to Poland: Day III

This blog entry is quite long, ridiculously so, and therefore divided into four parts. I decided to quarter it specifically because the last part does not fit with the rest of the usual theme. It’s not the happy, Jennifer goes adventuring post. It deserves its own section. So, on y va:

Part 1, Trains:
The nicer looking airport train.
20 years ago, I bet the trains in Poland were flippin’ bomb-tastic, all fresh and new and shiny. But by today’s standards? If these trains were in France, they would probably be striking along with all the other retirees. 
Just boarding them can be a feat in itself. After they thunder up to the platform and shudder into a heavy silence, you must take a giant step down (or a giant leap up, depending on the platform) to reach the car’s first step.  These steps are composed of two narrow, grate-like shelves, set steeply apart.  
Traversing the gap between platform and train was quite scary at first. The first time I looked down it was like staring into a yawning, cavernous trench, a place where second chances do not exist.  I seriously wondered (and am still perplexed by) how the arthritic older people were making it on and off the train so safely. Perhaps, when no one is looking, they toss their canes aside and become limber acrobats, tumbling effortlessly across the abyss?
 
After you’re onboard, you choose your own seat on a retro red-cushioned bench against the backdrop of wallpapered “wood” paneling. The train then hurtles through the Polish countryside, rattling, shaking, and screaming in its rails.  Try writing postcards in a rickety thing like that. I’ll be lucky if the postal workers can read the addresses. 
 
You get two temperature choices in these benches: gusts of cold air assaulting your top half or concealed heaters below the seats trying to melt your calves off. 
 
Notice how we and everyone else are still bundled up.
The doors on the cars also appear to lack sensors. Let’s just say that if you need to disembark at a fairly secluded stop, you had better be ready to throw yourself off the second the doors open or risk getting a limb caught (oh don’t you worry, there’s a story to follow). 
 
And there is no intercom system on the train to tell you what stop you are approaching. Besides one conductor who comes around to check your ticket, you’ll find no other source of information. 
 
The platforms at the smaller stops don’t have a reader board listing arrivals and departures. There is only a speaker box. This box is operated by a controller in some far away city who doesn’t know if he’s speaking to an empty platform or all the village occupants, and he surely doesn’t care if anyone can understand him. The box spits out garbled, crackling Polish that even the natives have to crane their necks back to concentrate on. The great garble box only speaks when the trains are going to be late. So if it does crackle to life, you know you have 20 more minutes to stamp your feet in the cold. 
 
Overall, I find these Polish trains charming in a rusted, dingy sort of way. After riding in the sleek TGVs of France, which deliver you from Nantes to Paris in 2 hours, riding in the Polish versions is kind of like time traveling. And after you get past the scary noises, these trains are kind of cute, like grumbly old bears.
 
Part 2, Trains and other misadventures:

Somehow that little old man will get onto the train, but you never see him do it.
Now I shall tell you about our encounters with these grumbly old bears.
 
The morning of Day III found us on the right train at (supposedly) the right time, but in retrospect, headed in the wrong direction. We didn’t realize this until after 20 minutes or so, when the train shuddered to one last complete stop.  The town we were headed to, Oświęcim, should have taken well over an hour to get to.  Jen was going to meet us at her stop along the way and then we would all ride together to Auschwitz. 
 
So after everyone else had exited the car and we hadn’t even budged, the last man leaving offered helpfully in English, “It is over.”  
 
Confused, we leapt off the train and peeked around its front. The man was indeed correct; this train ride was over.  The rail line literally ended in a mound of earth.  
 
Then we noticed that the sign for the stop said Wieliczka, with a supplementary sign “Salt mines this way –>”. There shouldn’t be any salt mines in Auschwitz. 
 
Our ticket said Oświęcim, and the conductor on the way there had punched it without hesitation. This left us looking at each other, searching for an appropriate word for the situation. Let’s just say, for this blog, that that word was “Hmmmm.”
 

In the ticket office in Wieliczka, after some mispronounced Polish town names and miming between the three of us, we learned that, yes we had bought the ticket for the right line, but actually we had gotten on the train an hour before we needed to. Fun times in Poland.

Now for the evening portion of our events, or as I like to call it, How the train tried to eat Kristi’s purse.

