So, if you read my last post, at the end you would have seen the trouble I went through to get to Krakow. That being said, I did make it – albeit quite a bit later than I was meant to.
So when I got into Krakow, I headed to my hostel and checked in. I highly recommend the Let’s Rock Krakow hostel – it has a really good environment, friendly workers, and it’s great for meeting people. I got into my room and met my first roommate, who I didn’t quite catch his name, but he was from Turkey. He and I talked for a little while, and he complimented me on my English (?) because, as he put it, “Because you talk so fast, it challenges me.” He didn’t speak a lot of English and he kept asking me for different words, mostly regarding his travel situation – delay, scheduling, etc. (He missed his flight and needed to move another one). I also met another roommate, an older man from Nürnberg (I mentioned that it is one of my favorite cities in Germany, which he thought was fantastic). And finally, I met my other two roommates, Iona and Emma, who are both students at NAU in Flagstaff, Arizona. We talked for a little while – about true crime, documentaries, and politics (it was a really funny and interesting conversation, with a lot of ranting about Trump and offering up various theories on unsolved crimes and documentaries surrounding them). We quickly hit it off – as Iona said, “He’s like a male version of me” (which goes both ways I guess?) and I quickly knew they’d become good friends.
Anyways, first though, I felt disgusting because of my long day of travel prior to that, so I hopped in the shower and headed to explore town a little bit. I ended up going quite a ways away, then finding a nice restaurant called “Montana,” which served AMAZING burgers. It was a nice little walk, and I got to see the castle and a church during blue hour, which was fun. Plus it allowed me some time to work on manual photography.
Anyways, afterwards, I headed back to the hostel and met up with Emma and Iona, and we went to a little karaoke bar in the basement of our hostel – our hostel gave us free beers there, so we decided to get ours. There were some pretty try-hard singers, but there was one guy who really stole the show. I don’t even think he was drunk, I think he was just a funny guy who wanted to mess around and make people laugh. He seemed very sober, which made it all the more funny. Anyways, it ended up with him singing Madonna’s “Like a Virgin,” screaming, dancing on the ground, and ended up pulling off his shirt. It was hilarious and I was almost crying from laughing so hard.
The karaoke bar ended up feeling a little more for “adults” rather than students or people our age, so we ended up heading back up to our room after a little while.
In the morning, I headed out quite early to get to the train station so I could buy a new phone charger (mine was broken and I had charged it the night before using a portable charger and Emma’s charging cable – thank you again for that, if you’re reading this!). I ended up buying one (which ALSO didn’t work – and with very little time left, I headed to Oswiecim/Auschwitz with a phone that I knew would die while I was out. The bus ride was really cheap and fairly quick – our driver booked it to Auschwitz; he was passing cars and speeding and made an hour and 45 minute trip in a little over an hour.
At Auschwitz, I wasn’t really knowing what to expect. I didn’t end up booking a group tour – they were expensive, and the only one available for the time I was there (to buy in person) was in German, and I figured I wouldn’t enjoy it as much if it was in German. At first, I was really upset because I thought I wouldn’t have as meaningful of an experience without a guide, but as I progressed through Auschwitz I, I was glad I didn’t get a tour guide. Not having a tour guide allowed me to proceed at my own pace and take time to think and reflect, rather than rush along with a group. I could spend more time reading placards or hearing stories of victims or whatnot, rather than being herded.
I didn’t take many pictures – I didn’t feel it was appropriate to do so – but some of the exhibitions really hit hard.
The most powerful ones I found were regarding the families and children who were killed. There was a whole room dedicated to entire families who were killed in the Holocaust – from all around Europe – and the room was filled with clips from the pre-war lives of these families. I feel like, oftentimes people forget that the victims of the Holocaust were often well-off, much like ourselves, and then were thrown into incredibly horrendous circumstances. And seeing these pre-war clips only strengthened that notion. There were clips of children dancing, of Christmases, of lake trips, of traditional festivals, family dinners, family outings – everything that felt like something that any one of us would experience regularly. There were clips from everyday life, of children laughing, of parents carrying their children. It really broke my heart to see it and to know that all of these people in these clips were killed at Auschwitz.
