Concentration Camps

Poland and its people suffered for years under Nazi rule, and both cities we visited have many memorials to the atrocities and acts of resistance. The Nazi party and the German government had been operating camps in Germany since the early 1930’s and shortly after their invasion of Poland, they began setting up camps there as well. We knew in advance of our stay in Krakow that we would be sure to visit Auschwitz. What we didn’t know until after we arrived was that just a couple of kilometers from our apartment was the site of another camp, Plaszow.

Fields where the camp used to stand and some of the few ruins.

Plaszow was set up by the Nazis in 1942 as a forced labor camp for Krakow’s Jews, who had already been confined to a Ghetto. (Oskar Schindler’s factory was part of this camp’s labor system, but his attempts keep his Jewish workers fed and safe were the exception.) Conditions were awful – little food or medication and brutal beatings by the guards. As time passed, large scale executions began taking place at the camp and thousands were shot in addition to those that were worked to death or perished from disease. As the Soviet army approached Krakow, the Nazis forced the prisoners to dismantle the camp and burn victim’s bodies in order to hide their crimes.

Today, only a few ruins remain amid an otherwise empty field. We walked through on gray day and encountered just a couple of others. A few markers stand at the edges of the site, but it is mostly a quiet place for reflection. It was a very different kind of memorial to the victims that what we encountered at Auschwitz later in the week.

Remains of fences at Plaszow and the nearby quarry.

Where Plaszow was largely destroyed, Auschwitz was left mostly intact as the Nazis fled the Soviets advancing on the Eastern Front. This time, survivors were left alive along with items confiscated from victims, and plenty of evidence of the Nazi’s crimes. The camp is actually divided into multiple parts. There were three main camps -Auschwitz I, Auschwitz II-Birkenau, and Auschwitz-Monowitz – in addition to dozens of sub-camps.

Our tour began at Auschwitz I, which was created out of army barracks. It was smaller than I expected. Hundreds of prisoners would have been housed in each building in appalling conditions. The buildings are red brick, which I found disconcerting. It looked almost like a college campus except for the barbed wire fences ringing the area, the torture barrack with its bricked-over windows and yard used for executions, and the looming gallows.

The Wall of Death, canisters that transported Zyklon-B, the main gate of Auschwitz-I.

Most buildings now hold exhibits on the suffering of groups the Nazis found “undesirable,” especially the Jews, who were brought to the camp from all over Europe. Heartbreaking rooms show items taken from the prisoners – suitcases carefully labeled so they wouldn’t get lost on the journey, thousands of pieces of cookware that would have been needed for starting a new life at the camp, piles of shoes. There were a pair of red patent leather wedges that reminded me of ones I owned in high school. I kept wondering if the girl who carried them with her anticipated a return to normal life; maybe they matched a dress she brought, maybe they made her feel taller. Most disturbing was a room full of human hair cut from those coming into the camp and from the bodies of those murdered in the gas chambers immediately upon their arrival. Some are still in ponytails and braids.

Dividing fences in Auschwitz-I and one of the roads through Auschwitz II-Birkenau.

Auschwitz I felt small, compact. It made the experience of walking up to Auschwitz II-Birkenau so much worse. The parking lot for this portion of the camp sits partially behind a grove of trees. The infamous gatehouse with train tracks running under the archway is visible, along with several watch towers and barracks. But with each step toward the main gate, we moved past the trees and more fences, guard towers, and barracks kept appearing. It is massive. Again, hundreds of people were housed in each building; but this time there were countless buildings. The scale staggered me. This is the point at which the numbers become more abstract and harder to grasp. Tens of thousands of people would have been imprisoned here – this one camp would have been many times the size of the town I grew up in, and there were camps all across Nazi-occupied Europe. And those were the individuals the Nazis deemed fit for work. So many came into the camp and went straight to their death – sometimes more than 80% of the people arriving were murdered within hours of stepping off the train.

