I slept reasonably well last night. The hotel shakes every time a tram goes past, which is most of the night! There is no air conditioning so you have the choice of opening the window and letting in the street sounds or being too hot. Once again I am so thankful to have ear plugs and music on my phone. The duvet here has a cover so I was able to remove it and use the cover as a sheet! Another common practise amongst the riders is using the rubbish bins in our rooms as foot spas. We are leaving a trail of glistening clean bins behind us.
Today I did not have a sleep-in as a number of us had booked a tour at the Auschwitz Birkenau Memorial and Museum. I had read quite a bit about it over the years. I was aware that over 1.5 million people were killed there – Jews, Poles, Gypsies, Russians, POWs, retarded people and anyone else felt to be undesirable, but to be there, it’s hard to even describe the sheer scale, the brutality and the systematic approach. Most of you will know a lot more than me so I will just pick out what were a few key points
- The room full of human hair
- The room full of children’s shoes
- Standing at the selection point where 80 percent of all arrivals were sent straight to the gas chamber
- Standing in a gas chamber, having walked through the changing area to the chamber, and then past the crematoriums (the biggest chambers could gas 2,000 at one go).
The punishment cells will long linger in my memory, where prisoners were sent to starve to death or to suffocate, the standing cells where up to four prisoners had to stand in a space as small as a phone booth for days, the execution wall and the group hanging gallows. We walked from the selection platform down the same path to the changing area of the big crematoriums (two of these were destroyed by resistance fighters within the inmates and two by the Germans just before the Russians arrived, their remains are still there) but after the tour I got to turn around and walk back out of the gate and get back on the bus. I will be reflecting on this experience for a long time to come, I suspected it would affect me but in a strange way I feel it is the only way I can show my respect to those who perished, and acknowledge that it happened.
When we got back it was about 3pm and I had arranged to met Shirley, Daphne and Walli for dinner later, so in the meantime I went across to a cafe in the mall as the Wifi connection at the hotel is hopeless. The mall is huge, it’s three times the size of North City Plaza or Queensgate. It is open to 9pm every night, when I was there at 7pm it was really busy, but I guess the population is of course much bigger.
For dinner we went to a traditional Polish restaurant called Jarema Polska Kuchnia Kresowa (they call them restauracya here, in Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia they are called restorians). The restaurant advertised “Come and sit in our outside summer garden” – this was actually three tables and flowers in a pot on the pavement! Anyway, I had a very nice medium rare steak – called Przysmak Jarem – with baked potato and black pepper cream sauce, it was very nice but I could not help reflecting on the usual food allowance at Auschwitz – half a litre of water with a coffee substitute for breakfast, a bowl of watery soup for lunch with rotten vegetables, and dinner was 300 grams of bread. On the wall of one of the bunkers were photos of some of the men and woman prisoners. From my observation the woman lived about 2 to 3 months on average, and the men about 11 to 12 months. The diet was not enough to combat starvation, and they had to work 11 hour days, plus endure roll calls over a couple of hours, twice a day.
I will leave this sombre subject for now. Tomorrow the plan is to sleep in then visit the old town, then in the afternoon I am off on a tour to the salt mines. The Wieliczka salt mine is centuries old and has an extensive underground city with a chapel, can you believe, 101 meters under the ground?