*Content warning: Genocide*
On two separate occasions during our time in Poland, the world around us felt so still I could hear my heartbeat thunder in my ears.
The first time was in Zakopane, Poland.
If you follow us on social media you might have read our impact story about our time in this incredible place. It was a last minute recommendation for us to visit this sleepy mountain town, and it became the location of one of our most influential hiking experiences.
If you’re anything like me, I need occasional moments of silence. The peace helps me organize the chaotic, creative thoughts that are always thrashing around inside my head. I get overstimulated sometimes, especially in noisy, busy places and this can trigger moments of anxiety or irritability.
I felt like a caged animal when we first arrived in Zakopane.
We had come here to hike, to get away from noisy, bustling crowds and to breathe in some fresh air, but when we arrived it was raining and cold. Not ideal hiking weather in autumn in the Tatra Mountains that’s for sure, but more on that later.
We spent the first 24 or so hours surrounded by teasing silhouettes of mountain peaks that we couldn’t explore. My anxiety was threw the roof; I needed to be outside. Our AirBnb was a quaint, traditional looking Polish house that had everything we needed, but I couldn’t stand to sit in it a moment longer.
It was on the second day that we decided to take a chance with the weather and check out the national park that was less than a 15 minute walk from our doorstep.
Saying it was muddy there is an understatement.
The ground sucked and pulled at the bottom of our boots with each step. This made even the gentlest of inclines a challenge without slipping. We stopped briefly at a small waterfall and took some pictures before heading back to a fork in the road we had passed previously.
We weren’t really sure what we were looking for, or how long this hike were going to take. We randomly picked a direction and just started walking.
I don’t think we spoke or saw another soul for the next hour.
I remember being completely lost in thought, concentrating on my footfalls so that I didn’t misstep or slip backwards.
I should mention that hiking in Europe is different than in Canada. In our National Parks back home there are railings, often smooth, accessible paths and clear signage to direct guests. In Europe, it’s often a rugged and natural experience, making it exciting and also much more dangerous than what we’re used to.
Throughout this incline, all we could hear was each others footsteps. Fresh snow was falling only to the right of us, which gave this amazing illusion of two universes colliding. The air was crisp and fresh.
It’s moments like this that my mind finally settles and I feel calm. No traffic, no talking, no phones beeping or vibrating, just your own breathing and the world around you.
At one point Greg was about 20 feet (6 meters) in front of me and he turned around to gently whisper something, and I could hear it as if he was speaking right into my ear. It was incredible.
I couldn’t stop smiling. That’s when I realized I could hear my own heartbeat, I felt so alive. It was such an amazing, and much needed experience.
The second time I was aware of my own heartbeat in Poland, it was a very different setting.
It was a few days later and we were in Krakow, a beautiful city about 110 km (68 miles) away from Zakopane.
Throughout our exploration of Europe we kept learning tidbits about World War II (WWII) through walking tours, museums etc. After realizing that Krakow was only 1.5 hours away from the Auschwitz and Birkenau Concentration Camps, we didn’t even have to discuss it with each other, we knew we had to go.
As I write this I would like to mention that we visited these two sites of horrific tragedies about 5 months ago (November 2018), and I’ll admit that I still haven’t thoroughly processed my feelings about what we saw and learned that day.
I do remember that it was bone chilling cold outside. We had to layer up before leaving the hostel at 6:30 AM and walk a block to wait for our bus outside.
Of the two locations that day, we arrived at Auschwitz first and waited for our small group’s guide and headsets. There were hundreds of people there that morning, but no one spoke louder than a whisper. It was chilling to have so many people gathered and all be so hushed.
My skin was prickling and I couldn’t stop shaking.
We walked through the iconic gates that read “Arbeit macht frei” (Works Sets you Free) and our guide in her soft, Polish accent began to tell us stories in English about where we were and the genocide that happened there to thousands upon thousands of Jewish people (and many others) from 1940 to 1945.
Poland has tried to preserve the Camp as true to its original state as possible so that others can learn from Hitler’s mistakes. It was a chilling feeling knowing we were actually standing where people had died. We saw remnants of their clothing, and their most prized possessions that they brought with them, believing that they were all just being “relocated”. They didn’t know they were being brought to an extermination camp to die.
We hadn’t entered the first building yet, before Greg whispered “look” to me and pointed to my right.
There was a group of young Jewish children wearing yarmulkes (Jewish cap) and flags on their backs like courageous superheroes. They had come here to learn how their people were murdered, and seeing their blatant bravery caught me by surprise and made my eyes swim with tears.
We kept walking.
We learned that the Nazi’s recycled and kept everything that their prisoners brought with them. The items that were recovered when the camp was abandoned were displayed in various buildings, but even with provided descriptions, it was difficult at times to process what we were looking at.
One room had a glass wall with heaps of some sort of dark matter on the other side of it.
I looked at Greg and mouthed the words, “What is that?” His eyes were so sad when he mouthed back, “Human hair.”
They saved it. The Nazi’s would shave the heads of their prisoners before killing them, and they would later use the hair for mattresses and insulation.
We kept shuffling through the labyrinth of rooms and artefacts with dozens of other hushed groups.
In one room, out of the corner of my eye, I could see the outline of small pieces of material in a display case. I knew what it was almost immediately. I tried to keep it together so that I didn’t distract anyone else from listening to their headsets, but seeing those baby clothes laying there shattered me into a thousand little pieces.
How are humans capable of this?!
I started to silently weep as we continued walking with our group through the laneway of buildings before being transported to the second location, Birkenau.
This part of the tour was almost exclusively outdoors. The weather outside was gloomy and the wind was icy cold and unforgiving, but I imagine that it was still nothing compared to what the victims of the Holocaust felt as prisoners of these camps.
We even saw where the prisoners slept, and I use “slept” lightly because no one had a good rest in the wooden shacks we saw. There were three layers of bunks made out of wooden slats lining the walls and the middle of the rooms divided by concrete that were made to fit 15 people across. No one could move or roll over, not even to use the nonexistent toilet.
This was one of the only times the guide let us wander around without her. We walked up and down the dark dirt floor rows in silent contemplation. No one said a word or made a sound.
My breathing was shallow and my heart roared in my ears.
What we experienced that day has been burned into my memory and will stay with me for the rest of my life.
You might be wondering why I'm choosing to share these moments with you?
Well, overtime our blog has evolved to become our journal, and the truth is travel isn't always glamourous or happy, and we want to share this real side of it with you too.
I stumbled upon this quote a couple of weeks ago that feels fitting to leave with you today:
"Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind." - Anthony Bourdain
Cheers to you, your next adventures, and to the spirit of leaving something good behind,
Check out our other related post: Preparing for Poland: A Guide to Zakopane and Krakow