A Polish Holiday 2

Even though yesterday was quite the emotional rollercoaster ride, the main event was still to come.  Today, we were booked onto a trip to see one of the surviving death camps at Auschwitz, the German name for the small, leafy town of Oświęcim during the Nazi occupation.

For the purposes of retaining a connection to it's horrific past, even though it is a constant reminder to the locals, two of the three main death camps in the town still stand, and there is no shortage of people willing to travel through the plain, unassuming countryside packed into coaches to experience them first hand.  Today, we would take our turn.

We pre-booked online, and for a little lighter relief afterwards, we added the tour of the nearby Wieliczka Salt Mine, as by that point we figured we could do with something to take our minds off what we had just seen.

Early in the morning, we boarded a mini-bus close to the hotel, which was tasked with hoovering up tourists from around the city by negotiating it's way through the narrow, parked car-laden streets.  Once pretty much full up, we headed out of the city and onto the motorway, a grey morning stretching out in front of us.

Fortunately, there was some entertainment of sorts, in the form of an English language documentary of the history of Auschwitz.  It was dry and sober, and as you would expect, mostly in black and white, but it gave us a fair primer of what was to come.

An hour or so later we arrived at Auschwitz-I, the first and most well-built of the death camps in the town.  A large car park, flanked by book and souvenir shops bustled with cars and coaches, and we filed into our spot.  We filed through a security checkpoint and were given our headphones, and exited out of the modern building, into the past.
The view in front of us is one of the most recognizable locations from tales of the second world war.  A neatly trimmed path circles around a grass lawn, innocently passing under the branches of a now-mature oaks and weeping willows, and towards the entrance gates.

'Work sets you free', says the sign, a grimly sardonic hint to the thousands of poor souls who passed under this sign that the only way out was being flogged to death, as many of them were. 

It was clear that in the early days of the regime at least, the Nazi army had at least taken the time and effort to create sturdy, brick buildings to house the inmates.   The majority of the inner compound was made up of a grid of two-storey buildings that looked well constructed and almost homely from a distance, with the sun peeking through the clouds and the sound of birdsong filtering through the voice coming out of our crackly headphones.  We were about to find out what the insides had to say for themselves.

The tour guide took us on a very deliberate route through the compound, stopping off at the few buildings that were open to the public.  Some had been closed for refurbishment, others were too unsafe to go inside.  Almost as a way of darkening the atmosphere, the sun went in and a dismal greyness took over the sky.  It began to rain.
The first couple of buildings were largely empty and devoid of period features, and had been stripped mostly down to just the walls and the unsuitable heating units that must have been little use in the winter months for the inmates.  On the walls hung diagrams of the camps, of the town of Oświęcim, and of the Nazi stranglehold on the entire region.  Krakow was at the epicentre of Hitlers' plans for Jewish extermination, and one room-high map in particular highlighted the extent of the extermination engine.  On it, the three camps at Auschwitz were surrounded by forty or so smaller camps, all set up for the same purpose.  Further afield, as far away as the Netherlands and France, another thirty or so camps were marked on the map.  Their inmates were all destined, sooner or later, for Auschwitz.

Padding through the rain showers between buildings became a source of refreshment and pause, as we moved from the inmates buildings into the 'processing' areas.  In the process of the dehumanization and eventual extermination of the prisoners, the Nazi occupation exploited every resource that the bodies of the inmates could provide.  Their belongings were taken from them, and anything worth money was put aside and sold.

But it didn't stop there.  Personal items - shoes, spectacles, jewellery, and even things like toothbrushes and false teeth were removed and confiscated.  Hair was cut from their heads and hoarded for the production of 'wool'.  And this was while each able man, woman and child was subjected to long hours of hard work, medical experiments, or forced into the Sonderkommando - prisoner units forced to do this work on their fellow countrymen.  The infirm and unable were, perhaps mercifully, the first to the execution chambers.

When the camp was liberated, huge stockpiles of untransported personal effects were discovered, and are now stored in glass booths that take up half of several of the voluminous rooms.  The stash of human hair alone, bundled tightly into sacking, was over 7 tonnes in weight, and sits silently in it's glass presentation case, a pile of human hair six feet high and thirty feet wide.  This, alongside some of the other confiscations, conveyed more powerfully the sheer scale of what was going on more than words or pictures ever could.

