I left Prague on Wednesday night and took a train to Krakow which was the most unpleasant part of my journey. Up until this point, I had been traveling in style with the first class comfort of five star accommodations. But as life has its clever way of reminding me to keep it real, all first class train tickets were sold out. I therefore had no choice but to travel on an overcrowded train on one of the hottest nights of Prague’s summer. This truly tested the endurance of my spirit.
The train ride was grueling; eight hours through the night and at every station the train’s brakes screeched like nails on a chalkboard played through an amp. June is peak tourist season and the train was packed with college students who were backpacking through Europe. They were enamored by the idea of train travel and youth hostels. And although I would agree that this is a romantic notion, it is one which is best fulfilled when you’re young, and not by someone at my age, who over the last several years has been pampered like a house cat.
I arrived to Krakow overheated, exhausted and without having slept a wink. But soon after I got there, my friend Lisa had also arrived. Lisa is a dear old friend of mine, who recently came back into my life after twenty years. And when I saw her, all the trauma from the train ride seemed to instantly melt away.
The main purpose of our trip to Krakow was to visit the concentration camps at Auschwitz and to pay a solemn tribute to those who lost their lives there. When booking our trip however, we never anticipated just how stunning Krakow is and when we arrived we were captivated by city’s beauty and culture. Krakow has a medieval backdrop but modern pulse which brings the city vibrantly to life. It is a combination of Vienna and Paris, but without the attitude. In the evenings the entire city enjoys everyday life and fills the town with harmony. The people here are just so fucking happy.
The next day Lisa and I traveled to the town of Oswiecim, better known by its German translation of Auschwitz. Walking through the main gates under the words “Arbeit Macht Frei” is an eerie feeling and tourists remained respectful and somber. During World War II, Auschwitz together with its neighboring camp Birkenau was truly factories that mass produced death and when you see the sheer scale of these two camps it is truly overwhelming.
I was nervous about coming to Auschwitz because I wasn’t sure of what type of effect it would have on me or how long the sorrow would linger after I left. But in my mind I found what had happened here to be so incomprehensible, that it was hard to evoke an emotional response. I’m not sure what an appropriate response to seeing these concentration camps would be, but I felt rather empty and numb.
We returned to Krakow and continued to explore the city and went to its numerous churches and museums. The most memorable of all the museums was in the factory of Oskar Schindler in the Jewish Ghetto. The museum is set up in theatrical way in which staging and sound takes you back to 1939 Krakow, to the eve of the German invasion. The sound effects in the background are of trains and people talking and the marching of the German soldiers. The sounds plays on your senses and feed your imagination to bring you back to the time period. You feel anxious and frightened.
While in line for our tickets there was a young Hasidim man who was trying to negotiate entry into the museum. Because it was the day of Sabbath, he wasn’t allowed to carry cash and didn’t have the money to purchase a ticket. He told the cashier that his grandfather had worked at the factory and was one of Schindler’s Jews, but unfortunately Schindler’s List was not the guest list for the museum and his request for a free ticket was denied. Lisa and I did the only right thing and bought him a ticket. We later we found out that he was from Long Island.
Lisa and I have both endured our share of life’s hard knocks and because we have we are both acutely aware of how fragile life can be, but also how precious it is. I am so grateful that Lisa has not only returned to my life but that she was able to join me for this incredible experience. Our last night in Krakow was spent drinking champagne and toasting our trip – a true example of carpe diem.