Another day of exploring began as we drove toward the community of Beelitz. We were on our way to take a look around fascinating, and huge, hospital complex that has been here for over a hundred years. The pictures I had seen online made my mouth water and I couldn't wait to arrive. When we got there, we experienced a mix of disappointment and happiness.
Our disappointment stemmed from the fact that no matter where we went, buildings were either in use, being restored, or cut off by workers or equipment. It was very busy there. Our happiness, however, came from the fact that these buildings would not be lost and could go on to be enjoyed for decades to come.
We took some time to walk about and photograph some of what we could see, at least from the outside. There was at least some consolation in that. We further consoled ourselves by returning to Berlin for another Boar dinner.
We packed and bid farewell to the apartment that had been our home base for the last while. We jumped in the car and struck out for the Polish border. The highway was smooth and fast, the sun was shining, and we were ready for the next leg of our adventure.
We arrived at the border and could easily see where once customs officials would have processed our crossing. The buildings, while boarded up, were still present as though waiting for the Union, that had ended their use, to fail.
The other fundamental difference we noted after crossing was the sudden deterioration in the condition of the highway. From a speed of 150 km/h, we were reduced to no more than 70, and that only where the pavement was particularly good. In fairness, the condition improved, some 50 or so kilometres in, but it took some time to get there.
Our destination was the city of Katowice, and a suite at the Euroresidence Apartments we had rented for the next two nights. First, we were amazed by the aged architecture of many of the buildings, including the one in which we'd stay. Then, we were further shocked by the modern finish and decoration of the interior. Our rooms were beyond comfortable.
Our host explained that transportation would be provided, free, to a restaurant they recommended for dinner. We accepted that offer and found ourselves in a taxi driven by what must surely have been a retired Formula 1 driver. We ordered dinner, marvelled at the food, the service, and the incredibly low price before returning to our accomodations with another taxi / race driver. After some minor noise issues, we settled in for the night and slept well.
We woke up early and set out to see something I'd always wanted to experience, the primary purpose for my diversion into Poland. Fourty minutes away, in the town of Oswiecim, a place brought out from obscurity during the war, never to return again. KZ Auschwitz / Birkenau.
We parked and walked to the main ticket office, only to discover that we would not be able to go into Auschwitz I until that afternoon. However, Birkenau (Auschwitz II) was open to be toured at any time. We decided to drive over and start there.
It took a moment. Standing on the tracks looking toward the iconic guard tower that straddled them. Everyone has seen it in movies or documentaries. It's different seeing it in person. Everyone has also seen images of people being unloaded from trains, dogs barking, guards shouting, people crying... The active imagination can easily overlay those on the view I had before me now.
We walked through the grounds, seing the ruined foundations of destroyed buildings, including the many crematoria at the back. We were almost numbed to the concept of people moving like an assembly line through processing... a sanitized word for removing clothes, belongings, even hair, before either moving on to the barracks, or the "showers".
Eventually, we left Birkenau and had a quick bite to eat before keeping our appointment to visit Auchwitz I. We entered the prison under the also iconic arch reading "Arbeit Macht Frei", or, "Work will Make you Free". That arch notwithstanding, this camp doesn't get as much media attention as the larger Birkenau nearby. This was the original camp, converted from a Polish army barracks by Rudolf Hoss on orders from the SS.
As we walked through each of the buildings, we learned that Auschwitz was originally meant for "political prisoners", and that many of those ended up before a firing squad before a backstop that still stands. We saw a small crawl-space into which prisoners were sometimes stuffed as a means of prolonged torture. We saw displays of countless shoes, and endless pictures of faces, most of whom would never be seen again. It was difficult, but I felt necessary, not to allow it to become simply a background blur; another tourist display seen and forgotten... I don't know that such a place can ever be forgotten, once experienced.
We had dinner, and went back to our apartment to rest, and think about all that we had seen today.
My original plan was to drive back to Berlin in the morning, perhaps stopping in a few places along the way that had caught my interest. In a last-minute decision, however, I decided we would go deeper into Poland to see the city of Krakow, and specifically the location of Oskar Schindler's famous factory, the still-standing house of Amon Göth, and the open fields that were once the Plaszow concentration camp.
The factory is now a museum, as one can understand. While I expected it to be about Schindler, I found it went way off topic, covering not just the war's impact on Krakow, which was significant, but the war's impact on all of Europe. This is way too broad a topic to try to cover in a single museum, and as a result, you felt that it actually covered nothing. My personal opinion, of course, and I invite you to decide for yourself if you have the opportunity.
The scenes of Plaszow in the movie, Schindler's List, were largely filmed in a quarry not far from the actual site of the camp. It's hard to reconcile scenes like that with the tranquil green park we walked through now, largely devoid of much that would hint at what had transpired here.
After some time, we had to head back to Berlin. We had already been much longer than I planned.
We checked out of our Berlin hotel and began the sad journey back home. It had been an amazing time, and we knew we had to come back again. After all... who else was going to eat all the boar?
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