Strange, I went nearly an entire month without posting to this blog. It’s not due to lack of material, as I’ve got plenty of that. I suppose I just feel guilty writing blog entries when I could be writing yet another cover letter.
Anyways, this is something I’ve been meaning to do for awhile. A few years ago, I would post an old LIFE magazine photo that I found particularly interesting, along with a short blurb about the photo. Well, I figured why not revive that, but instead of posting a LIFE photo, use one from my archive. I’ve managed to take over 8,200 of them in the past ten years, the majority of which are from my overseas travels. Setting a goal of posting one per day, along with a short description, at least gets me back in the habit of writing, and producing content when I don’t have time to sit down and write an extended entry. So let’s see if I can manage to post once per day. I’ll pick whatever image comes up in the “random image” section of my gallery and write a short post about it (unless the image totally sucks, in which case I will just hit reload and hope for a better one).
So, first up…
This is an entrance to Oskar Schindler’s factory in Krakow, Poland. Schindler, a German businessmen, is famous for saving the lives of 1,200 of his Jewish workers during the Holocaust. Schindler spent every penny of his personal fortune to provide care for his workers and bribe Nazi officials to ensure the workers wouldn’t be shipped off to concentration camps. To honor his efforts, the State of Israel declared Schindler “Righteous among the Nations” and allowed him to be buried in Jerusalem following his death.
Yeah, I’m finally done writing about this trip. Only took me four months. Still, that’s a significant improvement over last year’s trip to the Caucasus, which I didn’t finish writing about until December. I haven’t the slightest idea why it takes me so much time to write about places I’ve gone, considering that my travel posts are what most people stumble across, and therefore e-mail me about.
So, if you missed anything, here you go:
1. LOT – The airline of the proletariat
2. Ukraine Photos: Touring the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone
3. Dispatches from Chernobyl, Part I: Dude, where’s your Geiger counter?
4. Dispatches from Chernobyl, Part II: Liquidators Memorial / Kopachi / Catfish / Reactor 4
5. Dispatches from Chernobyl, Part III: The ghosts of Pripyat
6. Dispatches from Chernobyl, Part IV: Chisto?
7. Kiev: Post-Chernobyl food run/4th of July dinner (or how I flew 6000 miles to partake in Oreo Madness)
8. Ukraine Photos: Kiev
9. Kiev: You’ve seen one Rodina Mat, you’ve seen ‘em all
10. Make sure to secure the door when I am gone. There are many dangerous people who wanna take things from Americans, and also kidnap them. Good night!
11. Kiev Pechersk Lavra (Kiev Monastery of the Caves)
12. Poland Photos: Krakow / Auschwitz-Birkenau / Wieliczka Salt Mine
15. Wieliczka Salt Mine: Goin’ Deeper Underground
I’m not really sure why I was inspired to visit a salt mine. I mean, seriously, touring a salt mine? Seems like a bizarre thing to do while you are on vacation (granted, not as bizarre as touring Chernobyl), but it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site and was supposedly worth visiting.
Until recently, Wieliczka was one of the world’s oldest continuously operating salt mines. Production of table salt began in the 13th century and ended only recently, in 2007, due to flooding. The mine is massive, stretching some 186 miles (300km) underground and reaching a depth of 1,072 feet (327m). That’s nearly twice the height of the Washington Monument (555 feet). The official tour route took us through 2 miles (3.5km) of these underground tunnels.
Our English language guide was Sebastian, a cute fellow, in that tall and lanky, Eastern Europe-accented English and great sense of humor kind of way. When he casually mentioned that we would be walking down 54 flights of stairs to begin our tour, I thought he was joking until he opened a heavy wooden door and we found ourselves hurrying down a seemingly endless staircase.
While walking through salt tunnels and caves is thoroughly exciting, it’s not the main draw of the tour. Over the years, artistically inclined miners have fought boredom by carving salt into grandiose sculptures that honor important Poles and the history of the Wieliczka Salt Mine.
