Friday, March 18, 2016

Auschwitz Concentration Camp

Some may remember my post from Christmas about Poland. I mentioned that I visited the Auschwitz concentration camp. I didn't want to post about in until after the holidays.

While the entire place is very sad I must say that it is not the most depressing place I have visited. That would be Terezinstadt. You can read my post about that ghetto again if you like. Auschwitz had a more sanitized, museum type feel to it. There was only one point where I really felt impressive sorrow, but I'll get to that later.

If you like there are day-trip bus tours that leave from Prague and go to Auschwitz and back. The price is generally reasonable and there are sometimes sales. I'm not completely sure about the language the tours will be in. I think all the ones I've ever researched were Czech, so that might not do a lot of good for some people. I will discuss getting to Auschwitz from Krakow because it's what I did.

I spent a lot of time googling how exactly to get to Auschwitz from Krakow. The best way is by bus. I went to the main bus station and asked at the information window where I could find the bus going to Auschwitz. Well, I didn't ask really. I listened while people in front of me in line asked and thought I would be polite and rescue the lady at the information window from having to answer the same question three times in a row.

At the main bus station it is not clearly marked anywhere how, or where, you can find the hourly bus that will take you to Auschwitz. You really do have to ask at the information window and they will not sell you tickets. They will however, direct you to the correct platform. After that it is pretty easy to see which bus you need as it is clearly marked by a sign in the front window. You must buy your ticket from the bus driver. It's not very expensive, I think 5 or 10 Zloty. The trip takes a little more than an hour and the bus drivers are used to tourists so everything will go smoothly.

The bus drops you very close to the entrance to the museum and it picks you up in the same place. Returning is the opposite. Be advised that there are no reserved tickets for the bus and when you line up to come back it's first-come, first-served. Because the bus makes other stops and is not a direct one it will fill up. On my return trip, which was on the penultimate bus, there were people standing.

I suggest buying a ticket to visit the museum online. A ticket is required to visit the museum, but not Birkenau, which is where the camp is. A tour of the museum includes a tour of Birkenau. I didn't buy a ticket online and there was a line at the tiny, white trailer of a ticket booth in front of the museum. The nearest English tour was all full up so I had to buy one for the tour two hours later. So I went to Birkenau on the free shuttle bus to kill time.

Auschwitz Birkenau Concentration Camp Entrance at Birkenau

This is the famous entrance to Birkenau as seen from inside the camp. obviously the railroad tracks are very symbolic and I was not the only one setting my camera on them hoping for the Spielberg shot. While it is interesting to just wander Birkenau alone, I recomend a tour too. You will learn and understand a lot more.

The first thing I noticed that no movie or photograph can even come close to capturing is the size of the place. It is huge. I think it is 1km by 2km or something like that. At one point something like 100 thousand people were living there. It was a city, not a village or town but a city. It was so large that the Germans needed waste-water treatment facilities and were building a second plant when the camp was liberated.

Auschwitz Birkenau Concentration Camp at Birkenau

What you see above is most of what remains of the buildings where prisoners were housed. The Nazis took off in a hurry and left the infirmed who they didn't think could travel to fend for themselves. This happened during the Polish winter. The remaining prisoners used the wood from the buildings, and presumably anything else flamable, to keep themselves alive.

There are hundreds of these chimneys standing in well-organized rows placed with German effeciency like giant, fragile toubstones. There were so many that I didn't even attempt to count them.

Auschwitz Birkenau Concentration Camp at Birkenau

Some of the wooden structures have been reconstructed. Here you can see what they looked like. There were also brick houses at the camp but there is some trouble with those. Evidently there was some agreement or charter for the camp that was made in the spirit of keeping the camp in its original condition. Somehow, this equates to zero maintenance being performed at Birkenau. There are a few reconstructions and I'm not sure exactly how it works, but the guide told us that in a few years it will most likely not be safe to enter any of the existing brick buildings once used to house prisoners. Some of them are already off limits and have had wooden braces erected to keep them standing.

