Auschwitz II-Birkenau

As I explained in my last post, Auschwitz was actually a camp in many parts. The two largest were Auschwitz I which I talked about, and Auschwitz II-Birkenau which is probably the most well-known.

Auschwitz I was built first. It was mostly for political prisoners and some POWs and was a concentration camp. This was where the gas chamber “trial runs” took place, in buildings modified for the purpose of mass murder.

Construction on Auschwitz II-Birkenau started in 1941. The goal was a camp for 200,000 prisoners of war. It was also decided that mass execution facilities would be included, and these were ready by 1942. It became a combination concentration and extermination camp where the majority of concentration camp prisoners died due to starvation, and extermination camp prisoners were killed in gas chambers.

To give you a sense of the layout and scale of Auschwitz II-Birkenau, here’s a map.
Red – Sector I, built first, brick buildings, primarily barracks
Green – Sector II, wooden barracks divided by row into different “camps” for men, women, Roma families, etc.
Yellow – Sector III, never completed
Blue – locations of the four purpose-built gas chambers
Orange – shower house for concentration camp prisoners
Between red and green is the entrance and the railroad tracks through the camp.

Ten-thousand Soviet POWs were brought to Auschwitz I to construct Birkenau. Through the winter, they worked and walked the 2.5km between the camps. Over 9,000 of them died within 6 months. In total, 300 buildings were constructed at Birkenau, mostly prisoner barracks. The original gas chambers were located in modified farmhouses near the camp, and eventually, four much larger chambers were constructed. The Nazis estimated that 1.6 million people could be killed there each year.

Path away from camp towards one of the farmhouse gas chambers.

Remaining brick buildings in Sector I.

Today, much of Auschwitz II-Birkenau is in ruins. In 1944, when the Soviet army started moving across Poland, the Nazis began trying to cover their tracks at Birkenau. Written records were destroyed, buildings were burned to the ground, and the gas chambers and crematoria were blown up. Most prisoners were transferred to other camps, and the remainder was sent on a death march to the west.

Looking out at the remains of Sector II.

Auschwitz II-Birkenau was liberated by the Soviet army on January 27, 1945. Conservative estimates are that 1.3 million people were imprisoned at the Auschwitz camps, and 1.1 million of them died. Of those prisoners: 1.1 million were Jews; ~150,000 Poles; 23,000 Roma; 15,000 Soviet POWs; and 25,000 prisoners from other ethnic groups. Those numbers don’t add up because everything is estimated. No one knows exactly how many people were killed, and it’s probably more than 1.1 million.

The International Monument to the Victims of Auschwitz. In front, there are inscriptions in all major European languages that read, “FOR EVER LET THIS PLACE BE A CRY OF DESPAIR AND A WARNING TO HUMANITY, WHERE THE NAZIS MURDERED ABOUT ONE AND A HALF MILLION MEN, WOMEN AND CHILDREN MAINLY JEWS FROM VARIOUS COUNTRIES OF EUROPE. AUSCHWITZ-BIRKENAU 1940-1945”

Walking through the entryway into Auschwitz II-Birkenau, my first reaction was, “Wow. This place is huge.” My second reaction was one of recognition. It looks exactly like it does in movies and pictures. I know that’s obvious, but looking at a black and white picture can sometimes feel like fiction. You can separate yourself from it. Standing there, seeing it all in full color, I couldn’t do that anymore.

The only row of wooden barracks standing. The rest of the camp would have looked similar, but now it’s nothing more than brick chimneys.

I had no plan for where to start, so I went in the less-travelled direction, hoping to get away from the crowds. I walked by a row of wooden barracks, the only ones that can be seen today as they were (though much cleaner now) during the camp’s operation. These structures were prefabricated barns, quick and easy to assemble.

Exterior of the barracks

Inside one of the barracks. Each level of bunk was meant to hold 4 people, but more likely there were closer to 8 on each. The wooden slats were covered with a layer of straw. The brick wall running through the center connects the two stoves on each end of the building.

