Friday 14th October 05

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Despite being forced to get up for a 9am pick up, in a peculiar way, I was so glad that I had booked in advance (with a minibus to take us to Auschwitz today. Otherwise we would never had mustered up the effort to get out of bed until at least midday!

We were all nursing a thick head after last nights excess.

David and I were probably suffering the worse having only had four hours sleep. Garry had apparently slept on his chips and his Big Mac was sprawled on the floor! (Oh, and he slipped in the bath whilst having a shower this morning! hee hee!)

Nathan recounted how he flagged down a taxi and told him to take him to the tower! By some miracle he was dropped by the Florian Gates and he found his way to the right door. Without a key he got in by buzzing all the apartments doorbells until some annoyed neighbour came down to open the door. He was found asleep curled up outside the apartment door when Steve and Garry returned. "I thought he was a bin bag!" said Steve.

Anyway, we all survived and were all outside on Pijlarska street before 9am in time for our pick-up.

"Oh, I need something to eat before I go" said Steve. "I don't expect there'll be much food at a concentration camp!"

So we quickly sourced some food from a pastry shop called Flerynka. Each of us bought different shaped pastries but they all seem to taste of Banana Custard and Chocolate!

We returned to outside our apartment just in time to meet our transfer.

Our guide Helenna introduced herself and the driver and we all jumped into the back of a very tidy minibus. We were travelling over 70km outside Krakow to a town called Oswiecim which is where Auschwitz and Birkenau are situated.

It was an appropriately miserable grey and misty morning. The journey took us a good 80 minutes. We would have been quicker only we had to stop on the outskirts of Oswiecim because David had literally turned green in colour!

He wasn't feeling very well and was fighting back the urge to vomit. That Banana Custard was wanting to make an encore! We stopped near a level crossing where he got out to take some deep breaths of fresh country air. The minibus continued over the tracks and then parked up.

David leant on the barriers for support but the very second he touched them they started to fall!

"Shit, did I do that?"

It really appeared as if he had caused the barriers to come down! But he hadn't, there was a train on its way!

Helenna came to check if he was OK and suggested that the best solution would be to shove his fingers down his throat!

She was actually quite informative along the way and we even learnt the Polish word for Wales was "Walia".

David felt a little better without resorting to tickling his tonsils so we crossed the tracks just before a long freight train rolled slowly past.

It was 10.30am when reached the entrance to Auschwitz and I was surprised to find it inside the town of Osweicim. I had always imagined it as being in a remote spot.

There were several coaches already parked up but it didn't seem too over run with visitors. Apparently during the high season it can get incredibly busy. Helenna arranged for us to join the next English language tour guide at 11.00am and told us that she'll be here at 1:00pm to take us to Birkenau.

We first watched a three minute documentary which showed some disturbing images of skeletal corpses littering the floor when the death camp was liberated by the Russians on the 27th January 1945.

For the next four hours we carried with us a heavy heart.

We were introduced to our guide who spoke in a very rigid monotone voice.

She set the scene for what we were about to enter and led us to the infamous gates above which the phrase "Arbeit Macht Frei" - (Work Brings Freedom) mockingly welcomed each prisoner.

The site was originally an army barracks and was converted into a prison initially to house Polish political dissidents.

It didn't take long however for it to become the focal point for the Nazi's Final Solution to their liquidation of the Jews. A place of unimaginable evil.

We walked beneath the arched motto and stood inside the camp, looking back out towards the red brick reception, beyond the double barrier of barbed wire fence.

Only a few prisoners shared this view and survived.

As we continued down the gravelled street, passing countless prison blocks, Steve noticed the absence of birds chirping. He was right; there was an eerie stillness to this place.

We entered one block, I forget its number. It housed what could be described as a museum, I suppose.

We saw a map of Europe detailing the reach of the Nazi Empire and the numbers of Jews who were deported from them to their deaths here.

We noticed the absence of any numbers from the Channel Islands. I'm sure I read that there were some sent to Auschwitz?

We were spared photos of corpses, perhaps from out of respect for their souls. We did see photographs of the Ghettos such as Kazimirez in Krakow.

We saw photographs of prisoners working in an area they called "Canada" where they sorted through the personal belongings of the dead. These prisoners seemed well fed and were obviously benefiting from their privileged roles but how guilt ridden must they have been?