View from the Auschwitz II-Birkenau gatehouse, Crematoria ruins

By the end of the war, more than a million perished just in the Auschwitz camps – gassed, starved, worked to death, suffering from disease and torture. The Crematoria buildings are ruins now – one was blown up in a revolt by the Sonderkommando, the others were destroyed and stripped of their killing systems as the Nazis retreated.

It is sickening to see how attentive to detail the Nazis running the camps were. The first Crematoria were built at Auschwitz I but lacked shower heads. Our guide described the panic this caused in prisoners as they realized it was a killing chamber – the noise they made disturbed the Nazi officers and guards and let other prisoners know what was happening. The next ones were built with the appearance of real showers, with hooks for clothes and the victims given soap on the way inside.

Some of Auschwitz II-Birkenau’s expanse, the train tracks leading into the camp from the Gatehouse

The surviving records are also disgustingly exact. Paperwork lays out how much gold was confiscated and shipped back to the Reich, how much human hair was sent to factories, how much companies were paying for prisoner labor. Not only did the Nazis systematically kill, they systematically exploited the belongings, the bodies, and any life left in their victims. In one cruel twist, some victims early in the war were even made to pay for their own rail tickets to the camp.

A rail car used to transport people to Auschwitz

My brain is still trying to wrap itself around the horror of what I saw at Auschwitz. I can’t imagine the cruelty that would have been daily reality for so many, from the side of the victim or the oppressor. How anyone could meet out such abuses on others is saddening and stomach-churning. How anyone could survive such savagery is also beyond my comprehension. Humanity seems to have limitless capacities for both evil and for hope and defiance in the face of evil. Auschwitz should serve as a reminder and a warning that we need to stand up to oppression in all forms.


Poland is a bit of a rarity on our trip because we divided our month in the country between different cities. Two weeks in Warsaw, the current capital and business center, and now two weeks in Krakow, the old capital and tourist mecca. Krakow’s Old Town is jammed with beautiful old buildings – dozens of churches, the Cloth Hall, Wawel Castle – and all sizes of market squares. Many are original, since the city avoided destruction during the World Wars. Like many European cities, Krakow is very walkable, and each day we try to explore new streets.

St. Mary’s and the Central Market Square under some ominous clouds.

Art seems to be everywhere (a recurring theme on this trip): decorating sides of gray buildings, scattered around parks, celebrated in new theatre buildings. There is a large number of murals painted across otherwise plain walls. Some will be temporary since they overlook pits waiting for concrete pours, and many celebrate the city’s culture. Along one highway we noticed an entire history of Poland painted across a berm just a couple hundred feel long (somehow they managed to get more in more Polish history than any textbook I had in high school).

Found art: mural of Judah in Kazimierz, OWLS!!, a newly-constructed arts center incorporating an old power station
Murals around our neighborhood – rabbits pop up all over.

Happily, we also came across the start of the Pierogi Festival completely by accident. We had already had a partial lunch and immediately decided that had been a mistake. The Small Market Square was set up with fifteen or so booths selling all kinds of pierogis. Every pierogi we’ve eaten in our lives fell woefully short of these. The selection in the US is usually some combination of onions, potato, and beef. Here, they were serving up puffy dough pillows filled with variations of duck, salmon, cabbage & mushroom, potato & bacon… Every stand had Ruskie, the most traditional kind, filled with potatoey and cheesey goodness. Each bite managed to be the best pierogi I’ve tasted. There were even dessert pierogis – banana & white chocolate, blueberry, raspberry. Thankfully the festival went on for five days, and wee may or may not have returned daily.

Pierogis: the main reason we came to Krakow (though we didn’t know it til we were already here)

Krakow is full of Catholic churches. My favorite (so far) was the Church of St. Francis near the Jagiellonian University. There has been a church on the site for nearly 800 years, but most of the current version is much more recent. Decoration and windows were added during the early 1900s and reflect the best styles of the time. Walls and stained glass windows depict flowers and geometric patterned rainbows.  The whole interior bursts with color – a contrast to many other churches that are much more reserved inside. However, every church we’ve looked in has a fantastically carved altarpiece and pulpit, usually made of dark wood and moderate amounts of gilding.