The barracks had a brick stove at each end

Latrines. There isn’t a pit underneath the “toilet” holes. The cavity is only as deep as the latrines are high. Prisoners had to clean them out when they were full.

Wildflowers outside of the barracks.

The other visitors quickly thinned out as I moved away from the entrance. I spent the rest of my time wandering the grounds with practically no one else around me… I suppose most people simply come in the entrance, walk to the memorial straight ahead, and then turn around and walk right back out. I, on the other hand, wanted to see as much as I could manage.

Remains of a kitchen building.

Gate into Sector II

After passing the first row of wooden barracks, intact buildings were few and far between. Almost more eerie is what remains of the majority of the camp… all of the wooden shells are gone, and only the brick stoves and chimneys remain. Brick chimneys pop up as far as the eye can see. Imagining a building to go with each pair is mind-boggling. Imagining 500 half-starved prisoners to go with each building is painful.

Barbed wire surrounding the camp

Brick chimneys as far as the eye can see.

Service road through Sector II

I was already feeling a little uneasy after only walking a few paths. I started feeling better immediately when I spotted a grove of trees ahead. I love forests… they always make me feel at ease. This one was beautiful. Towering trees, sunlight filtering through the branches just right, wildflowers scattered here and there. Again, I had that feeling of “if only things had happened differently, this place would be beautiful.” And then, I came across a sign that reminded me of where I was.

Grove of trees

Isn’t it beautiful?

“On their arrival in Auschwitz most Jews were sent by the SS for immediate death in the gas chambers. However, they were often forced to await their turn in this clump of trees if the gas chambers were full at the time.” It was accompanied by a picture of people sitting underneath the trees, waiting for death. Those same trees that I was just admiring. The things those trees have seen, and they keep standing there, still living. I wonder if those people also thought about how pretty the trees looked. Did they know what awaited them? How lucky am I that I can go to these places freely and then leave again? No one is telling me that I can’t, controlling my movements, hating me for no reason.

Beyond the trees, there are fields and a lake marked with signs saying that they’re filled with the ashes of the dead. People. People are in those fields. Their ashes are the ground that the grass grew from. What. If I didn’t know, I could have just walked across them. Walked across these graveyards for literally THOUSANDS. Hundreds of thousands. More than a million people were killed at Auschwitz. 1.1 million people. There are plenty of countries made up of fewer people than that.

The stones read:
“To the memory of the men, women, and children who fell victim to the Nazi genocide.
In this pond lie their ashes.
May their souls rest in peace.”

One of the fields where the ashes of the murdered were spread.

The thing is, unless you really, really make yourself think about it, unless you stand there and imagine the scared, naked, innocent people in front of you, it’s easy to feel nothing at all. It’s like you’re numb. Your brain doesn’t want to feel the full weight of the truth, so it doesn’t allow you to. Unless you push through your mind’s self-preservation wall, you don’t feel anything. Everything is written so factually that it’s possible to just read it factually. “The gas chambers at Auschwitz were designed to hold 2,000 people at once.” Oh, okay. But then if you stop and think about it. What does 2,000 people look like? My high school had about 1,200. That’s more than 1.5x my high school’s student body. All of those people, gone, dead within 3-15 minutes. All of those people were connected to so many other people. That’s the other thing. When you think about people as numbers, it’s not as meaningful. When you think if it as 2,000 families losing someone so incredibly dear to them, it’s harder. Or when you think about an entire family wiped from the face of the earth. How do you even comprehend that? Sometimes, one person survived from a family. What if that happened to my family, if I was the one person who survived? What if I could never talk to my parents again or see my brothers or nieces or cousins? If I knew that they were all gone forever, and I, for some reason, survived? How do you go on? How do you start over and integrate back into society after years of seeing and experiencing horrors beyond comprehension? I don’t know how I could manage to pick myself up after something like that.

The remains of Gas Chamber and Crematorium V

Looking back at the forest from the gas chamber

This gas chamber and crematorium was blown up by the Nazis in an effort to cover their tracks

The remains of Gas Chamber and Crematorium IV. This building burned down in the only prisoner revolt to take place at Auschwitz. It was led by a group of the Jewish prisoners in charge of emptying the gas chambers. 450 prisoners were killed in the revolt, but they succeeded in their goal to destroy this gas chamber.