We went upstairs where we saw a large plywood model of the gas chambers and incinerators that existed over at the Birkenau camp.

It showed how the Nazi's had created a killing factory of such evil efficiency they were capable of murdering thousands and disposing of their corpses. The crematorium ovens could hold fifteen bodies at a time, and they had a row of five billowing smoke and ash into the air day in, day out. And there were four similar factories.

In the same room we saw a pile of empty tins of Zyklon-B, a pesticide that once its pellets came in contact with the oxygen in the air it twisted itself into a deadly poisonous gas. The recipe of annihilation.

Whilst grappling with the thoughts of the gas chambers and the Nazi's unnerving desire to eradicate an entire race we walked into the next room where what we saw struck our hearts with such a bolt of sorrow that we openly wept.

Behind the glass pane we saw a mound of hair shaved off the heads of the slaughtered victims. It stretched the length of the room. Dark hair, blonde hair, some hair still tied in a plait. This was incredibly agonizing to witness.

Steve had to leave the room. He said that until then what he had seen was almost like walking through a film set. We'd seen so many images of the gates and of the barracks that it all seemed like a very good reconstruction. But when he was confronted with the hair, the ringlets, the ponytails, a huge wave of realisation hit him.

He said "this isn't a film set, this truly is real. I just had to leave that room quickly, I really and honestly thought I was going to faint, the floor was swaying my throat had closed up and I couldn't see through the hot tears that were welling up around my eyes."

When he got outside onto the stairs a man was comforting his heavily pregnant wife, as she had half collapsed against the wall.

To see hair shaved off the heads of those sent to their deaths was extremely powerful. One couldn't help but be distressed. No one could walk out of that room without being touched by the reality of what took place here.

The cold facts were that seven tons of human hair were found when the camp was liberated. This was but a small fraction of what had been shipped back the the Fatherland as a commodity to fill mattresses, or as insulation, or many other everyday uses. It beggars belief.

There was more to follow. In this block and another we saw more personal artefacts. Spectacles, shoes, some the size of infants too young to walk, clogs, artificial limbs, combs, hair brushes, tooth brushes, nail brushes, pipes, pots and pans. Garry was visibly shaken when he saw a pair of cute little baby booties amongst the display. The wearer of those white cotton boots with a pretty blue ribbon had been gassed to death. They would have fitted his daughter's feet. That brought it home.

An exhibit that sent me once more into an emotional slide were the suitcases, piled high to the ceiling, each bearing the name of their owner. I saw the name Hanna Minska. My daughter shares the same first name. As I reached the end of the room I could hardly read the names anymore through my tears.

We were all glad of some respite, some fresh air, some time to gather our thoughts as we walked down towards the next building.

We stood by Block 10, where sterilisation experiments were carried out on female prisoners, and Block 11, the Death Block, a prison within a prison where they detained, interrogated, tortured and executed.

The space between them was walled high enough to hide the punishments that took place within the courtyard.

We then entered block 11 and were led down the corridors, down the steps to the damp cells.

Our guide told us a tale of a Polish priest, Father Kolbe, who pleaded with the guards to allow him to take the punishment for "assisting an escape attempt" in place of another who was crying for his wife and children.

The punishment was death by starvation.

The starvation bunker in which he died is now a shrine and he became Saint Maximilian Kolbe when Pope John Paul II canonized him as a martyr on his Papal visit in 1981.

The man he saved miraculously survived Auschwitz to die an old man of 95 years old.

Down in these morbid cellars of block 11 we also saw torture bunkers where five people were forced into a space no larger than a metre square.

Other cells were filled beyond capacity, say with twenty five inmates, with the specific purpose to cause as many as possible to suffocate to death.

Outside we witnessed a simple ceremony where two young adults shared the burden of placing a small wreath at the foot of the Death Wall.

A wall where thousands, mostly Polish political prisoners, met their end in front of an SS firing squad.

By 1943, due the frequency of executions, the cost of each murderous bullet had to be addressed. Killing experiments with Zyklon B gas soon followed in the basement of Block 11.

This wall was a focal point for rememberance with many wreaths laid in honour of the lost generation.

