By pure coincidence, I happened to be in Poland the week when temperatures in Europe were far below that of the North Pole. For Krakow this meant daytime highs of 15F and below, not factoring in wind chill. My Airbnb hosts frequently asked if I was warm enough. Yes, with the radiator in my room cranked all the way up I was quite toasty up in the lofted bed. When it came to spending time outside, though, it was a different matter entirely.
I’d reserved a spot on a free walking tour for the first afternoon after I arrived from Berlin. I found the group near St. Mary’s Basilica in Rynek Glowny, the historical town square, but after several minutes I dipped and took shelter in a coffee shop. (It if hadn’t also been snowing I might’ve stayed, but as it were I didn’t want to get my camera wet). For the duration of my stay, I willed myself to go out and explore between mid morning and late afternoon, but generally after six or seven in the evening did not leave the refuge of my cozy room.
Part of me felt like I should have pushed myself to go out more, but then my hosts told me about a recent guest of theirs from the Netherlands, who spent pretty much all four days of her visit cooped up inside. Instantly, I felt better about myself. All told, I took day trips to Auschwitz and the Wieliczka salt mine, and spent time exploring the Wawel Castle complex, old town and the Jewish Quarter. I even experienced the local post office (to buy postcard stamps and attempt to ship home an awesome movie poster I purchased; she didn’t have me fill out a customs form so I’m not entirely confident I’ll ever see it again).
I pre-booked my Auschwitz tour far in advance, only realizing the week of that it was slated for the coldest day that week (10F)! In a way it made the visit more atmospheric, as the guide related anecdotes such as the prisoners only having one uniform and that on the monthly washing day they had to go naked. What I wore that day: thermal tights, thermal leggings, jeans, wool socks, insulated waterproof hiking boots, three long sleeve thermal tops, a down quilted jacket, a hoodie, a waterproof parka, hat, scarf, and gloves. I was still cold, though, and intermittently losing sensation in my extremities, which made it slightly hard to focus, as though my brain were operating at half-speed.
Auschwitz is a place of unfathomable cruelty. Upon arriving at the visitor’s center, I was surprised at how much Auschwitz 1 felt like being on a movie set. Passing under the infamous sign bearing "Arbeit macht frei" (work makes you free), which is actually a reproduction as the original was stolen (and later recovered, though not re-installed), this part of the complex is populated by orderly brick buildings from the pre-Nazi days, when the site was a Polish military base. The ambiance is almost quaint, until you start to think about what happened inside these buildings.
The tour guide was all about the numbers and statistics, which she repeated quite frequently, but even so it was difficult to comprehend the sheer scale and inhumanity of the atrocities committed there. Perhaps most poignant in that part of the visit was seeing the vestiges of the victims - the infamous locks of hair (almost 2000 kg) shorn from the deceased before their bodies were sent to the crematorium, the suitcases and personal effects never to be reclaimed by their owners.
A short bus ride away, at Auschwitz-Birkenau, we trotted across the barren, frozen ground to see the remains of the main crematoriums, the wooden barracks that served as latrines, and the brick structures were prisoners were crammed into triple-decker bunks. We stood at the junction where a commander decided the fates of the newly arrived - to work in the camp or to go straight to the gas chamber. Only those deemed young and fit enough for labor were allowed to live, at least a little longer.
A couple days later I found myself wandering around Kazimierz, the Jewish quarter, home to several remarkable synagogues and now one of Krakow’s nightlife centers. The Galicia Jewish Museum provided the counterpoint I needed. As significant as Auschwitz is as a memorial and a reminder, it’s also become the poster child for a period that, in reality, encompasses a diverse array of experiences. Primarily a photography museum, although there is an excellent exhibit on Rywka Lipszyc, a teenager whose diary documenting everyday life in the ghetto was found by a Soviet doctor at Auschwitz and became the focus of a multinational collaboration to solve the mystery of her fate after the war (for more information refer to Diary from the Ashes), the collection emphasizes the extent to which the Jewish community was obliterated by World War II. All the photos of synagogues from around the region of Galicia, crumbling and in disrepair, broken tombstones in overgrown patches that used to be Jewish cemeteries, add another dimension to the already profound loss that is the Holocaust.
See more of Krakow, Auschwitz and Wieliczka on Flickr.