I’m standing by the side of a busy Krakow road with little sleep and getting drizzled on. Nobody is stopping. They need to hurry up as well because I want to be out of the country before a certain special lady receives a bunch of thirteen yellow roses with red tips. Yes I know it’s a stupid thing to do and totally pointless but it’s one last shot across the port bow. I don’t really know what I was hoping to achieve, but I didn’t want to hang around to tempt myself any further into melancholy.
I was about to throw in the towel having convinced myself I wasn’t in a good spot, when I spy someone leaning out of his car door. “Where do you want to go?” he asks in good English. “Rabka” comes my response, to which he replies he can take me to within a few kilometers before he goes to work. Big win.
An hour or so later and we’ve driven well past the original dropping point, fallen into spirited conversation and this hero of a man is going well beyond the call of duty. He’s eventually deposited me at a small town a few miles from the Slovak border, in a great spot to grab a second ride. Sir, I salute you; the world needs more people who share your generosity.
I’m in the charming mountain town of Bukowina Tatrzanska, which I can’t actually see much of as it’s getting dark. With the fading light brings the chill, but I’m good spirits regardless thanks to probably the most remarkable hitch to date. I give the roadside an hour or so before deciding to call it a night. It’s a little too quiet here to have success, but with plenty of accomodation on offer, I opt to bed down in alpine chalet digs. I’m the only guest, and for around four pounds I’m treated like a king, with a cosy room, a hearty meal, and Polish vodka with the sozzled landlord who doesn’t speak a word of my mother tongue.
“No kompuuterr!” He demands as he closes my laptop lid and thrusts me a drink.
“I wouldn’t understand him even if he spoke English right now!” I laugh sometime later to the little Polish waitress who can speak a little. “He say’s he doesn’t even understand himself” she translates back, his aging, pockety face glowing red with the booze, grinning from ear to crumpled ear. Every time he mumbles a comment I don’t understand, he raises his half empty glass to cheers mine. Who needs to understand another language? A filthy hand with signs of work, wear and tear is extended as I bid good evening, with dirt under overlong fingernails. I shake it warmly. I was blessed tonight in seeing a side of travel not many are graced with, and thankful that such hospitality and kindness still exists in the world. People are good. People are good.
So on no sleep whatsoever I force myself to finally do two walking tours to see the city. Around 10 am I’m necking a double espresso in a cafe just off the main square, blinking through bleary eyes and feeling boozy-party-come-down-paranoia you only regularly get from staying out all night on the sauce. It’s going to be a long day.
I’ve done enough free walking tours to merit some kind of free walking tour badge. The reason I go on these meandering waffling escapades is because, A: it’s free, and B: it’s a lazy way to be led round the sites to take some nice pictures. Most of the dates, figures, kings, queens, waifs, etc, etc breeze over my head, especially when I’ve not slept. Once you’ve seen one walking tour, you’ve seen them all. Not so with Krakow.
It’s a beautiful city, no doubt about that, but with such a turbulent and haunting past. Poland hasn’t been a recognised country for very long, clamoring against the struggles and strife’s of it’s noisy neighbours. As such Krakow has a real mix of influences, from Baroque through Gothic through art deco. It’s a grey, overcast morning, and I decide to shoot black and white, with some hints of colour here and there. Yes I was probably getting all arty-wank and borrowing heavily from Battleship Potemkin, (and then later and more topical, the red coated girl in Schindler’s List); but I cared not. It somehow suited the history of the city.
Looking down to Saint Mary’s Basilica
It was the afternoon walk and subsequent visit to Schindler’s factory that really stole the show. Take an interest in what happened, add a dash of film affection-ado and a sprinkling of sobriety, and I was in my element; albeit a very somber and macabre one. The locations for shooting the film, what little remains of the ghetto, and the factory itself were all staunch reminders of mankind’s darkest hours. Yet there were glimpses of hope, of regeneration and reflect. On a bridge linking the Jewish quarter with the old ghetto, there were thousands of padlocks. While not strictly a Krakow custom, lovers would chain the lock to the railings, and throw the keys into the Vistula river, a symbol of their undying love. I photographed in colour. Round the corner, 33 empty chairs as part of the ghetto memorial, suggesting a feeling of absence. I shot in black and white.
Schindler’s factory has been turned into one of the finest museums of it’s kind in the world. If you’ve ever been to The British War Museum, or Eden Camp in North Yorkshire you’d know what you’re in for. Beautiful art instillations, powerful exhibits, you’re transported back in time with a real attention to detail. One of the most memorable sections involved walking through a replica of the inside of the ghetto. Everything was exactly how it would have been, with the sounds of a crowded home ringing in your ears. There must have been around ten people shoehorned into the room, from babies crying to women washing to grandpa fixing himself up in the mirror. And they were all made of white resin. Ghosts in the corridors of the past. Not for the first time a shudder down the spine as I moved on.