The most disturbing thing is the realization that none of that pain was necessary. Sometimes, people die young. They get sick or get in an accident, and it’s heartbreaking. This though, this wasn’t an accident. It was a complete disregard for human life. Each of those people had a personality. They had dreams and thoughts and talents. They had people they loved, things they enjoyed. They laughed, they cried, they felt. Each person was not a number. They were humans, filled with life and light, and in an instant, they were turned into empty shells. In an instant, their bodies went from being animated and alive to being nothing.

Inside the prisoner shower building (the actual showers, not the “showers” that were actually gas chambers). This room was where prisoners had to undress.

They walked down this hallway to the shower room.

Prisoners received “medical examinations” in this room after getting their hair shaved. The shower room was through this doorway.

These furnaces were used to steam-clean clothing.

The “sorting area” near the train tracks is another place where all you can do is shake your head because none of it makes sense. This is where people got off a train and were assigned to life or death. All of those precious little children and strong grandparents and loving parents were scrutinized and sorted. Already, they were nothing but bodies. No one cared about their minds or personalities. The question was, is this creature physically capable of labor? They weren’t people; they were tools.

The area where sorting took place after people arrived by train.

The gas chambers were dynamited, but still, looking at the ruins and knowing what happened in there, how do you begin to make your brain process that? I couldn’t. I tried to imagine the trains coming in. The chaos and disorder as people got off. The confusion, the shouting, the crying. The families trying to make sure everyone was together. Then, the sorting. People getting ripped away from their loved ones. Mothers from fathers from their children. Not knowing what was coming. Being told that you were going to shower. The discomfort of undressing in front of so many other people. Undressing your kids first, the ones too young to help themselves. Then you. Then waiting. Going into the shower room, making sure that your kids were with you. “Stay close, it’s crowded.” And then that’s it. Then there’s a room filled with empty shells of people, and later, there’s only ash, sprinkled in a field. One minute there’s all that life, the next minute there’s an empty field filled with ash. What the heck. What the freaking heck.

Again, I got to the point where I just had to leave. I didn’t want to be there anymore. I didn’t want to see the ruins of the rows and rows of buildings that used to hold PEOPLE. How? That’s the ongoing question in my brain. How could people do this to people?

The remains of Gas Chamber and Crematorium III. This was destroyed by the Nazis. The room straight ahead was the undressing room.

The area to the right with a lot of rubble was the crematorium. The gas chamber was perpendicular to this space, on the left side of the photo.

The train tracks directly next to the gas chambers. The entrance can be (barely) seen, about a mile straight ahead.

The remains of Gas Chamber and Crematorium II.

 

Auschwitz I

Poland was added to my “must go” travel list during a visit the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC. Before that, I don’t think I’d ever thought twice about Poland, but I was standing there, looking at a map of the concentration camp locations when I realized that if I wanted to really understand, I could go visit one in person. What was stopping me? (Not a job, like any normal person.) With that, my future was decided; my trip to Poland was definite. I obviously ended up wanting to see much more of the country, but that was the spark that got me there.

It’s always a difficult experience to visit somewhere like Auschwitz. There’s so much emotion tied up in the place, and it’s challenging to figure out the best way to manage it. This is my general approach… On one hand, you don’t want to completely desensitize because then, hearing something like “1.1 million people were killed here” isn’t emotionally jarring. You SHOULD feel uncomfortable. If not, you aren’t allowing yourself to truly process that reality. On the other hand, you can’t let yourself feel everything fully because then you’ll never be able to continue existing. You won’t get through the experience, you’ll turn into a puddle of despair, and you won’t learn what you need to learn. You need to hover somewhere in the middle. You give yourself a chance to process. You try to turn the numbers into actual people. You let yourself feel… and then you also remember that hope exists, that this massive evil doesn’t define the entire world, and that in you taking the time to learn and mourn, you’ve already helped to move the world one step in the direction of becoming a better place.

