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Auschwitz Trip: Peculiar Trees and Oskar Schindler’s Factory

  • A picture of a terminal at the Warsaw airport

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    Photo: Stan Jastrzebski

    The inside of the airport is very modern, but also somewhat inefficient when it comes to marshaling international travelers.

  • A photo of Wawel Castle, on the banks of the Vistula River.

    Image 2 of 4

    Photo: Stan Jastrzebski

    Wawel Castle, built by King Sigismund 1 in the 1600s, sits along the Vistula River (seen here frozen).

  • A photo of a plaque outside Schindler's factory

    Image 3 of 4

    Photo: Stan Jastrzebski

    This plaque commemorates the contributions of factory owner Oskar Schindler, who -- by putting Jews to work during the Holocaust -- saved millions.

  • A photo of a monument to workers from the Plaszow camp

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    Photo: Stan Jastrzebski

    These giant stone bodies are what remains of the Plaszow camp where Oskar Schindler got many of the workers for his porcelain factory.

It took me about 19.5 hours from the time I left Bloomington to drive to the Indianapolis airport to get to the baggage claim at Pope John Paul II Airport in Krakow (with stops at Chicago O’Hare and Chopin Airport in Warsaw in between).   Of those 19.5 hours, I estimate I slept about two.

Lot Airlines, the Polish national carrier on which we flew, does a nice job with hospitality (free wine with dinner!) but has the same need to cram as many passengers into a plane as possible as do all major carriers.  Needless to say, not the most comfortable sleeping conditions.  I talked with Mayor Bennett (himself even a little taller than I, at perhaps 6’4″) and we agreed that the closest thing to a solution we’d found was to use the tiny pillow each of us was afforded as a brace between our knees and the seat in front of us and use the folded up blanket as a pillow.

The first thing I noticed about Poland after we entered its airspace were the trees.  On second thought, maybe that’s not entirely accurate.  With a snow-covered landscape (highs here this week will probably only reach the low 20s at best), the trees exist in such patterns as to mimic the look of pieces of open sea in water otherwise clouded by ice floes.  It took me a minute to figure out we were no longer over water, meaning it was the trees I was seeing.

But it’s the way the trees exist which is puzzling to me.  There are geometrically-shaped outcroppings of trees which seem to have been carved out of the countryside.  And when you take a closer look at the trees (especially on Warsaw’s city limits) you often notice something which is at the same time familiar and different.  Some of the trees are not growing wherever their seeds may fall, as in the random pattern of most forests.  Instead, giant swaths of trees appear to have been planted in a manner befitting some cash crop (like corn).  The trees are evenly spaced, in neat rows and are used to define polygonal shapes.  I’d swear it was residual Soviet-era control of Poland rearing its ugly head.  Maybe I’ll see if our tour guide has any idea why this might be (and I’ll endeavor to snap a photo before all is said and done).

When we arrived in Krakow, we took a short tour of sites which may be recognizable to those who have seen the 1994 Academy Award winner for Best Picture.  Many of Oskar Schindler’s factory buildings, where he put Jews to work creating porcelain castings, still stand.  A museum is slated to open in a couple months commemorating the site, so we couldn’t do more than sneak a peek through a slot in the iron gate which guards the entrance to the facility (which, itself, is hidden on a small side street that I suspect you wouldn’t be able to find if you didn’t know expressly where to look).

Nearby is the place where the Plaszow camp — the one from which Schindler took many of his workers — once stood.  Now there are a few plaques marking the site (itself on a bluff overlooking much of Krakow), but the most noticeable feature is a giant stone carving of five bodies (see photos in the slideshow) with hauntingly blank faces.

Tomorrow, we make the first of several trips to Auschwitz-Birkenau — about an hour’s drive from Krakow.  It’s the reason we came and (other than blistering cold and wind) I still don’t know what to expect.

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