“I woke up in Barcelona.
Mr. Jasio [Johnny] nervously served beer and as a rule he didn’t give change back.
Pork jello with vinegar shacked strongly as a snitch sat down at the second table from the window.
I was sitting with Wojtek Pelon, who wanted to leave Barcelona
He dreamed of everlasting mountains that could touch the sky
But something did not let him go from the beer.
Then Andrzej [Andrew] came over with Zbyszek and Jurek Gizzelo
Both of them with a shifty smile on their faces.
But back then we still had a passport to be young.
What a joy.”—
My mother’s coworker, Anna, speaks Polish, and translated the poem below for me. She warns that the poem may not make sense without knowing the history of the building, but for me, that’s not the important part.
We came to Prague directly from Paris, after three hurried days in what has been called the most romantic city on the planet. We stepped out of the subway and looked at the smooth, calm sky and hilly greenery and inhaled the scent of pine and immediately said to each other, “Fuck Paris.”
Prague was hard to leave. The Old Town Square and the Charles Bridge and easy, beer-drinking pace that everyone held was far, far more romantic than anything in Paris. It seemed that everywhere you looked in Prague, the view was incredible, and we experienced it in the sun and rain and at night—oh, Old Town at night, with its glowing buildings and the scent of roasting sausages and a handful of different kinds of music drifting in and out.
I actually went to an art museum here—the Kampa Museum, a relatively new modern art space that happened to be showing a Klimt/Mucha/Kupka exhibit. I drank the beer—all the beer. I trailed my hands along the wall at Prague Castle, imagining how hundreds of years ago, it was still a young structure and wasn’t being trolled by dozens of tourists.
The highlights and the details are in the photos below. I would recommend cracking open a beer and browsing.
I had so planned on spending tonight writing all about how wonderful Prague was, how amazing the architecture, how fantastic the beer. I have pictures and pictures to show you, things I want to share and remember. But there’s something else on my mind, and I feel like it has a little more gravity.
I am in Krakow, Poland. I arrived yesterday.
Today I went to Auschwitz.
You can probably find a million people who are better educated in World War II history than I—people who are better equipped to put the experience of Auschwitz into perspective, who can give you the facts and represent its significance. For me, the bulk of my WWII learning took place in my high school AP World History and in various blockbuster drama films. When it comes to the most extreme and horrifying example of genocide in modern history, I am not only ill-equipped to breach the topic; I am vastly underprepared. A visit to Auschwitz is a heavy thing. All the same, it’s one of those things that, I think, is important to see and to understand—because even if we are 73 years from the end of WWII, really, that was not such a long time ago.
Let me tell you how it is there.
Today, Auschwitz is a museum of sorts. In 1947, just two years after the end of the war, the Polish government—as well as the survivors of Auschwitz—decided that its preservation and public access was important, so that the world would never forget what humans were capable of doing to one another and to ensure that something so atrocious would never take place again.
Hundreds of pastel-colored tourists shuffle around the site in guide-led groups, large cameras slung about their necks. It is somewhat disconcerting, to experience this death camp—where over 1.5 million Jews, Poles, Roma, and Russian Soviet soldiers were murdered—with so many other blank-faced, slow-footed people, as though it were a leisurely city walking tour. The solemnity that you might expect of Auschwitz is, at least at first, disrupted.
The great, monstrous gates that open to the main grounds at Auschwitz feature a cynical wrought iron slogan, “Arbeit macht frei,” or “Work sets you free.” The main grounds, surrounded by tall, leering cement posts and desolate barbed wire, host the old official buildings that have been mostly converted into exhibits—photos of prisoners, belongings that were collected. There is a room filled with thousands of pairs of shoes behind glass, another filled with suitcases. The execution wall, where condemned prisoners were forced to strip out of their clothing and were then shot to death, is there, decorated now with rosaries, stones, and flowers. Block 11 is located there, the so-called “prison within a prison.” It is a basement converted into cells of various shapes, some of them standing cells without light, used to punish prisoners who disobeyed the authority of the SS officers. Visitors walk through these areas, this sub-level torture chamber, in a single-file line. Later, there is a walk through of one of the early gas chambers—one that was not destroyed by the Nazis as “evidence” towards the end of the war.
