Our first morning in Warsaw took us to a small district South West of the old town to the memorial site of the Jewish Ghetto. The Warsaw Ghetto was the largest of the Jewish ghettos established by Nazi Germany during the Holocaust in World War II (just under three square miles). Between 1940 and 1943, starvation, disease and deportations to concentration camps and extermination camps dropped the population of the ghetto from an estimated 450,000 to approximately 70,000. In 1942 the Warsaw Ghetto was the scene of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, one of the first mass uprisings against Nazi occupation in Europe.
"Anyone for a ride?"
No sooner had our first learning about Poland begun, our visit to Warsaw came to an end and we were back on the mini-bus to our second destination.
We arrived at Torun (North of Warsaw) in the afternoon and were given guided a tour of the magnificent medieval city situated on the Vistula river.
The house where Copernicus was born and the chapel where he was christened are still standing in the city. From Middle Ages the town has been known for its ginger breads.
Nevertheless, the meal was greatly enjoyed and soon I was on my way to bed in anticipation of more excitement the next day.
Soon, we were back on the mini-bus and on our way to Gdansk. Gdansk is situated at the mouth of the Motlawa River. This was an important seaport since medieval times and subsequently a principal ship-building centre. The city of Gdansk is famous worldwide as the birthplace of the Solidarity movement which, under the leadership of Lech Walesa, played a major role in bringing an end to communist rule in the Eastern Bloc.
The first thing noticeable in Gdansk was the amazing array of colours -the buildings, the people, the arts and crafts....breathtaking!
Everywhere I looked, every house was a different colour - so full of inspiration - so full of pride.
As the sun set over the buildings, the architecture cast it's shadows, providing yet another view of this fantastic place. Each rooftop had a slightly different design....what an imagination.
The night soon set in and the city came alive - it was time to visit the local bars and sample the Polish vodka and dance to the local music... A great night, but an even bigger headache the following morning - Well, it had to be done!
In the middle ages, Frombork's inhabitants were mainly merchants, farmers and fishermen. The most famous resident was the astronomer and mathematician Nicolaus Copernicus (who we were first introduced to in Torun). It was at Frombork that he wrote his epochal work, De revolutionibus orbium coelestium. Shortly after its publication in 1543 Copernicus died and was buried in the cathedral (shown in the photos below).
That afternoon, after leaving this beautiful place, we made our way to somewhere that couldn't feel more different. Our next stop was the "Wolf's Lair".
We continued our walk around the ruins, learning more and more about some of the atrocities that were devised there. Then we came to bunker #13. This was Hitler's bunker. The feelings that went through my mind at that point were indescribable. I was walking on ground that was once walked on by probably the most evil man to ever set foot on this earth. Shivers ran down my spine.
The photograph below shows one of the entrances into Hitler's bunker....
...and the next photo shows the crack down the side of the bunker caused by the explosives that Germans set off on their retreat from the site. The reason they chose to destroy the site when they abandoned it in 1945, was that they thought it was too valuable too allow the Russians to use.
After such a dark and oppressive afternoon, we were in need of some relaxation. We ventured over to the Polish Mazurian lakes. This was large lake district area that catered for boat rides, cycling, walking and naturally eating and drinking.
After two days of fun and froliks, we made our way to our next location. To Biebrza National Park. This is the largest of Poland's National Parks. Marshes are the most precious part of the park. The park protects vast and 'untouched by civilation' peatbogs with unique varieties of several species of plants, birds and animals. We spent a wonderful afternoon here, in three-man canoes floating around the amazing channels within the marshes.
Click on the play button below to watch a video clip of the journey through the marshes.
Although it was an extremely wet morning, we did have better weather in the afternoon. We had a very enjoyable walk along the forest path. This was followed by a relaxing break in the village before all meeting up in the restaraunt to tuck into an amazing meal. After the meal a few of us made our way outside to enjoy the night time atmosphere. Many stories and anacdotes were shared during evening, whilst all being warmed up with vodka.
This was too much of an opportunity for us to let pass by. So, the next day we all clambered onto our rafts for a very enjoyable cruise down the river. Well, it was a very relaxing trip apart from the occasions where our guide decided to dowse us with water.
As we approached the end of our cruise and could see the moorings in site, our childish characters began to show as we all wanted our rafts to reach the bank first. I am proud to say that I was in the 'winning' raft and spent the next few hours feeling quite victorious.
