Four Countries, Three Trains, One Hangover

Dec. 27 – Budapest, Hungary

Not that I expect any sympathy but yesterday I finally bore the full brunt of Slavic hospitality. After a trying day at Auschwitz – Birkenau, I retreated to Krakow with my new acquaintances for a last night in the old town. A friendly group of Poles deployed their country’s full alcoholic arsenal (flavourful beer, flavourfuller fruit liqueurs, flavourfullest “sweet bitter” vodka) on a Canadian whose best drinking days ended long ago. In an English-Polish-Slovak-Russian mashup, we earnestly discussed Polish history and politics, relatives in Mississauga, and general consensus that “Ukrainian border guards are bastards”. Feeling generous, I did some German-English translating for a Swiss father and son who bellied up to the bar.

It had been many moons since I had combined alcohols so recklessly, and my hangover started even as I headed back to the hostel from the last pub. I sat down, blunt-brained, to write on the most sensitive of topics, then turned in for three hours’ sleep. I awoke to one of those “I’ll never do that again” mornings that I was certain were part of my past, packed up and headed to the train station.

Vicious and persistent, the headache conducted guerrilla strikes against different parts of my skull as the first train ambled through the Polish lowlands to the scruffy town of Katowice, and then as the second shook its way into the Czech city of Ostrava. Waiting for the final train connection in Ostrava, desperate for cranial relief, I ate one of those pitiful sandwiches you can only get at a railway station, and a whole bag of potato chips. This helped, but I still cringed a little when the stout, mustachioed old lady asked for assistance carrying her bags (apparently lead-filled) onto the train to Budapest. Rolling into Slovakia, a pungent, mouth-breathing family trio lumbered into the wagon and sat behind me. I buried myself in a book, but their blather distracted me still, as did the last hits of headache. It was only once the train reached cavernous Keleti station, nearly empty, that my 17-hour hangover finally vanished.

Tired but no longer mentally incapacitated, I will start exploring Budapest tomorrow.

Auschwitz-Birkenau and Optimism

Dec. 26 – Oswiecim, Poland

It was the most miserable weather of my journey today. Cold rain, gray skies, winds that left you shivering if you weren’t dressed for it. The trains were on a limited holiday schedule, and I ended up piling into a cab with other stranded foreigners for the one hour drive to Oswiecim through flat farmland, villages, and bare forests whose rust-coloured leaves carpeted the ground.

Visit most anywhere between Berlin and Moscow, and you will find evidence of human awfulness in the 1930s and 1940s. Deliberate extermination of civilians through famine, war, political execution, and Holocaust spread misery through tens of millions of homes in Russia, Ukraine, Poland – everywhere in Europe. Many of these were small scale. But wouldn’t it feel strange to know that there was a mass grave of maybe one hundred genocide victims in Mississauga, Ontario? Now imagine you live in Oswiecim, at the most odious of these sites, which over a million people entered and never left.

Admission to the Auschwitz – Birkenau Museum is free of charge, but you must hire a guide. I was in the English-speaking group, and our tour took three hours, which was both insufficient and excessive. It started at the Birkenau camp, where trainloads of Jews and others arrived. It continued to the gas chambers and crematoria, now demolished, and on to reconstructed “accommodations”. The complex is immense, surrounded by barbed wire and guard towers. The grass is yellow, the sky gray. I asked the guide what it sounded like, back then. She said;

“A survivor told me it was quiet. Speech was resistance and not allowed. All you normally heard was orders, guard dogs barking, and the trains. The birds did not sing.”

We go back to Auschwitz and it hits harder, because it’s not just bricks and mortar. Piles of suitcases, shoes, glasses, even thousands of kilograms of human hair. Few people in the group are taking pictures any more, fewer still are talking. And suddenly we’re done. It’s dark, we go out the barbed wire gates, past the gallows where the camp commandant was executed in 1947. Into a cab, driving past Oswiecim’s shopping mall and movie theatre back to Krakow.

It was not meant to be a fun day, but it did end in a way that saves this post from total cheerlessness. Dinner and drinks tonight were with a Jew, two Hindus, Orthodox Christians, Catholics, and an atheist whose German grandfather fought on the Eastern Front.

Tomorrow (or rather today) I will report from a country that does not share a border with Poland.