RyanAir, how we’ve missed your yellow and blue seats, your indiscernible cabin instructions and your sale of scratchie tickets. Some things never change…
Arriving late at night and sitting aboard the bus at John Paul Airport (named after the Pope), we watched safety videos about Krakow trams. Gory pictures caked in blood, with a narrative in Polish and subtitles in English were in store for anyone who dared consider running the gauntlet of Krakow trams. We found our host flustered trying to mend her broken bicycle (she didn’t need to rush as we were about an hour late) and made our way out at midnight for a late dinner. While we weren’t too sure of the exchange rate, our 15 zloty burger meals worked out on conversion to roughly 3 pounds ($6 NZD) each. Really good value, get in before the Euro does.
Making our way around the Old Town the next day we were shrouded by morning haze in the now gentrified Jewish Quarter and made good distance dodging students on their bikes and mushing wet yellow leaves into the pavement. Wawel Hill and its’ Castle gave us a good vantage point to pick our next destination.
Negotiating the tram system over the river and to Oskar Schindlers’ factory was a bit of a headache. But once we got there, it paid off, being one of the better WWII museums we had ever seen, with displays and relics from the local Jewish population salvaged during the Nazi occupation. Schindlers desk remains untouched. Ceramic mugs, plates and bowls his factory made for military issue were piled high in a monument to his daring kindness to save many lives in the face of the horrible crimes happening nearby.
Returning by taxi to catch the All Blacks vs England match in the local Irish Pub was probably the best call of the day – turning out in time for the haka and to see the pub full of English fans. The victory was all the more sweeter, since we have been living in England. Again the meals were really good value coming in at about 100 zloty (£20) for a seven course meal. The vodka was something else, flavourful, but not too sweet, smooth, but all the while potent.
Sunday we had a bit of a nightmare getting out to Oświęcim by train. Once on the train; we got accustomed to it rocking and grinding its way slowly along the tracks with the other passengers dutifully waited in the cabin for the ticket operator (we were too used to London Tube etiquette). Seventy years ago, the same train-tracks carried a much more sinister purpose – transporting masses of prisoners into the camps. We rolled into the station near Auschwitz-Birkenhau, the largest of the Nazi concentration camps for Jews and political prisoners. Cold, systematic and calculated mass murder took place here. Barracks stretched for hundreds of metres, spaced widely apart. Some were adapted stables, cold enough to see your breath, even in the autumn sun. This camp was massive in scale, factory like, and had purpose built chambers, designed to strip valuables, administer Zyklon B poison and incinerate the dead. The ruthless efficiency of it all was disturbing. These buildings lay partially destroyed by the Nazi’s in an attempt to conceal evidence. We joined large numbers of Israeli military, schoolchildren and elderly visiting, mourning and most importantly remembering.
The original Auschwitz camp was much closer to the town. Here, we found more displays, the gallows where Rudolph Höss was hanged following his trials at Nuremburg and the chilling first gas chambers and crematorium where nail marks remain worn into the concrete walls. The slogan “Work Will Set You Free” emblazoned high above the gates, a chilling reminder of our time at Dachau.
Auschwitz now serves as a reminder of these atrocities today, in the hope that it may never happen again. Sadly, from our time in Rwanda, we knew that similar atrocities perpetuated in other horrible circumstances.
After a wait in the dark cold for the bus back we slept the entire journey, exhausted before getting another bus out to airport. Our taxi driver taking us to our accommodation was exceptionally friendly and chatty in finding our lost hotel, a B&B up in the hills. He didn’t get a big fare from us as he set the price before (Mitch felt bad it might not even cover petrol). On arrival to the B&B late on a Sunday night, we found they had no card payments and with not enough money for lady she settled for a discount rate. Breaking the bed made the situation even more awkward for us as we made a swift exit promptly at 4am to fly back for a full day of work, bleary eyed and tired from our epic weekend in Poland.