POLAND: Krakow, Auschwitz concentration camp, Zakopane

 SLOVAKIA: Stary Smokovec

October 1999


A sleeper train carried us from Prague, Czech Republic to Krakow, Poland. This "sleeper" was anything but for sleeping. Joan's over-active imagination had been stimulated by the Lonely Planet guide to Central Europe which mentioned a recent rash of thefts on trains heading into Poland. The thieves would send gas into the compartments and lift the unconscious passengers' belongings. In the morning, the groggy travelers would awaken without wallets, watches and luggage. To be safe, Joan tied the compartment door closed with her belt,- but spent the night untying it for frequent passport checks.

No robbers gassed us, but it was a wild trip anyway. We were in the last car of the train, which hurtled through space in a crack-the-whip motion as if it were trying to catch up with the engine. We lay in our bunks holding on for dear life as we were whipped along. It was also very noisy: clickety-clack and bangedy-bang, punctuated by the startling BAM-WHIRR of a high-speed train going in the opposite direction a foot from our window. 

To make matters worse, we had trouble regulating the temperature in our compartment because the conductor spent much of the trip shoveling coal into the car's furnace. This achieved two results: our compartment was hot as hell and when we opened the window we got a cloud of coal exhaust in our faces. The window would't stay open, so we used two plastic coat hangers to prop it up, but this worked only if we propped it all the way open. As the night got colder, we put on more and more clothing - until we each had on thermal underwear plus fleece vests, jackets, ski caps and gloves - topped off by parkas. When the train stopped, as it did numerous times during the night, we hastily stripped layers of clothing off to avoid roasting. By the time we arrived in Krakow, we were exhausted. Some "sleeper!" 


When we phoned from the Czech Republic to request the customary two-night Servas visit, the Polish woman who answered the phone insisted we stay for the entire four nights we'd be in Krakow. This turned out to be the best homestay of this trip. Our hosts were both semi-retired - she was a journalist and he an architect. They need to work as much as possible, since the change from a communist welfare state to a free market economy was very challenging for those caught without state support in their retirement years. 

They were interesting people - well versed in politics, history, art and culture. They had strong personalities and loved to argue with each other on nearly everything. Fortunately, these arguments were made with love and respect. They were exhausting but also enlightening - particularly on history and politics.

The first morning of our stay we breakfasted heartily on ham, cheese, bread and coffee, then drove to the Wieliczka Salt Mine a few kilometers south of Krakow. Now a tourist attraction, this mine operated for 700 years; we explored it to a depth of 1000 feet. Afterwards, we stopped off at a restaurant for an early dinner of beet soup, salad, goulash and mushroom omelet, then fell into bed, stuffed and happy. The next morning, we had another stupendous breakfast: a gelatin with hard-boiled eggs, grated radishes and horseradish, plus light & dark breads, cured ham, two cheeses and excellent dark coffee. Then our hostess, formerly a guide, took us on a full day's tour. We stopped in at the Green Balloon, once a famous cabaret and now a stylish tearoom. We visited a bookstore to locate the English titles of two books by Norman Davies that she recommended: God's Playground and Europe

She took us to Universytetu Jagiellonskiejo - second in Poland only to the university in Warsaw. As we talked over coffee on campus, she told us that one day at the beginning of the fall semester in 1939 the Nazis rounded up all 180 professors - supposedly to inform them about guidelines for teaching. Instead, they arrested the professors and deported them to a camp many miles away. After an international outcry, they were released a few difficult weeks later. But many of the professors were elderly and only about sixty percent lived to return. 

Our hostess was Catholic, but - upon learning that Lou is half-Jewish - insisted on taking us through Kazimierz, the old Jewish Quarter of the city. We visited the only active synagogue and its cemetery. Another evening we went back to this part of town for an excellent Kosher dinner and an evening of Klezmer music. Prior to World War II, 70,000 Jews lived in Krakow. Today there are about 100. According to our hostess, many Poles are even more anti-Semitic than the Germans. Of those who survived the concentration camps, most who tried to return home were killed by their fellow Poles. Neighbors sometimes locked returning Jews in their own barns which were set on fire.


The two of us took a bus a few miles out of Krakow to the infamous concentration camps at Auschwitz and Birkenau. The gray, cold day fit our somber mood. The Nazis chose Auschwitz for a major concentration camp because it was central to the location of the Jews who were to be exterminated, it was isolated from population centers, it had railroad access and there were existing brick barracks erected by the Polish Army during World War I. Our guide at Auschwitz was a young blonde Polish woman. Despite the depressing nature of her work, she was filled with a sense of purpose and spoke with reverence and sensitivity. She was intent that such a place never be established again.