Auschwitz Birkenau Concentration Camp at Birkenau

This is one of the brick buildings used to house mostly women and children. Not the Rtiz Carlton, but better looking than the wooden ones. I doubt either one was particularly comfortable. And as much as I hate to make comparisons between these horrible places, the conditions at Auschwitz on the whole looked more comfortable than at Terezin.

Auschwitz Birkenau Concentration Camp at Birkenau

This is not a reproduction rail car. This is the real deal. I've seen the rail cars in movies etc, but I can't recall ever seeing them with the guard shack attached. That is how they were. The guide told us that there was no doubt that this rail car was used to transport prisoners to concentration camps. It is not known if this particular car transported prisoners to Birkenau and the guide wouldn't even speculate on that.

Auschwitz Birkenau Concentration Camp at Birkenau

The rail lines at the camp kept getting extended until finally they lead right to the ovens at the back of the property. The idea was to just unload people straight into the ovens. The guide said the camp was liberated before that ever happened on a large scale and that it may have only occured once or twice. You can see the gatehouse in the distance a kilometer away. This place is pretty much at the very back of the camp.

Auschwitz Birkenau Concentration Camp at Birkenau

As the Nazis realized that the Soviets were swiftly approaching they decided that having a functioning, large scale extermination facility might not look too good. So they destroyed the gas chambers and crematoriums at the back of the camp within sight of the railhead with the flowers above. I took this photo for the whole, from the ruins of horror springs life thing with that wildflower growing out of the rubble cliche.

For me the most striking thing about both Auschwitz and Birkenau was the amount of barbed wire. There was a lot of it. It was also something that I think they replace every so often to keep the camp looking authentic. I haven't read anything about the way they can only maintian the camp, but from the sounds of it that part needs some improvement.

Auschwitz Birkenau Concentration Camp at Birkenau

This is a section of wire fencing at Birkenau. This particular area was a road of sorts to the gas chambers. New arrivals to the camp disembarked very close to where the railroad car above is, then they were assessed based on their potential for labor. Women and children generally had a diminished capacity for work and were lead down this road to the gas chambers. Even this became troublesome and that is when someone had the idea to just run the trains straight to the chambers.

Auschwitz Birkenau Concentration Camp main camp at Auschwitz Museum

In keeping with the theme of the barbed-wire fencing we travel now to the main Auschwitz camp itself. The fencing at the main Auschwitz camp was electrified. It may have been the same story at Birkenau, but I don't know. Much like Terezin, Auschwitz was a repurposed military garrison. Most of the buildings were barracks for the Polish army.

The Germans did their level best to turn the place into a city of sorts, but there are definite prison motifs throughout.

When your building is described as a "block" there aren't a lot of options as to what it could be. So many of these building have been cleared, cleaned and converted into museum spaces that the feeling is completely different from what it once was. That is why I say Terezin is so much more poignant. In Terezin it feels like the Nazis just packed up and split. They threw open the doors and fled and that is how things stayed. Being there is like walking through a tomb. Auschwitz is very much different.

There are some impressively sad displays at Auscwitz and it's something everyone should remember and see at least once in his life. Will I return? Maybe, I didn't feel much sorrow or pain here and feel a touch indifferent about Auschwitz proper.

Auschwitz Birkenau Concentration Camp main camp at Auschwitz Museum

Displays like the shoes above have been expertly curated to make us feel something about the scope of the horrors that occured in this place, or more accurately in nearby Birkenau. The way they are done, to me reduced their effect. A pile of thousands of shoes behind glass is impressive, but knowing it's only a fraction of reality made it feel sanitized for me.

Auschwitz Birkenau Concentration Camp main camp at Auschwitz Museum

A bit more effective was this display of glasses. But still, they are just things. Things which define humanity yes, but so far removed in time and strategically placed that they have a diminished impact for me.

Auschwitz Birkenau Concentration Camp main camp at Auschwitz Museum

Even this display of used Zyklon B canisters just didn't have me tearing up. Things did start to get real however when we were ushered into a room full of human hair and then told that the Nazis made a hefty profit reselling the hair from dead prisoners for industrial purposes. Firstly, I had no idea hair could be used for so many things and secondly; humans, no matter what their status, are not livestock and to treat them as fodder for industry like sheep or cattle is offensive at best.