Then there is a bus, which transports visitors to Auschwitz II, or Birkenau, a few kilometers away, where many of the prison barracks still stand, though the crematoriums there were destroyed. There is the old railway, a boxcar that prisoners were transported into the camp, a poorly ventilated thing that wouldn’t suit farm animals, where a hundred or a hundred and fifty innocent people were packed for journeys that lasted as long as eleven days without a break—without sunshine, or fresh air, or a bathroom. Many died along the way, the guide reminds you, such were the conditions. From the boxcar, you walk to a gate, where a plaque shows a photo of an SS doctor making the famous selection: of the prisoners that arrived at Auschwitz, those that were strong enough to work—older children, men, women—were, with a few seconds’ glance and a jab of a thumb to the right, through the gate, elected to live. The rest of the prisoners—pregnant women, young children, the elderly, the infirm—they were sent to the gas chambers immediately, not documented, not suitable for work, not necessary.
The guide explains, as you walk through the interior of the barracks, how the three-tiered bunk beds were designed to hold up to four people on each bed, though due to crowding, it was generally upwards of seven or eight. The guide reminds you that winters in Poland are cold, and there is no heat provided; she urges you to imagine a hot summer, sweltering in one of those brick barracks, crowded with thousands of other people. She tells you that bloody diarrhea was common amongst the prisoners and invites you to envision the state of the mattresses that people fought for space on. The guide leads you then to a different barrack that served as a lavatory, where long cement slabs have 500 holes cut into them—rudimentary toilets, used by 500 prisoners at the same time, without privacy and without dignity. You walk down to the ruins of the crematoriums, which could efficiently kill up to 2,000 people in one day. You pause at the remains of the ashes of those who suffered their deaths in the gas chamber; it is a large, muddy, mossy pool that serves now as a grave.
Throughout all of this, the guide has been giving you numbers and facts. She tells you about how the prisoners were transported to Auschwitz, hundreds packed into train cars, mostly Jews who were promised housing, work, and a better life; she points to a display of a few dozen tins of shoe polish, noting that the greatest deception was that of hope. She reminds you often that the most common cause of death outside of execution or the gas chamber was starvation; she asks you to imagine living on 700 calories a day. When you are in the hall lined with the intake photos of prisoners, she points to the dates on the photos that note when they entered the camp and when they died; most did not last more than a few months at best. When you are in the room with the glass display filled with over seven tons of wooly human hair, she tells you that these braids were all collected from women’s corpses; they were packaged and sent to factories to be converted into “hair cloth,” used as packing material in soldiers’ uniforms.
You are reminded, continually, that Auschwitz was one of the most efficient of all the Nazi death camps. Over 1.5 million people died here, from Zyklon-B gassing, malnutrition, torture, gruesome medical experiments, and diseases. One and a half million people—at least one million of whom were Jews. One and a half million is a number that is unfathomable, until you look upon the collection of shoes and stare down the endless rows of beds in the barracks.
The experience of Auschwitz feels sometimes surreal. This place, this terrible place, was fully functional not so long ago. I left exhausted, with a knotted stomach and swollen eyes, somehow ashamed.
The city around the museum of Auschwitz—or Oświęcim in its original Polish—has been resettled, its population today standing somewhere north of 50,000. There are new residences, nice-looking homes with manicured gardens, erected just up the road from the garish fences and watchtowers of Birkenau. This entire layout feels somewhat dystopian, but perhaps there is some kind of beauty in living with a nightmare in your backyard.
We hired a driver to take us to Auschwitz, a lovely Polish man who gave his name in English: Andrew. He had the swarthy look and the easy, charming demeanor of a man who, in his prime, was incredibly handsome. Throughout the hour-long ride to Auschwitz, he gave us extra details and facts, some context and some history. His uncle had been killed at Auschwitz, he says. He was a Polish clerk, one of the early prisoners, one of the intelligent Polish class that was shot at the execution wall. At lunch after the museum visit, over Polish dumplings and stewed potatoes, Andrew shows us the photo of his uncle when he was first taken to Auschwitz, with a shaved head and resigned eyes, dressed in a striped uniform. He presents two sets of documents: the official typed German report giving his Uncle Ludwik a false last name and stating the cause of death as a “sudden heart attack,” and another handwritten list, with the numbers and the names of all the prisoners who were executed that day, in that fashion. Andrew explains that he didn’t know his uncle, but he knows his uncle’s children, and their children live in Krakow today. He says that he imagines what Ludwik might have been thinking during his last few moments, as he stood naked, waiting for his death: “Who will remember me?” This way, says Andrew, he is remembered. Remembering is important.