Then there was Schindler himself. A dodgy business man, a womaniser and an extortionist. He managed to bribe Nazi officials into saving the lives of over one thousand Jews destined for the death camps. However don’t believe everything you see in Spielberg’s masterpiece. The sensationalist director added some Hollywood spin of his own. Schindler never made the list himself, in reality only knowing a handful of his own staff. Nonetheless, and whatever his motives were, ‘he who saves one life, saves the world entire.’ There is hope in remembering those saved, but equally it is those who perished who must never be forgotten.
It’s dark by the time I lose myself in the Jewish quarter, lost both literally and imaginatively, almost overwhelmed by the things I’ve seen and learned today. Krakow is a city of extremes, with the shadowy remnants of the holocaust giving way to the seemingly endless drunken British and Irish stag nights. From a Soviet occupation just as detrimental as that of the Nazi’s, to a city rightly proud of their most famous son; Pope John Paul II. It’s finding it’s feet and has a bright future on the world stage. It pains me that I am forced to leave, but not without one last roll of the dice. Maybe one day I’d be clipping a padlock to a bridge, and throwing the keys into the water.
Looking down to Saint Mary’s Basilica
The theatre, modeled on the Paris opera house
Singing naughty songs
The largest square of it’s kind in Europe
Infamous for it’s pigeons, a Krakow witch was once said to turn all the kings knights into the birds
A famous window
The Jewish Quarter
Stairs used in Schindler’s list
Over the river to ghetto regeneration
Salvation awaits; the gates to Schindler’s factory
I’m writing this after being awake all night festering in a hostel room that smells of this guys farts. It’s actually alright once you’re used to it, but it’s when you walk back in from any length of time away that you’re hit with a wall of stench that’ll get right on your sick trigger. Of course this has nothing to do with not getting any sleep, I was merely setting the scene.
After another disappointment romance wise I’ve hit the self destruct button and gone off the rails. I genuinely felt that this had potential, before strings were cut and the ‘lets just be friends’ talk was delivered. What really surprised me though was just how much I was willing to change for the chance to have something that normal people seem to have. In her presence I was drinking less (if anything at all), not touching a cigarette, cooking nice meals and washing behind my ears. The body clock was back to something a little more healthy, rising in the morning, taking a shower, being an upstanding member of the public. I felt like I wanted to better myself and be worthy of her. Indeed in taking her to dinner, for the first time in ten odd years, I didn’t smoke the whole evening; in spite of a bottle of white and a number of pints. Change comes from within, but it was becoming apparent I require assistance in keeping myself on the straight and narrow.
So case in point I’ve subsequently just finished a three-day bender chasing the dragon and trying to replace someone I really miss. It hasn’t gone well. I’ve also been tearing my hair out regarding starting to make money while I travel, and getting incredibly depressed at the sheer amount of travel bloggers and writers that have been running the show before I’d set foot on a plane for the first time. “I’ve been using my blog to fund my worldwide travel for five years” comments one smug bastard. “Coming next; 25 tips on how to put your make-up on while riding on the back of an Elephant.” Or words to that effect. I’ve considered investing in a property but that just looks like a whole stack of crazy. A ‘ways to earn while you travel’ site suggested online poker. I’ve just moved that application to the recycle bin after bleeding chips to the tune of twenty bucks. Well; you know what they say; unlucky at cards, lucky in lo…oh wait. No that can’t be right either. I round off a disastrous couple of days in a darkened dorm room with that awkward moment you realise your earphones are not plugged in while watching porn.
Anyway all this furrowing of brows has kept my eyelids open for 24 hours in a lifeless, smelly hostel where someone recently poo’d on the toilet seat. I can only hope it wasn’t me in my sleep. I’m going to force myself to do a couple of walking tours today, after which I should be sufficiently exhausted and return to bed at no ungodly hour. Then I can rise early, throw the home on my back and stick the thumb out. Hopefully I’m not going to fall in love so easily in Slovakia.
James Peter Alden opened his eyes under the pillow. He wasn’t sure if he’d slept, but what snatches of rest he managed were troubled. The curtains did little to keep the light at bay, and grey though it was, it still filled the room with unrelenting brightness. He vaguely remembers losing his tenth game of online chess in a row, somewhere around six am. He was just staring through the screen moving pieces around randomly. It was somehow ironic. He felt like he’d been out all night, only not drunk or high. More was the pity. He felt something else entirely.