Auschwitz Birkenau Concentration Camp main camp at Auschwitz Museum

What you see above is the only place that was truly saddening for me. The Germans took and old Polish powder magazine and used it to test just how efective Zyklon B was. There were small holes in the roof and SS troopers stood atop it, punctured the canisters and dropped them inside. This place is where the most repulsive element of the Final Solution was perfected. It is the first gas chamber. The gas was tested in the basement of one of the blocks first, but this was the first place where they really got things working right. I will not speculate about what those marks are on the wall. I will let you draw your own conclusion, but those marks are one of the few things in Auschwitz that have not been deliberately placed there to move you and that makes them some of the most horrible marks in the history of man.

Auschwitz Birkenau Concentration Camp main camp at Auschwitz Museum

Within sight of the gas chamber are the ovens used to cremate those who met their unfortunate end inside.
 Auschwitz Birkenau Concentration Camp main camp at Auschwitz Museum

Now, before people were gassed, some met their end by firing squad. This happened to relatively few people though. Still there were special areas set up between barracks for the purpose. This one is a reproduction as well as memorial. I doubt you can see them, but there were a few tiny Israeli flags stuck in this one.

Auschwitz Birkenau Concentration Camp main camp at Auschwitz Museum

In the beginning the Nazis also photographed and registered everyone who came to the camp. This task became too great when thousands of people were arriving by rail each day, so the photographing didn't last too long. I imagine those who went directly from the train to the gas chambers were not registered in any way. Perhaps a mere count of people is all that was done.

Auschwitz Birkenau Concentration Camp main camp at Auschwitz Museum

This isn't to say that life at Auscwitz proper was hunky dory. The structure you see above was built so that the guards who took roll wouldn't have to stand in the weather when they counted prisoners. Talk about being wussies. I think you can read the sign in the photo. The idea of it to me was offensive.

Auschwitz Birkenau Concentration Camp main camp at Auschwitz Museum

And then of course we have the main gate. The famous "Arbeit Macht Frei" sign. "Work makes you free." I don't think any blog post about this place would be complete without a photo of this sign.

My trip to Auschwitz and Birkenau was informative and something I recomend to everyone. Go, see it, but have something else planned for the next day that is a little happier -- like the salt mine.

Monday, March 7, 2016

The Definitive Tourist Guide to Prague Public Transport

Good Job, You Made It

So you made it to Prague. Now you need to figure out how to get to all those amazing sites you've seen on billboards, guidebooks and whatnot. You could walk, because Prague is small, but why deprive yourself the pleasure of using Prague's public transport system -- especially trams in the summer.

Many tourists stick to the metro, because it is easy and efficient and goes to many places people want to see. Braver tourists, Czech and foreign alike, try their luck on tram number 22. That tram goes to the castle and many other places tourists like to visit, like Malastrana.

If you read this guide before you go to Prague you will be using public transport like a local and avoid all the dirty looks. I'm going to tell you everything you need to know to get your ticket and ride like an OG Praguer. I'm even going to use photos, so you can see what I'm talking about. Keep in mind that some metro entrances are hard to find. Just ask someone if you're not sure, but there will always be a sign with the name of the station, color of the line and an arrow telling you where it is.

First Thins First

First and foremost and this is the most important thing: buy a ticket! Don't be that guy. A ticket costs 24czk. The inspectors profile and look for tourists. The fine is 800czk.

Got it, Buy a Ticket -- How?

Okay, so no you know to buy a ticket. Where exactly to you do that, and how? You have several options. The easiest is to use a machine. You will find the machines on the right when you enter a metro station. Every station, every time the machines are on the right. Look:

Okay, so now that you know where the machines are what do you do? It's really pretty simple. Realistically, as a tourist there is almost no place in the city that will take more than 30 minutes to get to. So just buy the 24czk ticket from the yellow machines. The photo below has it all explained for you. 

