Category Archives: Poland

Auschwitz-Birkenau in Oświęcim, Poland

So much has already been written about the notorious concentration, extermination, and labor camps in Poland that for this particular post I will let the photographs mainly speak for themselves.

Auschwitz is the German name for the Polish town of Oświęcim, about 42 miles west of Kraków.   Auschwitz I (main camp), Auschwitz II-Birkenau (extermination camp), and Auschwitz III-Monowitz (labor camp) and several satellite camps were established in the area by the Nazi Regime between the years 1940 to 1945.  We visited Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau.

It is estimated that 1.5 million people died at these camps over the course of the five years, the majority of them Jewish, along with many of non-Jewish decent from various countries.  Most prisoners were killed in the gas chambers but several thousand also died from starvation, disease, horrible executions, deranged medical experiments, or from hard labor.

Auschwitz I

Constructed from former Polish army artillery barracks, Auschwitz I was the main camp.  The first prisoners at the camp were Polish political prisoners and German criminal offenders.  The total number of prisoners fluctuated at any time between 10,000 to 16,000 men, women, and children.

Auschwitz I Main Gate

Auschwitz I Main Gate

“Arbeit Macht Frei” (work makes one free), the cynical motto placed over the main iron gate the prisoners passed under each day.

Double Electrified Fence

Double Electrified Fence surrounding Auschwitz I.

All personal possessions (including clothing, books, shoes, jewelry, etc.) were confiscated upon arrival, sorted, and stored in warehouses.  Anything of value was either taken by the SS (the Nazi special police force) or shipped to Germany.  The prisoner’s heads were also shaved and their hair was used to manufacture several different products.

Eye Glasses

Prisoner’s eye glasses confiscated upon arrival.

Prisoners Shoes

Prisoner’s shoes confiscated upon arrival.

The majority of prisoners at Auschwitz I lived in these two-storey brick buildings.

Brick Barracks

Brick Barracks

Various sleeping and living conditions at Auschwitz I.  Most barracks housed about 200 prisoners.

Straw Sleeping Quarters

Prisoners slept on straw scattered over concrete floors.

Straw Mattresses

Some prisoners slept on straw mattresses.

Three-Tier Bunks

Three-tier bunks were also used.

Auschwitz II – Birkenau

Auschwitz II-Birkenau

Auschwitz II-Birkenau

About 1.75 miles (3km) from the main camp, Auschwitz II-Birkenau contained over 300 buildings divided into several sectors.  The total number of prisoners reached 100,000.  Covering approximately 425 acres, the sheer size of this camp is overwhelming.   The majority of the Nazi’s mass destruction of human life took place here in their four large crematoria with gas chambers.

At Birkenau, the prisoner’s barracks are left as they were.  The barracks had no foundations and the living conditions were dire—lack of water, poor sanitary conditions, rats, and insects.  Women and children stayed in separate camps from the men.

Birkenau Women and Children's Barracks

Women and children’s barracks made of brick.

Sleeping Quarters

Six to eight women or children slept together on one level.

Drawings for Children

Drawings on walls to help comfort the children.

The men’s barracks, made of wood, once served as horse stables.

Men's Barracks

Men’s Barracks

Men's Sleeping Quarters

Men’s Sleeping Quarters

Prisoner's Washroom

Prisoner’s Washroom

Prisoner's Toilets

Prisoner’s Toilets

All areas were cleaned out by the prisoners, as proper plumbing was nonexistent.

Birkenau Main Entrance

Main Entrance at Birkenau

This is the main entrance at Birkenau for the trains carrying the deportees from various countries.  Here the new arrivals were “sorted”—segregated into “fit” and “unfit” to work.  Those selected as “unfit” were told to undress and lead into an underground chamber for a “shower”, but water never flowed, only gas.  Within 20 minutes, around 2,000 people would be dead.

Below, remnants of a crematorium destroyed by the SS in January 1945 to conceal their heinous crimes.

Ruins of a crematorium

Ruins of a crematorium

Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial at Auschwitz II

Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial

Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial

Visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau turned out to be a powerful and moving experience for both Kevin and I.   Physically standing in these camps gives you a perspective that no history book or film can match.  These camps make you hope that humanity continues to move towards a better place.

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Krakow, Poland

Over the long bank holiday weekend, we visited Kraków, Poland.  This attractive, colorful city with Old World charm buzzes with history, delicious food, and diverse sights.  Despite the tragedies of World War II that affected so many of its inhabitants, the city itself escaped mass destruction.  Today’s Kraków is a vibrant, fascinating place.  Here are some of the sights of this historic city…

The Planty

The Planty

Surrounding the Old Town is the Planty—one of Krakow’s nicest features (or at least we think so).  The Planty is a ring of public parks (or green belt) where the medieval protective walls and moat once stood.  It’s a pleasant place to take a stroll or people-watch when you have a bit of downtime on your itinerary.

