt to the pricing.
The roe deer medallions themselves were seasoned with herbs and a generous amount of pepper. The accompanying sauce was flavoured with sour cherry and the meat was accompanied by whole sour cherry and there are a generous number of wild mushrooms. All flavours worked in perfect harmony in this zloty dish. The meat itself was tender with a slight gaminess to it, which puts it on par with hare. The way it was cooked makes me want to refer to this delight as a ‘wild steak’.
For dessert we all had the apple pancakes where the star of the show was the vanilla-caramel sauce. It’s one of the few times where I’ve had someone turn to me and ask what I was having. So yes, a good time was had by all at Miód Malina.
Tomorrow we will be off to the salt mines at Wieliczka for what is our final full day. After the last few days in the heat, I am looking forward to some time in a cold cave.