|Days 1-3, Krakow:
Krakow, on the southern tip of Poland, was a really interesting place to visit. Unlike Warsaw, its larger neighbor to the north, Krakow managed to elude much of the bombings that took place during World War Two. As such, the city still has much of its old architecture and buildings intact. Our hotel was just outside of the city's historic center, in the old Jewish section of town. The hotel was pretty neat - it looked like it had stopped in time about 50 years ago. It consisted of a handful of rooms above an old Polish/Jewish restaurant. Stephen Spielberg is said to have stayed there - he supposedly also filmed a portion of Schindler's List in the very rooms where we stayed. From a tourist's perspective, it was nice to see that Krakow has not been fully "Westernized." Although, with Poland's planned conversion to the Euro (and all that typically comes along with it), it's probably only a matter of time. Our highlight of the visit was a day trip to Auschwitz.
Auschwitz - Birkenau:
About an hour away from Krakow, in the small town of Oswiecim, sits the largest concentration camp maintained by the Nazi regime during World War Two. Originally a Polish military barracks, the Auschwitz camp was expanded significantly under Nazi control. The main two camp sites, Auschwitz I (the original camp) and Auschwitz II (Birkenau - an annex about a mile from the original camp), together housed 120,000 inmates at the peak of the war. It is estimated that the Nazi's murdered approximately one and a half million people at Auschwitz during 1940-1945! The numbers are staggering. Auschwitz served as the operational center for the Nazi's mass extermination of European Jews. While the camp was originally set up for the extermination of Poles, deportees from all over Europe were ultimately transported to the area. Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II (Birkenau) are today a museum and both sites can be visited on a single trip (which we did). While the Nazi's tried to destroy much of the camp towards the end of the war in order to wipe out evidence of their crimes, enough of the camp survives today to make the visit a moving and informative experience. During the visit, we were able to walk freely through the enormous camp and see first hand where the inmates worked and slept. We were also able to see where the inmates were murdered and disposed of, including gas chambers, a crematorium, and even a man-made pond where human ashes were dumped. One of the most moving parts of the museum is an exhibit containing human hair. According to the museum, the Nazi's would collect the hair from its inmates, mainly women, and sell the large quantities of collected hair to German textile companies to make cloth. When the camp was liberated by the Allied forces near the end of the war, over seven tons of human hair, packed tightly in sacks, was discovered in a warehouse. Seven tons! Keep in mind this was only the amount left over and that had not yet been sold. The museum's exhibit ran the length of a long room and displayed only a sample of the hair found in the warehouse. Also on display where a few large rolls of haircloth - cloth made of human hair - that had been discovered in German factories. The haircloth apparently served a variety of purposes, including as the interior lining of new garments. The hair and haircloth on display had both been tested and found to have traces of the poisonous gas used by the Nazi's. Mind-boggling! Visiting a place like Auschwitz is truly eye-opening and helps to bring the atrocities that took place during World War Two into perspective.