Bright colors inside the dimly-lit Franciscan Basilica.

My early impression is that Warsaw is more livable for long-term stays, but that Krakow has a more charm. I do have to say, though, that the happiest surprise about Poland is now delicious the food is, especially anything that is/resembles a pastry.




Week two in Warsaw was more relaxed, in part because it was raining much of the time. Fortunately we eked out one bright day to spend at the Wilanow Palace. The last stop of the bus line running by our apartment was literally at the palace gates, so it was easy to get there even though it was on the other side of town. It turned out that the Palace uses timed tickets for crowd control (something a couple of other Warsaw museums could take a cue from). We ended up with two hours before our entry slot. Luckily the Poster Museum and the park grounds around the Palace were free for the day.

Wilanow Palace and its grounds

The Poster Museum had some of the most up-to-date displays I’ve ever seen in a museum – items from supporters of Charlie Hebdo and from Black Lives Matter protests. The parklands are massive – befitting a royal residence – and have both formal flower gardens and tangles of trees and reedy ponds. It is a pretty popular place to have wedding photos taken – it was a Monday and there were multiple bride & groom sets posing. Honestly, the day was so nice that wandering around the grounds was as interesting as the palace itself.

Inside the palace… I quite like the faux baby leg coming through the ‘skylight’

Wilanow is one of the few important buildings in Warsaw to escape total destruction by the Nazis. A plaque just a few hundred feet from the gates mark a spot where the Home Army prevented the demolition crew from reaching their target. The damage it did receive during WWII has been repaired – most rooms are decked out as they would have been in the 1700s. A few are much plainer (presumably sections hit by bombs or shrapnel), and are now used for gallery exhibitions. Currently it was set up with tea and chocolate serving sets. The best part was old quotes about how healthy chocolate is from essays published hundreds of years ago when it was still an exciting and newly available product.

The restored rooms are incredibly decadent – velvet wallpaper, muraled ceilings, gold paint, lots of art. I particularly like the portrait of the woman rolling her eyes. I believe she is supposed to be either looking heavenward or to a lover in another portrait that would have been placed above her. But she really seems as thought the whole ordeal of sitting for the artist is just too much for her afternoon. Upstairs, a small domed ceiling had a sky painted in the oculus with a couple of cherubs perched on the edge. But someone had the brilliant idea to fit a sculpted cherub leg onto the mural to make it look more 3 dimensional. I want to give the person who thought of this a hug… the random baby leg dangling from the roof made my afternoon.

Public arts

Elsewhere around the city, we stumbled on more public art. I don’t know what the yellow stones are for (a wooden platform just out of the shot was still being constructed), but it reminded me of the rocks I used to decorate my goldfish’s bowl. The rocket cow gets a gold medal for most interesting sculpture? statue? assemblage? It was hiding in a rather subdued-looking business park that had other surprises, including some incredibly fresh and tasty sushi whipped up by Polish chefs.

Some favorite – kebab chips, dill chips, beet-soup- flavored instant noodles and some very USA-looking snacks, and a light Polish Riesling

Sushi aside, snacks in Poland raise the bar for the rest of the world. The following chips flavors exist: dill, kebab & onion (reminiscent of a pita kebab), grilled kebab, Oriental salsa, every kind of paprika, multiple kinds of cheese. Not to mention spiral ketchup Cheetos. And the chocolate… I will be craving both E. Wedel and Goplana (which I discovered this afternoon) candy bars for a long time to come. A non-zero amount of my time in Krakow will be spent tracking down more sweets. Of course, that will only be the time that I am not stuffing my face with pierogis. The frozen cheese & potato pierogis we sometimes bought in Seattle are a pale shadow of the real thing, but more on that in a later post.

