I glanced at the clock; how was it already half-past 12? Now was not the time to risk taking the wrong tram. I asked the receptionist at the hostel to call me a cab, which due to the construction happening in Berlin, moved at a much slower pace than I had hoped. I arrived in the Berlin Central Train Station with 15 minutes to spare. I raced to a ticket machine and fumbled with the keys to find the train that I had spotted online at the hostel. I printed the tickets and sprinted to the train, just making it before the attendant blew her whistle signaling departure. I settled in for the ten-hour ride ahead, praying that the people I would be staying with would in fact be at the train station in Krakow to pick me up at midnight, and that we would recognize each other, since we had never met in person before.
“Would you like half of my orange?” a young man with tan skin and big, bright eyes was leaning across the aisle, handing me an already peeled section of his orange. “Sure, thank you!” I said smiling. Fruit was one of those foods I hadn’t eaten much of on my travels and the juice brought chills of joy to my tongue. Martino was from Porto, Portugal, a web designer on his holiday, traveling through several countries on his own. Our conversation flowed effortlessly. Eventually, he came and sat in the open seat next to me and we began talking about writers we both love. I was pleased to discover that he also memorizes quotes and we recited some of our favorites to each other: Thoreau, Eleanor Roosevelt, Rumi, Eckhart Tolle. His eyes suddenly lit up as he exclaimed “I have to tell you about this book. It’s one of my absolute favorites and I just know you will love it! Have you heard of Khalil Gibran?” Before he could finish his sentence, I had reached into my backpack and was pulling out a copy of Khalil Gibran’s “The Prophet”. We looked at each other, amazed. I can’t count the number of times I have read the book, a copy gifted to me when I was 17 by my first boyfriend upon his return from India. It is the most sacred text I have read, one I brought with me to Europe to remember who I am and why I left home. We flipped through the pages and read our favorite passages, discussing how the true prophet is the man who wrote the text, Khalil Gibran. After that, we were friends. We watched over each other’s belongings when one of us had to use the restroom or walk to the dining car, and when I took a nap, I was soothed by his presence next to me, reading peacefully.
Again and again, I have learned that it is nearly impossible to be alone on this journey. Moments of loneliness on this trip have been fleeting, since it seems it is only a matter of time until yet another kindred spirit is drawn into my sphere, or I into theirs. One way or another, we always find each other. This is the reward of traveling alone and open-hearted.
Martino was staying the night in Warsaw, where coincidentally I had a two-hour layover, so we decided to hang out until my next train arrived. I strapped on my pack and stepped out into a strange maze of narrow corridors lined with small shops in Warsaw#s train station. I felt as if I was in an underground mole’s den and it was difficult to get my bearings. Where was the exit? We finally climbed the stairwell and made our way out of the station, picking a random direction to walk toward. The city felt gray and ominous; I pushed aside images of the zombie apocalypse (my imagination is always playing tricks like that on me). Tall, sleek skyscrapers loomed in the distance and an abandoned newspaper scuttled across the sidewalk in front of us. People on the street hurried past us. We walked for several blocks, but there wasn’t a pub or cafe anywhere in sight. We opted to sit on a set of grimy stairs at the edge of a large, mostly empty parking lot. I would have felt afraid, were I not with someone else. Two men came around the corner and gave me a steely glance. I scooted a little closer to Martino. We stuck out like palm trees in Antarctica. It was clear Warsaw was not the typical backpacker destination.
Ninety minutes later, we made our way back into the dimly lit station and squinted at the departure board, searching for my train number. There was in fact a train leaving in fifteen minutes to Krakow, but the number didn’t match the one on my ticket. I felt a pang of panic ricochet through my torso. I glanced toward the line at the information desk; it was moving at the pace of molasses. Martino and I switched bags, since it was difficult for me to run underneath the weight of mine, and we decided to go to two separate desks at opposite ends of the hallway. One of us would join the other, depending on whose line moved the quickest.