We entered under the ironic sign above the gate: ARBEIT MACHT FREI (WORK MAKES FREE) It certainly did. Work until you drop, then be freed of your miserable life. Most of the workers here were young males. Women, children and the elderly were sent directly from the trains to the gas chambers and crematorium. Political prisoners were tortured and executed at this camp, which was also the site of medical experiments - including methods of sterilization and inoculation. Various buildings now house photographic exhibits and camp artifacts.

There are huge piles of eyeglasses, dentures, hair, clothing, shaving brushes, suitcases and shoes. Somehow, the piles of worn-out shoes were even harder for us to bear than the gas chamber. The shoes were stand-ins for their former owners - innocent, pathetic, intensely vulnerable. We went into the gas chamber, lined with fake shower heads to disguise it as a shower room. Overhead, we could see the hole in the ceiling where the cyanide gas entered. This was a small chamber, accommodating "only" 800 people at a time. The camp at Birkenau had a chamber that gassed 2,000 people at once. (Parts of the film "Schindler's List" were filmed at Birkenau.)

Of the 1.5 million people murdered in these two camps, 90% were Jews. The rest were political prisoners, gypsies, prisoners of war and "misfits" - including gays. About 800,000 of the Jews were delivered directly to the gas chamber on arrival. They were the "lucky" ones, dying in just 20 minutes. The others suffered far longer from the hard labor, extreme cold, lack of food and brutal treatment.

As we toured Auschwitz and nearby Birkenau, we kept remembering the obnoxious Aussie we overheard on the train to Berlin, who loudly proclaimed that the Holocaust never happened. We wondered if he'd maintain his disbelief in the face of all this evidence. Necessarily, the vast scale of this genocide directly involved tens of thousands of Nazis and the tacit approval of millions of ordinary citizens. The Berlin Museum of History documents wide support across all classes of German people for Hitler and his "final solution".

Back in Krakow once again, we slept the exhausted sleep of the overwhelmed. The next day, our host drove us to the station to catch a bus into Slovakia. As we climbed out of his small car, he put in a cassette tape to send us off with the American cowboy ballad, "Rambling Rose!"


The High Tatry Mountains rise out of nowhere along the border between Poland and Slovakia, looking like miniature Alps popping up in wheat fields. After a couple of relaxing days in the ski resort of Zakopane, we took a bus from Poland through these mountains to the Slovakian mountaineering village of Stary Smokovec, lingering here for several days so Lou could recover from a bad case of flu. We stayed in the huge Grand Hotel, whose aging elegance is still impressive by Central European standards. With ski season a month or two away, it was nearly deserted, and reminded us of the vast empty lodge in Jack Nicholson's film "The Shining."

The only television channel in English showed 24 hours a day of motorcycle racing, indoor bicycle racing, snowboarding and women's wrestling. Joan didn't want to leave the room with Lou huddled miserably in bed, and she had nothing to read but our dog-eared Lonely Planet guidebook to Central Europe. So she watched Valentino Rossi win the SAME 250cc motorcycle race THREE TIMES. Because we were running low on cash, she went down to the village but couldn't find any place to get money. She eventually located the village's only ATM and was relieved when it accepted her card and spit out US$20 in Slovak koruna - within seconds. Ah, technology! We went on a wild spending spree. Dinner for two, including a 15% tip, in an excellent local cafe, plus four bottles of water, one large beer, six oranges, eight tomatoes, two rolls toilet paper, a plastic grocery bag, two boxes of Tylenol and one loaf black bread - all for a grand total of less than US$20!

In Stary Smokovec they spoke Slovak, Polish and a little German - but only a few words of English. We had an interesting time trying to communicate with the waitress in the hotel restaurant. The menu offered two kinds of cereal: corn flakes and a kind of soggy granola. We couldn't figure out how to order. Finally, Joan resorted to the Lou Rose School of Finger Language - See CZECH REPUBLIC - showing two fingers and saying earnestly "corn flakes" and "nicht corn flakes," then putting down the finger labeled "corn flakes." This resulted in a totally puzzled look from the waitress, but after more miming, we actually got the soggy stuff we preferred. This was followed by the rest of breakfast: coffee, smoked cheese, lunch meat, deviled eggs topped with cheap caviar, rolls, rye bread and lots of red bell pepper. All of the above cost $2.50 per person - not bad for an elegant hotel restaurant!

Despite Lou's shakiness, we took a brief walk along one of the many beautiful forest trails in Stary Smokovec. This is a charming place; we wish we'd been able to enjoy it more. But Lou needed a doctor, so we caught a train into HUNGARY



GUIDEBOOK:   Central Europe  (Lonely Planet)

FILMS: Schindler's List; The Pianist

(1999 Prices)

STARY SMOKOVEC:  Grand Hotel, $47/double, including bath, breakfast and (stupefying) television.  Fax: 421 969 44 2157




Lou and Joan Rose     joanandlou@ramblingroses.net