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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
(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 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 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.