Thursday, May 14, 2015


If you have been following my posts on Instagram, you know I've been traveling through Europe the past 10 days. I started in Amsterdam, then Berlin, and finished in Krakow. I'm writing my post from Krakow first because I have much more to say about Krakow than the other cities. I also think it will help me process the heavy subjects I encountered while there. 

I didn't take the average Joe tour of Krakow. I went specifically to tour Auschwitz. While many may find this something they'd rather not see, I think it is important to learn, experience, and remember. Anyway, I'll get to Auschwitz later.

Monday 11 May 2015

I left Berlin on an early flight and landed in Krakow Monday morning. I should point out that this was my first time to travel solo (other than my previous day trips around England). I had a car waiting for me and was transported straight to the hotel. As I was traveling alone I got on trip advisor and planned what I wanted to do for the day and headed out the door!

My hotel was located in the Jewish District of Krakow. Well, it used to be the Jewish District, before WWII. I was right down the road from 2 synagogues and the Jewish Museum.

Originally I didn't want to tour the Jewish Museum. I had found on TripAdvisor that there was a concentration camp on the outskirts of the city and I wanted to beeline there to give myself enough time to see it.

However, I ended up going into the Jewish Museum and I'm so glad I did. It's one of the best museums I've been to in a long while. I spent a good 2 hours there reading everything and going through their books. I ended up buying the catalogue for their permanent exhibition! It has been a while since I've been to an exhibition about the Holocaust and have learned something new. I have never specifically studied Poland and its Jewish history and their exhibition was fascinating and also heavily moving. This is one of the perks that comes with traveling alone. I can spend 2 hours in a museum and actually experience it without worrying about other people wanting to see different things in the city.

Next I found Schindler's factory as it was on the way to the concentration camp. This time I did not go into the museum, I just snapped a pic and was on my way.

And here is my not so great shot of the iconic gates at Schindler's Factory.

At this point I hopped on a tram to take me to the closest stop to the concentration camp. The name of the camp is Plaszow and I had no idea what to expect. I'd never heard of this place and didn't know if it was out in the country somewhere on a road that wouldn't be safe to walk down.

What I encountered was not what I had envisioned.

I got off the tram and followed my google maps to where it said the concentration camp was. I was wandering through suburbs of family homes and apartment complexes.

Then I turned down a street and the road turned into a skinny lane of asphalt that disappeared into the trees.

There were people walking and women with strollers taking their babies for an early afternoon walk.
After about 10-15 minutes of walking the trees cleared and I saw this:

It's a memorial to everyone who was killed at the Plaszow Concentration Camp.

Other memorials in Polish and Yiddish dotted the open area, and I found myself, yet again, walking on a path through the trees.

When this path opened up I found something different.

This memorial is dedicated to the mass grave on which it is built. There are multiple sites of mass graves still at the former location of Plaszow and this is a known spot. (I ended up googling the concentration camp after about 2 hours of wandering around the site, which is how I found out all this information.)

Once again, I found myself on another pathway through the trees. This time I found an expanse of gravel.

The yellow gravel, rock area to the left is where I'm guessing the barracks were. The buildings to the right are part of the suburb I walked through to find this. The entire time I was wandering around the site it was so bizarre that people could go about their daily life (walking around the "park" or soaking up some sun on their balcony) while knowing what used to be here. This is what I would've found had I walked through this site in the 1940's:

Barracks instead of an empty gravel field
image source:
Barbed wire instead of beautiful flowering trees.
image source:
I could see what looked liked ruins on the hillside beyond the gravel. When I reached it I realized it was a Jewish cemetery. The Nazis destroyed two Jewish cemeteries and used the tombstones as foundation for the barracks and other buildings at the camp.

The single grave marker that still stands.
One lone stone still stands at the site of the cemetery. It was actually featured in a photograph displayed at the Jewish Museum I toured a few hours before. I choked back tears as I wandered in and out between the ruined remains. What many don't realize is that the dead are treated with respect in Judaism, similar to Christianity. Not only did the Nazis murder mass amounts of Jews, but they treated them like animals while they were both alive and after their death. Burning them, burying them in mass graves, spreading their ashes in ponds and using the ashes as fertilizer.

At this point I began googling the camp. I didn't know how much more of it there was to see. 70 years ago, before the defeat of the Third Reich, the Nazis forced prisoners to destroy the camp. They tore apart barracks and blew up buildings and burned everything. However, there are still two buildings standing.

This house was where the head commander of the camp lived. What is strange is that it is situated between the family homes that line the street. I couldn't even walk on the same side of the street as it. I was creeped out and had a bad feeling when I saw it. I had to cross the street and hurry by, I can't even imagine living by such a place.