A poignant symbol of remembrance was a rose left on a post from which prisoners were sadistically hung by their wrists tied behind their backs.

A barbaric torture that dislocated the shoulders.

We left behind Block 11 and walked towards Crematorium I, the first and smallest of the gas chambers. It's also the only one to remain reasonably intact. Although it has had much reconstruction.

We crossed the perimeter fence, stepping outside the compound and noticed a leafy mound with an ominously large chimney.

As we came to the front it looked more familiar.

It was an old converted ammunitions bunker and was also used as a morgue but after a few modifications it was ready for use as a structure for mass murder.

We stepped inside into a dark and dank room. I immediately felt sick and was trying not to breath in the musty smell.

Some say it's the smell of death that still lingers.

©Steve Jones

One of the openings in the ceiling from which the Zyklon-B was dropped stood directly above my head as I looked up.

I couldn't begin to imagine the terror of those final moments. It doesn't bare thinking about but that's all you can do when you stand where they stood.

The Nazis brutal methods of mass murder were fine tuned at this first crematorium.

From getting the right dosage of Zyklon-B per head to finding out that the doors need to open outwards, not into the chamber, because the bodies were piled high as they clambered for the exit desperately struggling for their lives.

Selected Jewish prisoners, (given the title of Sonderkommando), were tasked with removing any valuables such as rings and even gold teeth from the corpses, and then loading the bodies into the fires.

The SS soon discovered there was a bottleneck at the furnaces which slowed down their ruthless efficiency.

Yet despite the inadequacies they still estimated a toll of 340 people a day at this crematorium.

When it came to constructing the larger crematoriums at Birkenau they had gathered the experience to optimise the process to reach a death toll of over 4000 a day.

Rudolph Höss, the camp's Kommandant, boasted in his testimony at the Nuremburg trials that they could "get rid of ten thousand people in 24 hours".

He was handed over to the Polish authorities who sentenced him to death in 1947 and hung from gallows outside crematorium I.

It's beyond comprehension the level of hatred that was shown towards fellow human beings during this period of history but what is even more incredulous was the lack of remorse shown.

©Steve Jones

Höss truly believed, to the day that he died, that all that took place under his command was justified.

Just after 1pm we walked out of Auschwitz emotionally tired, but we had only seen half the story.

We had a brief moment to grab a cup of tea but there wasn't much to eat before meeting up with our driver and Helenna who took us over to the death camp Auschwitz II - Birkenau.

When I saw for the first time the image that symbolises this entire atrocity, I shivered. A cold chill shot straight through me.


It was down these tracks that hundreds of thousands arrived, deported from all over Europe.

At the height of the killings, during 1944, over 420,000 Hungarian Jews rolled in on freight trains destined to be sent directly to their deaths.

They would undergo a macabre selection process where the SS doctors evaluated the delivery. Those fit and able to work were sent to one side, whereas the old, the young, the ill, or anyone who were not strong enough to provide some valuable slave labour, were sent to the other.

Families were torn apart.

Children were almost always sent to their deaths. (The exception to that was the selection of twins to be kept for the experiments of Dr. Mengele.)

To avoid panic the condemned (usually about 70% of the train's passengers) were told they were going to be de-loused and led down a stairway into a room where they were asked to undress and fold their clothes neatly. Then came the order to enter the shower rooms. The deception even went as far as the fitting of pipes and shower heads. Then the doors were securely locked behind them and a precise amount of Zyklon-B was released into the chamber.

In Rudolph Höss' testimony he said "It took 3 to 15 minutes, depending on the climatic conditions, in order to kill the people in the death chamber. We knew when the people were dead because their screaming stopped. We waited usually a half hour before we opened the doors and removed the bodies."

Another excerpt from his testimony said "We were supposed to carry out these annihilations in secret, but the rotten and nausea inducing stench, which went out from the uninterrupted burning of bodies, permeated the whole region"

I had walked ahead of the guide to take the photograph of the rail track and administration building.

As I waited for the group to catch up I sat down and just stared at the floor.

My thoughts turned to Julie, to Hannah and Rory; my reasons for living.

I felt an overwhelming sadness take a hold of me as I imagined standing right here and being parted from them.