Another exhibition that broke my heart was a display of childrens’ art that were killed in the Holocaust. They were found in journals, or on sheets of paper, and they were little scraps of paper which a professional artist ended up re-creating all over the walls of a blank room. Some of the drawings ranged from poems, to scenes of life at home, and others were much worse, covering public hangings or executions by firing line.
Another interesting point I found was regarding Hungarian Jews who were rescued from Auschwitz. Adolf Eichmann, Heinrich Himmler, and SS Lieutenant Colonel Kurt Becher, negotiated the release of over 1,000 Hungarian Jews. However, this was not done out of goodwill – Becher wanted to have an alibi as a “rescuer of Jews” (plus it brought him economic profit), and Himmler wanted to be seen as “good” so he could negotiate peace with the Allies since the war was coming close to an end and the Allies were pushing on German territory.
Another heartbreaking display was in a room that showed whole pages of names – literally, millions of names – birthdates, death dates, and places of death. The thing was MASSIVE. It took up an entire room, and it was TINY text.
The trip to Auschwitz I was nothing short of heartbreaking. I spent quite a long time here – more than a few hours – and saw most of the displays that were on presentation, whether about Jewish families, or Roma and Sinti, or Hungarians or Poles, or Greeks.
From Auschwitz I, I took a bus to Auschwitz II-Birkenau. Upon entering, I was blown away by the scale of the camp. Nothing that you see online or in pictures or in movies accurately depicts just how massive and sprawling this concentration camp is. And with that enormity comes a huge death toll. I was shocked to find out that over 90% of the victims in Auschwitz – the camp complex, that had over 40 “Auschwitz” camps – died in just one: Auschwitz II-Birkenau. That means over 1,000,000 people died in that one camp.
I didn’t stay in Auschwitz II-Birkenau for as long as I did in Auschwitz I. However, Auschwitz II pulled on the same heartstrings as Auschwitz I. It was heart-wrenching to see the roads where literally millions were lead to their deaths. The camp itself – the buildings and infrastructure – is mostly destroyed (the Nazis destroyed it to cover up their tracks), but enough of the ruins still existed to get a sense of just how many people could be fit into the camp.
Unfortunately, I’d heard stories of people taking selfies or doing photoshoots on the railroad tracks or near the gas chambers or whatever, and I witnessed this firsthand. There was a couple, tourists, who were doing a “photoshoot” on the road that most of the victims were led down to their deaths. The woman was looking off into the distance, with her hands on the barbed wire, and making various poses as her husband(?) took her picture. I was really upset by it, and apparently other people were too, because people told them to stop, but I’m assuming they didn’t speak any English, because they kept doing the shoot, for most of the time I was there. I don’t think they saw a single placard or display – it seems like they were only there to get pictures of the woman, looking off and feigning “deep thought.”
Despite this, I’ve been to a few concentration camps before – Mauthausen and Dachau, both with massive death tolls and HUGE, sprawling operations. That being said, neither of them could have prepared me for Auschwitz.
However, I do think it was an important place to visit. Like the other concentration camps I’ve visited, I believe everyone should visit at least once – so they can get the true scale and the true nature of the destruction of human life by other humans. Reading about it in a textbook or seeing a movie about it or whatnot is one thing, but actually going to see it – to read stories of firsthand experiences, or to see the buildings where death made itself home – is much more important, I think. It is important so that we can make sure it will never happen again. It is important so that people cannot DENY the existence of such horrendous crimes. With increasingly right-wing, xenophobic, neo-Nazi parties on the rise (AfD in Germany and the FPÖ in Austria, or parties elsewhere), it is important to understand and to personally witness the effects of such ways of thinking.
Unfortunately, due to the limited amounts of buses that I could take to get back to Krakow, I had to leave earlier than I would have liked to. However, I still had quite a bit of time to spend and reflect in both camps, which I appreciated. Hopefully, in the future, I’ll be able to get back and actually take a tour so that I can better understand certain parts of the camp that weren’t covered when I was alone.
When I got back to Krakow, I bought yet another charger, and this one finally worked! I spent most of the rest of the day getting things done – I shipped a bag home that I needed desperately to get off my hands, and I went and bought groceries for the next few days. While I was out, I heard the trumpeter of Krakow – by tradition, the song cuts off in the middle of it, because the old trumpeter was shot in the throat while playing by Mongol invaders in 1241, so the song cuts off every time it’s played.
