Krakow and Auschwitz Birkenau Weekend Trip from Berlin
On our second weekend in Berlin, we decided to visit Poland by renting a car and driving south for a Krakow and Auschwitz Birkenau Weekend Trip. The drive was very easy and we arrived Friday evening after work. In the morning, we set out on foot to explore the historic heart. The entire center is surrounded by the green belt of Planty, laid out at the site of the medieval town fortifications that were torn down in the beginning of the 19th century. Only a small part around Barbakan (barbican) in front of it, a huge circular fortress for the defense of the glacis.
Historic Krakow was completely rebuilt in the 14th and 15th centuries after the Tartar invasions, following a grid pattern with the Main Market Square (Rynek Glowny) as the commercial and administrative center. In the middle of Rynek Glowny remains the Renaissance Cloth Hall (Sukiennice) and the leftovers of the once magnificent Gothic Town Hall. The Historic Center was lucky to be spared from destruction in the two world wars and from “modernization” afterwards. It is still a mixed residential-commercial-service neighborhood with all kinds of shops, pharmacies, hotels, university buildings, art galleries, and restaurants for every budget. In the streets you’ll hear all languages of the world. Among the Pope John Paul II —the first non-Italian pope in 455 years.
Looming over the city center, and calling our name as we waited for our lunch to settle, was the Royal Castle (Wawel) district, outside of the Planty belt; and historically a separate entity with its own jurisdiction. Inside the fortress we were greeted by the magnificent Wawel Cathedral, home to royal coronations and resting place of many national heroes. At the end of the day, exploring Poland’s medieval capital by foot had been a delight and we were cheerful it had astonishingly survived wars and oppressive regimes, to become one of Europe’s cultural treasures.
On our way back to Berlin, we decided to make a side trip to the sobering Auschwitz Birkenau State Museum, a very humbling experience I will never forget. First we visited the Auschwitz site and it’s exceptionally well curated gallery, done so with the utmost respect. Next we drove to nearby Birkenau, and the place of most of the killing. It was altogether different as a site. It is huge in area and in some ways there is less to see – barracks, ruined gas chambers, the selection platform, as well as the barbed wire perimeter. It is here, however, that you can get a perspective of the scale for what happened. It’s so hard to come face to face with events of this place, how things got so completely and totally monstrously out of control.
History and time does not make this any easier to understand. The location is a reminder of the cruelty and degradation that we can subject another human being to. This visit will make you uncomfortable, it will make you sad and angry, and it will make you feel guilty for the blessings and comforts you have in your life. One can only imagine what hell went on here all those years ago and for a moment everything you think is a problem in your life will disappear. You will never forget or question why it is that so many gave their lives and continue to give their lives for the freedoms we often take for granted.