©Steve Jones

But no matter how shocking were the horrors of my imagination I knew it could only be an poor imitation of the true terror that took place in the hearts of those stood here, sixty years ago.

I thanked God for my life and cried.

I rejoined the group as we turned left from the train tracks and entered the area designated as the Women's camp. (sector Blb)

The majority of the barracks built on the South side were all brick built and still intact whereas all that remained of most of the wooden barracks on the North side were the brick chimneys.

It's difficult to explain the sheer scale of Birkenau. It went on for as far as the eye could see.

It apparently covered 425 acres and had a capacity for at least a 100,000 prisoners. Even that wasn't enough however as plans to extend the capacity by 50% were in place.

This aerial photograph is taken from the Official Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum Web Pages

We walked down between the buildings to tales of brutality, deprivation, disease and hopelessness.

We then entered one of the barracks to see for ourselves the appalling living conditions.

At least 5 people had to be crammed into each bunk with all three tiers occupied, which included the floor!

The barracks would be infested with lice and rats. Outbreaks of Typhus and Cholera spread quickly.

The sanitation was appalling with one latrine hut to serve 7000. Diarrhoea and dysentery was prevalent as people lived in filth.

The use of the hut was restricted by time constraints and many were reduced to defecating on the floor or soiling themselves.

What a complete decimation of human dignity.

On the wall there was a command "Verhalte dich ruhig" which means "Calmly hold back".

I began to feel very nauseaus of the very thought of the degradation endured here.

It's not surprising to hear that with their spirits broken some wished to be dead so they may be released from this living hell.

We left sector Blb and walked down to the end of the train tracks were the crematoriums were located.

Very little now remains.

In November 1944 the Nazi's could see that the war was turning against them and attempted to disposed of the evidence by blowing up crematorium II and III.

The large pit of rubble however still remains as an indication of the size of the gas chambers.

Thousands at a time perished within these walls.

We stood again in another moment of quiet reflection as we all stared into the pit as if we were at our own funerals.

Situated near by is a memorial called "The International Monument to the Victims of Auschwitz".

Across the entire length of it were laid tombstone-like plaques, in several languages.

In English it read .. "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."

Many of the plaques had flowers left in loving memory. The Dutch language one had the cast of a child's hands holding several pebbles.

It reminded me of the Jewish cemetery in Berlin where Steve and I added a stone each to a pile atop a grave to pay our respects.



We made our way past the demolished building that once was crematorium II and walked towards several large water filled pits where the ashes of the cremated bodies were disposed.

Four black marble headstones now stand to mark this fact.

The fragments of bone in the dust around the edges were a more shocking testament of what lay beneath our feet.

Helenna and our driver had parked near a look-out tower on the edge of the camp.

We met up with them at 3pm.

We had spent over four hours confronting our emotions, witnessing the site of history's most evil descent.

We left in silence.

On the way back to Krakow we all tried to catch some sleep but we had to keep one eye open because it was quite a hair raising race back to the city!

I did get an opportunity to avenge the moistening of my groin yesterday as Nathan had let his guard down and had momentarily closed both his eyes; despite the fact he knew I was holding a bottle of water! I did feel a little underhand though as it was quite a sneaky attack!

Steve asked if anyone had heard the guide mention that whilst the Jewish prisoners had to wear a yellow star those imprisoned for being homosexual had to wear a pink patch. He admitted to finding it funny and couldn't stop a wry smile from appearing. "I feel ashamed." he said, "After all I had seen why did I find it funny? My attitude wasn't any better than those murdering bastards." There was no consolation to be found even when we all admitted to the same reaction.

By the time we reached Krakow we were all starving like Marvin and decided we had to find somewhere to eat before we turned on the weakest member of our group and ate him!

One thing on my 'to-do' list was to try some Pierogi. They were described as uniquely Polish dumplings. So we aimed for a cafe that specialised in them and came highly recommended in all the guide books. It was on ul. Slawkowska and called Pierogarnia. We stepped inside and were so disappointed to find there wasn't a free table. It was only a small room but was a very popular little place.

We walked further down Slawkowska in hope of finding something similar and we did! A cafe called Domowe Przysmaki had pierogi listed in its window. Hooray!

