Tag Archives: Poland


Trabant in its native habitat

The Trabant was the ubiquitous car of the Eastern Bloc. Had a chance to ride around in one through Nowa Huta, the Soviet sponsored steel factory suburb connected to Krakow. Features a two-stroke diesel engine and a body made from recycled textile waste. Lacking a fuel pump, the gas tank is located directly above the engine letting gravity feed the engine (also, functions as a self-destruct mechanism in front-end crashes). Kinda like driving a lawn mower. The Trabi is making a comeback for modding and collecting and recently starred in its own film.



Tour of Terror: Auschwitz

Next up on the tour of terror: Auschwitz. Auschwitz actually refers to several camps located near the Polish town of Oświęcim. I was able to tour two camps: Auschwitz I, the original and smaller camp retrofitted from Polish army barracks; and Birkenau (Auschwitz II), a much larger overflow camp created in a giant field 2km away.

The Nazis experimented with gas chamber and cremation oven design at Auschwitz I, but Auschwitz II was really where they implemented an industrial scale version of their “Solution.”

This is the second WWII Concentration Camp complex I visited, and I found my impressions formed mainly in relation to my first visit at Terezin. Terezin was an ancient fortress, long used both before and after the Holocaust for terror. Terezin isn’t on the main tourist circuit and you can wander the grounds at your own pace unguided. Auschwitz I entrance requires guided tours most of the day (the guides are excellent and very knowledgeable). Birkenau is included in the tour but I also returned on my own later in the day.

20130519_1104_DSC_2367-reduced3020130519_0900_DSC_2316-reduced30Being built out of brick and stone, most of Terezin remains standing. My entire visit evoked ghosts and an invisible cloud of evil with empty buildings and no other people around. The only part of Auschwitz which really provoked a similar feeling was the single extant gas chamber and crematorium. Walking into the chamber, seeing the ceiling slots where the Zyklon B canisters were dropped and then (unlike the victims) being able to walk out of the chamber to the room where the ovens were used gave perceptible chills. And, you could tell by the way others on the tour reacted that this was a shared feeling.

The other parts of the Auschwitz I tour were informative (lots of facts, dates, numbers, pictures) but didn’t have this same feeling.

20130519_1510_DSC_2427-reduced30Birkenau was an entirely different experience. Here the term “camp” is apt. Imagine a giant, cleared field (~750 acres) laid out with a perfect barbed wire grid and regularly spaced barrack structures. Most of the originals were made of wood, so the only parts left standing are the brick chimneys and a few reconstructed structures. The entire space is bisected by a railroad track which is how prisoners were brought into the camp and the last thing most saw before they were immediately herded to their death. Unlike Terezin, Birkenau wasn’t build to be permanent. The barbed wire posts, the wooden building, it all looks as if the Nazis expected to be able to completely annihilate their enemies in the space of a few years at which time the camp would be superfluous.

And that was my main takeaway from Auschwitz: the industrial scale of the Holocaust. Human history is replete with evil. Every era is filled with wars and torture and death. But, the Nazis were the first to combine this instinct with the efficiency of logistics. 20130519_1532_DSC_2467-reduced30Census records, registration cards and centralized rolls allowed them to meticulous track down every single individual targeted for death. Without a comprehensive railroad network, it would have been impossible to aggregate the more than 6 million people in concentration camps (Johnson finds evidence that the railway timetables gave absolute priority to transporting prisoners even at the expense of the war effort). And, finally, Auschwitz itself is an industrial killing machine. Like a modern, commercial agribusiness, Auschwitz was built for one purpose. But, instead of profit it maximizes death.