Working night shifts had taught him to cocoon himself with pillows over his head. It was the only way of keeping the day out, short of wearing one of those eye mask things, and he’d be damned if he was going to do that. He pressed the little snooze button on his travel alarm and tried to cram eight hours sleep into five minutes. For half an hour he snoozed at five minute intervals, before finally giving up and dragging his sorry frame into the shower.
Gazing at the cold tiles, he didn’t feel the tepid water, or care for it. Promising things had gone sour and the only course of action left was to leave. He couldn’t quite fathom it, because everything had started surprisingly well. He settled on the lukewarm thought that it was nice to have known her, and there were plenty more fish in the sea. Billions in fact. Count them. Yet he was just looking for one. Well. Maybe three. An hour later he was somewhere new, and with that came endless possibilities. And to hell with it he guffaws; she didn’t like Batman anyway.
The two are generally unrelated, yet I spend a lot of time contemplating the graffiti above me as I suffer a lousy fever blister. Standing several freezing hours by the side of a road hasn’t helped, and neither has the events of the last few days. The surprising thing about this hostel bunk is that there is no graffiti. I contemplate writing ‘Justyna is a sexy bitch’, but it’s already been done in the hostel comments book. I’m nothing if not original.
The hard-hitting scenes of Auschwitz linger on through a grey couple of days and do my melancholy no favours. Only I can juxtapose meeting a nice girl with feeling miserable about it. This is largely due to the thing that has ballooned on my bottom lip. They have been the bane of my life for as long as I can remember, always as a direct result of some kind of stress. Quite what I have to be stressed about is beyond me, although the fact that she didn’t let me walk her home the other night is gnawing at my over sensitivity.
A week before my dads funeral and this behemoth of a cold sore appears in the same place it always does. It was hideous, and I was to be meeting and greeting friends and family, some of whom I’d not seen for years, some of whom I’d never seen. I was mortified. I was walking around with a huge blister plaster hanging from my bottom lip. It looked like my zombie skin was dangling off. Previous to this I was trying every home remedy under the sun; rubbing garlic on it, tea bags, tea tree oil, salt, toothpaste, urine, paint stripper, battery acid, you name it. I can only assume the stress of the situation had caused such an embarrassment. There were more important things to fret over.
So here I am yet again feeling some sort of upset and stress, enough to cause the little bastard to form. It’s not so bad if I’m shut up in my own flat, but out on the road meeting new people in hostels and it’s a nightmare. Consequently I’ve hidden myself away, regardless of the invites to party, and do my best to speak with a hand over my mouth when the nice girl is chatting in my room.
Of course it’s all trivial problems, especially concerned with what I saw yesterday, but at its root is something boring a hole into my soul. After seeing the heartbreak at the death camp, I have an overwhelming sense to do some good in the world and be a better person. Yet I’m beginning to question what it is I’m actually looking for, which is ultimately related to whether or not I am doomed to walk the earth alone. Isn’t there a nice girl out there who wants to paint an orphanage in Romania?
I’ve been looking at how to earn some money online, or teach English, work abroad, earn money travel writing, earn money from this blog, earn money any which way how. There are millions of jobbing travelers out there who all want to get paid for writing some shitty article about nice places to eat cake in Paris. Everyone has a travel blog, everyone wants a slice of the pie, and everyone is sucking each others dicks to get you to read theirs. Where do I actually want to be? Who do I want to be with and what can I offer them? I’ve not been working for so long I’ve probably forgotten everything I ever learned. My CV would be largely blank, with ‘will pose nude for food’ under my contact details. What happens if I do randomly meet the girl of my dreams in some backwater town and she’s a goat herder who yearns to go to Harvard to study Bio-metric science? Do I try for a position as a Boston freedom trail tour guide? How can I form lasting relationships on the road, when so far it’s just been flashes in a pan and instant friends in a cup?
The cold sore chuckles its satisfaction. It’s surfaced for a reason, to highlight my current discontent with my circumstances, and pointless worrying for nothing. I’ve got to keep this girl interested long enough for it to go away, then I can get rejected for a smoking hot Aussie and leave for Slovakia. I wish I had all the answers. I knew someone who would have.
I’ve had a whirlwind couple of days since arriving in Krakow in less than spectacular fashion. Most notably taking the angel behind the hostel desk out to dinner and generally punching above my weight. Today however, it’s time to put things into perspective. I’m visiting Auschwitz.
It’s the only reason I decided to turn North into Krakow a few months back. I wasn’t originally planning on seeing a bit of Poland, but I was pleased to discover the infamous camp located not too far from the city. I’ve always wanted to visit it, be it part of my fascination with the historical macabre, or simply to pay my respects. In the end it turns out to be a bit of both, but I leave with the shamefulness of the later generations. We really don’t know we’re born.
