I wiped my eyes. The temperatures in Warsaw were plummeting by the day. The chill wind stung my eyes, and caused them to water. We shivered in our layers, and lightweight coats -the Poles, more sensibly, were quickly into their winter woollies, hats, boots, and scarves. It didn’t stop us sightseeing though, and led by our friend we had no choice but to keep up a rapid pace. The town centre of Warsaw, destroyed in the war by the German occupying force, was completely rebuilt in the years following, and is a beautiful sight. We were privileged to get a private tour through the heritage museum with the son of one of the architects, showing us his father’s work, and talking about the process of reconstruction. Of course, this occurred during the Soviet era, so it wasn’t without difficulties, and his father ended up being forced to escape to Australia. In fact, he said that many people in Poland (non-Jews and persecuted minorities of course) consider the Soviet era to have been more difficult than the war years.
I wiped my eyes. For hours I had been straining them in an effort to see the deer we had been promised. But after three days in a car over the weekend, and into our third hour on the train south, the deer were proving to be elusive. The fellow travellers in our compartment, an American couple, suggested we admit defeat. They too were tiring of looking. And of course, as is the way of things, soon six or seven deer appeared at the edge of a cornfield, skittishly running off as the train sped past. I sat back and relaxed, satisfied.
It had been a good weekend. A four hour drive from Warsaw, our friends had planned the trip and we were only too happy to leave the decisions to them. We found ourselves sleeping in a haunted (supposedly) castle, though the ghost did not show itself, eating and drinking in quaint restaurants and old SS barracks, shivering at Hitler’s headquarters (the Wolf’s Lair), squishing through a marsh in search of Europe’s largest swan colony, smiling at a newly married Polish couple and their guests celebrating outside the church and loudly honking their horns as they drove round and around the village, sighing at the utter beauty of the lake district in full autumn colours, and snapping photos at the (unstaffed) Russian border. The countryside in Poland proved to be an unexpected pleasure, with rolling hills, beautiful tree-lined (albeit slow) roads, and soft, autumn light.
And now we were on the train to Krakow, former capital of Poland, and a beautiful city undamaged (physically) by the Second World War. The town square is large and beautiful, and even in the October chill it throngs with tourists. Wawel Castle overlooks the Old Town, and churches appear every street or two. University students (there are 120,000 in the city) form flashmobs, roller blading around the square in the evening, and square dancers entertain under the gaze of the old church. There are endless churches and museums, a rare Da Vinci to ogle, and plenty of history to keep you amused. If the Husband annoys, you can even send him to the Salt Mine (though you might find it interesting yourself, even if the final ride to the top in an industrial lift is a bit too claustrophobic for my liking).
Just down the street from our hotel is the Jewish quarter, now a bustling area with restaurants and clubs, and the Old Synagogue. And across the river you will find the infamous former Jewish ghetto, streets that look familiar from countless documentaries and movies. And at the edge of the former ghetto is Schindler’s factory, now a museum telling the story of the Jews in Krakow, and of the factory and its workers.
No first-time visit to Krakow though is complete without visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau. It seemed appropriate to be there on a cold, gloomy day. The sights again are familiar, as are many of the stories and much of the information. But standing there, taking in the sheer magnitude of the horror, seeing the barracks and execution sites, walking through a gas chamber, past the train tracks where selections occurred, walking over the cobblestones – approximately 1.2 million representing the lives lost there – and imagining what it must have felt like, is indescribable.
I wiped my eyes.