As we near the end of this series, feel free to check out the previous city, Berlin here.
Before I begin, I want to preface by saying that this letter, unlike previous letters, will be divided into two parts – the first covering Auschwitz and the second covering the city of Krakow. I felt as if I couldn’t do justice to either in a tandem piece and had to separate the two to properly convey the details of each place. For those of you that have kept up with Inkport since our launch, my first piece touched on Auschwitz and the effects of the Holocaust on present day Europe. To read that, click here.
My friends and I had been mentally preparing for Krakow since we planned the trip. We knew that for the one day we visited Auschwitz, we would experience the most intense and tragic memorial from the Holocaust. In hindsight, I regret trying to prepare because in doing so, I guarded myself from true vulnerability. Concentration camps were designed to break the spirit and take away prisoners’ humanity; all I should have done was leave my own open to the horror..
Outside the entrance to Auschwitz are a set of photos and quotes from foreign diplomats, survivors, and other high ranking officials who visited the camp. Out of all the quotes, one by George Santayana stood out to me; “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The tone of the quote struck me as odd. His use of “condemned” is harsh, critical, and conveys desperation. However, his words changed my perspective. Before I entered the camp’s gates–marked with a single stark and ominous line, “Work Sets You Free”–Santayana’s warning disarmed my convictions. I knew that if I didn’t walk away from this having fully experienced Auschwitz, I would be doing a disservice to those who were lost due the Holocaust. I needed to be able to speak to the severity and magnitude of the actions of the Nazis. That started with being vulnerable.
As the tour progressed, the atmosphere changed. Gone was the ability to speak, and in its place came fear and shock. Silence became a constant companion that latched onto your innermost thoughts. The only sounds, the crunching of gravel and echoing footsteps, were rhythmically drowned out as the void became larger, creating a vacuum-like presence in which only the sharpest of noises, a sneeze or sob, was able to break. Everything about Auschwitz was calculated. From its location in the middle of the forest–if you managed to escape, the Nazis could comfortably stand back knowing you’d die before reaching civilization–to the hierarchy and jobs of each of the prisoners, every decision was supported by a process designed to torture.The Nazis perfected their ideologic death machines over time, and the attention to detail was both striking and horrifying. I was unaware that Auschwitz expanded into another facility, Auschwitz Birkenau, because the original wasn’t able to sustain the killing capacity that the Nazis desired. And even now, reading that sentence–it’s still hard to digest.
Auschwitz was meant to fracture your faith, your belief in humanity, and your sense of being a member of that very category of existencehuman. As a visitor, you experience an infinitesimally small fraction of these emotions., Wwhether it’s walking through the gas chamber or maneuvering through the cramped barracks, they–the emotions–stay with you, and you continue to feel them after you leave.
My intention with these pictures was to try and capture that sense of hopelessness, of being alone. I know that I didn’t do it justice, I don’t think many can, but I hope you’re able to experience a fraction of what I was able to.
Visitors walk through the main gate of Auschwitz in order to enter the camp. The message reads, “Work Sets You Free”, an ominous message for the prisoners who entered the camp, unknowing of what their fates were.
This is the original, but smaller Auschwitz camp. The multiple sets of barbed wire and electric fences to the left were meant to pose multiple barriers of exit, and kill you before you could escape. To the right were the barracks of the prisoners.
The guard tower in the background allowed for there to be constant eyes on the prisoners as they went about their days. It’s important to remember that the Waffen-SS, the armed division of the Nazi party, ran the camps. This meant that most shared the same values and beliefs as Hitler, adding to the brutality of the camps.
Regardless of where you were in the camp, there was most likely a barbed wire fence to both your left and right.
This is the last remaining gas chamber on the property (for both Auschwitz and Birkenau). The Nazis destroyed as much evidence as they could as they were fleeing the camps, and that included bombing their own facilities. Russian soldier recounts claim that the crematories and gas chambers were still running by the time they liberated the camps.
Out of the eight cities we went to, Krakow may have been our worst experience. The hostel was crowded, a blistering 1000 degrees, and the constant WUBWUBWUB DUDUDUDUDU WUUUUUUB ERRRRUUUUU WUUUUUB of dubstep from the lobby echoed throughout the walls of the hostel late into the night. As if that wasn’t enough, I was sick.
Nonetheless, Krakow is a city of beautiful architecture that impresses with its consistency, rather than grandeur. The buildings are easy on the eyes, creating the narrow streets that flow openly into vast and spacious squares, all painted by an ever changing colored brush.
The true colors of the city, however, are expressed as you begin to weave throughout its veins the city, flowing with the natural tide of the cobblestone streets. In it you find a culture grounded in humble roots, conscious of the events of the past but progressing towards the future. Things like friendship and time spent together are prioritized, evident by the vast numbers of locals we found at the quarry or roaming throughout the streets. My friends and I spent about 30 minutes sitting off the side of a ledge in the first photo, listening to a musician as we took in the moment.
In a way, Krakow served as a bit of a reset for us. Given the experience of the day before, the city naturally reminds you that hope and love are still profoundly prevalent here, found in those closest to you.
The Wawel Castle is a beautiful area right by the water. The outermost ring is the same spot where we sat and listened to the musician as the sunset. Built in the early 1300’s for King Casmir III The Great, the castle has managed to remain in incredible shape. In addition, there is a “Dragon’s Cave” underneath the castle which a) provides relief from the heat and b) an extremely unique experience. Unfortunately it was too dark and I didn’t have a tripod to capture how it looked.
The Liban Quarry is another example of how times change and progress. The Nazis operated a labor camp here during WWII, but has become a place for friends to gather, have picnics, and cliff jump into the water. It was also used in 1993 for the filming of Schindler’s List.
One of my favorite pictures from the city – my two friends walking ahead with that beautiful color progression in the buildings I talked about.
An aerial view of the city. The architecture and coloring of the buildings is extremely noticeable in this shot, but it also captures how much smaller of a city Krakow is when compared to others we visited throughout the trip.
St. Mary’s Basilica towers above the other buildings in the square. Completed in 1347 by Casmir III the Great, the Basilica now remains as a centerpiece in the square.