This house was used by SS officers who worked at the camp. They used the basement as a torture chamber for prisoners. What you can't see in this photo is that behind the house is a park where children were playing with their dogs and swinging on swings. It was all very surreal.

I wandered around for a few more minutes and then couldn't bear being there anymore. It was all too creepy and dark. I was one of the only people actually there to see the site of the camp. I passed maybe 5 other individuals who were riding bikes or pushing baby strollers. Its disgusting that the neighborhood now uses this former concentration camp site, where there are still MASS GRAVES, as a park to take an afternoon stroll.

I walked back through the neighboorhood with a different perspective. Never could I live in that proximity to a site where such cruelties happened.

Catching the train back into the city I decided to see the historic and tourist Krakow.

Basilica of the Virgin Mary. Gothic style architecture rebuilt in the 14th century. Every hour a trumpeter plays from the tower on the left in memory of the Trumpeter of Krakow, who saved the city and townspeople from a Mongol invasion.

Like I said, I didn't take a tour of Krakow like the normal tourists. I was more interested in the Jewish history of the city. That means all the buildings I saw I knew nothing about. The only reason I know about the trumpeter is because my mom texted me about it. Thanks mom!

Walking through the old town district was amazing. Every corner up ahead had another beautiful building.

The architecture of the city is amazing! I couldn't help but just take photo after photo of random buildings that lined the streets.

Some church that I ate ice cream by... I don't even know what its called.
I finally made it to Wawel Castle (pronounced "Vavel").

Wawel Cathedral
Which also happens to be the site of Wawel Cathedral.

I headed back to my hotel to call it a day and found some interesting places in the Jewish district.

This is the entrance to the Old Cemetery at Remu Synagogue. Some stones in this cemetery are from the 12th and 13th centuries!

This is a former Tora Prayer House that is now a residential building. After WWII, there were nearly no Jews left in Poland and many who were left did not return to their home town but immigrated to Israel or America. In the 1990's many of the single story buildings were built on top of and used for new purposes. There are also multiple restaurants in the area that used to be important sites for daily Jewish life before the war.

Tuesday 12 May


"Work makes you free"
I woke up super early to catch a bus to Auschwitz. This was what I came to Krakow for and I was going to try and spend as much time there as I could. Unfortunately, the bus I tried to catch had mechanical problems and we had to wait over half an hour for another bus to arrive. Auschwitz is about an hour and a half outside the city by bus. I arrived right at 10am. Starting in April, the beginning of peak tourist season, everyone that enters the camp from 10-3 must be accompanied by a guide. Normally the camp is free to enter for individuals, but as my bus broke down and I arrived at 10, I had to pay for a guided tour. This completely changed my experience.

Auschwitz I
The tour guide was okay. I was in a group of about 25 and she took us through the museum aspects of Auschwitz I, which was the labor camp.

Then we shuttled to Auschwitz II/Birkenau, the death camp.

This is my photo, I couldn't help but edit it in B&W
The experience I had at Auschwitz was entirely different than the one I had just the day before at Plaszow. Being in a tour group made it feel like a class trip to a museum, a "and here is a model of where cavemen lived" type feeling.

It might also have something to do with the fact that everything is still there, well at least for the most part. The Nazi's didn't successfully destroy everything, just a lot of the barracks and the crematoriums at Auschwitz II/Birkenau. Since Auschwitz was the biggest, and we know a lot of what happened within its barbed wire fences, it was not as much of a shock to me as Plaszow.

Rail car used to deport Jews to "the East" 
Where the tracks ended. At the crematoriums.
I won't go into all the details of what I saw at Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II/Birkenau, but I will say the camp was massive. This is now the 4th concentration camp I have visited and the sheer scale is unfathomable. None of my photos did the camp's size justice, but it was a massive beast while it was at full steam.

After the tour was over I wandered through the camp some on my own as the tour did not cover every single building.

It was difficult to walk through the camp and understand the cruelty that took place there. Poland is gorgeous, and walking through Auschwitz, the grounds were also beautiful, blooming with many different wildflowers. It hurts my heart to know that the people who suffered here saw the spring and the blooming flowers but yet were still surrounded by such atrocities.

Once again, I found it too much to bear to stay there any longer so I headed back to Krakow.

I think it is important for everyone to visit a concentration camp. Our guide said it best when she said, "it is not always something we want to do, but it is something that needs to be done." However, it is scary to think that while people can visit and see and learn, nothing will change until we apply and respond to what we saw. History has a sly way of repeating itself.

It was a long bus ride back to the city. I was sunburned and mentally and physically exhausted. I was going to go straight to my hotel and ask for suggestions for dinner, but then I found an Israeli place around the corner and it was perfection! Just what I needed after an emotionally strenuous day.