Miraculously, my line won, and I tried to explain to the woman on the other side of the desk what was going on, which was difficult since she didn’t speak English and I didn’t know any Polish. “You are at the wrong station! You need to go to the other station!” a man barked at me condescendingly from behind in the line. I ignored him, since I already knew this and there wasn’t time to get to the other station, besides his tone was rude. I continued gesturing to the woman that I needed to exchange my ticket for the train that was now leaving in five minutes. She nodded and handed me a piece of paper, holding up three fingers to tell me which platform to go to. Martino and I sprinted to the platform, only to be disappointed. There were two numbers on the platform sign, 2 and 3, and we weren’t sure which was the number for the platform, but we weren’t at the right one that was for sure. We ran back up the stairs to level three and quickly swapped bags. A dilapidated, rusted train that looked like it should have been out of service years ago sat waiting for me. “Welcome to Eastern Europe!” Martino said, laughing after seeing the concerned look on my face. We hugged each other for several minutes. “Stay in Warsaw.” “Come to Krakow!” In the end, neither of us won the argument. I had people waiting for me, and I knew if I stayed, it would only be harder to leave. His warm cheek brushed against my ear, “You are going to finish your journey and you are going to enjoy all of it. You have a beautiful attitude. I feel you are making the right decision, you must go on on your own.” I promised to visit him in Portugal, hugged him one last time and then stepped onto the train (which I imagined groaning as I entered). The train was an old man with arthritis and shingles, crouching low on the tracks, and I prayed to the universe that it would carry me safely to Krakow. I turned to look over my shoulder and held Martino’s gaze for a moment before waving goodbye, closing the door and shuffling down the dark hallway to an empty compartment.
There was hardly anyone on the train, the lights overhead didn’t work properly and the seats were dirty and torn. The bathroom was even worse. As the train pulled out of the station, I felt worried about my safety. For a moment, I wished I had stayed in Warsaw. But then I remembered Martino’s words, and I knew he was right.
It was dark outside and I couldn’t see anything that might indicate where we were, so when the train stopped suddenly, a knot rose in my stomach. Were we being hijacked? Did the train break down? Where were we? No train station was in sight and it was eerily quiet.
To calm my nerves, I put on my headphones and turned on the most upbeat pop music I could find. I took out my journal and began to write. It was as if my hand had a mind of its own. I wrote and wrote, practically in the dark, until I got hungry and a voice in my head told me it’s not that good of an idea to be in a compartment by myself on a train in Poland. I hauled my pack up to the tiny dining car and spent the remaining two-hour trip sitting at one of the little tables, comforted by the bartender behind the counter and the bright lights overhead. I wrote for three hours straight, but the time zoomed by. I caught my reflection in the window and was surprised to see myself looking so peaceful, nodding to my music. Something happens to me when I write; I go to another place; I follow the footsteps of my thoughts and am soothed by an unseen internal rhythm. When I am finished, I feel as if I’ve meditated; I feel refreshed and the world makes sense again.
At midnight, we de-boarded in Krakow and I searched the faces of the people standing along the tracks for something familiar, even though I wasn’t sure who exactly I should be looking for. I saw a tall man accompanied by a beautiful woman in a tan jacket also searching. Marek and I made eye contact and he said “Abby?” I hugged him in response, and then I hugged his girlfriend, Magda. Relief rushed through me and I felt jolly as we made our way to the car, my pack on Marek’s back. I was hungry, so we went to the sausage truck, an old blue van parked on the street with Kielbasa sausages roasting over an open fire in front. The sausage was delicious. After ten hours of travel and with a warm meal in my belly, I slept very well my first night in Poland!
The next day, we went to the lake. It was hot and the tan sand burned my toes. The little beach was packed with families, women sitting beneath umbrellas chatting and big bellied men in tiny speedo swimsuits. Bob Marley drifted through the air and everyone seemed to be relaxing and enjoying themselves. The water was delightful and I would wait to dive under until my skin was burning hot. I love the feeling of cool water sliding across sun-warmed skin. That’s the feeling of summer. Marek is an excellent photographer and took photos of us throughout the afternoon, photos which I will cherish as precious memories of Poland for years to come.