Warsaw Historical Sights

Our first week in Warsaw, Poland seemed to be all about the city’s history. I’ve heard Warsaw described multiple times as a medieval city that happens to be less than 50 years old. I think that’s pretty accurate. It certainly felt like the most modern city we’ve been to so far on the trip, even though it looked as the Old Town Market Square could have been built 300 years ago (I mean, it was, but then…).

In a lot of ways, the city has been a continuing construction project for the last 70 years. Even now, tower cranes are everywhere. Expats who have lived here just easily point out the numerous skyscrapers they’ve seen built.

Towers on the Barbakan, window in St. John’s Archcathedral.

Despite all the growth, the past is never far away. There are memorials – statues, monuments, plaques – on essentially every street. The best known is probably the statue of the Little Insurgent, commemorating children who aided – and sometimes fought and were killed alongside – the participants in the Warsaw Uprising. Most unsettling to me was the sheer number of simple plaques on walls or benches dedicated to massacres or battles that took place there less than a lifetime ago. The 72nd anniversary of the beginning of the Uprising was August 1, and so many were decorated with white and red flowers and flags.

To contemplate each one and the suffering a sentence or two encapsulates is crushing. It make me wonder about the difficult choices ordinary Varsovians made each day. A more optimistic route is to remember the intense patriotism and bravery and to see today’s rebuilt Warsaw as a memorial in itself.

Little Insurgent Monument, Doors of the Cathedral of the Polish Army, gardens near the Palace.

One subtle reminder caught me particularly off guard. Walking through Krasinskich Park I happened to look down at a patterned patch on the sidewalk: inlay showing the edge of the Jewish Ghetto. The same boundary line runs not too far from our apartment, well over a mile from the other wall. It is hard to fathom the city within a city forcibly separated from the outside world but home to hundreds of thousands. And of course, as the Ghetto was emptied, a huge portion of the citizens were trained directly to death camps (from a station that stood just about three blocks from our apartment). Thousands more were murdered by starvation, disease, and violence.


Also not far from our apartment is the peaceful Powazkowski Cemetery. Though much survives from before the War (though sans records), some of its stones are still carry bullet scars. With the Polish people oppressed by foreign systems, this became a place for artists to focus their talents and it is full of beautiful statues. Families here take remembrance very seriously and there were often fresh flowers and candles, even on older graves.

In the Powazkowski Cemetery and a synagogue ceiling at the Polish Jewish History Museum.

To get a better idea of the events behind sites around Warsaw, we went to the Museum of the History of Polish Jews (the winner of a well-deserved Museum of the Year award) and the Uprising Museum. Both are incredible.

The Jewish History Museum has interactive exhibits and covers a thousand years. Naturally there is a focus on the Holocaust, but there is a definite effort to show cultural revivals happening today as well as the deep history of Jewish culture in Polish society. My favorite part was the beautiful replica of the Gwoździec Synagogue’s ceiling.

Warsaw Uprising Museum

Warsaw’s Uprising Museum is similarly visitor-involving. There are recreations of sewers that insurgents carried messages and weapons through, a replica air-drop bomber, and immersive sound and video experiences. It drove home hardships of the Uprising and the betrayal experienced when the Soviet Army did not come to their aid. It was fascinating to learn that, in spite of the fighting, daily life went on. Newspapers were published and cafes were open in some areas. Insurgents saw themselves as the restoration of a Polish government, even holding a stamp-designing contest, printing postage stamps, and delivering mail.

Finally, a less-heavy note: some art from around the city. Winged ponies on a palace lawn are almost as happy as it comes.

City arts. Ok, so the last one is just a fun staircase.