The sheer scale of the Nazi war machine was astounding, so much so that you almost have to admire the unbelievable logistics of it. Fighting a war on four fronts, occupying so many countries solidly and managing to exterminate over 100 million European Jews. Looking back now how was that possible? Where did the man power come from? When driving through small backwaters in the dark corners of Europe, you realise that German military muscle would still have been stationed there, tightening their grip on the continent. One can only imagine what might have been had they used such capacity for good.
Birkenau gate of death
I’ve chosen to take the tour that picks you up from your lodging for the sake of ease. You’re handed a headset and radio receiver, not for pre-recorded audio, but so you can hear your guide from distance. For the off-season, the place is still full, and we shuffle around in little sheep packs. I’ve been preparing myself for the shock of this place, but I honestly cannot write the words to describe the feelings I felt from the things I’ve seen today. Certainly not any better than has been penned before. It almost doesn’t deserve words, more so to just visit this place of horror and stand in respect and contemplative silence. The amount of human hair shaved from the corpses, the thousands of shoes, children’s suitcases, shaving brushes and prosthetic limbs and crutches. All displayed behind glass, all echoing a chilling past.
Cold eyes stare from camp record photographs. Bullet holes in walls. Dark starvation cells. Gas chambers. Railway track sidings and transports. Sentry towers. Horrible living conditions. It was a conveyor belt of death. Millions shipped in from miles around, and ‘selected’ for work or death. In the end, most became the latter regardless.
The firing wall between blocks 10 and 11
Prisoners were told they would receive a hot meal and registration for a new way of life after they had a shower. They labeled their things, and tied shoes together to be collected after washing. Filed into underground chambers complete with fake shower heads, Zyklon B gas was dropped in from the roof by the SS. About 2000 men, women and children would be dead within 15-30 minutes.
Prisoners starved, were hung, tortured, worked to death, froze to death, died from disease, were experimented on, humiliated, gassed, shot and burned. Workers fit enough to help with the extermination found themselves burning their own family members, then they were liquidated themselves, and a new team drafted in. The first job of the new laborers was to dispose of the old ones. A never-ending nightmare.
One story struck me right at the end. A 15-year-old girl was found alive among the gassed dead after one extermination. A Jewish camp doctor at first attempted to hide her, but an SS officer was wise to it. The doctor begged and pleaded with the officer that she must be allowed to live. The chambers had one rule however, once you went in, you weren’t coming out alive. At 15 years of age, they believed her too young to not keep her mouth shut about what she had seen, and she was shot in the back of the head. The cowardly bastards did their best to cover up the atrocities here, but with the Soviet liberation in 1945 and the smuggled evidence from prisoners risking their lives, it wasn’t to remain secret for very long. All too little, all too late.
Block 11. The death block. No photographs allowed inside. A basement of horrors.
Standing in quiet reflection at the end of the train tracks of extermination camp Birkenau and the trivialities of life seem to pale into insignificance. It makes you want to be a better person. It makes you think twice about whining about some first world problem or ‘FML’ facebook status update. It’ll slap you in the face and tell you to get a hold of yourself.
You must visit here. Everyone must. We must ensure that the generations to come know all about it so that it can never happen again. My hand is on a harsh, cold, wooden bunk, fit for two people, that actually crammed in around eight or nine. I picture the prisoners there. I see their faces. I hear their cries. And I have never known a broken heart.
Birkenau gate of death
The firing wall between blocks 10 and 11
Block 11. The death block. No photographs allowed inside. A basement of horrors.
“Work shall set you free”
Electric fence at the main gate
Thousands of hair, shoe and shaving brushes
Prosthetic limbs and crutches
Over 40,000 pairs of shoes recovered
Children’s suitcase. Petr Eisler, born 1942, arrived and died at the camp shortly after
The main gate
Between the fences
Camp commandant Rudolph Hoss met his end here in 1947. Until then he was living in a beautiful house and grounds with his family, just yards from the incinerators
Reconstructed gas chamber
Electric fence sign
Auschwitz II Birkenau
Sign on the Birkenau death gate
Walking to the platform
Recovered train car. Hundreds crammed in for days at a time, traveling from all over Europe, they would not see daylight until the door opened on the platform
Rose on train car door
Jewish women return from a memorial service
The end of the line
The memorial plaque in 22 languages. 22 nationalities suffered and died here at the hands of the Nazis
Standing in front of the ruined chambers
Gas chamber two ruins
Gas chamber ruins
Birkenau barrack interior. Several people crammed into the space fit for two. Those at the top froze in winter, those at the bottom slept in mud