Though we were generally allowed to take pictures anywhere in the buildings, we were asked not to photograph the hair as a mark of respect.  Most people were just standing, mouth agape and too preoccupied with the sight in front of them to remember they had cameras in their hands.

Three or four buildings later, we reached the end building, where the yard between it and the adjoining building was open to us.  This was one of the execution yards.  The windows on the buildings either side were boarded up to heighten the mental torture of those inside, who heard the shots and screams of those who were to be executed that day, and when they would be next.  At the far end of the yard, a section of the original, pock-laden wall stands, surrounded by wreaths and candles, struggling to stay alight in the wind and rain.

Shattered from the weight of it all, we turned back and were led towards the entrance, but unfortunately we were not quite done yet.  Auschwitz-I had it's own gas chambers, and they hadn't been destroyed like in some of the other camps by Nazi's trying to cover up their atrocities.  We were led inside, and shown the hatch where the Zyclon-B cannisters were dropped through, from the point of view of the victims who died slowly and painfully, often at the hands of their Sonderkommando brethren.

A little way beyond, and through a double-fenced blockade, the world changed.  A heartbeat away from the torturous atrocities were the officers' camps.  Quiet, leafy office buildings of substantially better quality.  Some of the officers, and even their families lived here on-site.  Their children innocently played in the grounds a stones throw away from the gas chambers.

Our tour of the compound ended on a high - of sorts - with the gallows that Rudolf Höss, the first commander of the camp was summarily executed on in 1947, after his trial at Nuremberg.

Our guide gave us a meager ten minutes or so to work our way through the queues for toilets, book shops, or just simply to have a breather outside.  We felt pretty emotionally flattened, even though our minds, used to the detachment of seeing so much through a TV screen, filtered out a lot of the impact.  Looking back on the pictures from the comfort of my front room, is somehow more unsettling.

Our journey into the past was barely half over.  The rain continued to fall from the skies in a manner that suggested it could not make up it's mind whether to turn into a full-on storm or just sod off, and it continued to patter down just enough to be noticeable on the short drive to our next stop.

If the gates of Auschwitz-I drew a blank, then the iconic train tracks and guard house of Auschwitz-II Birkenau should trigger memories of a thousand Channel 5 documentaries.  When it became clear that - even when the prisoners were packed like sardines into the rooms - the first camp was nowhere near big enough a place to carry out the final solution, the Nazi's looked upon the wide open fields on the outskirts of Oświęcim as a suitable location for a second camp.

By this point, the Nazi's were more confident of their aims and goals, and were less motivated to try and hide the true purpose of their construction.  Whereas Auschwitz-I was modeled almost as a 'stopover' for the Jewish people on the way to some better land, Birkenau's buildings were brutally functional and honest.

We were dropped some way from the entrance, as if to heighten the anticipation of entering.  We were told to watch out for cars roaring past on the tight, narrow tarmac - the locals in the houses not so far from the entrance would take no prisoners on a road they considered to be theirs alone to drive on.  It seemed incredulous that some people, with a constant reminder of what it is to be an arsehole so close to their doors, could choose to act in such a way.  Almost on cue, a car whizzed past, and it's irate driver shouted abuse at one of the tourists.  It was surreal.

In 1941, a newly laid track branched off the nearby main-line and into these fields, where brick huts were built by the dozen.  With only a single floor and huge slanted roofs taking up at least as much space, the design required few windows, allowing little to no light to penetrate inside.  No water or electric like they at least had in the other place.  The interiors were dank and dark, with a cold stone floor, and brick and wooden frames for the beds. People slept three high, cramped together as many as could fit.  By 1943, the extermination camp, as it was officially designated by that point, had the capacity to hold 200,000 people - four times it's originally planned capacity.

And it worked like a factory.  Trainloads of prisoners rumbled in, through the guard house tunnel and past the walking dead, staring at them helplessly as they milled around waiting for the inevitable.  Halfway down the long central track, the carriages stopped and they got out.

The infirm were shot immediately.  Those who could work did so at the nearby factories - their pay being allowed to live another day.  Eventually they would become sick or otherwise problematic, and then they were killed.  Birkenau eventually had four buildings - combined gas chambers and crematoria, as well as the famous 'red house' and 'white house' crematorium buildings - converted barns that sufficed in processing the bodies during the early days before the influx of new bodies became too much for them alone.