The hallway in one of the barracks. The walls are lined with prisoner photos that were taken when people were processed into the camp.

Auschwitz is near Oświęcim, Poland, about 1.5 hours from Krakow. I took a bus there and got a general entry ticket when I arrived (note if you’re ever planning to visit – I thought I needed to get a ticket online and freaked out because there were barely any left… and then I had no problem getting one on the spot when I showed up that day). You can also choose to get a tour, but I ended up deciding no because 1. I’m a cheapskate (normal entry to Auschwitz is free, or they have paid tours in various languages) and 2. There are some things I like to do on my own, without having to worry about moving at a group’s pace. A guide isn’t REALLY necessary because there are a lot of informational signs, but it would have been nice to at least know what buildings to visit first.

Here’s a picture of the map of Auschwitz I, to give you a sense of the layout of the camp. The main area with all the buildings is surrounded by barbed wire and is where the prisoners were kept. The C-shaped building below there was the prisoner registration building, and the gate into the camp is to the left of that building. To the left of the camp, outside of the fenced-in area, was the crematorium.

Auschwitz was actually a camp in many parts (there were 48 “Auschwitz” camps, most of them small work camps that manufactured goods for the war). The two main parts were Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau. Auschwitz I, as the name suggests, was the original concentration camp. Some former army barracks were used as the starting point, and the majority of prisoners were Polish intellectuals, resistance members, and Jews. Within a year of opening, nearly 11,000 people were imprisoned there.

There are two terms used when talking about the Nazi camps: concentration camps, and extermination camps. Concentration camps aimed to kill prisoners slowly through inhumane conditions. People died from disease, starvation, and torture. Guards did things like pour cold water on naked prisoners and leave them outside to freeze. Extermination camps were built with the intention of killing large numbers of people quickly. Auschwitz I was a concentration camp.

When visiting Auschwitz I, you take a similar route into the camp as the prisoners did. You start in the building where new prisoners were processed and make your way through the famous entry gate that declares, “Arbeit macht frei”. Work sets you free.

The iconic Auschwitz gate, proclaiming, “Arbeit macht frei” or “Work sets you free”. This is the most famous of these signs, but Auschwitz was neither the only nor the first Nazi camp to sport this slogan.

Walking into Auschwitz.

On the way to the gate, you pass a large green. The signs nearby explain very matter-of-factly that this was one of the sites used for shooting executions. The camp map has letters to indicate various locations: “C – sites of execution by shooting, D – sites of execution by hanging, E – sites of mass gassing by means of Zyklon B, F – sites of murder by lethal injection”. I read through those a few times before the words really sank in. In case you forgot where you are, this is Auschwitz.

This green was used for prisoner executions by shooting. The registration building is in the background.

First glimpse of the double barbed-wire fence after walking through the gate.

For me, it was incredibly hard to reconcile what I was seeing in person with the reality that I knew. Inside the gate, the camp doesn’t look like the place of nightmares. There are brick buildings, tree-lined paths, green grass, wildflowers… if you didn’t know where you were, it would seem almost serene.

Deceptively peaceful

That potential feeling of serenity is extinguished around the perimeter of the camp. There, multi-layer barbed wire fences, imposing guard towers, and intimidating HALT! signs snap you back to reality. I couldn’t look at the signs without getting chills.

This brought me back to reality VERY quickly.

Most of the buildings within the barbed-wire boundaries housed prisoners. There was also an “infirmary” where experiments were performed on sick prisoners, identical twins, Jewish women who were forcibly sterilized, and more. It’s nauseating, what was done to these people.

These long barracks housed prisoners.

The early prisoners slept on the floor on mats like these.

Eventually, triple-decker bunks like these were used.

The prisoner housing has been converted into a series of exhibitions. Each WWII occupied country has an exhibition that tells the story of its Jewish population during the war. It seemed like they were put together by their respective countries which I thought was cool. They all have different exhibit design styles, and you get to see history from different perspectives.

