As Eric drove away leaving behind a cloud of choking grey exhaust fumes trailing from the Trabant we found ourselves at the Grunwald monument, which is a statue to commemorate a famous Polish victory over the Teutonic Knights in 1410. It was erected five hundred years later in 1910 but predictably destroyed in 1939 by the Nazi’s who wanted to stamp out Polish nationalism and went about doing so through acts of mindless vandalism such as this. Thankfully Krakow didn’t hang around quite so long to rebuild it, they didn’t leave it another five hundred years but promptly put it back in place in 1975.
We now had some time to spare before the others returned from their visit to Auschwitz so we walked into the market square which was now bathed in gentle central European mid March sunshine and found a café with pavement tables and a good vantage point to be able to see what was going on. As the horse drawn carriages jangled by and the place filled up with tourists I wondered how they were getting on at the concentration camp tour and I began to recollect our own visit there in 2006.
I hadn’t been quite sure what to expect at Auschwitz and I confess to having been a little apprehensive at the beginning of the tour especially when a cold wind seemed to blow across our faces at the very moment we passed through the infamous gates of the camp.
At this place and near-by Birkenau, one million, six hundred thousand people were killed as part of the Nazi’s ‘final solution’ including one million Jews, seventy-five thousand Poles and twenty-five thousand gypsies. When the camp was at its most ruthlessly efficient they slaughtered four hundred and fifty-eight thousand Hungarian Jews in just three months. That is slightly over five thousand people a day and for any sane person totally impossible to imagine.
Amongst the exhibits were whole rooms of empty Zyclon B canisters, seven tonnes of human hair from an estimated one hundred and fifty thousand people and part of a grim recycling operation to process it into army uniforms. In others there were spectacles, pots and pans, prosthetic limbs, suitcases with return addresses optimistically scrawled on them for identification purposes and most moving of all a display of children’s clothes and possessions.
We saw the death wall where an unknown number of people were murdered and the prison cells that were positively medieval in their cruelty; the starvation cell, the suffocation cell and the standing in a very confined space with others cell; and there was a display of photographs of the prisoners which in each case showed the dates of admission and then of death, on average only three short months.
Finally we passed through the first gas chamber and crematorium where seven hundred people at a time were gassed to death and this was a horrible place, grey, grim and cold. For me the shocking fact was that all of this took place less than ten years before I was born and although there is still unpleasantness around the World my thoughts at that time were how lucky we have been to live a happy life. I was bought up on tales of the war told to me by my dad, but these were always gallant tales about impossibly brave paratroopers and square jawed commandos, about fearless desert rats and valiant fighter pilots, about courageous heroes and stiff upper lips, about medals and honours; I am certain that he never really understood what the war was like in the east; brutal and nasty, hateful and with indescribable suffering.
The Tragedy wasn’t just about Auschwitz of course and recent research has identified that the network of camps and ghettos set up by the Nazis to conduct the Holocaust and persecute millions of victims across Europe was far larger and systematic than previously believed.
Researchers conducting the bleak work of chronicling all the forced labour sites, ghettos and detention facilities run by Hitler’s regime alongside such centres of imprisonment, oppression and industrialised murder such as Auschwitz have now catalogued more than 42,500 institutions used for persecution and death.
I had thought it important to visit the place and I was glad that I did and I hoped that the others would agree with me when they returned.
After our break we walked again through the market place and down some previously unexplored streets, stopped for a Pizza and looked around an impressive church, the Basilica of the Holy Trinity Dominican Order. Then back to Kazimierz and the Hotel Ester where Kim had a sleep and I sat in the sunshine and waited for Micky to call to tell me they were back. As it turned out they were already in the Crocodile but just about to leave in search of a pizza for themselves. This took some doing and we trawled around the streets examining menus without the Italian favourite and only unacceptable alternatives, so without success we just kept walking until finally in Kazimierz Square we found a pizza parlour and the day was saved!
Later we reassembled at the Crocodile for pre-dinner drinks and assessed our options. We certainly weren’t going back to the Casablanca next door but Kim had spotted a likely place close by so we agreed with her suggestion and walked the short distance to the Honey Pub just off the square. Inside we were allocated a table in a down stairs cellar and we had a very enjoyable evening with plenty of wine, excellent food and prompt service.