One of our first stops on the tour was the Burnt Out (Spalone) Chamber. In this chamber there are several carved figures that honor the men who worked as the mine’s “pentinents”. Prior to the installation of a proper ventilation system, the so-called pentinents were responsible for burning off the methane that would accumulate in the ceilings of the mine’s chambers. To accomplish this, they would dress in wet clothing and and crawl along the floor of mine chambers clutching a long pole with a lit torch on the end. As you can imagine, this was one of the riskiest jobs a man could hold at the Wieliczka Salt Mine, and as such, they were often rewarded handsomely with…extra bags of salt to take home to their families (keeping in mind that salt was an extremely valuable commodity in the Middle Ages).
The “pentinent” methane burners. And yeah, I need to learn how to use my camera.
Gnomes…mining salt. Gnomes were the good luck charm of Wieliczka miners.
The air is pure, and the temperature a cool 55 degrees. Just don’t get lost.
Besides carving methane burners and gnomes, the miners undertook larger projects including a number of chapels, the largest being St. Kinga’s Chapel, which was carved out of a massive green salt block in 1896.
Walk down the salt stairs leading down to the salt chapel to view the salt carvings lit by the salt crystal chandeliers
They hold Catholic Mass here on special occasions, and if you’re so inclined, you can even get married down here, which someone apparently did the evening prior to our visit.
Bored with the floor’s design? Carve a new one.
Detail of the chapel wall
The Last Supper
Pope John Paul II
Great place for a dinner party
One of the many underground lakes
Laura, Sebastian, our Polish guide whose name I cannot remember but he was really nice, and me
At the end of our tour, Sebastian announced that the wait for the tour group elevators was too long, so instead we would be cramming into the service elevators used by the mine workers. It was amazing how many people we could fit into the small cages, which sped to the surface of the mine at a rate of 12 feet per second.
If you do find yourself in Krakow and have some time to spare, the Wieliczka Salt Mine is definitely worth checking out. And yes, you can buy little bags of salt to hand out to your friends and family back home.
“With one stroke, mankind’s achievements seemed to have been erased. Was Auschwitz a consequence or an aberration of “civilization”? All we know is that Auschwitz called that civilization into question as it called into question everything that had preceded Auschwitz. Scientific abstraction, social and economic contention, nationalism, xenophobia, religious fanaticism, racism, mass hysteria. All found their ultimate expression in Auschwitz.” – Elie Wiesel, Nobel Peace Prize Lecture, December 1986
A mere 50km from the beauty of Krakow lies a mid-sized city by the name of Oświęcim, recognizable to most people only by its German name: Auschwitz. It was near Oświęcim that the Nazis established the largest of their extermination camps, the mass killing machines designed to fullfill their “Final Solution to the Jewish Question.” By the time that Soviet forces liberated the camp in January 1945, over 1.5 million Jews, political prisoners, Soviet POWs, and other people deemed “undesirable” by the Nazi regime had been systematically murdered.
Auschwitz was actually composed of several camps: Auschwitz I (the main administrative camp), Auschwitz II (Birkenau), Auschwitz III (Monowitz), and a number of smaller subcamps associated with various slave labor operations. Of these camps, we toured Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II (Birkenau).
Auschwitz I, the administrative center of all the Auschwitz camps, was established on the site of old Polish army barracks in May 1940. It was at Auschwitz I that prisoners marched to and from their work assignments under a gate that declared “Arbeit Macht Frei” (“Work sets you free”).
Several of the blocks that formerly housed prisoners have been turned into educational exhibits detailing prisoner origins, camp life, and the process of selection and extermination. In some blocks, mounds of shoes, human hair, suitcases, Zyklon B canisters, and prisoner belongings fill massive glass display cases. Perhaps the most moving, though, is Block 11, the building that housed Polish political prisoners and others accused of sabotage or participating in the camp’s underground resistance movement. Many of these prisoners perished in the starvation cells and standing cells located in Block 11’s basement. It was also here, in September 1941, that the Nazis conducted their first experiments using Zyklon B for mass murder, killing 600 Soviet POWs and 250 Polish prisoners taken from the camp hospital.
