|I've wanted to see Warsaw ever since seeing the movie "The Pianist" where Adrian Brody won the academy award for Best Actor.
Warsaw has so much rich and tragic history all wrapped up in one city. It loves its independence and freedom, but for years other countries have invaded and tried to destroy it. We stayed in Praga which is right outside of the old town. This part of the city was where the movie "The Pianist" was filmed because the real Jewish Getto and the old town of Warsaw were 90% destroyed by the Nazis after the 1944 Polish uprising. Beata informed us we were actually staying in the "Harlem" part of the city. In the Old town area it is absolutely amazing how they have reconstructed and restored the old churches, buildings and palace to look as it did 200 years ago. The resiliency of the Polish people is just amazing.
We spent a couple of days on our own and then met up Beata who lives in Warsaw. We met Beata, along with her sister Dorota (Dorothy) and husband Merick (Mark)in Ecuador at the beginning of our trip. Beata was a great hostess and showed us around Warsaw. We even got the priviledge of having dinner at her mother's house (Dorota your mother's wonderful) which was fabulous. She was so gracious and was patient with the fact we spoke English way too fast. There was an overabundance of food with homemade cheese cake and chocolate for dessert. What more could one ask for? Warsaw is growing very fast. Driving around it you could never imagine the horrors of the Nazi or Soviet occupations. We really enjoyed ourselves and Beata's company. She was a great tour guide!!!
Here are some facts we learned about historical figures from Poland. Madame Curie, two time Nobel Prize winner, was Polish. Nicolas Copernicus the Father of Astronomy, who discovered to the dismay of the Roman Catholic Church, that the Earth actually rotates around the Sun, was also Polish. And last but not least, Chopin was also Polish and a lot of his music is based on Polish folklore.
We then traveled down to Krakow by train. You know I always wondered when we were taking the Siberian railroad why at every stop the mechanics got under the train and used a wrench or hammer to bang each wheel. It appears they were checking the brakes because they didn't do that in Poland and about an hour into our ride one of the rear wheels caught on fire. I guess one of the brakes locked up and the smell was overwhelming. We stopped on the track while they worked on the wheel for about an hour and then we were off again.
We lucked out and got an apartment in Krakow right over all the action on the streets. At bit loud, but perfect location for everything. Krakow is a great city, very romantic (well it would be if Melissa or I were with the right person, we tend to have all these "romantic" moments with each other, its become a running joke since Venice and Florence way back when), and very active. It reminded me of Edinburgh during the fringe festival. There is always a lot going on in the streets or the main square 24 hours of the day.
We made two day excursions out of the city to the Wieliczka salt mines and then Auschwitz. The salt mines were amazing with a beautiful chapel made of salt.
Auschwitz was a whole different story. In 1940 the city was chosen for the concentration camp because of its pre-war Polish barracks and its existing railway junction, easilÿ isolated and camouflaged. Auschwitz is really a city known as Oswiecim. The name Auschwitz is German and is not used anywhere in Poland except at the actual location as the name of the museum. There are actually two museums, one called Auschwitz which consisted of brick structures which initially housed criminals, soviets, and anyone else collaborating with the resistance or prisoners. A lot of medical experiments and trials went on in this location where people were shot, tortured, beaten or starved to death, but it was not the location for the mass killing of Jews. That was down the street about 3km at Birkenau, also known as Auschwitz II. Construcion began here in 1941. That location was even more disturbing because it was the final destination for most of the trains carrying the Jews. Forty smaller branches of the Aushwitz complex came into being and were situated mainly in the vicinity of steelworks, mines, and factories, where prisoners were exploited as cheap labour.
Once the Jews arrived by train at Birkenau they were either gased immediately or put into wooden barricks to be starved or beaten to death. At Birkenau there were 4 crematoria with gas chambers. Each gas chamber could hold approximately 2000 people at one time. We spent the whole day in both these locations and by the end we were exhausted. They do not allow children under the age of 14 into either of the two museums.
I remember when I was in Washington DC and went to the Halocaust Museum, that was difficult but nothing compared to this. In Auschwitz they actually have rooms full of hair that was cut off of women and sent to the textile mills to be made into cloth, rooms full of shoes, glasses, brushes, toothbrushes, etc. The amount of these items is overwhelming and really brings home how many people were killed in these camps. You really can't describe in words the "horror" of these two locations. We have included a lot of pictures from both camps on this website, so be prepared especially Torin if your children are looking at them.
I think we each slept about 12 hours from the depression that night and then spent our last day in Krakow doing something positive. Well, if you can call going to see "War of the Worlds" positive.
We are now off to Prague on an overnight train.