I went on my first ever guided travel tour today and I kind of get why people
sell out now. It was glorious getting driven to Auschwitz having an amazing,
organised tour and then getting taken home. No hassle. Nothing beats the
feeling of finding some place on your own, but this came pretty close.
This backpacker is even better than the Mosaic – it’s ridiculous. Everyone was so
helpful and my 20 minute call to ANZ to sort out my retarded travel card – cost
2 zloty (less than a dollar – felt guilty again). For $15 you get free internet
use, ridiculously cheap phone calls, free breakfast and tea, and clean
accommodation in the heart of Krakow.
I kind of thought I already knew what Auschwitz would be like before I came, but
it was genuinely confronting – which I know is a buzz word, but I can’t think
of any other way to describe it. The funny thing is that Auschwitz – which is
actually the German name for the town Oswiecim – is actually quite beautiful.
The buildings were old and cobbly, and with the trees shedding leaves, it was
more like a small peaceful village within a village. Very pretty and not at all concentration campy.
Obviously inside is different. Probably the saddest of the displays was a room with all
the paraphernalia from the Jews who came to Auschwitz. There were rooms filled
with human hair – 2 tonnes – which apparently were going to be used by the
Germans to make socks and other woolly goods, and there were other rooms piled
high with shoes, clothes, pots/pans, glasses etc.
Birkenau, (or Auschwitz Two) was the site of the majority of the mass killings. In short,
Auschwitz 1 was a concentration camp while Birkenau was an extermination
camp. Birkenau was bleak and not at all lovely and easier to imagine the
horrors of life in the camp. There were only remains of the gas chambers
because the Germans destroyed them just before the liberation to try and cover
up what had happened. In Auschwitz 1, they even built a fake hospital to try and
convince the workers to that they were not in an actual ‘concentration’ camp.
You get a really good idea of schoolyard dynamics when you’re on a tour. The goody
goodies are always at the head of the group and they’re always asking questions
and they always do exactly what they’re told. The brilliant thing was that if
you wanted to wander off – which all the cool kids did – you just had to wait for
the guide’s voice on the walky talky to fade out and you knew you were out of
range and probably had to stop lingering at the more interesting displays.
Our guide was the only comic relief of the day. He paused dramatically at the end
of every one of his spiels to further impress on us the gravity of the
situation. Ie.“And that, ladies and gentleman, is what they called….. the crematorium.” Pause pause very loud heavy breathing through our headsets. Then after he decided he had
established a sufficient level of sobriety, and with a little flourish, he’d
move on. “And that was the last thing,” heavy breathing heavy breathing – “the
boy did before he was sent off to Birkenau.” It sounded like he was going to
ask us to deposit 500 000 in unmarked zloty if we ever wanted to see our
families again. He would also ask us rhetorical questions that needed
answering. My favourite: “vould you like to shovel human excrement as your
job?” He held it for so long and looked so intensely at each of us that I
almost felt like yelling out “Not me sir, no sir – I would not like to shovel human
excrement sir,” just to break the tension.
I think he picked me as a bad egg from the start. I was really tired and the
first time I actually made it to the front of our group, I had to do a huge
yawn in the middle of his speech which he must have mistaken for apathy. I
honestly thought he was going to tell me to go back to the bus for the rest of
the tour. That or the gas chambers.
I’m really glad I did it though – it was great going with a group and the guide did
know what he was talking about so I can forgive him his theatrical flourishes.
So I was a total tourist, because I moved on then to the ancient salt mines in
Wieliczka. I felt like I was in an Escher painting on the way down – the wooden
stairs went for ages in circles, and it seemed the whole time that you weren’t
making any progress at all. It was beautiful and chilly when we finally made it
to the bottom, where everything – EVERYTHING was made of salt. If Willy Wonka
owned a salt mine, this would be it. I I thought maybe the guide had been
exaggerating, but I licked the side of the wall while no one was watching and
it was salty as! I did a swab test of the floor too, which was also salty. Top
cool things in the mine:
Statue of Copernicus – of Copernicus fame – he visited the mines when he was about
twenty. Really wanted to lick the statue, but you’re not allowed – which means
that other people have tried it too.
Gigantic, gigantic chandelier made of salt in an underground ballroom – it is an EXQUISITE ballroom – deep, and wide, with various biblical scenes carved into the walls,
and you can apparently get married there. It was divine.
I went back to Greg and Tom’s for tea – free,
naturally – a great Polish dinner followed by shots of vodka for everyone. The
best I’ve ever tasted, there was apple pie vodka, banana vodka, a stunning
cherry vodka, a straight vodka and all served by the guys that run the hostel.
Great times, but I’m excited about gay Paris tomorrow!