The rain continued as if it was perpetual here.  We walked the long track next to the railway that cut through the centre of the massive compound.  To the left, the buildings were shabby but mostly intact.  To the right, the semi-complete process of the fleeing Nazi's, covering their tracks by burning everything to the ground, had left the area with little more than a perimeter of razor wire guarding some foot high foundations.

Wherever your eyes wandered was a gruesome mix of nature and the awful man-made structures that it was slowly re-taking.  The walking route, the whole length of the camp, was deliberate to allow time to ponder on the sights in front of us.  We were heading to the memorial at the end.

I'm not exaggerating for effect: as soon as we arrived it began to rumble with thunder ominously, and the clouds, relieved of their static electricity, proceeded to drench the air.  A grey and sombre structure, built at the far end of the compound midway between the two sets of crematoria buildings servicing each side of the camp, was backed by trees and nature and peace.  The structure and it's border appeared to be a final statement, that the horrid excesses of human cruelty should stop at this point and carry on no further.

As with Hiroshima and Nagasaki before, this was a place of international remembrance, and it was clear the cobbled ground would occasionally be populated by rows seating for visiting dignitaries. Flagpoles for each nation stood empty but ready, and plaques were set into the ground in every language, a mirror of the same message over and over.

In total, it was estimated that 1.5 million people passed through the three Auschwitz camps over the seven years of occupation.  We were given a little time to stand and read in our own languages the message of caution to the world, off our respective rain-splattered plaques, and think.

The rain finally made up it's mind and lashed down heavily, so the guide picked up the pace and headed through the destroyed remnants of the crematorium buildings and towards the womens' camp where we shook off our clothing and gathered inside one of the few remaining huts considered safe enough to enter.

The insides felt like a relief from the cold and the wet outside, but they could not have been much comfort for their original residents.  Barely enough room had been apportioned for each person to sleep, several bunks high, with small, dusty windows letting in precious little light, casting ghostly patterns on the ashen-coloured concrete structure within, and dimly illuminating the huge wooden structure of the timber roof above - where any heat would retreat to, out of reach of the freezing prisoners in the darkest depths of winter.

The rain never really stopped, but abated enough for us to chance en masse a trot back towards the entrance, stopping off briefly at the huge communal latrines.  During use, the prisoners would have to defecate together in large groups - no privacy was permitted, as you would have to sit cramped together in long rows on a cold concrete pot.  As bad as the job of cleaning them would have been, we were told that the few prisoners who had that unenviable task were among the lucky ones as aside from the obvious ickyness, it was one of the easier jobs in the camp.

With some gratitude, we finished the tour and emerged out through the guard entrance into freedom once more, where kids waiting for their parents in the souvenir shops balanced on walls and messed around.  We have never had it so easy.

Our day had one final stop.  As the sun hovered midway between the heavens and the horizon, we took the little bus about an hours' drive to the Wieliczka Salt Mine.  After the heavy emotional load around our necks, it would be a duller, but lighter and welcome change to the subject matter.
We pulled up as the clouds were parting into a semi-full car park.  A neat and trim garden welcomed us in, proudly displaying a UNESCO world heritage site sign.  Everything was neat and tidy, and though we were eeking the last of the pleasant autumn days out of the year, the gardeners had worked hard to keep it all flowery and colourful.

(I must confess, at this point I had little idea of what we were going to be seeing. Aside from the vision of some salt in a big hole in the ground, I hadn't got past the whole atrocities thing to consider what it might involve)

The mine was, as you might expect for a tourist destination, not in full use any more.  The office buildings had all been prettified and turned into tourist shops and mini museums, but we were here for what was under our feet.  We were advised to join the long queues for the toilets in the short while before our guide had finished with her current group, and we bought some much needed beverage for our journey.

Eventually it was our turn.  The first part of the tour basically involves traversing a massive staircase - heading down about fifty floors until you hit the upper levels of the mine - which takes some time to do.  When you eventually arrive at the bottom, a massive air lock door (which might have been made a bit more fancy for the tourists than the more functional original) is prised open, and a massive gust of air billows about us from the depths below.

