After a traditional Polish breakfast we drove about 20 kilometers to the east to the town of Oscesim, called Auschwitz during the war. We visited the first, and smaller, of the two concentrations camps there. It was very interesting to see this place after seeing depictions of it in many books and movies. Even today, it seemed like a scary place to me. It was sobering to see the exhibits of things taken from the prisoners, such as the separate huge piles of children’s shoes, combs, hairbrushes, suitcases. One pile was women’s hair, which was used as a raw material to make fabric. The punishment block and the crematorium were especially tough to see. In the punishment block, there were solitary confinement cells, and also “standing cells” where prisoners were forced to stand up all night, four people to a 5 foot by 5 foot cell. In the crematorium, there were two large ovens and big steel carts that rolled into the ovens. The room next door was part of a low concrete bunker (a former armory) with holes in the ceiling for pipes to pump in the gas. We also watched a film that told about the liberation of the camp by Soviet soldiers in early 1945, and showed individual survivors.
Back in Pszczyna, we went to the park behind the palace and had lunch at my cousin Peter’s restaurant. The restaurant is in a very old wooden building called the “Skansen.” It is very dark inside. We had some chicken fried in an egg batter, and French fries. After a short chat with Peter (who of course refused to be paid for lunch), we walked around the town square and shopped in some of the new trendy stores in town. Lisa and Allison bought a couple of shirts. Unbelievably, my son Peter said he was still hungry, so we stopped in a restaurant on the square. This restaurant is known in town as having the biggest sandwiches. Peter got a large hot dog, but also ordered something that we thought was like chicken nuggets. Instead, it was a chicken sandwich on a bun that was about 10 inches in diameter! It was the biggest sandwich bun I have ever seen. After the hot dog, he couldn’t even take a bite of this huge sandwich, so we brought it home.
Today is a national holiday in Poland. The holiday is to commemorate a battle during World War II. The president of Poland is on TV giving a speech, before a military parade starts. It does not make for exciting television. We are hanging around Uncle Stefan’s house. Because it is a holiday, everyone is off work, and all of the stores are closed so it doesn’t make sense to go to Pszczyna.
It is cold and very windy today, more like October weather than mid-summer. So we have stayed indoors mostly, eating, talking, watching funny videos on the computer, eating, talking, and eating some more. For lunch we have had a big meal because of the holiday. Of course, we have had several courses of desserts too, at different times during the day.
In the evening I walked around my aunt Bronka’s garden. It is very big and immaculately tended, with many flowers and vegetables. I raided her raspberry patch for an impromptu dessert. I checked out my grandfather’s shop room in the old barn. There was a rusty old lock on the door and I wondered why it was locked. Perhaps something valuable was now stored in there. Earlier, the uncles were instructing me that I should have locked the doors to my rental car, because anyone could walk by and get in the car and do something to it. (They had already been sitting in the car themselves). I didn’t think crime was a problem in Laka, but they assured me that it was. Of course, they had already had several rounds of vodka, so I wasn’t sure if I should take them seriously.
After studying the locked door situation, I discovered that the key to the old lock was on a key ring hung by the door. I picked the most likely looking candidate and promptly unlocked the door. So much for security. I was a little disappointed to find that it had been cleaned out. My grandfather had a lot of old stuff in there that he worked on. It has been 20 years since he was there, so I guess it is no surprise that they would use the storage space for something else.
The old outhouse is still set next to the barn. Edward claims it is a museum piece, although I’m not sure what museum would take it. The Museum of Old Wooden Polish Toilets?
I knew by looking at the map that it was going to be difficult driving out of Vienna to go the direction we needed to go. Vienna, being such an old city, has no proper outer ring freeway, no straight streets, no grid, no obvious commuter routes, and lots of pedestrian zones, squares, and one way streets. I won’t say we were lost, because I thought I knew where we were most of the time, but I couldn’t figure out how to get there from here most of the time. Eventually we escaped the confusion and got on the right road out of the city. It wasn’t the autobahn that we needed, but generally in the right direction. After zig-zagging through the villages and wine country of northern Austria, we linked up with the freeway.
When we got to the border of the Czech Republic, there were police there to check our passports. I didn’t think they did that anymore after the Czech Republic joined the EU. After a few minutes delay, we were on our way. (The thing happened at the Polish border) There is a marked difference in the quality of the roads around here. The German roads were superior in every way. The autobahns and other roads have smooth, new surfaces, easy to read signs, and rest stops, gas stations, and restaurants every few miles. The Austrian roads were not quite as good. The Czech roads were bumpy, and typically under construction with lengthy detours through small towns. We were hungry for lunch, and couldn’t find anywhere to stop to eat other than getting candy bars in a gas station.
Once we got into Poland, we drove on a smooth new highway from Ciescen towards Bielsko. But after that, we turned off onto an old, bumpy road. We navigated our way to the small village of Laka, where my extended family lives. I was pretty sure how to get there, but knew we would have to look carefully at the street signs once we got close. As we slowed down coming in to Laka, there was my niece Dorota on the side of the road waving at us! She had come down their street to look for us just a couple of minutes before.
The rest of the day was a blur of food, conversation, food, more conversation, food, and more food.