Snapshots of Krakow

Snapshots for Ma: Krakow Sept 25th -30th 2003

The Pope—a Cracovian—is supposed to be dying, and the German President is now talking of German victims, so it was particularly apposite to be visiting Krakow at this time.

Despite the prime reason being to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau, it was also surprisingly relaxing – possibly because I didn’t have to think of my family or work for five days! Actually, I did think of Archie quite a lot and felt much love for him… but I’m jumping ahead.

I got to Gatwick way too early then tried to check out the situation re Marianne’s vouchers. Couldn’t do anything about them (which also spoilt the flight) and then spent a lot of money in the duty free shop. The flight itself was quick and pleasant. No lump of lard sitting next to me for a change (a lovey-dovey Spanish couple). Arrived in Krakow in brightness which always helps and got a taxi to the hotel.

Was a bit worred about the taxi, as it seemed to be taking the rural route but it only cost under a tenner… yup, everything except books and wine is painfully cheap. I mean painfully because I felt horrendously guilty at my comparative wealth and kept overtipping like I was Rothschild. The money is very confusing: approximately 6 zlotys to the pound – and the language is even more taxing. Zloty is pronounced zwoty, Wrotlaw is rotwaf and the words without ANY vowels I just gave up on. Small wonder the Nazis renamed Oswiecim (Auschwitz) and Brzezinka (Birkenau). The German pronunciation is ‘Krakau’ while the Poles say ‘Krakof’.

With wonderful luck, my internet-chasing found me a private hotel right in the middle of the best quarter – the Old Town. It was bang opposite St Peter and St Paul Church and right on top of cafes, museums and restaurants and five minutes from Wawel Castle and Wawel Cathedral. Fifteen minutes from the banks of the Vistula. It was also clean, friendly and had good eating within too. Altogether a good choice. It needed to be…

Wandered around getting my bearings as it was warm and light and bought a cord satchelbag for £6 to put my guide and writing books in. I was convinced my maths was wrong so bought a calculator … for £3… everything really was that cheap.

Krakow is very Baron Munchhausen. Gloriously gothic, baroque and also romanesque. There is a church on virtually every corner and they are all mini-Vaticans with exceptionally fine dramatic architecture and trappings.

Polish TV though is awful. One male voice simply speaks over all the characters – yes you hear both sets of voices, and his is completely deadpan. The woman or man could be emoting for an Oscar while the dubber is reading the weather report. I tried to memorise yes, no, hello, thank you, please and I’m a vegetarian. I only managed the latter for about two days before it all started to flow – a teeny bit.

Polish food is delicious and very spicy but unfortunately with little choice for veggies… unless you like beetroot with everything. Ukrainian food, or at least the stuff I had, was boiled and tasteless but had the dubious added advantage of being one pongless poo for a change! After two days, I was desperate for rice with something so went to the Kazimierz district for a chinese. Except it was the Polish version of one and quite horrid.

But back to schedule…

I ordered a taxi for 7:30 the next morning (Friday) to take me to Auschwitz – not cheap but I didn’t really begrudge it. I suppose the “day trip” cost £70 or £80 but it was better than going on the tourist trail as I wanted to pray for the lost souls there, and boy did I ever.
The taxi run was also down some back roads as if there are no motorways – there are. But the hotel reassured me that the prices were accurate so I just enjoyed the different views.
The first sight of Auschwitz was very unprepossessing. I had expected to be hit with the words “Arbeit Macht Frei” but a “Welcome Centre” – cafeteria with cinema and car park – is the first thing you see. As you walk through, the sign is to your right and dwarfed by the modern buildings surrounding it that cater to the tourist trade.

There are several remaining blocks (not destroyed by the fleeing Nazis) but not all are open to the public. Of those that are, each has a particular purpose – either as “showcases” or as monuments to a particular ethnic group: Italians, Hungarians, Czechs, French… the one to the Jews was dark and scary and I didn’t stay inside it for longer than about three minutes…Whether that comes from the way the monument has been designed or from past vibes, I don’t know, although there was also another “monument” block that scared me too. The lighter monuments like the Czech one didn’t give me the creeps.

But before I got to all the monument blocks, I had to pass through the first blocks. These “showcases” were of washrooms and sleeping blocks, what the clothes looked like and, behind vast glass partitions, even vaster collections of glasses, shoes, suitcases, hair… all horrid but not really that moving. There were many photos and much written evidence but, once again, they had somewhat lost their resonance for me. However, I was determined to visit every single block that was open, as a gesture of respect. Then I got to Blocks 10 and 11 and felt very very real fear – very similar to how I felt in the depths of Megiddo.

Like at Megiddo, I knew I couldn’t get out of the basement area quickly, and, esoterically-speaking, I did not want to attract negative energies. And that is despite the altar set up to Father Maximilian Kolbe who was starved to death in place of another prisoner in one of those minute window-less cells. Terror, but mostly hatred seemed to seep from the walls and I must have recited the Lord’s Prayer out loud a hundred times as I tried to get out reasonably fast.