It’s hard to imagine crowds of prisoners on those tree-lined paths.

Guard tower.

The most jarring displays are the ones showing the confiscated belongings, sorted by type. Glasses. Suitcases. Shoes. Pots and Pans. The shoes and the suitcases got to me the most. There was a corridor lined on both sides with piles of shoes. I can’t even venture a guess of how many there were, in every size and style and color. To think, every shoe in that display was once on someone’s foot. A human being’s foot. And then they were taken off, thrown into the pile, and that human was killed. Baby shoes. Mom and Dad shoes. Brother and sister shoes. Grandpa and Grandma shoes.

Then, the suitcases, each labeled with the owner’s name in white paint. Names make things feel real. You can stand there and read off name after name of these people who were just as real as you and me, people who took the time to pack their suitcases, thinking about what they might need to take with them. The shoes and the suitcases sent me into a downward spiral. I could have ended my day there, in a puddle of despair, mourning the state of the world, but I reminded myself that I had to keep going. I still had more to learn.

“The Book of Names. The names of the murdered are inscribed in this book as an eternal memorial.”
Just take a second to look at the size of that “book”.

The prison block was rough too. The basement has cells designed for various punishments. Some are too small to sit down, others have no light, some were “starvation cells” (prisoners were given water to keep them alive until they starved, prolonging their suffering). One room has a memorial honoring (Saint) Maximilian Kolbe, a Polish priest who volunteered to take the place of a man randomly selected for death by starvation, as punishment for a prisoner who escaped. The man ended up surviving the war. A glimmer of light in the darkness.

Next to that building is the “wall of execution”. A sign outside of the courtyard says, “You are entering a courtyard where the SS murdered thousands of people. Please maintain silence here: remember their suffering and show respect for their memory.”

The wall of execution. The original wall was dismantled in 1944, and this portion was reconstructed after the war by the museum.

Thousands of people. Standing there, about where the executioner would have stood, I looked around and tried to imagine the scene. How can I picture something that is so far beyond my comprehension? The place looks nearly the same now as it did then, but the people, the sounds, and the circumstances are completely different. The rooms where people had to undress before their executions are right next to the courtyard. They knew exactly what awaited them outside. Try as I might, I couldn’t imagine being someone in that situation. I didn’t want to; it was too scary. They didn’t have a choice.

Auschwitz I had its own crematorium just outside the barbed wire fences. Then, “in the autumn of 1941, the largest room… was adapted for use as an improvised gas chamber, the first of its kind in Auschwitz… many thousands of Jews were murdered here by the SS within hours of their arrival at Auschwitz. Several groups of Soviet POWs were also murdered here in this way, as were sick prisoners whose return to work was considered unlikely. Poles from outside the camp who had been sentenced to death… were shot here”. In 1942, the first improvised gas chambers were created at Auschwitz II-Birkenau, and this one fell out of use. It’s a strange feeling, standing alone in a room that looks so ordinary and so empty and knowing that thousands of people were killed there.

The crematorium/trial gas chamber

On the outside looking in.

After visiting the crematorium, I felt overloaded. I was ready to leave. I walked out of Auschwitz I unobstructed, past the “Arbeit macht frei” gate and out of this place that consumed thousands of people who were no guiltier than I.

I made my way to the bus stop to catch the next shuttle bus to Auschwitz II-Birkenau.

Kraków Old Town

My next stop after Warsaw was Kraków (kra-kohv) in southern Poland. I was sad to leave Warsaw behind, but at least I still had more time ahead in Poland. I wasn’t ready to move on just yet. I took a train (the cheapest and most inconveniently timed train, of course) and bonded with some other tourists as we attempted to navigate the Warsaw train station.

Kraków flowers, for your viewing pleasure 🙂

The ride to Kraków was my first experience in a compartment train, and it was strange. Since I didn’t have a travel buddy to share the weirdness with, I wrote about it in my journal.

The compartment is too quiet, no one is talking and it would be weird if they were. I almost feel like my typing is too loud, THAT’S how quiet it is. Shouldn’t the train be making more noise?? What is this? Some newfangled electric train or something?