Afterwards, I got a text from Iona that she and Emma had ordered too much food so they wanted me to come and finish it. I was all the way across town, but I’m not going to turn down some fries when presented with them! So I headed over to the restaurant and met up with them, and we ate and talked for a long while. It was a really good, long conversation, about home & our experiences and other things. Also, it turns out that Iona knows my friend from elementary school, Nicolo, who moved out to Arizona in 5th grade! It was really nice to get to know Emma and Iona better – I’d only known them for a couple of days but it felt like I’d known them for a long time! Afterwards, we decided to head out to another karaoke bar. It was another really fun night with the two of them, and I left Krakow having made two new friends!
After a while in the karaoke bar, we headed back to our hostel, and I headed out to do some night photography, mainly because I wanted to test out camera settings and work on manual shooting/bokeh.
Also, here’s a video from the karaoke bar. We all thought this guy was hilarious:
In the morning, we got breakfast in our hostel and talked for a little while longer, then we all headed our separate ways – they were heading back to school, and I headed to the train station to get to Warsaw, so that I could take a night bus to Vilnius, Lithuania. But first, I wandered around town for a little while, getting one last look of Krakow before I had to leave:
I got into Vilnius the next morning, and hit the ground running. I only had a full day in Vilnius, so I first headed to a little art squat (like Metelkova, in Ljubljana) next to a river. It was a really cool spot – quiet, with no-one around, and there were lots of pianos and abstract art scattered around. It was really green and serene, and I sat there and listened to music for a little while.
It was a really cool spot, totally out of the way; for as little time as I had in Vilnius, I really enjoyed it. It was absolutely lovely, and very quiet.
From the art squat, I wandered around town and headed to another park along the river, where I sat and ate breakfast/early lunch.
I then headed to the Vilnius Cathedral and to a museum on Freedom Fighters in Lithuania/the KGB Museum of Lithuania. The museum was situated in an old KGB prison, where hundreds of people were imprisoned and executed. The museum used to be called the “Genocide Museum” but it barely mentioned a thing about the Holocaust – it was mostly about the USSR’s crackdown on Lithuanians who went against them – so there were accusations of Holocaust denial.
They changed the museum’s name to the “Museum for Freedom Fighters”/also known as the “KGB Museum,” and added a section on the Holocaust, which was actually quite well-done.
The museum itself was quite fascinating – it covered a lot of the resistance to the German occupation of Lithuania, then the USSR’s occupation of Lithuania, and a lot of the war that went on in that region, against both sides, which we don’t really talk about at all in the US. It covered the bloody crackdowns from both Germans and Soviets against the Lithuanian freedom fighters, and as the museum was in an old KGB prison, it (of course) talked a lot about the Soviet efforts to quash the rebels. It was filled with old communist relics, and many of the offices/prison cells were equipped with the same things that they had when they were still used.
The last room in the prison was the execution room. It played films of executions taking place – right where we were standing – and the bodies being thrown out the window. It was incredibly grim, and you could still see the bullet holes on the wall. Many of the people that came in had to leave just because of how horrendous it was. I didn’t take any pictures in this room (for fairly obvious reasons).
From the KGB Museum/Museum for Freedom Fighters, I headed to a local café to settle travel plans to Finland and whatnot, and I wandered around town a little more.
Unfortunately, I had to get to the bus station early because the baggage storage closed 3 hours before my bus left, so I grabbed dinner, hung out by the art district for sunset, then went to the bus station and had picked up my bag. Unfortunately, by the time the bus came, the restrooms were closed, so I had to find a really sketchy alleyway. And by really sketchy, there was NO light anywhere to be seen, it was pitch black, and there were fait 666, swastikas, etc. spray painted on the walls, knives on the ground, and a huge abandoned lot. By the time I ended up using the bathroom, there were only 8 minutes or so until my bus was set to leave (and this alley was a ways away from the bus stop) and there was a large group of guys coming towards me and making a ruckus in the alleyway (I assumed they were drunk), so I sprinted back to the bus stop.
And with that, I woke up in Estonia! I headed from the bus stop to the ferry port, where I was to board a ferry to Finland.
Z miłością z Krakowa/Su meile iš Vilniaus/Mit Liebe aus Krakau und Wilna,
No phrases for this post!
SONG: “Donna” by The Lumineers. Fantastic song.