Between 10 and 11 there is the Death Wall but, being outside, I felt in some control. I finished the Auschwitz part by praying inside the gas chamber/crematorium – which surprisingly had calm and almost peaceful vibes.

I had planned to walk the 1.8 miles to Birkenau but was so shattered, I took a taxi for £2 and then agreed a price with him to take me back to Krakow later. Just as well as Birkenau is massive. The first sight is exactly what those poor wretches must have seen, although most of the huts have been destroyed. Awesomely unpleasant. The railway track remains highly emotive. The gas chambers and the crematoria have all been destroyed but there are some remains of that time, though most are memorials. Even the ponds containing their ashes have long since lost their resonance. There is a sweet stillness and sadness but it’s very peaceful. Till you actually step into the huts.

I managed three and only one for longer than a few seconds. I felt like I was stepping into somewhere that might trap me inside and was desperate to get into the light and bright air. Birds do sing, not many, not loudly, and in the perimeter trees. (Actually, the church outside my hotel was quite Hitchcockian, so they must have all flown there!)

The inside of the huts were “reconstructed” in Auschwitz 1. At Birkenau, also known as Auschwitz 2, it was the real and ghastly thing. I gave up after the third attempt and did a prayer walk all round the outer compound (lager). A good couple of miles. It is really vast and I was exhausted.

Didn’t say a word on the drive back to the hotel. My shoulders were aching so much, I went off in search of a therapy massage and got a splendid one for 65 zlotys – circa £15. It was very good indeed – a blind man! – didn’t discover that until I had booked it and was downstairs. But quite frankly, after A-B, I didn’t care!

My first meal at the hotel was excellent and service was splendid. Unfortunately, he wasn’t serving the Friday night and I got a beetroot soup with pork bits and a strong greasy taste despite the waiter repeating over and over “no meat, no meat”. Yuk! [I can recall the taste even now, as I am typing up these notes…]

The first night was very quiet but I had a patchy night, and that was the pattern for the entire trip. I kept waking in the night and being unable to sleep again for several hours and then sleeping deeply to catch up. On Saturday, I had a chill and runny nose, but no hives which I had woken up with the day before.

Went off to Wawel Castle to find the Wawel Chakra, apparently a fave with Hindus. It’s supposed to relate to the planet Jupiter, one of the stones thrown by Lord Shiva, and written about in the Lonely Planet Poland guide, but surprisingly not in the Crakow guide book. If two studenty-types and some other chap hadn’t been hanging around in the corner of the courtyard, I wouldn’t have known where it was. It’s not marked, and I certainly didn’t feel anything whatsoever. The girl said it was supposed to be positive energy and that probably it was just adding to mine. Perhaps. I certainly added to her luck as she said she had an allergy and I gave her one of my anti-histamines.

I skipped the Wawel Dragon as my dragon is positive and a symbol of good luck and that Wawel Dragon is a baddy who was trapped and blown up… But walking down to check out the sculpture I felt positive energy coming from the sun on the Vistula and decided to sit for a while and warm up by the banks of the river. It had the added bonus of stopping my snivelly nose and runny eyes and I felt immensely recharged. Truly. Maybe Jupiter was outside and not scrunched into a corner of the courtyard… though Heavens knows what Nehru and his court did when they had a private visit there.

I decided to walk along the banks towards Kazimierz, the Jewish district. I managed a good few miles and had a quick meal pit stop but the area is not beautiful. Apparently, Schindler’s List was made slightly further down just south of the river – the Plaszow Konzentrationlager with Amon Goeth’s villa near to it. It is on the Jewish tourist trail only because of the film, with Kazimierz being part of it. However, it was too tatty to feel comfortable in and I headed back (via my “Chinese” meal).

My diary notes were written at 12:30 AM on Sunday … on the Saturday night I froze, this night I was boiling though it was not the extra blanket. I think it was the Sudafed and alcohol. I had eaten early at Vega – a vegetarian restaurant in St Gertrudy. Delicious and very filling and cheap. Had bath (power shower) and got into bed with book and a Polish honey drink. There was some fantastically boring French show on but it was better than BBC World and the mono-male dubber. I had walked for miles and thought I’d go out like a light. I did – till 12:30am. Much tossing and turning but it served me right. The alcohol might have warmed me up but it also killed sleep. Plus during the night I also kept getting empathy glimpses of life in Birkenau and, once, experience of the gas chamber. But even in sleep, I firmly cut it off. I remembered how I was afraid to breathe properly while I was there – I seem to always hold my breath in negative places as if to stop those horrible vibes from seeping into my cells. Though on the banks of the Vistula, I kept breathing deeply, almost gulping the air.

17:42hrs – the endless surly staring of the Poles has finally reduced me to tears. I hadn’t realised how draining it all was. Have retired early to my room not wanting to “see” their unpleasant faces any more.

