March 21, 2008
We traveled all day yesterday from Amsterdam to Berlin, where we met Greg (my flat mate), who had been traveling all week with his family. From Berlin (we were only there about 45 minutes), we go on an overnight train to Poland. Everyone, including Caitlin's Lets Go Europe book, warned us of the Polish trains so we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into! They don't have reservations on any of the Poland trains, so when we got there, it was just overloaded with people! It was really old, small, dirty and crowded. Everyone was really loud and just crowded the hallways. For about the first 45 minutes, we could not find a little room to go into so we stood in the hallway as well. Finally, the room we were sitting in opened the door and said there was room for Caitlin and I to come in and sit down. It was a car full of young people-probably 4 boys and one girl, but we were just happy to not be standing in the hallway. Caitlin nicely talked to them and they tried to teach her Polish but I couldn't stay awake and tried to sleep some. Apparently, the train we were on would split at some point and one end would go to a different city than Krakow, which is where we were headed. So, all of us had to run to the front of the train before the train split so we would end up in the right city. And this is where the rest of the train ride became AWFUL! We found a room actually right away in the front of the train. It was still crowded but someone had left so we were going to take his spot. Thankfully, there was room for all 4 of us. We ended up in a car with 3 old drunk men. They were probably 70 years old, and just drunk. One of them smelled like he had pooped his pants. It was disgusting. Well, the old man sitting across from Caitlin and I really grew fond of us. He would reach for us to touch us and he would play the piano on our knees. He spoke Polish, so we couldn't say anything to him all we could do was motion no and stop with our hands. It was terrible! I have never sat in such a smelly car and been surrounded by such gross old men! And I usually like old people! But finally, the old man who kept touching us passed out, and we were able to sleep a little bit after he fell asleep.
We got into Krakow at about 3 in the morning. We were only going to Krakow for the day and that was to see Auschwitz, the concentration camp. By that point it was pointless to find somewhere to stay, so we locked all of our luggage in storage at the train station and joined the homeless people by sleeping on the floor. They say every country has a distinct smell, and honestly, Poland smelled like a porta potty! It was awful! It got to the point where we couldn't sit in the train station anymore because the smell was inescapable! We walked outside and wandered around, hoping there would be a 24 hour McDonalds or something we could sit in. All we did was find an extremely expensive hotel and we used their bathroom to change and brush our teeth. We sat in the train station until about 7 and then took the first bus out to Auschwitz, which was about a 20 minute drive.
When we got there, it looked just as it does in pictures. We were shown a short 20 minute video of some of the history and some of the live footage of the use of the camp. It was kind of a preparer for what was to come. After the video, we went on a 4 hour walking tour of both main Auschwitz and also Auschwitz- Birkenau. Our guide told us stories, and took us through the barracks, the gas chambers, and crematories. It was really shocking to see everything and very hard to imagine. In one of the hallways, they had the pictures of the people who were at the camp and their arrival and death dates. It was pretty tough to look at. They showed us the living conditions of how they were back then, with the straw beds and making 400 people fit where only 70 horses were supposed to be. It was really eye opening to see something that happened to recently in our history. Our guide told us of jobs that people could have while they were in the camp, and that the best job would be in the toilets because the guards wouldn't come around the smell, so you had less of a chance of being killed or yelled at. She told us of a little girl who had to stand in the snow for the whole day because she had stepped out of line. She eventually had to get her feet amputated because of the frost bite. It was truly awful to see. They had rooms with 2 tons of woman's hair, suitcases, shoes, personal belongings, such as pots and pans, reading glasses, children's clothes and shoes, etc. On each of the suitcase, the owner had written their name, date of birth and destination across the side, making it even more personal. It definitely made it more real to me to see all of these things.
At the Auschwitz- Birkenau, they had ponds where the ashes from the crematories had been spread and there was still a faint but strong smell of them. Auschwitz-Birkenau is the camp that you see in movies like Schindler's List, with the train tracks and the big long building. That is where they dropped the Jews off and then they walked them straight down the 20 minute walk to take "showers" which were actually gas chambers. At this camp, the gas chambers had been half way blown up in war to cover the evidence, and the debris and most of the building still lay as it did. There was also a big memorial at this camp. It was a huge sculpture that symbolized the people from different nations had died.
Auschwitz was some place we all really wanted to go, but knew was not going to be the most "fun" trip. I learned a lot from that day alone, and it makes me want to go back and learn more now. It was very hard to look and realize that I was walking in the steps of so many people that were killed. But it was a very interesting day as well because it wasn't about touring, it was more about becoming aware of what really happened. Before I went to Auschwitz, I never really understood the full impact until I saw all of it and saw the faces of real people on the wall. The experience was definitelypositive one and definitely something you should go to if you are ever traveling Europe, because I am sure it'll shake you a little bit but you'll learn a lot from it.
After we went to Auschwitz, we headed back to the train station. We had a train to leave Poland at 10:05 pm. And of course, it was only like 6 pm. We went to a restaurant nearby and got some food. I tried a traditional polish dish of a potato pancake and I don't even know if I know what was on top of it! But it wasn't bad. We just hung out really and then went back to the train station. We found an internet station, so we all emailed home and just pretty much wasted time until our train out of Poland to Prague.
But Poland was good. It was more of a learning experience, and that was just fine with us. The train ride to Poland was a little iffy, but the experience was definitely worth the old men harassing us.