It would have been quite natural to assume that the 1000 or so feet of depth is just salt deposits and the odd rusting bucket - and there was certainly plenty of both.  In most places on the walls and above our heads, the rock was covered in snow white salt crystals, covering the old pickaxe marks of ancient workers by some inches in places.   Nice though it was to look at, the thought of spending the remainder of the day being bustled by wind and having the top of my head scraped off by sharp salt crystals was not so appealing.  Mercifully the depths had a bit more to offer.  Only recently has it totally stopped being mined for salt, and before 2007, it had been a source of gainful employment for the locals going back to the 1200's.  In that time, an awful lot of salt has come out, and thus a whole lot of tunnels have been dug through the rock, and in places these tunnels have opened out into some pretty spacious rooms where the surprises were kept.

As we made our way through a succession of draughty airlocked corridors, the path consistently sloped slowly downwards.  Periodically we passed distance and depth markers, and several branching tunnels off route which were either closed to the public (some volunteer miners still worked in some of the more remote branches) or were being refurbished.

It became quite pedestrian going through the long corridors, and in the early stages the occasional stopoff was not that exciting; often they would containing one of several pieces of antique machinery used to either dig out the salt or transport it back again.  Often these were set in motion by modern electric motors that replaced the grunting labourers, or quite often, horses whose whole life would be spent below the surface.  The machines were often joined by manikins of miners and their horses in action poses.

Other areas displayed scenes from local history; kings and knights doing battle or somesuch.  Life-size stone statues played their part, carved by some of the more artisan miners to make it more bearable below the surface.  Here and there, small shrines or memorials to the hard work of the miners were displayed.  Often, though these were the work of artists and sculptors from modern times,  commissioned works to remember the thousands of men who flogged their bodies and ruined their health over the years.

About two thirds the way to the bottom, we were shown something that, thanks to my lack of research beforehand, took me by complete surprise.

We were several hundred feet below the surface of the earth, and yet here we were in a cathedral, carved out of the granite rock.

We started down the twin staircase from the entrance, and marvelled at where we were.  On the wall was a relief of The Last Supper carved with great precision into the rock.  Huge chandeliers made of salt crystal hung from the ceiling.  Statues of martyrs and bishops lined the walls, and the floor was polished granite, carved to look as if it were covered with hexagonal tiles.

This was, and still is a deeply spiritual hall, known as St. Kingas Chapel.  It has been party to many religious ceremonies; it's acoustic qualities make it ideal for classical music performances and has hosted weddings for a lucky select few.  We had barely enough time to take in the surroundings before we were moved on.  The beloved Pope John Paul II, whose visit here as with many other places around Poland, is commemorated by a statue.  This one was carved from a huge rock of salt rock and stood guarding the exit.

There were several subsequent open areas although none as spectacular as the first chapel.  One of the most eye-catching was a large, open chamber near the bottom.  We entered from a high vantage point and were not able to take in the scale of thingsThe rock disappeared into the darkness high above us, but was replaced by a beautiful and seemingly infinite framework of white painted timber joists, presumably there to stop the whole thing falling in on itself, but lending the spacious cave a strange claustrophobic feel.  Large salt chandeliers hung from the lower timbers and lit the room beautifully.

Right at the bottom - and we should have guessed this given the nature of museums, although it still came as a surprise this far from the surface - was a gift shop.  And a restaruant, and a load of other rooms and facilities that just seemed to be there as if nothing was strange about it.  We were given a hurry-up-and-buy five minutes to look around the trinket shops, including two or three selling off carved jewellery and those lumps of rock split in half to show beautiful crystalline structures inside.  I doubt they were from the area, as none of them looked remotely salty in origin but then at least you could say you bought them from a thousand feet below the earth I suppose.  We ummed and ahhed, but ended up coming away empty handed without regrets.

The final part of our journey was to get back to the top - and this was a bit of a bottleneck.  A single elevator - not much more spacious from being a double-decker one - was crammed full of a score of tired tourists and then sent upwards.  When it was finally our turn, we were placed well inside the intimate zone of several complete strangers, and then sent upwards - in complete squeaky, draughty, creaky darkness all the way back to the top.  The blackness occasionally abated by the bright flourescent lights of areas we had walked through and went back to darkness just as quickly, and then just as it seemed we were all going to start screaming for it to stop, it did and we fell out into the (other) gift shop at the surface.

We gathered our nerves and headed back to the coach.  In our absence, darkness had fallen outside, and once everyone had been accounted for, we went back to Krakow old town, got back into our room and collapsed into bed.