That really is it. If you want 3 tickets, push the button three times. If you make a mistake or change your mind, push the "Storno" button and start over.

The F@#king Machine Won't Take my F@#king Money?

Not "if" but "when" because Czech coins aren't the best-made things in the world. It's simple, just rub the edge of the coin on the side of the machine. If you look at the photo you will see rusty sections on the sides. That is from people rubbing their coins on them to make them work in the machine.

Now that you know the easiest way for tourists to buy tickets I'll describe some of the other ways. You can buy them via sms, it's very simple but if you don't have an EU sim card maybe not something you want to do, because it will be expensive. All you do is fire up your phone and send an sms to the number 902 06. DPT32 will get you a 90-minute ticket. DPT24 will get you a 30-minute ticket. DPT110 will get you a 24-hour ticket and DPT310 will get you a 72-hour ticket. The number you text is the price of the ticket in crowns. Texting DPT32, for example, will charge 32czk to your phone bill. It can take up to two minutes for you to get a text back with your ticket, so keep that in mind. If you buy the DPT110 or DPT310 ticket you will be sent a text asking you to confirm it. Reply to that text with "ano" and then you will have successfully purchased the ticket. 

Don't worry too much if you forget what to text to what number. There are stickers on the door windows of most tram and metro cars, which technically mean's you're late buying your ticket. You should have the ticket before you start your ride. 

 The last, and maybe the most intimidating way because maybe you don't think you will be able to conduct a transaction with another human using Czech, is to go to a mini market, potravny or bodega and ask to buy a ticket. All these places have them and they are used to it so if you see a line of idiots who don't seem to be able to figure out the ticket machines and you don't want to send an sms, this is what you want to do. This also comes in handy for trams, because there are perhaps two outdoor ticket machines in the whole city, but almost every tram stop has a mini market or tobacco shop nearby. 

I Finally Bought a Ticket, Where do I Stick it?

You have your ticket by now, what's next? You need to validate it. There are small yellow boxes all over the place. They are at the entrances to the metro, on the trams by the doors and on buses. You stick your ticket in the slot in the yellow box and listen for the sound of your ticket being stamped with the current time. After that, you are good to go for however long the ticket says you are. As I suggested 30 minutes. Look at the photo again, see the text next to the yellow boxes?

Now that you're all validated and ready to travel, it's time to get where you are going and you need to know when to get off for that. The metro is easy. Of course doing some research in advance to know which stop you want will go a long way to making your metro experience more efficient and pleasurable. For trams it is essential. 

There are Two Metro Tracks, Now What?

Essentially every metro station has the same layout. They are central platforms with tracks on either side of the platform. The only two that are different are Vysehrad and Hlavni Nadrazi on line C. Those two have central tracks with platforms on either side. Honestly, the most difficult part of using the metro is finding which street exit you want, especially at the Karlovo Namesti station. I have Czech friends who say they can never find the right street exit there, so don't feel bad if you can't. 

Using your map or guidebook, find the stop you want to get to then just head down to the platform. It doesn't matter if you aren't sure which train you need, finding out is easy. Google directions tells you to take the train heading in the direction of the final stop. In my opinion that is just the name of a place you'll never go and it's a waste of time to remember due to how easy Prague's transport is to use. All you need to do is look at the sign board on the metro platform for the stop you need. There will be an arrow telling you which train you need. Like this:

When you are riding, as the train approaches a stop there will be an announcement telling you what that stop is. There are also digital signs hanging from the roofs of the cars that display the next stop. Over each door is a map of the metro system with pictographs of tourist attractions next to the stop names they are near.

When is my Metro Coming?

Fortunately in the last year Prague got with the program and installed countdown clocks in all the metro stations. Really, it's been less than a year since this has happened. On Sundays trains run every 6 or 7 minutes. The clock will tell you the final destination of the train and how long it will be until the train arrives. Like this. 

How do I Know Which Tram I Want?

I'm going to assume you already know which tram number you want. If you don't this could help you, but probably not. Unlike the metro, knowing the final destination of the tram might help a little, especially if you are going more than one or two stops. There are a few ways to get information about the tram you see. These photos should help. 