Also, am I allowed to eat in here? I think that if the answer was no, there would be signs making that clear. But it’s not like they’d put up a “yes, you can eat” sign… that doesn’t make any sense. At least then I’d be sure, though. If we were in rows, I would just go for it because you can kind of hide yourself. Since we’re in a compartment, I feel like there are 4 people here who would judge me really hard if I’m doing something wrong. One is a nun so maybe she wouldn’t judge me, but at least the other three would.

Supposedly eight people can fit in this compartment, but I think that would be a mess. There are just 5 of us now, and I think that’s enough. Maybe 6 would be okay. But 8?? Eek!

A couple minutes later: AH! The nun just started eating a sandwich. I assume she wouldn’t break the rules, so eating must be allowed. Okay, first I’m going to eat something because my stomach is empty, and then I’m going to get to work on my to-do list.

This one is so pretty!!

The train took about 3.5 hours, and despite the compartment weirdness, I was sad to get off because I was being incredibly productive… probably because I felt like I had to stay busy or else risk making awkward eye contact with one of my co-passengers. Eye contact means someone might start talking to me, leading to the weird “oh, sorry, I don’t speak Polish” thing and totally ruining my camouflage.

The train arrived in Kraków around 3PM, and my goal was to make it to a 4PM walking tour. Doable. I had 1 hour to figure out the trams, get myself to the hostel to drop my stuff, and sprint back out again to the meeting point. I made it with seconds to spare and only mildly sweaty from my brisk walk across the city.

While we were waiting for the tour to start, the guide asked where everyone was from. There was one other group visiting from the US – two couples, plus a girl around my age – and I started a conversation with the girl, asking what part (Florida). She ended up being super cool, and I felt good about myself for being outgoing and making a friend.

Whoa!!

Soon enough, the tour started, and the guide seemed determined to make us all Kraków history experts by the time he was finished.

Kraków as a settlement began as early as 50,000 BC, but not much is known about it beyond what archaeology has revealed until 966AD when the first written mention of Kraków appeared. By then, it was already a bustling commercial center. The Kingdom of Poland came soon after in 996AD, and Kraków was named as its capital in 1038.

The earliest settlements were on Wawel Hill, a rocky outcropping near the Vistula River (the same one that runs through Warsaw) that later became the site of Wawel Castle, the royal residence of the Kingdom of Poland until the capital city was moved to Warsaw. As the town grew, it expanded off of the hill and to the north where the heart of modern-day Kraków is now located.

View of the Vistula River from Wawel Hill

Kraków Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage site, as is Warsaw’s Old Town. The difference is that Kraków’s is actually old. Unlike Warsaw, Kraków was not a major battleground during WWII, and much of the city, including many of its historical and cultural monuments, survived without too much damage.

Kraków Old Town streets

The city used to be surrounded by city walls (because what medieval city wasn’t??) with 47 towers, plus a 4km moat. Most of the fortifications were dismantled during the Austrian occupation during the partitions, and today, a ring of green space stands in their place, encircling the oldest part of the city. Only a small portion of the formerly extensive fortifications was saved from destruction – Floriańska (St. Florian’s) Gate, one of the major entry points into the city, and the Kraków Barbican. The Barbican was a defensive structure that was connected by a drawbridge, over the city’s moat, to St. Florian’s Gate.

St. Florian’s Gate

The Kraków Barbican. You can see the former location of the drawbridge shown by the pavings stones.

The Barbican from the front

A pretty church just inside of the park ring surrounding Old Town

St. Anne’s Church, located on the square. There’s a legend that during the Mongol invasion, a trumpeter warned the people of the approaching invaders in time for the city gates to be closed. Unfortunately for him, however, he was shot in the throat and killed before he could finish playing the song. In reference to this legend, the traditional trumpet call is played (by a live trumpeter) from the tower every hour on the hour and stops abruptly before the end.