St. Mary's Basilica and Cloth Hall in Main Market Square

St. Mary’s Basilica (left) and Cloth Hall (right) in Main Market Square

Main Market Square

Main Market Square (Cloth Hall-left)

The majority of Krakow’s sights are located in the Old Town historical district, except for Wawel Hill which is just south of here.  Main Market Square (Rynek Glowny) is the city’s center and main tourist hub offering many dining and shopping options.  This massive square is one of the largest medieval squares in Europe.

Cloth Hall in Main Market Square

Cloth Hall in Main Market Square

Cloth Hall Interior

Cloth Hall Interior

The Cloth Hall (Sukiennice) takes center stage in Main Market Square.  This structure dates back to the mid-14th century when Kraków was an important international trading post.  The name Cloth Hall comes from the trading of textiles, but many other commodities were bought and sold here as well.

St. Mary's Basilica

St. Mary’s Basilica

The beautiful St. Mary’s Basilica (Bazylika Mariacki), in the northeastern corner of Main Market Square, is yet another amazing European church.  Its main draw is the 42-foot-wide and 36-foot-high sculptured altarpiece of scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary by Veit Stoss.  It is a magnificent work of art.

One interesting tradition that takes place at St. Mary’s is the hejnal, or half-a-tune bugle call, played every hour from the Basilica’s left tower.  The most common medieval legend states that during an enemy attack the watchman only got half-way through the warning song before an arrow pierced his throat…hence the half-tune played today.

Floriańska Gate

Floriańska Gate—One of the few surviving parts of the city’s old fortifications.

Florianska Street

Floriańska Street leading to Main Market Square

Once considered the “Royal Road”, as all visiting nobility would travel this way to Wawel Castle, today’s Floriańska is a popular commercial street brimming with restaurants, cafes, retail shops, hotels and a “famous” McDonald’s…

McDonald's Gothic Cellar

McDonald’s Gothic Cellar

When this particular McDonald’s was built, a Gothic cellar was discovered and now serves as additional seating for this fine eatery.

Wawel Cathedral

Wawel Cathedral on Wawel Hill

Just south of Old Town is Wawel Hill (pronounced Vah-vehl). This historic area, including Wawel Castle and Wawel Cathedral, is an important symbol for all of Poland.  The Wawel Cathedral (Cathedral Basilica of Sts. Stanislaus and Wenceslaus) is Poland’s national church and has served as both the coronation site and burial site for Polish monarchs as well as for those of national importance.

Pope John Paul II

Pope John Paul II

Pope John Paul II, the very first Polish Pope, said his first mass as a priest at the Cathedral in November 1946.

Inner Courtyard

Inner Courtyard of Wawel Castle

Wawel Castle, the Royal Residence of the past, offers visitors tours of the Royal Private Apartments and State Rooms along with access to other permanent exhibitions within the castle complex.

Dragon's Den

Dragon’s Den on Wawel Hill

Another one of Krakow’s legends is that of the Wawel Dragon (Smok Wawelski) on Wawel Hill…

Home of the Wawel Dragon

Home of the Wawel Dragon

It is said that long ago the Wawel Dragon lived inside these craggy caves and feasted on young maidens…

Wawel Dragon

Wawel Dragon

until he was killed by a poor shoe-maker who stuffed a sheep (or was it a lamb?) with sulphur and left it for the dragon to eat. The dragon then developed an insatiable thirst and drank from the Vistula River until he burst.  As a reward, he won the hand of the King’s only daughter.  Way to go shoe-maker!

Apart from all the sights and folklore Krakow has to offer, we stepped outside the city center for two side-trips—one to the Wieliczka Salt Mine (featured below) and another to Auschwitz-Birkenau, the notorious concentration camps of WWII (featured in another post).

Chapel of the Blessed Kinga

Chapel of the Blessed Kinga at Wieliczka Salt Mine

The Wieliczka Salt Mine, about 9 miles southeast of the city center, is one of the world’s oldest salt mines.  Table salt was mined here from the 13th century to the late 20th century.  Today these massive mines offer visitors a look into the world of a salt miner as well as the opportunity to admire the many sculptures made from, you guessed it, salt.

Altar of the Chapel of the Blessed Kinga

Altar of the Chapel of the Blessed Kinga at Wieliczka Salt Mine

And that’s all from Kraków.  We had a wonderful time visiting this beautiful city.  Dziękuję!

Notable Eats:
Aperitif (ul Sienna 9, Kraków)
Miod Malina (ul Grodzka 40, Kraków)