There will be a sign on the front, and back, of the tram telling you the final destination. Also, as you can see in the photo above there is a sign on the side of the tram. The top of the sign tells you the final destination, the bottom of the sign tells you the next stop. I really hope I don't need to explain what the number means. Night trams all start with the number 5 and their schedules are on the back of the signpost. If there is a night tram visiting a stop the number will be in brown, like the 51, 57 and 59 above. Night trams run at 30-minute intervals, don't miss your drunk-filled car because it will be a while before the next one. 

Next to the tram you can see the schedule board. It will tell you what trams and buses will stop there and where they are going. Also in the photo, if you look under the number 10 on the tram to the right of the man giving you a dirty look, you will see a ticket validation box. Now for the tram schedules. 

I hope you can tell I highlighted the important parts. Here is the breakdown. The stop where you are will be in bold with a line under it. EVERYTHING under the line is where the tram is going (hence the green box). The numbers to the left of the stop name give you an APPROXIMATE time of travel to that stop. If the stop you need to go to appears above the stop where you are, you merely need to walk across the street to the other stop for the same tram. You will basically see the reverse of what you see here. If the stop has a metro station near it there will be an "M" symbol. 

When is my Tram Coming?

Most days trams come on time. If you look again to the photo above you will see boxes with times to the right of the destination list. It doesn't matter if you speak Czech, there are pictographs to help you know what the days are. Workdays are designated by a crossed pick and hammer. Saturday has a "6" for some reason and Sunday shows a cross. When the tram stops there will be an announcement telling passengers the stop you are at and what the next stop is so listen closely for the next stop. The trams also have electronic signs hanging from the roof that should tell you the next stop.

What, no Buses?

You're a tourist the only bus you need goes to the airport. It leaves from Nádraží Veleslavín on the green line and is bus number 119 it takes about 15 minutes. There is also an airport express bus leaving from the main train station that takes about 35 minutes. Otherwise. You won't need a bus. 

Etiquette and Dos and Don'ts

Stasi-style ticket inspectors are ruthless, they will march you to an ATM to get cash to pay the fine. The often roll with uniform police in tow. In the metro they wear a uniform, on trams and buses they do not. On the trams there will be more than one. They will flash a red badge at you. If they don't have a special machine for reading the city pre-paid pass ask to see ID. 

If you do get a fine they are required to give you a receipt. This is the most expensive 90-minute transport pass you will ever buy, but it does allow you to travel for 90 minutes so that is nice. Do not let them forget to give you a receipt, some of them will try to "forget." I'll let you imagine what happens to your fine after that. Usually they are on "tourist" trams 22 and 18 but don't quote me on that. 

  1. Don't get on public transport, then decide that getting on is enough and  stop right inside the door. This is not a good idea and it pisses people off, especially the 20 people behind you trying to get to work who now have to push past your stupid ass to get to the empty parts of the tram or metro. 
  2. If you get stuck in the doorway, but need to go a few stops, exit the vehicle and stand to the side and get back on. Blocking the door because it's not your stop is rude.
  3. If you are wearing a giant backpack, take that stupid thing off and put in on the floor. No one wants to be smacked by your damned bag every time you twist a little to look at something. It is also possible that your freaking bag is so big that it is blocking the isle.
  4. Don't put your bag on the seat next to you. Come on now, this is just bush league. 
  5. Stand on the right side of the metro escalators. The left is for walking. No one cares how interesting the conversation you are having with your friend is, if they are in a hurry and need to walk the escalator your party on the stairs is really annoying. 
  6. Give up your seat to old, handicapped and pregnant people sometimes even small kids. If you don't know this by now please find your nearest adulting class and attend it. 
  7. Don't stop immediately at the top or bottom of escalators. Move to a place out of the flow of traffic to look at your map or whatever. 
  8. Old ladies will straight up knock you over in their quest to get to an empty seat. We're talking NFL-defensive-tackle-looking-for-a-sack type power and speed. Get out of her way, she will break you.
  9. If you see a mom with a stroller on a tram with steps, help her. See tip 6.