 
Train station in Oświęcim for our return trip.
It was a cold day.
As I mentioned before, the stops on the Polish rail can be secluded. The signs designating which stops are which are not obvious, or even visible, to tourists, and at night the platforms themselves are not well lit.  After the day’s events, we caught the same train back to Krakow, but were to get off at an earlier stop to meet with Anna and her friends for dinner.  Mind you, it was dark when we were riding back.
The four of us were just staring off into space, knowing that our stop was coming up, but not for several more minutes. Jen said she knew where it was.  There were two other guys in our car, presumably Polish. One was lounging, half regarding us in that way I’ve begun to recognize all too well: a mixture of amusement and pity at the complete cluelessness of foreigners who chatter too loudly in their own language and simply don’t belong wherever they are. The other guy was dozed off in one of the booths beside us. 
 
Jen was getting a little overexcited about which stop was which. Suddenly she was unsure of where we were. When the train paused she ran up to the door and recognized a word on the sign. 
 
“GUYS!” She leapt back into our car. “THIS IS IT!”  
 
We were on our feet all at once, bags in hand, jostling to get out of the train. Polish guy 1, the observer, was no longer regarding us in half-interest, but staring, aghast, at our sudden and inexplicable commotion. Polish guy 2, roused by Jen’s alarm, had sprung from his seat with a startled grunt, hands gripping bags, ready to dive off the train. He was still waking himself up as we shoved past him, probably wondering what the hell just happened.
 
Now we were in the doors of the car, trying to jump out, one by one. I didn’t even see Jen’s leap. Krista pushed her way out next, having to give an extra squeeze to escape the closing doors. Kristi, the third, by some miraculous instinct threw her purse out instead of her head. And then the doors slammed shut. The jaws of the sleepy old bear had come to life. 
 
We were separated. Four sets of eyes, two looking in and two looking out, widened in disbelief at the realization that the doors were not opening again. 
 
“OH NO!”
“WHAT DO WE DO?!”
“AHHHHH!” 
 
I honestly don’t know if these words were cried aloud or just my inner monologue. Jen and Krista shouted at the doors, Kristi hollered and yanked on her purse, and I was just standing there, pitiful. 
 
The engine of the train revved up to go. We thought, we’re going to be separated in Poland, at night, in the dark.
 
And then, inexplicably, the doors slid back with a violent, mechanical thrust and Kristi and I dove out without looking back. 
 
All that we can guess is that we were close enough to the conductor’s car that they heard us screaming and decided to open the door. The whole ordeal, from Jen’s alarm to the bear opening its jaws, lasted about 60-90 seconds. The amount of panic condensed into this amount of time for all parties involved: immeasurable.
 
The train sped away and we were left standing in the small pool of lamp light of the empty platform, surrounded by tracks and dark forest. Not in the middle of Anna’s town. 
 
Great. Not our stop.
 
Jen called Anna. Fortunately, we had only gotten off one stop before our own, so we just had to wait 20 minutes for them to pick us up in their nice warm cars.  Thank goodness. 
 
Part 3, The evening and the food: 
 
Anna, Chris, and Michael took us, driving very very fast down and around wet roads, first to a fun little mountain themed restaurant. We were treated to an overload of traditional Polish décor and pummeled by the hearty laughter (Ah-a-HA-HA!) in the mountain music being played repeatedly through the meal. 
 
We also were introduced to what I’d say is the best cheese in the world. It’s some complicated Polish word that if I don’t take a picture of, I never can reproduce from memory again. It was some sort of baked, salty goat cheese and served with cranberry sauce. It. Is. Delish. It also has a patent, meaning that you can only get it in Poland. Why oh why must Poland give me reason after reason to return?! 
 
After the cheese appetizer, I had greasy potato pancakes and mushrooms for dinner, which was a-mazing. After the meal, Anna and the boys took us to another little establishment for some Polish white cheesecake and apple pie. Both were divine, and not exactly what you would expect. The cheesecake isn’t as sweet or as dense as the New York style, but lighter and just as thick (does that even make sense?). The apple pie was incredible. Imagine a thick apple sauce consistency wrapped up in a thick, buttery pie crust, seasoned with the best, most delicious cinnamon and clove and nutmeg spice concoction you’ve ever tasted. In addition to this, we finally fulfilled one of our missions for Poland, which was to try hot Meade, a traditional honey wine. It tastes kind of like a hot toddy, and it made us feel warm and cozy after our cold day. 
 
And then the lights in the restaurant went out without reason or warning. After a pause for some light laughter and remarks, everyone in the place just resumed chatting and drinking and partying. It’s nice to witness perseverance.  
 