In the courtyard situated between blocks 10 and 11, there is a black wall built out of logs and covered with cork. At the base of the wall lie several wreaths, flower bouquets, and lit candles to commemorate the thousands of prisoners who were executed on this very spot.
We walked to the opposite end of the camp and entered a small building that served as the camp’s gas chamber from 1942-43, and was later converted into an air raid shelter. Directly above us, cut into the ceiling of the gas chamber, were holes through which the SS poured the deadly Zyklon B pellets onto their unsuspecting victims below. We passed through the gas chamber and into a side room containing two ovens. This was the camp’s crematorium, where the bodies of executed prisoners were loaded onto steel trolleys and shoved into the ovens.
Entrance to the gas chamber
Auschwitz II (Birkenau)
Due to overcrowding at Auschwitz I, the Nazis began construction on Auschwitz II (Birkenau) in October 1941. With the construction of four gas chambers and crematoria, it was designed to execute mass amounts of prisoners as quickly and efficiently as possible.
Prisoners arrived at Birkenau via long journeys in sealed cattle cars. Conditions in the train cars were so horrendous that some prisoners died before arriving at Auschwitz. The wreath placed on the tracks displayed the colors of the Hungarian flag, in memory of the Hungarian Jews sent to Auschwitz:
With the deportations from Hungary, the role of Auschwitz-Birkenau as an instrument in the German plan to murder the Jews of Europe achieved its highest effectiveness. Between late April and early July 1944, approximately 440,000 Hungarian Jews were deported, around 426,000 of them to Auschwitz. The SS sent approximately 320,000 of them directly to the gas chambers in Auschwitz-Birkenau and deployed approximately 110,000 at forced labor in the Auschwitz concentration camp complex.
Upon arriving at Auschwitz, prisoners were forced out of the cars and ordered to stand in line as an SS doctor made his selections, looking a prisoner over and simply declaring “right” – an assignment to a work detail – or “left” – to the gas chambers. With a mere glance from this doctor, a prisoner would be given a chance at life, or condemned to an instantaneous death.
It was late at night that we arrived at Auschwitz. When we came in, the minute the gates opened up, we heard screams, barking of dogs, blows from…from those Kapos, those officials working for them, over the head. And then we got out of the train. And everything went so fast: left, right, right, left. Men separated from women. Children torn from the arms of mothers. The elderly chased like cattle. The sick, the disabled were handled like packs of garbage. They were thrown in a side together with broken suitcases, with boxes. My mother ran over to me and grabbed me by the shoulders, and she told me “Leibele, I’m not going to see you no more. Take care of your brother.” – Leo Schneiderman
Ruins of the Krema II gas chambers and crematorium, where over 500,000 prisoners – told that they would be taking a shower- were gassed to death. In an attempt to hide their crimes, the Nazis blew up the gas chambers days before the Soviet Army arrived at Auschwitz.
The “Gate of Death”
Site of former prisoner barracks
Living conditions at Auschwitz were horrible. Food rations were meager, disease was widespread, and the living quarters were unfit for human habitation. When we visited Auschwitz in July, it was cold and windy, with the occasional light rain. I was glad I had brought along my jacket. I couldn’t imagine how cold the winters were for these prisoners, with nothing but a wooden shack for shelter.
We climbed the stairs to the top of the “Death Gate” tower for a view of the camp. The size of Birkenau, when compared with Auschwitz I, is staggering. Brick chimneys, the only remnants of many of the barrack buildings, stretch for hundreds of acres.
