Tuesday, August 17, 2004

"The Hell You Don't Know" Tour: Part II 

We left Boleslawiec at around 4:00 p.m. after a full day of pottery shopping and headed southeast. Our ultimate goal was to make it to Nowy Sacz, in the area that my great-grandmother came from, but we had some places we wanted to visit along the way.

I had heard a lot of warnings about the quality of the roads in Poland, and to an extent they were true. I drove on some of the worst roads I've ever been on, but I also drove on some of the absolute best roads I've ever been on. Oddly enough, they were very often the same road. At one point we might be driving bumper to bumper on a road that has one lane going in each direction (once with the tires on the left side of the van a good 5 inches higher than the right side tires) and then we would reach a point where we had 3 immaculate lanes mostly to ourselves.

About an hour and a half outside of Boleslawiec, we were feeling rather lost. "Lost" probably isn't the right word for it, as we knew exactly where we were. We simply had no idea how to get where we wanted to be, and my European road atlas was proving less than helpful.

Annabelle announced that she needed to make a potty stop, so I pulled off at the next rest area I found. As Mom and the kids were putting on their shoes and I was furiously studying our pathetic map, a young man approached the car. He was, he said, not selling anything, merely asking for opinions on this soon-to-be-published atlas of Poland. He opened it up and showed it to us, and we were amazed. THIS was the map we needed.

How much, we asked. He told us that in a couple of weeks when it is sold in bookstores it will sell for about 35 euro. I explained that there was no way I could spend that much on an atlas of a country that I was going to be in for only 48 hours. Yes, but TODAY, he said, he could sell us the map for only 10 euro. SOLD!

Mom took the kids and went in to find the restrooms, while I sat out in the parking lot and chatted with the map man. He was such a nice guy--he used my new map to show me exactly how we needed to go to reach our destination. I took his picture and gave him the blog address, telling him to look for himself in about 5 days. I'm a day late on that promise, but Map Man, if you're looking at this, thanks again for an awesome map! We would have been so lost without it! Here's his picture:

We stopped in Gliwice and checked at the Hotel Qubus for rooms. It would have run about 150 euro though for the 4 of us, and we were feeling poor after our day of shopping. Besides, we figured, better to press on into the night and wake up in the morning where we want to be instead of facing yet more driving.

And so we pressed on into the night, and we were doing just fine. Then we learned the Polish word for "detour." It's objazd. Suddenly we were flying along twisty little 2-lane roads in the pitch black darkness, still getting passed by Poles and searching desperately for the next objazd sign. Every time we found one, we shouted out "Oh-bee-jaaaaahd," in the style of the "what's uuuuuuuup" beer commercials.

At around 9:00 p.m. we pulled into the parking lot for the Hotel Glob in the town of Oswiecim. I left Mom and the kids in the car while I went inside and booked us into a quadruple room. I came back to the car gloating about my bargain find. Sure, it's spartan, I said, but it's clean AND it's only costing us $55 with breakfast! We put the van into their guarded lot and went upstairs to our room.

We knew the hotel was located next to the train station. We could see it plainly from the parking lot. But it wasn't until we got into our room overlooking the tracks that we realized that trains were going to come screeching through every 10 minutes until well past midnight and start up again at dawn. I wish I had thought to videotape one so that you could hear the sound, but I didn't. I did, however, take a picture of the view the next morning:

I passed out Benadryls like they were mints for the pillows, and we all eventually fell asleep. We did have one brief moment of excitement shortly after midnight when we got up to watch the aftermath of a minor car accident from our darkened window. Here's a picture of Annabelle sitting on her bed at the Glob:

When the trains started roaring by again at around 6:00 a.m. our $55 hotel room was feeling like less and less of a bargain. It's very hard to complain about our accommodations in Oscwiecim though, as it is better known by it's German name . . . Auschwitz.

After breakfast at our hotel, we set out to visit the concentration camps. Our guide book recommended that visitors be at least 14 years old, so I had some doubts about taking the kids. In the end though, I figured that this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and we decided to do what we termed Auschwitz Lite.

We did visit both Auschwitz and Birkenau. We walked beneath the arch bearing the words Arbeit Macht Frei and saw the standing cells and the shooting wall at Auschwitz. We visited the remains of the gas chambers and crematorium at Birkenau. We took a pass, however, on the film at Auschwitz and we only visited certain exhibitions in the prison blocks. "Everyday Life," sure. "Women and Children," no thanks.

Our visit to the Auschwitz camp lasted only about an hour, and we expected to go through Birkenau quickly as well. We were amazed, however, at the enormous size of Birkenau. Not much is left intact, as the nazis burnt most of it before they fled. Mostly it's a huge field with barbed wire fences encasing the foundations of ruin after ruin after ruin:

In the far back corner of the camp, the shower building has been converted into a permanent exhibition. You walk through on a raised clear acrylic sidewalk and follow the path that was walked by new arrivals at the camp. In the final room you see this photo mosaic, which reflects on the floor:

Just beyond the shower building is this pond, where ashes and other remains were dumped:

This was by far the eeriest place at the camp. How strange to stand in the cool shade of the trees after walking so far in the sun and see pictures of women and children standing under these same trees, waiting their turns because the gas chamber was full. I thought this picture well reflected (pun unintended) the eery quality of the area:

By the time we reached the pond, we were hot and exhausted. We hadn't thought to take water with us, as we had planned on a quick visit, so we were thirsty and dreading the walk out of the camp. You might think it's impossible to complain about minor physical discomfort at a place where a million people were murdered, but the kids did a pretty good job of it. I entertained myself on the walk by musing over which whining is harder to listen to--the kind you get at Disney World or the kind you get at a concentration camp.

Fortunately, I didn't have much longer to think about it, as this nice man drove up in a van and stopped for us when Mike and I stuck out our thumbs. He gave us a ride back up to the parking lot and tried to refuse the tip I offered him. He was excited to learn that we were Americans and told us that he has a something (sister perhaps?) in CLEEV-uh-land:

We ransomed our van from the guys in the parking lot who had been watching it and headed off in search of happier touring.

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