Budapest, All Together Now

I’m going to fit the rest of Budapest in a single post so that I can move on to Poland(!!) next time. After four weeks in Hungary’s capital, we definitely understand the many people we’ve met who voted it their favorite European city. And although we did a lot, we barely scratched the surface of all the food and galleries and parks that are worth exploring. Here are some final greatest hits:

1. The most interactive museum award goes to the Pinball Museum, an arcade on steroids. We spent a whole evening there trying out games from the 1950s onward. There is a definite evolutionary arc that the machines follow: getting more complex and adding lights and sounds until they near seizure-inducing levels. My favorite were the Indiana Jones and Elvira machines that seemed to be kinder than others (at least I loss less playing those). Kevin liked the Apollo 13 game that was based on the mid-1990s movie – rather than the 1970 moon mission. Despite my losing streak, I think I improved my skills a least a little…

Book fountain – the water mimics turning pages, the Pinball Museum

2. At a corner of Varosliget Park we stumbled on a memorial to the 1956 Revolution. Dozens of rusted pillars slowly merge to a shining point representing the accumulation of forces leading to a free Hungary. It is interactive as well… you can walk partway through the pillars until the gaps get too small to squeeze through. I’d be wary of heading here with small hide-and-seek prone children.

3. The same walk lead us to Kerepesi Cemetery. It is the resting place for Hungary’s rich & famous artists and luminaries. Some graves are clearly meant to be a reflection of the person’s importance and are topped with winged lions and Roman pillars. Unlike most cemeteries, it is spread out and feels more like a park than a graveyard. Some corners even have statues that are almost completely overgrown by brush and ivy.

1956 Revolution Memorial, statuary at Kerepesi Cemetery

4. A tour of the Dohany Street Synagogue, also known as the Great Synagogue, took part of an afternoon. The largest in Europe, it has Christian influences and was built to blend into the surrounding city and even includes an organ. Destroyed during the World War II it was only fully restored during the 1990s. Now the interior is sumptuous and feels velvet-colored.

Much more sobering are the memorial gardens outside and discovering that the quiet, treed area is actually a mass grave. More than two thousand Jews murdered in Budapest’s Ghetto at the end of WWII are buried in the small space. A heartbreaking sculpture of a weeping willow has thousands of leaves etched with the names of even more Holocaust victims. Lest all hope be lost, there is also a memorial to Hungarians (and others, including  Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, who is my new hero) who risked and sacrificed their own lives saving other Jews from the same fate.

Inside the Great Synagogue and in its memorial gardens.


Weeping Willow Memorial at the Great Synagogue, park art, muraled museum insides.

5. Budapest’s best bookstore is probably Alexandra’s. In the back a cafe serves coffee that can be ordered in a form closer to an ice cream sundae (read: Danielle-approved) and which has one of the best ceilings in the city. And the live piano playing starts at 4pm. And there are two full floors of books downstairs (even the sought-after English-language section!). It was a perfect way to spend an afternoon hiding from rain.

6. A Danube River cruise is almost mandatory in Budapest. We went at night to see the buildings lit up and surrounded by flocks of birds searching for light-addled bugs. The tour boat was crowded – but free 🙂 with credit card points – and at least there was wine. It is really entertaining to take photos of the river overlooks while you can see the people up there doing the same thing and using lots of flash.

Alexandra’s Book Cafe, Parliament at night (insect-seeking birds barely visible).

7. I’ll end with the food: THE FOOD! AND THE WINE! Hungarian meals are hearty. Even their soups are a full meal. Lots of things are deep fried and full of butter and cheese and meat. Clearly this is where American fair food draws inspiration from: lets all thank for langos for inspiring elephant ears and funnel cake.

Cabbage rolls were my most unexpectedly enjoyed food, though it helped that the cabbage was tempered with a lot of rice, hamburger, and paprika. Paprika was in everything, by the way. Hungarians do spice better than most of Europe… our souvenir paprika is currently livening up our Polish meals.

And I adored the wine – especially the whites. It agreed with my taste buds – lots of sugary sweetness. And we could chill the bottles in the fridge to compensate for our lack of air conditioning.

Yummy langos (I only remembered a photo partway through), brilliantly sweet Tokaji-region wine, well-lit bridges.

Just about the only thing I won’t miss is the humidity that made our ground floor apartment occasionally feel like it was trying to be the thermal baths…  And I will admit that the Polish zloty’s exchange rate of 4:1 is easier to wrap my head around than the Hungarian forint’s 285:1…