It was very similar to the other cafe in that it was only one small room with a few tables. We sat down, read the menu and had a look at what the other diners were eating! What they had on their plates looked great.

We were all expecting suet dumplings that we have in wintry casseroles back home but they were more like large pasta parcels (such as ravioli) covered with some butter. They were also drinking beetroot soup in large cups.

"I'll have some of that!" I thought to myself.

We had several fillings to choose from. Steve and David had a worryingly non-descript "meat" filling, Nathan had a potato & cheese, Garry had sauerkraut & mushroom and I had a curiously sweet cottage cheese and sugar!

They were absolutely delicious and the borsch washed it down perfectly.

We left the dumpling cafe behind and walked across the main square Rynek Glowny to find the Irish Arms along ul. Poselska.

We were looking for somewhere with a big screen TV that may be showing some football tomorrow.

Having found the leprechaun's drinking hole we weren't overly impressed. It was dark and smoky, just like the pubs of Dublin used to be before they banned that filthy habit!

It was also nearly empty so it didn't have much craic going on either. We still stayed for a pint though!

With food in our stomachs and some sloshing beer we started to feel really tired and decided to head back to the apartment for some shut eye.

We all had a good hour sleep before freshening up and bouncing back out again for another night on the ale in the Old Town.

Our first port of call was to find the best pizza in town. I had read on that Cyklops on ul. Mikolajska had a great reputation. When we arrived at the pizzeria it smelt absolutely divine but it was full! Not a spare seat in the house. Damn!!

They also didn't take reservations either so we decided to try our luck elsewhere.

We wandered aimlessly trying to spot anywhere suitable. Walking down ul. Stolarska we saw a bright neon "Pizza" sign that drew us inside a covered alleyway. Like a gaggle of Homer Simpsons we shuffled towards the buzzing electric pink sign. When we got closer there was a less bright and less brash place on the opposite side called Molly's Yard Inn which also did pizza. So we decided to give that one a try instead. It looked cosier.

As we sat down to read the menu the waitress almost immediately said to me "Hello, I remember you from last night"!

I looked at her confused. "At Goraczka" she continued, "you were dancing!" and she did a little comical movement of the arms that made me look as if I danced like a camp jivester from the 1920's.

Well I just held my head in my hands as I flushed up with embarrassment. I remember everything about last night. "I danced for only 10 seconds, if that! And that was only to cut across the dancefloor. I can't dance, I don't dance!!" I protested.

"Photo for the travelogue?" suggested Steve, and I found myself posing for a photograph with my number one fan. I really felt embarrassed but everyone else found it so hilarious!

Her name was Ania and we eventually got down to the business of ordering pizza. I only had one choice and it was covered in sweetcorn but thankfully it had no hot chillies on it. My face was red enough as it was!

The pizzas arrived and were tasty enough, although Steve did offer them a word of advice. "Warm the plates up next time. The pizza got cold quite quickly!"

Before we left we noticed a man with a cockerel between his legs!?! I'm not too sure what was the purpose of the mannequin other than to laugh at the fact that it was a man admiring his cock?

man admiring his cock

We moved on to a bar that I had read often hosted great live rock bands. It was called the Tower Pub. Down dark steps we trod feeling a little out of place with every step.

Tonight was heavy metal night. The "dancefloor" was occupied by half a dozen long hair types headbanging away to awful Polish rock. I felt quite at home as it brought back memories of my School Disco days when Status Quo was played, and all the girlies vacated the floor to make room for the 'Ed Bangers to try our best to self-inflict whiplash whilst playing air guitar along to 'Paper Plane'.

I didn't join in tonight because a) it's a long hair thing, it just doesn't feel the same with a short haircut and b) I'm a bit too old for that kind of thing these days, I'd probably end up having a nose bleed and haemorrhaging.

Nathan was feeling particularly uncomfortable by the scene because in a room of sweaty black T-shirts his bright white Hugo Boss cardigan under the UV lights made him stand out like God's messenger in the depths of hell.

One thing it did have was a dance pole for the purpose of Pole Dancing. Fortunately nobody was pissed enough to step up onto the platform to strut their booty and show the cranium crankers how to perform their native dance. What, didn't the Poles invent pole dancing? (Oh dear, the old jokes aren't necessarily the best!)