That night, after some convincing by Marek and Magda, I decided to go out on the town by myself for a drink in the Jewish District, the hub of Krakow’s nightlife. I found a small classy bar and ordered a Whiskey Sour. The bartender added a fresh peel of orange rind to the glass and so with each sip, the sweet fragrance of orange tickled my nose. Not only did it smell heavenly, it tasted good too. I finished my drink and headed up the street to another bar Marek recommended I check out. It was dark and gothic feeling and white candles dripped wax across the bar shelves. The flicker of their flames caused the glasses in the room to shimmer. On the walls were interesting photographs and paintings. I ordered a drink and sat at a little table near the back of the room. Two young men sat parallel to me and when I glanced in their direction, I noticed they were staring at me. I thought maybe it was because I looked silly being there alone, but when I looked up five minutes later and saw the man with slicked back hair pulled into a pony tail looking me up and down and sucking on his cigarette seductively, I realized it was for another reason. I decided to ignore them and enjoy looking in the opposite direction at the other tables. Then, out of the blue, an old man with gray hair came over and said something in Polish to me, motioning at my drink. I shook my head and told him I didn’t understand. Then he repeated his question in English, asking if he could buy me a drink. Ohhhh, no thanks, I replied, flabbergasted. I heard a giggle and looked at the table in the center of the room. Two young people were laughing, having watched the interaction. I shook my head, chuckling. To my dismay, the old man came back a few minutes later and sat down next to me at my table uninvited. I looked to the people in the center with alarm in my eyes and the girl pulled out a chair, motioning for me to join them. Without hesitating, I walked away from the man and sat down at the other table, relieved to have been rescued. That’s how I met Aga and Pablo. That night, they took me out to a dance club and we navigated the streets arm in arm until I found a cab to go home. Since that first night, Aga and I met up at least two more nights to hang out. She invited me to join her friends and I was grateful for her kindness. She was a wonderful person to get to know and a great dancer too. We always had fun together.
One night, while waiting to meet up with Aga, I was sitting in the main square of Krakow, which is one of the most romantic places I have ever been. The stars were out and the square was glowing with its white buildings illuminated by soft glowing lights. A musician was playing classical guitar and people were everywhere relaxing, chatting, kissing, walking. The place was alive with the anticipation of love. I felt it in me too. Sitting there, taking it all in, was when I met Omid and Reza, two brothers from Iran. We struck up a conversation and they invited me to join them at a wine bar nearby for a drink. We shared stories and laughed and laughed the whole time. The wine was sweet and soon our cheeks were rosy. Reza was so tipsy, he covered his face with his hands and giggled. It was a sweet evening and we exchanged contact information to get together again the next day. Omid owns a hostel in Krakow and for the rest of the week, I went there nearly every day to sit and chat over coffee and milk or red wine and a bar of chocolate. I learned so much about Iran and I really loved hearing their stories and looking at pictures of their family and of Tehran, where they are from. Reza and I got along especially well and one night we took a bike ride at sunset along the river, near the base of the castle. It was beautiful, not only the fairytale scenery, but also the feelings blooming between us. We ended that night dancing with Aga and her friends in a club located in a cave underneath the main square. Exchanging smiles with my new friends, I felt Poland tug at my heart.
Staying with Marek and Magda was also wonderful. I felt at home in their loft apartment and enjoyed hour-long conversations with them in the evenings about Poland’s history, the holocaust, the present state of the nation, religion and personal stories from our pasts. I felt so good around them, I decided to stay for eight days. One night, they took me to a Pagan mound, which we climbed in the moonlight to see a fantastic view of the city. Nearby, we climbed through a hole in the fence to walk to the edge of a deep rock quarry, where Jewish prisoners were once forced to work and where Schindler’s List was filmed. It took me a moment to realize I had said something ridiculous: “Oh, someone left the light on!” When really, I was peering into the water at the bottom of the quarry, where the reflection of the moon was glowing. No one could possibly be down there. We stared into the deep canyon now overgrown with trees and bushes. The rock cliffs shone white underneath the moon. It was eerily quiet except for the subtle shwooshing sound of the wind rustling the leaves. I shook the chills out of my limbs and climbed back through the hole in the fence to the other side, but the image and the creepily calm feeling of the quarry stayed with me for the rest of the night. Earlier in the evening, I had placed my hands on the wall of the Jewish Ghetto where the Nazis rounded people up, my ancestors included, and shipped them on trains to Auschwitz. Many were killed in the gas chambers within the first three hours of arriving, and it was rare that any prisoner lived longer than three months.
My grandmother was born in Poland and emigrated to the U.S. in the mid-twenties with her parents, leaving friends and extended family behind. Since my grandmother and the rest of her immediate community are Jewish, all of the people who stayed in Poland were killed in Auschwitz concentration camp. I grew up aware of my heritage and as I got older, became more and more interested in reconnecting with my roots. That was in part why I came to Poland. I wanted to see the place where my ancestors lived and died. But the night before my tour of the concentration camps, I questioned myself, was I really ready to do this? A voice told me I had to go whether I was ready or not.
