So That History Should Not Repeat

Day 537 – 19 August, 2016

It should come as no surprise that Kraków is loaded with history. Dipping into Poland was a thought that had never crossed my mind until I skipped a few small towns in Hungary due to logistical hiccups and all of a sudden, I had extra time on my hands. And choosing Kraków as the place where I would spend my extra days was an ideal choice for a history buff like me.

I stayed in the old part of the city that is bustling with street music and cafes, but a walk in the Jewish quarter started to bring that history home in a harsh way. Schindler’s factory, the old and new synagogues, the old cemetery, and a chair memorial in a notorious square meant to symbolize all of the people that left from that very place and never came back.

I had mixed feelings about whether I wanted to visit Auschwitz, the Nazi concentration camp where millions of people perished during World War II. It doesn’t seem like a place that should be a tourist attraction, but ultimately I decided to go because I wanted to better understand what happened even if there would never be an answer as to why. The tickets are free, although you must reserve them several months in advance. I had not done this, of course, so I signed on with an organized tour. The tour was extremely rushed out of necessity, yet the guide offered a lot of good information and I was glad someone was explaining the important parts of the site.  

We visited both Camps I and II of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Our guide led us through the ruinous living quarters where people slept three high on hard wooden bunks and the only remaining gas chamber that wasn’t destroyed before the Soviets arrived. There was a glass-enclosed room full of shoes of all sizes that the prisoners were required to leave when they arrived. Another room was full of human hair that had been shaved and was destined to be turned into a rug and presumably sold in a legitimate market. My biggest surprise was the sheer size of the place. You hear how many people were housed there and you know it was a massive scale, but to actually see the rows and rows of barracks stretching for a kilometer in each direction was sickening. Many of the actual structures are only a foundation now, though. Natural decay and deterioration are beginning to reclaim some of the buildings, but the government has decided against restoring anything for future generations to witness. All will remain as it was – it is a cemetery after all.

Nearly all the tourists maintained a level of somber reverence.  People took photos but not aggressively so.  Everyone spoke softly.  Terrible unspeakable things happened here, yet to be sure, those visiting Auschwitz that day or any day won’t soon forget how dangerous it can be to subscribe to bigoted dogmatic zealotry.  “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Back in Krakow, I was in need of visiting a place without such a dark history so I chose the Wieliczka Salt Mine, which came highly recommended.  I took the train to Wieliczka there and back without a tour and I was highly in the minority. The ticket lines for group tours and for Czech language tours stretched on for miles. To my surprise, I sauntered right up to the front of the foreign language individual non-group line (yes, they were that specific) and walked right in. Everyone that enters must be accompanied by a guide so I still had to wait with the other English speakers. We ultimately went down 135 meters to the third level below ground where the temperatures were chilly and damp, passing in and out of caverns with nine centuries of history. To this day, the mine still produces 12,000 tons of salt per year, mostly as a byproduct of the 6000-9000 kg of water that must be pumped out daily. The chapel cavern hosts weddings on a regular basis and I can see why. The dim cathedral was illuminated with opulent chandeliers for an impressive elegance.

I really enjoyed Krakow, in spite of its sad past.  I was so happy to have decided to go there and wished I had more time to explore more parts of Poland.  So I tell this final story with resignation when on my final night, a large-shaped American girl checked into my dorm room in the bunk above mine around midnight. I was already asleep but I was awoken by a smell not unlike moldy cheese and I sat bolt upright. What IS that??? I politely asked her if she smelled something funny. She said sorry and picked up her SHOES and took them out of the room, although the smell lingered on her feet when she came back to the bed. These are normal things to deal with in a dorm room so I wrapped my face in a blanket and attempted to go back to sleep. A few minutes later, a godawful bulldozer sound was coming from the ceiling. Actually, no, that would be the sound coming out of her giant trap. In a 10-person dorm, 9 of us were awake trying to figure out what to do. A French guy from the next bed over dramatically threw his blanket aside, jumped out of bed, and poked her. She woke, he told her to cut it out, and went back to bed. Fifteen minutes after that, she’s wailing again, and again the French guy, not so politely, comes back to give her a shove. He tells her that the whole room is awake and can’t sleep and she needs to fix her problem. I was sitting underneath, silently, and feeling a little sympathy because after all, no one can really help it if they snore. She was defensive, rightfully so. They argued a minute and then I heard her cry. I felt even worse, but it was 1:30am and I didn’t want to get involved. I still said nothing. But I was wide awake, yet tired, and I wanted to sleep so I may have turned over a few times in bed. These beds were all metal and squeaky and if one person moved, everyone feels it. She leans over and whispers in an aggressive tone, “STOP!” You might as well have picked my jaw up off the floor. Really?! You’re telling me to stop moving in my own bed?! I was the one feeling sorry for you!! Ten more minutes pass and she starts flopping from side to side. I had already been using this time to get warmed up, but because I’m a wimp, I quietly whispered “Stop!” It’s hard to say whether I intended for her to hear me, but she did and that’s when World War III started. She yells that she can’t help the snoring, it’s not her fault, that I’m welcome to pay for her surgery to get it fixed. Did I tell you I never once mentioned the snoring? I was tired, she was waking up the whole room, and I did what I always do when I wanted to end the conversation….I swore (“F off”) and put my headphones in. Well, apparently that didn’t help. She yelled louder. My headphones couldn’t block it out. Again, maybe a little too loud, I said, “the only reason I was moving in the bed is because you woke me up SNORING.” I admit, all bad decisions. It was 2:00am. She yelled. No one else in the room said a word. I’m sure she was misdirecting her anger at me somehow after she had been woken up twice, although I might have been the only one on her side before that. The room still smelled like cheese. *sigh*. Eventually, I slept.

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