Oh yes, I almost forgot to mention that Garry went up to the gothic DJ and asked "Hello my friend, do you like porn?" but he was just ignored! They didn't have any Status Quo either!

Onwards and upward, and then back down more steps we trod down into a bar called Il Louisa. The latin beats greeting us were more to Nathan's liking!

We walked through to the dancefloor to find it teeming with writhing bodies.

It was Salsa night and everyone out there could dance like Cubans!! Spinning, twisting, kicking, all giving it a 110%. We stood in awe wishing that we could dance like that!

It was very entertaining, especially when mishaps occurred, such as one dancer went flying as her heels snapped.

Also one innocent bystander walking past got smacked in the face by an over elaborate throw of the arm by this matador on the dancefloor.

Nathan wagered David all the money in his wallet if he went out onto the dancefloor and salsa'd.

The challenge was accepted and David stepped backwards into the melee and did some dirty dancing of his own, if only for a split second. It didn't cut the mustard with Nathan as he welched on the deal!

We left, briefly doing the conga, and made our way back to Czasem Trzeba Pub where we knew the Warka beer was only 4 zlotys per pint. It wasn't enough of an attraction however as we left after one round.

We stepped out onto ul. Mikolajska, walked towards the main square and started singing a Welsh hymn called 'Calon Lan'. It's a beautiful song with beautiful sentiment.

It goes like this "Nid wyn gofyn bywyd moethus, aur y byd nai berlau man, gofyn wyf am galon hapus, galon onest, calon lan." which translates to "I'm not asking for a life of luxury, all the gold in the world nor its precious pearls, I am asking for a happy heart, an honest heart, a pure heart"

When it's sung by the Treorchi Male Voice Choir its truly inspirational but our rendition was a little less polished. Did we care? Not a jot! We blasted it out like only five drunk proud Welshmen could!

Some people applauded us, some people ran away! Then, before we had reached Rynek Glowny, a large dark blue vehicle rolled slowly up, then the passenger window was rolled down, and a friendly policeman in his riot van raised his index finger to his pursed lips and said "Sssshh".

Our performance came to an abrupt stop. We didn't even laugh out loud for fear of being picked up!

After our brush with the authorities we headed straight for another cellar bar we visited the last night, Harris' Jazz Bar.

We had just missed tonight's performance as the band members were packing up and the place was emptying.

We sat down regardless for a round of drinks.

In the corner of the room this guy raised an eyebrow in my direction. When I ignored him he raised his glass!

I then recognised him. We had all met him briefly earlier in the evening when he approached us in the street asking if we wanted to exchange any Euros. "I'll give you good rate" he said. "I am Easy Rider" he carried on. Whatever that meant? We gave him a wide berth.

Now, he was sitting on his own and despite my reservations, I called him over. He hardly spoke any English and I spoke no Polish so conversation was difficult but I did get out of him that his Polish father flew for the RAF during the Second World War. He also said "Old Deutch ...." and shook his head, frowned, and gave the Caesar thumbs down, then added "Young Deutch ....", smiled like a clown, and stuck his thumb up! I got the message!

Before we left we all gave a half hearted attempt at singing Calon Lan again, to which Easy Rider replied with a Polish drinking song of his own!

I went to the bar to buy him a pint before we moved on but it had shut so I left the dregs of my beer for him. He happily accepted. Euugh!

In an interesting demonstration of us humans as creatures of habit we walked straight out of the Harris' Jazz Bar and right into the Rece i Nogi club in a complete replica of last night's behaviour. Despite not actually liking the place!?!

It was a bit busier tonight but it still was too loud and too dark!

Garry did go up ask for Abba "Dancing Queen" to be played but the DJ just smiled and continued blasting out his "urban grooves" man!

To finish the night off we walked across the road to Pub Goraczka. It followed a similar pattern to last night with Garry falling asleep first, but at least Nathan thankfully didn't wander off!

Steve, Garry and Nathan left at 3:30am. David and I left an hour later. I managed to persuade David to call it a night only after I taught the person he was talking to the quintessential English phrase of "Fuck off you twat!". He took this to heart and we left soon afterwards!

Tonight I also realised that I could never forge a career teaching English as a foreign language. I'd be having too much fun teaching them to swear !

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