That was our final full day in Poland.  The next morning we packed and were picked up by a cab which took us straight to the airport.  We spent our last Zloty on choccy for workmates back home, and then got on the plane.

Though we had not really looked at Poland as a place to visit, I'm certainly glad we did; the atrocities of Auschwitz and the shadow of the nightmares still present around Krakow in particular are haunting in a way that I had felt when I was at Nagasaki and Hiroshima, and it felt somewhat fulfilling to visit all three at last.  Although Poland could have used it's past more to fund it's future with such dystopian tourism there was a sense of keeping it measured and low key, but making sure it is remembered, and the balance feels about right.

It would be nice to go again and explore some more.

A Month..

Even less than that, now.

After we had returned from Poland last September, and we had got around to sorting out the big pile of post stopping the front door from opening, I happened upon a large, red package.  Upon opening it, I started jumping up and down and shouting.

It was a confirmation letter - I would be doing the London Marathon in 2014!

In 1996 - and I recall it clearly, I was told by a physio, who was at the time kneading my knotted muscles after a bad sciatica flareup, that my dreams of ever running a marathon should be stopped in their tracks.  'A half marathon is the best you can hope for in your condition', he said.

Right, I said.

Admittedly, it did take me about a decade to get around to it (my first proper 10k was in 2007) but I eventually got the bit between my teeth, worked off the videogaming flab and built up my distances.  In 2011, I did my first half marathon, In 2012, I did my first Marathon...

Hey, maybe it's time to take down that old Liverpool Marathon sponsor link and replace it with something a little more.. current? >>>>

So, I managed to stick one into the face of that damned physio two years ago, so what's the big deal?  Well, I did Liverpool because I wasn't having much luck with the London registration, receiving only a handful of failed ballot letters and a Jimmy Saville-style track suit top that is for some reason out of vogue right now.  London is the big one.  So when I got that letter, well things were pretty sweet.

Of course now that the thing is about four weeks away, I'm bricking it.  I've got my final instructions through this week (and bloody hell is is more complicated than your average 10k).  I'll be lining up alongside 36,000 other people as opposed to the 8,000 or so in my usual competitions, including world class athletes on a 'world marathon major' competition.  I've got my tickets and hotel sorted and my distances are about right, and a knee injury that showed up as the year incremented has thankfully been seen to (thanks again to a physiotherapist, but this time not the same one).  I'll study the course map like it's a final exam cram, so the last few miles of twists and turns don't turn into psychologically draining surprises.

I'm as set as I'm going to be.

So, here's the badgery-bit:  Please sponsor me.  I will - as ever - be running for MacMillan Cancer Support, as they are a very worthwhile network of supporters of victims of cancer and their families.  Though I have run for them many times now, this past couple of years I have felt a particular need to run for them.  My father is currently recovering from cancer, and will be hitting the operating table not long after the run to have the last stage of his reconstructive surgery completed, so this will be a personal goal I want to achieve in more ways than one.

Oh and just for good measure, there will be a handful of 10ks, a half marathon, a decent sized walk and the York Marathon in October, just for good measure...

Not a Happy Chicken!!!

Right now this computer is about fecking due for being thrown out of the window!

I'm back from work.  The dog has been out for a good ball throwing sesh.  It's still too dark outside to get in the garden.  I'll do some much needed blogging, I think.

I spend the next three hours writing the next part of the Polish holiday blog.  A bit of research to refresh my head about Auschwitz.  Some neatly-placed photographs.  Some sombre but powerful words to convey the weight of the experience.

Then - as I am about to finish for the night, my hand brushes over the mouse pad.  The entirity of the text is highlighted and dragged off the text field that I am typing into now, and off to the ether - a bit of the webpage that doesn't do much when you drop text onto it.  My new blog post goes blank.  I scream.

Ctrl-Z to the rescue?  Hell, no.  That for some reason has stopped working.  As a last resort, I hurry the mouse cursor over the 'Close' button to abandon my edits and get back to a previous save, but just as I click on the button - the auto-save kicks in.

I have lost it all.

Whether this is down to Firefox, or maybe Google's attempts to be too clever with it's online text editor, or even Apple with it's stupid mouse pad, I thank their efforts in making me scream and shout at this time of night and waking the neighbours.

I'll start again tomorrow, I guess.