My waiter was cute, and the food was amazing. I sat outside in the perfect weather and overlooked the Remu Synagogue while listening to reggae music about Israel.

Wednesday 13 May

I knew that I wanted to walk through the Jewish ghetto before I left. So, my last morning in Krakow, I set out to walk the perimeter of the Jewish Ghetto during WWII. I felt the need to do this. By doing this the people who suffered are not forgotten.

I started in the Ghetto Heroes Square where there is a memorial to the Jewish Ghetto and Krakow Jews. These are oversized bronze chairs whose emptiness makes you realize how void Krakow is of its once thriving Jewish community.

The ghetto was tiny. As I walked the perimeter I realized just how small it was for so many people to be crammed into one little area.

Some buildings, like the one pictured above, have plaques that commemorate what tragedies happened there. Unfortunately, these plaques are few and far between. The map I was following showed 3 mass killing sights within the ghetto and I couldn't locate any of them on the street, the sites have turned into hotels and tram stops.

It took me a while to locate a surviving section of the ghetto wall.

It is the right section of the wall. The wall was shaped like tombstones, which only acted as a foreshadowing of what was to come.

At this point I tried to get closer to the wall but ended up walking up a large hill and finding an open field with a beautiful view of the city.

Hiking up the large hill, urban hiking at its finest

Path at the top of the hill.

Field on top of hill.

View from top of hill.
Looking across the field I could see another large open field beyond and I decided to head in that direction. It took me to Krak Mound, the resting place of the legendary King Krakus, fabled founder of the city of Krakow.

There it is, Krak Mound.

View from the top of Krak Mound.
I wore my chacos on my entire 10 day trip. They were the only pair of shoes I packed. Now my feet are very tan with a chaco tan line and my legs are still very white as I wore pants the entire trip. I keep looking at my feet thinking there is dirt on them, nope, just sun damage.

beautiful view of Krakow from the top of Krak Mound.
From the top of the mound I could see some cliffs. This ended up being a limestone quarry. But, not any limestone quarry. This was the quarry that the prisoners of Plaszow were forced to work at.

Then I found a cemetery. A Christian cemetery. The Nazis didn't destroy this one, unlike the two Jewish cemeteries they destroyed. I kept walking, I knew I was close to Plaszow and at this point it seemed as if I was on a pilgrimage.

I found the camp and went back to the site of the mass grave where I found this small stone someone had placed there. It was a solemn walk into the Jewish ghetto, the same way the Jews were forced to move out of their homes in Krakow, then out of the Ghetto, the same direction they were forced into the camp, then to the quarry where they were forced to slave away for hours and hours every day, and then to the camp where they were forced to endure horrendous acts of cruelty, violence, and murder. I decided to walk back to the city center instead of taking a tram, I needed to clear my mind.

After my long walk and lunch in the square, I wandered around the city trying to spend my last Zlotys.

I honestly loved just walking around the city with nothing to do. The sights were amazing, I can't get over the architecture!

I didn't take hardly any selfies while I was in Krakow (sorry mom), but I did manage to take this selfie with some horses!
I ended up walking back to the castle. I knew there was a dragon statue somewhere, but I didn't know where. This is a statue of the same dragon that King Krakus defeated to found Krakow. The dragon's cave is beneath the castle.

I bought a ticket to go down to the caves below the castle. It cost a total of $1 (or 3 Polish Zloty) and I had some great views while taking the spiral stairs down the side of the castle.

The caves are real! And tourists only get to see a small portion of them. Apparently the caves runs for a long time underground.

Then you pop out of the caves and see this guy. He's a pretty awesome statue. Was designed by a contemporary artists AND breathes fire.

After the caves it was time for me to head back to the hotel to get a ride to the airport. So I took a leisurely stroll down by the river back toward the hotel.

I really didn't want to leave. For my first time traveling alone, Krakow was the perfect city to visit. I felt safe the whole time and mostly everyone spoke English. I do think I missed out on a lot by traveling alone. Traveling with a group means sometimes you do and see things you wouldn't normally, and I definitely missed out on those things. I also wanted to take a segway tour while I was there but thought it would be lame alone, if I were with friends it would've been a blast.

So, I headed back to the airport, and I'll spare you the dramatic details, but my 10 day trip that began with my being jet lagged from getting back to the states ended by getting back to my room in London at 3am. I am thankful that I actually made it back at this time and not any later because it truly was an insane night trying to get back to London safely!

I hope, if you made it through this long post, that you found it interesting and that it stirred something inside you about the gruesome past of human people and the need to combat the current cruelties that are still occurring around the world.

More from my time in Amsterdam and Berlin will be up soon!

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