My mouth was dry, and the potatoes felt like anchors in the bottom of my stomach; again, I felt some kind of guilt. I had such a headache.
Pictures were allowed throughout almost all of the museum, but I only took a handful and I don’t feel comfortable posting them. I barely want to look at them. It was so strange to me that they were allowed at all, and I balked at the oblivious tourists who stopped to pose for a picture in front of the barracks or the SS tower.
Even as I write this, the memories are unsettling.
Whenever I told anyone that I was going to Paris for the first time, the usual response was a soft sigh and a gently exclaimed, “Oh, you’ll love Paris. You will love it there.”
I have to admit, after all the research and all the food talk and all the planning, I was fairly certain Paris would disappoint me. The views, the romance, the things that are what Americans are so fond of calling “quintessentially French,” I was unsure. But you know, Paris is on everyone’s bucket list, and I was terrifically excited to be abused by some snobby French waiters. I wanted to see berets being sold by street vendors on all the corners, along with baguettes and Chat Noir posters. I had been led to believe that that is what Paris mostly consists of, anyway, aside from the Eiffel tower and the Notre Dame and all the other landmarks I felt obligated to see.
Reluctantly, I will tell you that everyone was right. Paris did not disappoint. It could never disappoint. That city does not have a disappointing cobblestone in its entirety, though I think I probably stumbled across a few suspicious ones.
I will just timeline this briefly, because I want to give you an idea of how jam packed this trip has been so far (which is my excuse for not posting until now, by the way):
On Wednesday, 8/14, at around 1 p.m., we began the long and arduous travel from Minneapolis to Dallas to Paris. Dallas to Paris is roughly a nine hour flight, and it took a colorful cocktail of sleeping pills and wine to knock me out.
On Thursday, 8/15, we arrived in Paris around 10 a.m. local time (about 4 a.m. CST, I guess, without doing any math). We met with hosts (friends of friends who lived by the Gare du Nord station) who were letting us crash their roommate’s empty bedroom for a few nights. Immediately went exploring.
Things we saw and did on Thursday in Paris…
The Louvre (but we just walked the grounds, we didn’t go in)
Walked along the Canal St. Martin
Moonlit picnic in a park with our hosts, beers on a pier
Ate a buttery cake from Brittany called something
Friday in Paris…
Walked and walked and walked through Montmarte
Arc de Triomphe
Dinner on the West Bank — escargot and Roquefort and marinated duck and creme brûlée, oh my
Saturday in Paris…
Musee de Rodin
Dinner at La Pied du Sacre Coeur
Sunday in Paris…
Pan au chocolat with our lovely hosts, some music swapping, and then navigating to the airport to catch our plane to Prague
Right now, it’s about 6 p.m. in Prague. We arrived nearly 24 hours ago, found our apartment, found dinner—a somewhat complicated endeavor, but more on that later—and we have spent the day exploring somewhat lazily, because holy shit, Paris was intense.
Hopefully the pictures that follow will go in to more depth about Paris. These are the highlights, kids. I wish—I wish—that I could impress upon you the delightful way in which the breakfast-colored sky played across the lawn at the Luxembourg, dancing like confetti through the spots between the leaves in the trees, or the gentle mist that seeped through the streets when it drizzled just lightly, or the playful groove of the lamplights on the waters of the Canal St. Martin, but those things, I think, are already my own memories.
Well, hello there. Nice to see you again. Been a while, eh?
A year and a half ago, this blog was my connection from South America to… well, mostly my parents, who would freak out if I went more than two days without posting something, convinced I had been trampled by a rabid alpaca or something. I haven’t done any long international trips since then, so this little space of the internet has been dormant.
Until now. Today, in mere hours, I’m flying to Europe with my old travel partner Meredith Westin (super amazing, beautiful photographer about town). We start in Paris, then roam onward to Prague, Krakow, Budapest, and Munich. We’ve got two weeks and some pretty big lists and we’re thinking about a lot of different wines right now.
If you want to do a little vicarious vacationing, I’ll be documenting some of the highlights of my trip here. Stay tuned for the revival of the old closer to the suntumblr, folks. Oh—and for those of you who have done this before—please don’t be afraid to post some suggestions.