What a day!... What a week!.... What a holiday!!!
Our final destination was Krakow.
Krakow is one of the oldest and largest cities of Poland. This historical city is situated on the Vistula River at the foot of Wawel Hill int the Lesser Poland region. It was the capital of Poland until 1596.
The old town district of Krakow has rich historical architecture, mostly Renaissance with some examples of Baroque and Gothic. It's palaces, churches and mansions display variety o fcolour, architectural details, stained glass, paintings, sculptures and furnishings.
The Gothic St. Mary's Basilica stands in the middle mrket place. It was built in the 14th century and features the famous wooden alter carved by Wit Stwosz. Every hour, a trumpet call, the hejnal mariacki, is sounded from the church's main tower. As we stood in the square, our tour guide explained that the tune was played during a Tatars' invasion in the 13th century by a guard who wanted to warn the citizens against the attack. He was shot by the Tatar warrior while playing. Since that day the melody breaks off at the moment he died.
As we walked around the old town square, there was a nostalgic sound of horses hooves clopping on the cobbled streets.
The morning after arriving at Krakow, we had the opportunity of visiting Wieliczka Salt Mine.
The mine, in the town of Wieliczka, has been in continuous operation since the 13th century, and still produces table salt. It is one of the world's olderst operating salt mines. The mine reaches down to a depth of 327 meters and is over 300 km long.
I'm glad to say we were not expected to walk the whole length. There was a 3.5km tourist route that we were taken through. The tour was exceptionally well layed out and included statues of historic and mythic figures, all sulpted by miners out of the salt.
There were also manaquines and scenes set up along the route to provide an example of how the different processes took place.
Each turn we took, sent us futher down into the depths of the mine (although still only experiencing less than 1% of it's total size)
Then we arrived at another one of the most spectacular views that I have ever seen in my life. Down in the depths of the mine we arrived upon the most amazing chapel. Every part of which was painstakingly carved out of salt - even each individual crystal in the chandeliers were fashioned out of salt.
When we arrived at the entrance of the chapel, we were stood near the ceiling (as shown in the photograph below), with a sweeping staircase just in front of us. The room glowed with a deep warmth.
We made our way down the staircase and over to the carvings on the walls. Each depiciting a biblical scene. Each so magnificantly carved with the most unbelievable amount of detail and in such a way that the shadows from the lights gave the scenes a great depth.
After a period of observation and reflection, we began our ascent to the surface - still in complete awe of what we had just experienced.
We retruned to Krakow for a spot of lunch - this provided us with an opportunity to truly absorb the character of the place and the friendliness of the people.
As you remeber, we had started our tour in Warsaw, and stood in the centre of the historic Jewish Ghetto that was the holding place for up to 450,00 men,women and children.
Now we were at Auschwitz.
All over the world, Auschwitz has become a symbol of terror, genocide, and the Holocaust. It was established by the Nazis in the suburbs of the city of Oswiecim which, like other parts of Poland we had visited, was occupied by the Germans during World War II.
During this time the name of the city was changed to Auschwitz, which became the name of the camp as well. June 12, 1940, when the first transportation of Polish politicl prisoner deportees arrived in Auschwitz, is regarded as the date when it began to function.
Over the following years, the camp was expanded and consisted of three main parts: Auschwitz I, Auschwitz II-Birkenau, and Auschwitz III-Monowitz. It also had over 40 sub-camps.
Our first emotional experience was at Auschwitz I. Even standing at the entrance to the camp , I became overwhelmed with emotion.
The haunting words of "Arbeit Machen Frei" that stood above our heads were an immediate reminder of where we were. Thousands of prisoners went out of here each day to long hours of arduous labour. In the evening, they returned exhausted, carrying the corpses of those who had died.
We made our way into the grounds. The atmosphere hung heavy around us. We were soon met by a guide provided by the camp, who took us from building to building - explaining about the events that led up to the camp creation, how selections were made and what took place within the compound.
As we walked from room to room, large black and white photographs of vicitms looked back at us, helpless. Their eyes staring, trying to say a thousand words.