On the bus ride to Auschwitz, they showed a harrowing documentary. I felt sick to my stomach by the time we pulled into the camp. It is difficult for me to write about my experience walking around inside Auschwitz and Birkenau because it was not only surreal and deeply disturbing, but also very personal. So I will write what I can. But be warned, it isn’t going to be pleasant.
We saw a room full of human hair, which the Nazis shaved from the prisoners before they were killed and shipped back to Germany to make rugs, clothing and curtains. We visited the place where a doctor performed grotesque and cruel experiments on Jewish prisoners, namely women and children, particularly twins. We heard stories of children being injected with poison and dying slow, painful deaths. The primary form of torture in the camps was starvation paired with 12 to 15 hour days of hard labor. Hardly anyone made it more than a few months and as their skin slackened and their jawbones began to jut out, the light leaving their eyes, they were no longer seen as worth keeping, so they were marched to the gas chamber. Afterwards, the bodies would be cleaned of anything valuable, including teeth, and promptly burned in the crematorium. In the basement of the main building of Auschwitz were several torture cells, where prisoners were taken for punishment. The rooms smelled putrid and I saw scratches and indentation marks left on the inside panel of the doors. I hurried through the rooms as quickly as I could. I did not know how to face the cruelty that once existed between those walls. I cried my way back to the fresh air, feeling afraid to smell any other scent but the grass. I couldn’t handle the smell of death. It was everywhere in that camp. When I looked around, everyone around me was crying too.
When we got to Birkenau (Auschwitz Camp 2), I was shocked by what I saw. The camp was vast. It was so large, I couldn’t see the perimeter of it. It was at least four or five football fields in length and width. The train tracks ran all the way through the center of the camp. One train car sat rusted on the tracks to show visitors how small the space was that 70 or more people were forced into for the long journey to the camp. Many people did not survive the train ride. I picked up a rock and held it in my hand until it felt warm. Then I placed it on the back steps of the train car, where a small shrine of stones was. We walked through the hundreds of rows of barracks, aware that beneath us were fifteen layers of human ashes. The gas chamber was the most distressing. The putrid smell filled my lungs and I couldn’t breath. I looked at the walls, I saw the fake shower heads. I felt something in me collapsing, falling to the ground, leaving my body, unable to process the millions of innocent, beautiful souls who were murdered in this very space. My cheeks were wet with tears and I clutched my chest. It hurt.
Finally, I found a few minutes to slip away from the group. I needed to be alone here so I could say a blessing for my family members who died here, whose ashes were mixed with the soil beneath my own two feet. I peered out into the dramatically large space filled with barracks and crematorium chimneys. I looked at the bricks and the flowers now blooming along the fence line. A white butterfly flitted from flower to flower and then across the aisle to the next barrack. The juxtaposition of hatred and terror with the innocence and indifference of nature was astounding. I cried and thanked the world for allowing me to be a witness, for allowing me to make it to Poland. I apologized to my ancestors for the horror they fell victim to, while for six years, the world sat around and watched. I remembered the part in the documentary when the Soviets found hundreds of hand scrawled notes and letters buried underground in the camps. People wrote their stories, wrote letters to the world, pleading that their deaths not be in vain. They wrote love letters to partners they would never see again and they asked for help. In the camp, I felt the weight of all those voices. And I also felt the weight of the stunning silence of the replies that never came, or came way too late. How easily it could have been me in there. This is a thought I just can’t shake.
On the ride back to Krakow, I listened to this song. For me, it poses important questions, which should be asked of all of humanity. What do we allow to happen under our watch? What do we condone due to our own weaknesses? What does it take to change? What is our responsibility to speak out, to go against the current, to protect each other?
If you knew that you would be alone,
Knowing right, being wrong,
Would you change?
Would you change?
If you knew that you would find a truth
That brings up pain that can’t be soothed
Would you change?
Would you change?
How bad, how good does it need to get?
How many losses? How much regret?
What chain reaction would cause an effect?
Makes you turn around,
Makes you try to explain,
Makes you forgive and forget,
Makes you change?
Makes you change?
On my last night in Poland, I cried over dinner that Magda and Marek had thoughtfully cooked for me. I cried saying goodbye to Reza and I cried saying goodbye to the place of my ancestors, whose blood I carry in my veins. A part of me is still there in Poland, in the earth, in the sky, in the hearts of the people I met and became so close to in such a short period of time. I will never forget Poland. And I will never forget Auschwitz. Both are a part of me now, light and dark sparking together to illuminate a new territory within me, a place I will visit often.