July 19, 2008

Kraków, Poland

Two hours southwest of Kraków is the town of Oswiecim—more commonly known by its German translation: Auschwitz.

Views of green and gold were wonderful as we gently meandered through the countryside in what looked like the type of public metro bus you'd commonly find in the United States. Homes passed varied greatly in style and age, with some seeming oddly out of place—almost Spanish/Mediterranean in appearance. Some still sported the same aging roofing material found later on the buildings of Auschwitz.

Poles seem to obsess as much as Germans do when it comes to yard maintenance—hardly a blade of grass out of place on the hundreds of homes we passed by. Many had elaborate gardens in their (always) fenced in yards.

Poland's zebra stripes

As visible from the ground as it was from the air is the odd zebra striping of agriculture in the region. Most any home that had soil was growing something, and it was quite common to see a very long, narrow strip of property growing a swath of wheat only 10 feet wide by hundreds of yards deep.

There were hundreds (thousands?) of people visiting the death camp turned memorial complex, but I did my best to avoid capturing the masses in the photos that I took. Many were traveling in guided tour groups, which made it easy to have moments of peace in an otherwise busy place of remembrance.

Worn stairs of stone

We both really hated the stampeding tour groups, though to the complex's credit, all the participants wore headphones and a receiver tuned into the channel of their guide (who wore a headset mic). This simple, but very effective practice is designed to keep people from clawing and clamoring to stay next to a shouting guide leader. I'm sure it would've been very educational, but neither of us could ever be lead around by someone like that—especially Aidric, who sometimes makes very untimely demands.

Auschwitz isn't one location, but actually grew into three. We stayed for about four hours at the original concentration camp, Auschwitz I, and then called it a day. Between the people, imagery, and baby, it was a draining eight hours of travel and exploration.

Out of everything seen today, I think the exhibit containing two tons of human hair was the most impacting. When Soviet troops liberated Auschwitz in January 1945, they found seven tons of human hair, all shorn from victims' scalps imprisoned and killed by Nazis. The hair was pending sale and transport back to Germany (for use in the war industry as a raw material).

The smell in the room was so overpowering that it clung to me for a while after leaving the building.

Having visited Dachau in 1996 and Auschwitz today, I think I've had my fill of concentration camps for at least the next decade.

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