Day 23: Skidziń, Poland to Krakow, Poland

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Start: Skidziń, Poland
End: Krakow, Poland
Distance: 86.7km
Elevation Gain: 2287ft
Elevation Loss: 2369ft
Time: 6h20m
Reading Material: Red Cavalry and Other Stories – Isaac Babel
Audio Material: Fresh Air; The World in Words; Sound Opinions (Roger Ebert episode); You Think It’s Like This but Really It’s Like This – mirah

A fitting day to bid bye to the official EuroVelo routes. Ran into two undesirable route features not described on the maps: 1) stairs, and 2) a true death hill. Going down stairs is actually pretty feasible. But going up more than three stairs requires unpacking the bike (or, possibly, more upper body weight workouts). To navigate the water and railways just east of Oświęcim, I already had to pull a 2km long ‘S’ shape and then ran into the flight of stairs leading to the bridge over a damn blocking my escape. I lost about 10minutes unpacking and repacking.

The death hill was worse. Previously, I ran into a steep, unpaved hill that required dismounting. That hill was short, maybe 100ft and easily conquered. Today, I had to face .8km of extremely steep, unpaved, gravely ascent. The 45min ordeal gave me a good chance to practice my pushing technique: you have to get down really low and use your entire lower body to push the book. If only bike shoes had better traction! Luckily, the sun thunderstorms didn’t start until after I crested and the rain was nice and cool.

Lunch was somewhere near Frywald from a small store with an ice cream Popsicle and homemade jelly doughnut (!). I always assumed the jelly doughnut was a North American invention. (Mainly due to Bob & Doug McKenzie’s ethnographic study on the Canadian male). But, actually Poland gets the credit. They call them pączki and they date from the time of August III. Something to due with preparing for Lent and either using up unneeded ingredients or just having a blowout Fat Day. Either way, I got to eat a jelly doughnut for lunch and count it as local cuisine.

Arrived in Krakow in the late afternoon. Warm welcome from the staff at my short-term apartment rental with a special look-see at the laundry machine which is going to get a workout. Had enough time to walk down to Main Market Square after dinner. I’ll spend the next five days in Krakow resting, touristing and planning the next leg to Kiev.


Day 22: Pszczyna, Poland to Skidziń, Poland

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Start: Pszczyna, Poland
End: Skidziń, Poland
Distance: 23.8km
Elevation Gain: 311ft
Elevation Loss: 358ft
Time: 1h39m
Reading Material: A History of the Jews – Paul Johnson
Audio Material: Diaen Rehm Friday News Roundups

Super short day. Some wide and bumpy unpaved roads lacing small ponds and then I arrived at a beautiful farmhouse and orchard about 7km from Auschwitz II. It is claimed that the farmhouse provided assistance to escapees from Auschwitz but I can’t find any way to confirm. However, it is extremely peaceful and is a nice place to catch up on email and reading in the garden.


Day 21: Cieszyn, Poland to Pszczyna, Poland

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Start: Cieszyn, Poland
End: Pszczyna, Poland
Distance: 66.5km
Elevation Gain: 2043ft
Elevation Loss: 2135ft
Time: 6h16m
Reading Material: The Czechs and the Lands of the Bohemian Crown – Hugh Agnew
Audio Material: Cure for Pain – Morphine; 99% Invisible

The EuroVelo routes I have been following pretty much since Dresden have been excellent. They are very good at avoiding large roads/cars and mixing in interesting places and scenery. Sometimes the route planners take circuitous routes or include unpaved tracks in attempts to avoid short stretches of busy road. Usually, I follow the route but today the loops got a bit crazy and I cut some corners and nearly 40k from the official route. By avoiding side trips to Skoczów and Bielsko-Biala, I found myself all the way to Pszczyna.

Oświęcim (aka Auschwitz) is only 30km east and I probably could have made it today but since I already have prearranged reservations at both Oświęcim and Krakow, I opted for an early evening in Pszczyna. Tomorrow I’m headed to a farmhouse with room rentals on the outskirts of Oświęcim. I’ll spend the next day exploring the area and doing the full Auschwitz tour and then on to Krakow the day after. East of Krakow, the EuroVelo routes become more imaginary so I’ll need to conjure some of my own.