After dinner and dessert, Krista, Kristi, and I said goodbye to Jen, Anna, and the boys, figured out how to ask the conductor on the train for tickets (spelled phonetically, not correctly) “Billet-eh studenski doe Krakovie, proche-eh”.
 
Voila, the extent of our mad Polish speaking skills. 
 
Part 4, Auschwitz:
 
We took the train that day to visit Auschwitz, the largest Nazi operated concentration camp in Poland during WWII. 
 
Going into this, we knew it would not be a fun day. We went prepared for a day of learning, reflection, and ultimately, grief. It was one of the most mentally and emotionally draining days of my life. 
 
I’m unsure how to blog about this. It was an extremely personal experience, and one that requires a lot of personal reflection. But something like Auschwitz deserves to be mentioned, even if it is just in a few paragraphs in some insignificant blog.  
 
I will not speak about the atrocities that took place there or of the crimes against humanity committed. You probably know enough already from school and what you don’t know you can experience by going to Auschwitz yourself. Repeating the facts here would just make it into some scary story being retold on the web, and I don’t want to make light of any of it. I also will not share any pictures here, not just because I couldn’t bring myself to take them, but why should I? You will find enough information in books and on the internet to fill your head with a thousand unwanted images.  
 
To be there, to be in that atmosphere of nature and preserved stone and memories of cruelty and debasement… you can feel it when you enter the grounds. Auschwitz I, the base camp, and Auschwitz II-Birkenau, the extermination camp, are preserved as museums and treated as cemeteries. It is an eerie mix of history and current time, past sadness and peril juxtaposed by present calm and safety.
 
Everyone in our group of visitors, perhaps 30 to 40 people, seemed to be affected differently. There were a lot of pictures being taken. There was even a little bit jostling as if people were worried they would miss out on seeing evidence of some past atrocity.

 

While most everyone else in the tour group was still in that happy-go-lucky tourist mindset and snapping pictures of everything, I was crying. 
 
Within our group of four American girls, we already had a pretty good collective knowledge of the Holocaust and WWII.  And yet, I still do not know how to ready oneself for such an experience as going to Auschwitz. The four of us as individuals were affected heavily that day and we were quiet for most of the tour. I can’t imagine going there alone.

I was not prepared for the overwhelming presence of sadness. There is a constant feeling of mourning on the grounds; 70 years is not enough time to make up for what was done here, and I was not prepared my reaction to this realization.

Before going to Auschwitz, I expected my eyes to get watery at some point but not that I’d be sobbing ten minutes into the tour guide’s speech.

I don’t know what came over me. I couldn’t control it.  She simply started naming off statistics, statistics I’d known already, and I began sobbing. It would have been embarrassing in any other situation, in fact, it sort of was, but I felt like it was beyond my control. The place simply commanded it. I sobbed as if I were at my own family member’s funeral.

 
For the rest of the tour, of both Auschwitz I and II, I felt like I had to distance myself enough from the topic just to continue with the tour. I still cannot comprehend the magnitude of all the suffering. So maybe that’s kind of cheating, because I didn’t give the place everything it was trying to take from me. 
 
It makes your stomach sick at the thought of so much suffering, so much sadness, so much unjustified loss of life. Just from the small snippets of story that you see, alluding to who those individuals were, you feel an immediate human connection, like the only thing separating you from them is the blink of an eye, the mere span of 70 years. If only you could reach out through the divide, hug them, clothe them, feed them, and take them out of their despair.  
 
Auschwitz could leave you feeling helpless, and it did. Disgusted and angry at what not just one man was capable of, but of what a whole group of people were working to do. But I decided to leave with a more useful perspective than just disgust and helplessness. 
 
The Holocaust during WWII is neither the first, nor the last genocide. Suffering and unjustified death persists in this world. But so does hope. There is no group of people who deserves to be subjected to these sorts of horrors or maltreatment.  And we can try to clothe and feed those living. 
 
These are the words taken from the English inscription on a plaque at the monument built at Auschwitz II-Birkenau:
FOR EVER LET THIS PLACE BE A CRY OF DESPAIR AND A WARNING TO HUMANITY, WHERE THE NAZIS MURDERED ABOUT ONE AND A HALF MILLION MEN, WOMEN AND CHILDREN MAINLY JEWS FROM VARIOUS COUNTRIES OF EUROPE. AUSCHWITZ-BIRKENAU 1940-1945

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