Hello! Last week we had a week off school for our half term break, and Susan and I used that time to go to Poland. My great grandparents on my mom's side are from Poland, so we went to see where they lived as well as some concentration camps (my great grandparents and great aunts on my dad's side of the family died in Auschwitz, and we are not certain about the rest of our family).
Of course, along the way there were many adventures, which is to be expected with my travels!
First, before we went to Poland, we spent the weekend in England with Susan's mom (or mum - we'll be British :)). Well, the airlines ended up losing our luggage, which wouldn't have mattered so much, but we were going directly to a wedding! After speaking with the airlines, they said that Susan and I would each have $100 to buy clothes. So thanks to them, I now have a new outfit! We had a great time in England though and were able to spend time with Susan's mom and grandma.
The first city we went to in Poland was Krakow. We chose this city because it's the closest big city to Auschwitz and Birkenau (concentration camps). We stayed at a very nice hostel and the city was very beautiful. It was definitely a lot colder than I had expected though. Susan and I, by the end of the trip, had purchased a scarf, hat, gloves, and coat (for Susan)!
On our first full day in Krakow we signed up to go with a tour group to Auschwitz and Birkenau (an hour and fifteen minutes away). On the tour of Auschwitz you were able to see a lot of things because all the 28 buildings were still standing, as well as the barbed wired. Each building has been turned into a museum, displaying different aspects of the camp and the prisoner's lives. You could see luggage that had been taken away from people, seven tons of hair that had been shaved off people after entering the camp, the empty cans of the Zyklon B (gas), the gas and cremation rooms, the torturing cells, the execution wall, and much more. It was very horrific.
(outside a gas chamber and crematorium)
After the tour was over, before we took the bus to Birkenau, we had fifteen minutes to use the bathroom, get coffee, etc., so we told our guide that we were going to go to the archive building to look up information on my family but that we would still meet them. Well, Susan and I were TWO minutes late to the meeting point, and no one else was in sight, nor the bus! Yup, they had left us. After looking unsuccessfully into other options (walking, taking the city bus, etc.) I only saw one option - going with another tour bus. So, seeing a group walking to their bus, I went up to the tour guide and asked if we could go with them. He agreed, so we stepped onto the bus with the other passengers, who turned out to be a very elderly group of Italians! We blended right in! We arrived at Birkenau only to find that the tour had just ended. Thankfully we were given a few minutes at the end, and Susan and I were able to look around ourselves in that time.
After spending 2 nights in Krakow, we went to Warsaw where we stayed another 3 nights. Our first whole day in Warsaw, we went had decided to go to the town where my family is from, Wegrow. All of the Polish train websites are in Polish, but we found it surprisingly easy to navigate through and find the trains we needed to be on, or so we thought! Two stops showed up when we typed in "Wegrow" so we decided, since we didn't know which would be the center, to get a ticket to the second stop, but get off at the first and walk. Thankfully, the train doors shut too quickly and we couldn't manage to get out in time, because all that was around us at that time were forests!!! At that point we assumed that the second stop must be the center of town. After getting off the train on the second stop, we had quite a shock. Wegrow, from looking on the internet, was supposed to be a town of 12,500, but what we saw was a town that had a population of 10! The land was very flat, and in the distance as far as our eyes could see, we could only see 5 houses!! We thought that we still must not be in the center of the town, and we saw a bus pull off when we got off the train, so we started walking in the direction of the train. We walked a good ways, but to no avail - all we saw was more forest.
At that point we walked back to the train station, which strongly resembles and old saloon (door squeak and all). We saw a woman and tried to find out if the center was near or far, but to no avail, she didn't speak any English, and we were not able to communicate using hand signs. Then, in came a man in his late 50s/60s wearing all camoflauge (hat and all)...and he spoke some broken English. We asked him the same question and he said he would show us on a map at his house. So we went outside and started walking, crossed the train tracks, and he started climbing over a train! What were we to do but follow! I was sure that Susan was going to fall, but she made it! It turned out that we were 37 km away!! A bus ride later we were finally there.
After we got off the bus in the real Wegow, we weren't quite sure what to do. In my mind we were going to find the town hall and find out where she used to live and all that, but from the looks of it, that was definitely not going to happen. The town was definitely bigger and looked like a town of 12,500 people, but from the looks of it, none of them spoke any English! We went into a bank thinking they might know English, but they didn't...so we walked out, and just looked up like, "what are we going to do now???" And that's when we saw a notice advertising and English class! We followed the sign and went into a building, only to meet a man from Nigeria that taught the class! Very random! He told us that he would take us to the cemetary, which ended up being very interesting.
From that point, we needed to figure out how we were going to get to Treblinka, a concentration camp that most people from that town were sent to. We had looked on the internet and knew how to get there from the wrong town we went to initially. So, the Nigerian man then saw a family that he knew that he said was from Albania driving by, so they drove us to the bus station! So now we were in Poland, with a Nigerian man, being driven by an Albanian family - crazy! Turns out the Albanian family has been in Poland too long to remember any Albanian, but they still managed to get us to the station. We took the bus back to the wrong city, only to get off the bus and see that at the SAME TIME the train we needed just pulled away!
When we had been walking around that city, thinking it was the right one, we saw a sign that said "Taxi" on a tree by someone's house, so we went back to it. A woman and child were inside the gate by the house and immediately after we said, "Taxi", the man was ready to drive us away. The taxi drove us to Treblinka, waited for us while we looked around, then drove us to the nearby city where we could take a train back to Warsaw. Treblinka has been completely destroyed by the Germans so as to destroy any evidence. However, there are now stones in place to symbolize what was there, as well as a huge memorial with a grave stone to represent each country that people were sent from, as well as a gravestone for each city in Poland that people had come from. It was very well done.
In Warsaw, Susan and I were also able to go into the Jewish quarter and see the only synagogue that made it through the Holocaust, as well as see the train station in the ghetto where the Jews were sent to the concentration camp, among other things.
The trip was very educational and interesting to see, but also very emotional. It's difficult to think how something like the Holocaust every happened, and even more difficult to think about how people believe it never happened. One of the quotes on the wall in a building in Auschwitz said this, "The one who does not remember history is bound to live through it again" (George Santayana). I'll end on that.