Some of the rooms had been transformed into artifact display areas - the first was full of shoes, the second full of spectacles, the third full of suitcases and the fourth was full of human hair that had been shaved off as people arrived. The emotion was too much, tears began to flow from my eyes as I looked through the glass and saw amongst the mountains of hair, a short length of a young girls blonde hair that had been caringly platted with a red ribbon on the end. I could imagine so clearly, this girl having her hair platted one morning by her mother or sister, thinking that she was going away to a better place and then ending up here - the last place that she would ever see.
Our journey continued hearing and reading accounts of heroism, accounts of torture, accounts of needless loss of life. Walking through long corridors with hundreds of photographs of people's faces (the camp's initial arrivals) - male, female, tall, short, large, slender, old, young, very young - all real people, all who's lives were lost.
We ended our tour of Auschwitz I, and made our way back to the coach to visit Auschwitz II-Berkenau. It was at this point that I had realsied that nobody in our group had uttered a single word during the visit - even, back on the coach there was complete silence.
We soon arrived at the tower of Berkenau. This was the second part of the camp (which held over 90,000 prisoners in 1944). This was the largest part of the Auschwitz complex.
Historians estimate that among all the people sent to Auschwtz, there was at least 1,100,000 Jews from all the other countries of occupied Eurpoe, over 140,000 Poles (mostly political prisoners, approximately 20,000 Gypsies from several European countries, over 10,000 Soviet prisoners of war, and over 10,00 prisoners of other nationalities. The majority of the Jewish deportees died in the gas chambers immediately after arrival.
The overall number of victims of Auschwitz in the years 1940 - 1945 is estimated at between 1,100,000 and 1,500,000 people. The majorityof them, and above all the mass transports of Jews who arrived beginning in 1942, died in the gas chambers.
As we walked into the camp, the weather changed. The clouds shut out the sun, the sky turned grey and it began to pour with rain. It was late in the afternoon, the camp was empty now and we were given the privacy to walk around and absorb the moment. I took a long slow walk up the middle of the camp along the side of the railway line. The rain kindly disguised the tears that ran down my face.
This was truly a time to reflect. I suddenly became riddled with anger - and anger pointed directly at myself, at my ignorance -I was 34yrs old and until now hadn't bothered to try to understand what World War II was about. I stopped, stood motionless and made a promise to myself that when I returned home, I would make an effort to learn more about what happened - I felt I owed it to those that died here and to those that died to protect our freedom.
I was completely drenched through, but it dawned on me that in a short while I was going to be able to walk out of the gate and climb onto a comfortable mini-bus to take me to my luxurious hotel and eat a three course meal and have a warm drink. This thought made me feel nausiated - how complacent has civilisation become now? Just a few years ago - just two generations before mine, people were brought here, starved, tortured and killed.
I knew that I was looking at an exit and that I could simply walk out in my own time, I stopped again and thought of those that had looked at the same gate, knowing that they were never going to see the other side....
The day finally came to an end. We made our way back to the mini-bus, back to the hotel - each step of the way, the scenes of the afternoon were running through my thoughts.
That night a small group of us met up to have a farewell meal. I was asked what I thought of the Polish experience and what I thought of my fellow group memebers. I replied "I have met a some nice people, seen some amazing places and learned many things during this trip - much of which I shall never forget. I came expecting one thing and found another. The most significant thing that I have learned on this trip is the realisation of how little I really know."
The next morning, we all met for breakfast before returning to the airport for our flight home. We finally said our goodbyes at Gatwick airport and another amazing venture that held lots of laughter, lots of learning came to an end.
I found it almost impossible to talk about my experiences at Auschwitz for many weeks without getting upset and emotional. Even now, as I finish this post several months after the trip, I can still feel the sadness of that afternoon. An enjoyable and educational trip to remember, another trip that has made a significant impact on my life - I will forever be a little more humble, a little less complacent and a lot more appreciative of life.
xxx The End xxx
by Graham Ettridge
If you are interested in reading a first hand account of life within Auschwitz during the World War II, I cannot recommend enough the book "Survival in Auschwitz" by Primo Levi.
In 1943, Primo Levi, a twenty-five-year-ols chemist and "Italian citizen of Jewish racce," was arrested by Italian fascists and deported from native Turin to Auschwitz. Survival in Auschwitz is Levi's clasic account of his ten months in the German death camp, a harrowing story of systematic cruelty abd miraculous endurance. Remarkable for its simplicity, restraint, compassion and even wit, Survival in Auschwitz remains a lasting testament to the indestructibility of the human spirit.
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