THE GRAND TOUR: CZECH /POLAND 21/22/23 JUNE

Its a lovely blue sky morning in a huge wooded park on a hill near the centre of Kraków.  We’ve had some pretty miserable weather at times recently but has suited the places we’ve been exploring.

We’ve spent the last three days learning about and witnessing horrible histories of Central Europe over the last 75 years.

On our second day in Prague we returned to explore more of the city

 and walked up to Wenceslas Square outside the natural history museum, the scene of some major events in the Velvet Revolution as we were about to learn.

We were looking for the museum of Communism and eventually tracked it down, ironically, on one of Prague’s busiest shopping streets lined with international brand names. Housed in the elegant Palace Savarin it sits above Mc Donald’s and next to a casino. The boys will be turning in their graves.

An American who was passing through during the revolution in the late 80’s decided to stay and take advantage of the new commercial possibilities and ended up with a string of bars and restaurants. Always fascinated by communism he eventually spent a lot of time and money to set up this reminder of how radically different things had been until a short time ago.

Together with a Czech filmmaker they put together a “three act tragedy”     The Dream, Reality and Nightmare of the communist regime and with film and propaganda posters and artefacts etc the little museum puts on a stunning display of the utopian ideal, the reality of life under the regime and the nightmare of a state controlled by the secret police through surveillance, censorship and imprisonment.

It’s hard for us westerners to imagine the world they inhabited but the museum really helped to bring home how bad it was. It’s felt by many here that the recent past hasn’t been acknowledged and that perpetrators of injustice have not been held to account but with 99 per cent of the population involved in the system and with a bad conscience  that they were forced to collaborate its perhaps not surprising. It is also difficult for anyone under 30 to appreciate what life was like as most people don’t talk about it so this space is important for them and it was good to see so many there.

After looking at all the exhibits concerning the crushing of the relative freedoms introduced in the Prague Spring in 68 by Soviet forces it was moving to watch all the footage of unrest and uprising during the Velvet Revolution and the eventual collapse of the communist state.

Powerful stuff. Wenceslas Square was where a student burnt himself to death ( it took 3 days to die) in protest at the regime and help to kickstart the momentous changes to come.

We left the beautiful historical city that afternoon reflecting how much it had changed just in the last 25 years.

We were headed for the Eagle Mountains, an area of national park to the north east, along the border with Poland. Before the Second World War it had been the Czech/ Germany border and Hitler had plans for the area as it had a large ethnic German population.   The Czech government initiated a massive and very rapid defence programme to build a vast line of fortifications along this vulnerable border. Over 10,000 pillboxes, bunkers and blockhouses were built to a French design and most are still there, scattered throughout the forests of the mountainous area.

 There are many hiking paths through the area including the multi day Friendship Trail which traverses the entire ridge of Eagle Mountains and we did an educational trail which linked some of the major fortifications.

It was a suitably misty day for the strangely surreal objects that appeared out of the gloom with vent pipes and gun windows.


We climbed to 1000 m and were well into the cloud as we looked at the places where 1000’s of men, up to a couple of hundred in one underground bunker, were prepared to defend at any cost.

The good news was that no lives were lost in these bunkers, the tragedy was that all the effort inbuilding them was wasted as the whole area was given to the Germans in a deal put together by the Brits and the French to “appease ” and thought by Chamberlain to have averted war.  

Of course things didn’t work out like that and the Germans used all those fortifications to practice and test how to defeat identical ones on the French and Belgian lines and invaded the rest of the country.

After the day before’s history lesson it was ironic to think that the Czechs greeted Russian tanks into their country twice. Once for liberation and once for oppression.

During the Cold War one of the biggest forts was used as a nerve centre for nuclear war where a couple of hundred people could live and work under the 10 ft of concrete. Luckily it wasn’t needed and after the Velvet Revolution the whole programme was abandoned.

We went past a group of Czech soldiers who still used one on the trail as a base

 and read that others had been sold into private ownership or turned into museums by enthusiasts but mostly they have been left to moulder in the forest.   With the weather still pretty grim we decided to say goodbye to the Republic after a week there and head over the mountains to Poland in the hope of better climes.

No such luck. After weaving through the tiny border back roads of Serena’s shortist route ( she loves to take us off the tourist trail to see the “real” country, always a surprising journey) we hit the motorway and lashing rain. At one point it got so bad a windscreen wiper gave up and tried to throw itself off the van requiring me to pull onto the hard shoulder and manhandle it while the thundering trucks sprayed me. With visibility approaching zero we pulled into a service station for the night alongside a fleet of lorries involved in some long distance runs.

Still grey and drizzly in the morning we continued on to the grimmest destination of the trip. Oswiecim. Better known by it’s German name of Auschwitz.

Since the war the town has become a centre for peace and reconciliation and on the way in we passed a billboard advertising the Life Festival organised by Artists against War headlining Chris de Burgh and UB40 but the horrors had been so great there that there still seemed to be a dark cloud over the place. Maybe that was because there WAS a dark cloud over the place.

Arriving at the museum at the main camp of Auschwitz we discovered it was very busy and we couldn’t get in for the tour ( you had to join a group of your language from 10am till 4pm) for a couple of hours so we took a shuttle bus the 5 min trip to Birkenau where the lessons in extermination learnt in Auschwitz where ruthlessly applied to an incomprehendable extent. We’ve all heard the extraordinary numbers of murders committed there and about the methods employed by the killing machine but to walk through the space where one and a half million people where erased was powerfully emotional and upsetting.


The train tracks

 And wagons

 That delivered a constant stream of humanity that was processed into those sent to the barracks to work until they died and those sent to the gas chambers to die immediately. The crematorium and gas chambers at Birkenau were destroyed by the Germans as the Allies approached ( was it guilt?) but the remaining rubble exuded a terrible energy.

 

 

At Birkenau you can visit without a guide but we were lucky enough to be there on the one day a year when Eva Mozes Kor, a camp survivor, was leading a group around and speaking of her experiences.

   She was a ten year in the camp with her twin sister and experimented on by Dr Mengeles and her stories of her parents murder and her survival were powerful stuff.


We walked with her and the group through the camp learning about the camp life and how it was survived.

 Eva works tirelessly on keeping the memory of the Holocaust alive and for peace and reconciliation and we felt grateful to have been there with her.

Returning to Auschwitz we watched a movie containing footage we had seen before but that now meant much more of the terrible events that happened just 10 short years before our births and we were reminded that similar shit still goes on around the world.

You would hope that the thousands of people who come to see this place every week take pacifism away with them and that slowly lessons can be learnt.

Joining one of many tour groups starting at 1.30 and shuffling around the camp en mass it seemed a little ironic that the place still “processes ” so many people in a never ending cycle.

We past under the ” work will set you free” as did hundreds of thousands of victims before us and entered the camp.

We were shown around the barracks, the sleeping quarters, wash houses, interrogation rooms, punishment blocks and firing squad wall in the same order as many of the prisoners would have experienced them. Most poignant were the exhibits of personal possessions left behind by the victims not sent for recycling for the benefit of the Third Reich war effort before the liberators arrived.

Another building housed hundreds of the identification photographs of the victims with the dates of admission and death.

This poor fellow was one of countless who didn’t last long.

Then came the most loathsome final exhibit, the “final solution” to the “Jewish problem”. The one where everyone fell silent.


The one surviving gas chamber, oven and crematorium chimney.

As we filed away towards the exit another load of noisy groups began their tours.

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