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From Krakow, With Love

Dear Jewcy Aficionados: Dzien dobry from the Krakow airport. I have just wrapped up an unofficial 72-hour Jewish immersion holiday and thought I would offer a few travel tips for those of you who plan on making a pilgrimage this summer. I’m guessing that many of you will be more familiar with the region’s Hebraic history before visiting Poland, but I thought you might still mildly benefit from the random observations of a lay lapsed Catholic American secularist:

  • It would be facile (not to mention condescending) for me to comment on how soul-deadening it is to see Auschwitz firsthand, but I did want to share a couple of tidbits from our excellent, somber, forthright tour guide. After explaining that these weren’t my views, but that rather I had “written about Holocaust deniers” (scholarly, no…but still technically accurate), I asked if they’d ever encountered any on the tour. She said no, but added that there had been a couple of teenagers with a Scandinavian school group who espoused Nazi ideals. They were immediately sent home because it is illegal in Poland to express those views. Apparently, a professor was even fired from his job for translating a David Irving book, even after making it clear these weren’t his beliefs in the introduction. Considering the horrific immediacy of the surroundings, the free speech question never entered my mind, but I did find one thing the tour guide told me interesting. She said, “We aren’t bothered by the Holocaust deniers. We are scared by those who sympathize with the Nazis, especially amongst the young, because it is easy to influence their minds.” I guess it makes some sense, but it was striking to hear that Holocaust deniers are no big deal while walking alongside the Birkenau train tracks.
  • I was stunned to learn that, thanks in large part to the efforts of those who been imprisoned there, the camps were opened to the public a mere two years after the liberation. Two years. So, let’s recap: In a poor, desolate country, physically destroyed by World War II, people who were left with nothing after surviving the Nazi nightmare got Auschwitz up and running by 1947 to bear witness to the atrocities they had just experienced. I think you know where I’m going with this…I realize it’s not apples-to-apples, but it sure makes the seven years of Ground Zero squabbles seem awfully small.
  • Casting no aspersions on fellow tourists, but it is very strange to watch people take photos of themselves in front of the crematorium.
  • They sell hot dogs at the Auschwitz snack bar. I’ll let that sink in for a moment… In fact, the only food available for lunch that can quickly be wolfed down before the bus to Birkenau is the hot dog. I can’t say with 100% certainty, but both my wife and I thought it was a traditional frankfurter. And we do enjoy our frankfurters. By the way, the hot dog? Delicious. It was served on this crunchy-on-the-outside-chewy-on-the-inside roll, it came with a homemade relish of big chunks of pickled onions and cabbage, and was topped off with killer tangy ketchup. From the center of Krakow, the Auschwitz tour is an all-day deal, so the sale of nourishing non-kosher concentration camp hot dogs sure seemed like one final twist of the knife.
  • Krakow’s old Jewish quarter, Kazimierz has been reborn since the fall of the Commies. It’s bustling with coffee shops, restaurants, hipster hotels, bookstores, boutiques, etc., and we were told that a lot of the entrepreneurs are the grandchildren of those who were persecuted by the Nazis. That seemed reassuring. However, we stopped into an art gallery with an exhibit–a modern art black-and-white-photos-covered-in-spray-paint collage kind of thing. The picture in the window had two topless women, and the head of a bald man had been pasted over one of the ample-bosomed bodies. The proprietor told us it was a nationalistic Polish priest with a popular radio program (probably Father Tadeusz Rydzyk) who shovels “anti-Semitic propaganda.” This was not reassuring.
  • Word on the Euro street is that Krakow is the hotspot for stag parties and that the town has a thriving sex trade. I didn’t notice an excess of strip bars or sex shops, but then again, we spent most of our time in the Medieval castles-and-churches section. After all, it’s an anniversary trip, and I’m old. What I can attest to, is that Krakow has an incredibly high number of beautiful, beautiful, beautiful women, including our maid at the Ostoya Palace hotel. Fellas, the dollar still owns the zloty, so you may want to take that into consideration before booking Vegas this summer.
  • If you are the kind of person who can power through a full day of sightseeing, I recommend taking the Wieliczka Salt Mines tour as rejuvenation after getting your spirit crushed at Auschwitz. Basically, you walk down a labyrinth of wooden stairs (reaching some 440 feet) into a massive mine filled with statues made of salt, walls made of salt (I licked them for proof) and an enormous chapel with a giant chandelier that hosts weddings, concerts and Sunday mass. There’s even a salt lake where a bunch of drunken Austrians capsized a boat and suffocated to death a century ago. There’s also a health center on the grounds for the traditional salt bath. Salt isn’t like coal or copper: It's good for the system, and great for the lungs. Plus, it’s always a balmy 55-60 degrees in the mine, so the dudes that toiled down there were healthier than the general populace. The Nazis took Wieliczka over and used it as a munitions factory (I think that’s what our guide said) and it was the only time slave labor was ever used in the mine. During World War II, people from the nearby Plaszow camp were brought over to work in the mines. Consider this if you will: you’re a Jewish factory worker reassigned to Wieliczka in say 1940. You bust your hump in the mines for the next few years, which ironically helps with the old lifespan. And for argument’s sake, let’s assume you’re down in the middle of the Earth without much access to the goings on at the extermination camps a few miles away. I’m not saying they’re lucky; they were slaves to the Nazis, after all. However, the mine job with the clean air and the comfortable temperature had to lead to one hell of a whopping guilt complex in the Krakow daylight.
  • I lied. Salt mines won’t do the trick. Might I suggest the “Wodka Sampler” at the U.S. car-themed bar, Oldsmobil. I don’t know what happened to the “e,” but the six shots are smooth and clean. And the owner does a great impression of an American that didn’t sound like any American I’ve ever met. Much needed jocularity, though. Na zdrowie!
  • One last note for my fellow American travelers. We aren’t as popular these days, as I was reminded late one night in the land of my ancestors. A sousy Irish bride told me she had never been to “the States” and didn’t care if she ever did. Then she snarled, “Thanks for George W. Bush.” And this was the day after she got married. And this was after a friendly half-hour chat with her husband about New York City architecture and the Philadelphia Eagles. And the Irish are suppose love us. (Note to the County Cork gent who inquired: No, Bill Clinton is not generally regarded as one of the five greatest Presidents of all time.)

So, to the kid from the Oregon private school on the World War II trip–the one in the Jewish bookstore in Kazimierz who insisted on hectoring the young sales girl with variations of, “When the Nazis came, why didn’t they just pretend they weren’t Jews?” You know who you are. The clerk patiently responded about the importance of religion, the poor uneducated populace, the powerlessness… She was being sincere. You were being a dick. That ain’t helping our cause. From one former punk teen to another, you’re better than that. And she was hot. You sniveling little fuck. From Cracovia with love, Patrick J. Sauer

Related: The Connoisseur's Guide to Internet Anti-Semitism

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