The hotel staff are wonderful as are most shop assistants and café employees. And the nuns are just glowing with goodness – all olde-worlde types. It’s the bods on the streets. The Senacka receptionist said it was the economy which I find difficult to accept. After all, they need tourists to come and spend money. (The couple on the flight back also said they had noticed the surliness. They said they were told that the average Pole misses communism because it ordered their lives.)

Anyway, this particular night I was so unhappy I wanted to go home that instant. I couldn’t face another day and night.

I had started off this Sunday by visiting churches – a tourist trail in itself. The objective was to light three candles in at least three churches for Dad, Ma, Archie and Sarah’s baby. Must have popped into at least six. But despite all the churches, I could not avoid noticing the lengthy staring. I always smile either before or when I catch someone looking at me, but these Poles just look through you with no emotion breaking their faces. In Italy, they stare in admiration or friendly curiosity. It’s always with a smile, even the women. Here it’s ugly, unfriendly and they rarely smile full stop.

Normally when I “tune up”, people smile at me or are nice to me. Here it merely stopped them staring. I wonder why? It’s a bloody Catholic country and ought to understand kindness. For friendliness, I had the tourists stopping to chat…. some Japs, a Yank (a military man over from Germany) staying with his mother and sisters. Another American.
I mustn’t tar all Poles, since a few went out of their way to be helpful: like the girl in a shop telling me about Vega and another girl also in a shop telling me about the massage chap. But it is difficult to explain the relentless staring. The suspicious peasant mentality. In fact, that same evening, I decided to shout “What are you staring at?” – not that they would understand the words but they sure understood the principle. And it worked by osmosis, as the next day, people started returning my smiles (smiling is instinctive with me and I find it difficult to keep a sour face for long). The receptionist said I had brought my smiles to Crakow.

I spotted no Indian or Chinese faces, just a few Jap tourists and about four black faces, no, make that five. I was sitting inside a restaurant in Rynek Glowny when a young black man walked by – the type (sorry God) one crosses the road to avoid in the UK – with that soul-syncopated walk, hair in short dreadlocks. I had to smile. He certainly was a happy soul.

Sunday night’s tensions were relieved as the ghastly Blair was on the box and I could yell at him/it.

Rynek Glowny is the very lively and busy market square. Lots of tables to just sit at and watch the world go by. After the initial morning chill, the day just got warmer and more pleasant – very lively café culture. Apparently, they sit out even when the weather is awful. There is even a wedding. Strangely enough that particular wedding was completed in the church opposite my hotel and the reception was in the hotel itself.

I gather the square is relatively new following the collapse of communism. Poles or perhaps I should say Cracovians since I didn’t go to Warsaw, seem to be divided into those who smile and welcome change and the surlies who are suspicious and distrusting. John Paul ll must be a smiling Cracovian…. actually I did have a strange thought while I was there – that wouldn’t it be the damndest if he died while I was actually there.

Thankfully he did not.

Happiness is hearing Gladiator OST on box – which I did pre-sleep.
After days of walking and walking, I decided to read and do very little on Monday. I had finished Elie Wiesel’s Night and was just beginning Man’s Search For Meaning by Victor Frankl. Both made a pleasing change from Primo Levi but Frankl is particularly moving because he turned it into a purpose. He coined “logotherapy” while there and also wrote of the adaptability of the human body and mind. Man could be without food or sleep with daily threat of death yet still survive and even have a sense of humour in the situation. He writes of his gums being in better shape despite never being cleaned and how all his doctoral preconceptions were turned upside down. Yet equally he writes of turning off emotions and presumably compassion, as to show any would bring either punishment or death.

I actually think the lack of Monday staring is because of Monday back-to-work-blues.
Before deciding to laze/read, I traipsed down to Reformacka to find the mummified bodies as described in the guide books including pictures. Except no-one knew what I was talking about. They were all non-English speaking but I tried to mime it and found a wonderful nun, just like Sr Pius and Sr Gabriel rolled into one. She refused to let go of my arm as she went round asking all these strangers if they knew where it was. Actually I still don’t know if she knew what I was talking about but her determination to help was heart-warming. I finally gave up as it either no longer existed or was unmarked and closed.

Also gave up on the salt mines. The weather was too nice to spend under the ground. Bought the Daily Mail (Saturday’s on Monday). Nothing like getting back into the swing of Britsville again…

Tuesday morning and back to Blighty… left hotel way too early and sat in the ghastly airport for hours. It was like 60s Moscow although much smaller. Checked in finally but still couldn’t go through passport control as the chaps were missing. Eventually through, eventually on flight and off.

Sat next to an older upmarket couple from Chobham who had been to Warsaw and Crakow (it seems to be spelt both ways here). They chatted away about their wrong choice of hotel (the Holiday Inn) and the communist mentality they kept coming across and asked me about A-B.

Then we arrived back….

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