Visiting Auschwitz was an incredibly moving experience. Standing in the gas chamber of Auschwitz I and on the train tracks of Birkenau, it was hard to comprehend that 1.5 million people were systematically murdered here, in this beautiful Polish country side. As a history minor in college, and history aficionado in general, I had certainly read a fair amount of material about the Holocaust, but no amount of reading or sitting through college lectures could prepare you for a visit to Auschwitz, where silence reigns and the smell of ash still lingers throughout the vast Birkenau complex.
Krakow is one of my favorite places on earth. It is a medieval city full of young people. A wonderful, striking combination. – Jonathan Carroll
If you’ve been following this blog for the past few years, you’re certainly well aware that I have somewhat of an obsession with trying to visit multiple countries within a timespan of only a few days (i.e, last year’s trip to the Caucasus, or the one day Croatia-Bosnia-Montenegro run of ’05, a current personal best). It’s like an episode of the amazing race, only with more landmines and disgruntled Kalashnikov-carrying border guards.
I didn’t think that we needed to spend an entire week in Kiev, so I pulled up Google Maps and made a list of nearby countries that I hadn’t visited yet: Romania? Moldova? Slovakia? Belarus? Poland? Poland, as it turns out, seemed the most cost-effective travel wise, and Krakow was a city on my “to do” list that I had missed while studying in London (Yes, I did occasionally have to go to class). So, after spending four days in Kiev, Laura and I caught a flight to Krakow while Ryan hopped a train to the Crimea.
On our flight leaving Kiev, I was seated next to a young Ukrainian couple, who, I surmised, had never flown before. They clutched each other’s hands tightly, and as our plane gained speed for takeoff, the girl shut her eyes and repeatedly crossed herself. Fortunately, the flight was uneventful and divine intervention was not required. We switched planes in Warsaw and finally landed at Krakow’s John Paul II International Airport, named after a former local priest turned international Catholic superstar.
Our apartment was located near Market Square in the Old Town section of Krakow, an incredibly beautiful historic quarter composed of cobblestone streets and buildings dating back to the 15th century. Market Square is an ideal place to sit at an outdoor cafe and sip a cappuccino or glass of Żywiec beer with a shot of grenadine.
Yes, beer and grenadine. I was puzzled when I flipped through the drinks menu and saw a list of syrups displayed next to the beer choices. “So, uh,” I asked the waitress, “you add syrup to the beer?!” She looked at me like I was an idiot. “Yes, syrup for the beer.” Well, I like beer, and I like flavored syrups, so maybe they’d be good together. The end result was something that looked like a Shirley Temple, and tasted, well, good enough.
Cloth Hall in Market Square
We really only had one full day of sightseeing in Krakow, but managed to cover a lot of ground despite the cold temperature and steady downpour of rain. We spent the morning touring Kazimierz, the home of Krakow’s Jewish population until the Nazi invasion of Poland in World War II.
A courtyard used during the filming of Schindler’s List
Shortly after the Nazis invaded Poland, they forcibly removed all Jews from Kazimierz and placed them in the Krakow Ghetto. Conditions in the Ghetto were grim, with 15,000 people living in an area formerly occupied by 3,000 residents.
Memorial to those killed
The pharmacy run by Tadeusz Pankiewicz, a Polish national hero.
The entrance to Oskar Schindler’s factory
Site of the Kraków-Płaszów concentration camp
Former mass graves
We spent the rest of the day at Wawel Castle, the former residence of Polish royalty. To be honest with you, I found it to be a bit boring. Beautiful architecture, but after a while all the castles start to look alike.
Obligatory “American” pose
The following day we toured Auschwitz and the Wieliczka Salt Mines. More on that later.
Finished uploading the photos from Poland:
A few Poland-related posts on the way.
Oh, British Airways, I didn’t mean to cheat on you, but other airlines tempted me with their lower fares that popped up on Orbitz. So I did it. I booked with Polskie Linie Lotnicze LOT, discounting all those fine flights we’ve had together these past few years: Russia, Croatia, and who could forget the 11 hour flights that shuttled me to and from my beloved home state and the wonderful city of London? This time, though, your tickets to Eastern Europe were so damn exorbitant that you reluctantly drove me into the arms of a certain Polish airline sporting a Star Alliance membership. Well, how bad could it be?
