Sunday, September 23, 2007


After fourteen hours on the bus, we've arrived in Kraków, Poland. On our first day here, we took a day trip to Wieliczka - a 900 year-old salt mine. Somehow, it used to make economic sense to dig out large blocks of salt-rich rock from up to 350m below ground, pulverize the rock, run water through it to absorb the salt and finally boil off the water. All that just to get salt.

Since the miners would spend most of their days deep in the mine, they decorated the carved-out chambers with salt sculptures and chapels. The most entertaining part of our tour was the guide, who looked very similar to Borat, kept saying "This is very nice, yes" and told some very sarcastic stories with a straight face and hysterical Polish accent.

Today, our day trip was very different - to Auschwitz-Birkenau - the biggest concentration camp from WWII where over a million people were murdered. It's hard to describe what it was like to be there. We'd both read and seen movies about Auschwitz and the Holocaust, but seeing it for ourselves was beyond our imagination.

Auschwitz-Birkenau is actually two different camps. We started the guided tour at the older camp where were shown the around the different prisoner barracks, as well as some exhibits of objects that the Nazis had stolen from the prisoners. The most horrifying thing was to see the shear volume of the piles of shoes, glasses, prosthetic limbs/canes and human hair.

The Birkenau camp was built later, just for extermination. We were blown away by the enormity of this camp. From the main gate, it stretches away as far as the eye can see. This camp had four gas chambers/crematoria and several hundred barracks for prisoners to live in. It is hard to imagine the incredible suffering - at selection, over 75% of new arrivals were sent straight to the gas chambers, while those who were fit to work were stripped and shaved, showered in cold or scalding water, left for hours to dry, then given uniforms and housed in small bunks in unheated barracks. They were given very little food and were worked to death. It was just unbelievable cruelty.

It was a tough day. Tomorrow, we'll take it easy, just walking around Kraków.

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