It sucked. Flying LOT is akin to being magically transported back in time to find yourself on an American airline from the 1980s. For ten hours.
Entertainment options were sparse. They showed one movie, The Astronaut Farmer, I think. None of those fancy personal seatback TVs that the Brits provide to all of their customers regardless of class. No free socks (about half of the socks I own are of the blue BA variety), earplugs, or eyeshades. I think my blanket was vintage 1970s Polish Army issue, or at least hadn’t been washed since then.
And the food? In general, I will eat anything that is presented to me, including airline food. Dry ham sandwich on Continental? OK, whatever. Bizarre chicken and rice concoction on Air France? Sure. LOT’s food, however, was downright terrible. One meal, in particular, included four pieces of bread, a salad composed of peas, corn, and cubes of ham slathered in an unidentifiable white sauce, and an entrée of spaghetti noodles topped with pieces of hamburger meat (I think) and cheese. I was a bit saddened that there was no dessert. Prosze, can’t I please just have one piece of chocolate on this 10 hour flight from hell? Nie!
The check-in process was yet another chance for LOT to show its true colors, Star Alliance be damned. As it turns out, my four hour layover at JFK was actually quite useful, as I was forced to spend an hour and a half standing in the LOT check-in line despite assurances from the Dulles United agent that all my boarding passes were valid to Kiev. Wrong. As I was waiting in the security line to enter terminal whatever at JFK, a nice LOT employee pulled me aside and told me that I had to go upstairs, check-in again, and receive new LOT-issued boarding passes because the United ones “wouldn’t work”, or something to that effect. I am not quite clear what the point of this so-called Alliance is.
Of course, returning to the U.S. wasn’t a cakewalk, either. Checking in for my Krakow to Chicago flight was an absolute clusterfuck that resulted in the flight leaving an hour late. The line to check-in stretched all the way to the back of the building. The LOT agents blamed their slowness on the amount of luggage they had to handle. While, yes, it’s true that the Poles were absolutely loaded down with trolleys full of luggage, it’s a bit weak to blame your effed up check-in procedures on your customers (four agents checking in a Boeing 767 headed to the U.S.? Seriously?) While I spent 2.5 hours in line, Laura checked in for her Krakow-London flight in 10 minutes, if even. British Airways, naturally.
I must say I’ve also come to appreciate the smooth landing skills displayed by many U.S. pilots. While U.S. pilots tend to glide in for a smooth, almost effortless landing, their Eastern European counterparts prefer the tried and true method of plummeting from the sky, landing hard, and ultimately finishing the maneuver by bouncing several times down a less than ideally maintained runway. And then comes the applause. First time visitors to Eastern Europe are always a bit amused by the local’s propensity to cheer and clap upon the completion of a successful landing. I’m not sure if this is an indication of the airline’s safety record, their joy in finally being home, or an appreciation of a job well done by the plane’s crew. I’ve always preferred to think of it as a mixture of all three. And sometimes, after experiencing one of those landings, I’m ready to join in the applause as well.
Seriously. After a hellish flight (thank you, LOT Polish airlines!), I finally arrived at my house in DC around 11pm on Sunday night. I am not actually in DC right now, though, as I soon found myself on yet another airplane headed to Houston. My hotel room reeks of smoke and the sign outside the hotel bar kindly requests that you refrain from bringing your handgun into the establishment. Ironically, the paintings that hang in my room are various landscapes of London, the largest being of my former neighborhood south of the Thames, Bankside. It’s like some sick joke.
Anyways, I took a ton of photos this past week…almost 600 of them. I have 230 from Chernobyl alone. I’ll upload them when I get a chance and then write a little bit about the trip itself. But for now, I gotta sleep.