In the 1200s, before the city walls were built, Kraków was invaded by the Mongols. The city wasn’t defended, and the invaders massacred everyone and burned everything that wasn’t behind fortifications. The people of Kraków used this opportunity to rebuild the city with a better layout, and the new design included a HUGE town square. It is now the largest medieval square in Europe, with 200m long sides.

One of the reasons for Kraków’s rapid growth and great wealth was its location. By law, merchants weren’t allowed to cross Poland with their goods. Instead, they were forced to sell their wares in Kraków to then be sold on the other side of the country for a profit. Kraków was also fortunate to have access to the valuable resources of salt and lead. A trade agreement with Hungary gave Kraków a near monopoly on copper as they traded Polish lead for Hungarian copper.

The large medieval square was put to good use as a market, and it also became one of the most disgusting parts of the city. The ground was covered with garbage and human waste, and when things got out of hand, a soil layer was added. The ground level is now 3m above its original level. When the government decided to redo the cobblestones in the early 2000s, they gave archaeologists permission to dig in the square for 4 months. Instead, they ended up staying for 5 YEARS, still only managed to explore about 10% of the square, and unearthed hundreds of burials and thousands of artifacts. (There’s an archaeology museum under the square that I didn’t visit, but it’s at the top of my list if I ever go back!)

Market Square!

The Cloth Hall in the center of Market Square

Bustling square!

Old Town is also home to the second oldest university in Europe, Jagiellonian University (aka University of Kraków), founded in 1364. Copernicus attended from about 1491-95, and Karol Wojtyła, the future Pope John Paul II, attended until it was shut down in 1939 when over 180 professors and intellectuals were arrested at the start of WWII. Some of these professors were later released, and they returned to operate the university as part of the underground education efforts until it was reopened officially in 1945.

University of Kraków

A glimpse of Kraków outside of the Old Town center

Town Hall Tower in Market Square

At some point during the tour, much to my dismay, my Floridian friends vanished. Then, at the very end, the girl popped up again and said that they ducked out for a bit to get some ice cream. That made me like them even more. She came back to ask for my number so we could hang out! And then they vanished again.

Later, she invited me to join them for dinner! I was thrilled to have made some new friends! Dinner was so much fun. The girl, Annika, had just finished a master’s degree in Sweden, and her parents came to meet her and do some sightseeing with another couple before they all went back to the States. They’re all the kind of people who make you feel immediately at ease, and they asked me about a million questions about my time in Armenia. They had a tour planned for the following day, but they said that they were considering going hiking the day after, and if I was interested in joining, they’d keep me posted. Of course I said yes! By the time we parted ways, I felt like I had been adopted and had known them for my entire life. I didn’t know if the hiking thing would actually come through, but I hoped it would because I had so much fun hanging out with them. I walked back to the hostel that night with a big smile on my face and a warm feeling inside.

Warsaw Museums

I spent a lot of time wandering aimlessly around the streets of Warsaw, partly because I was recovering from Iceland and partly because sometimes it’s nice to simply wander. You know me, though. I also need to fit in some nerdy museum time to be fully content. Like any capital city, Warsaw is FULL of museums. With only three days in the city, I had to be selective (especially since I can easily spend an entire day in a museum). I ended up visiting three: the Museum of Pawiak Prison, the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, and the VERY highly recommended (like seriously everyone said that if you’re going to visit one museum, you should visit this one) Warsaw Rising Museum. If that sounds like an emotionally heavy selection… well, it was. (Fair warning this is also kind of long… but there’s so much to say!)

I had good timing for a couple of reasons. First, I was in town on a Thursday, and a bunch of museums are free on Thursdays. Second, my particular Thursday was the 19th of April which is also the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising – and 2018 was 75 years. I had no idea! After I cluelessly walked into a school program at the largest remaining section of the ghetto wall, I did some googling. I’ll talk more about the Ghetto Uprising in a minute, but first… My next stop after the wall was the Museum of Pawiak Prison which I decided to go to simply because I walked by and thought it looked interesting.

Crowds at the ghetto wall

The prison was originally constructed in 1830, and from the start, it housed both criminal and political prisoners. During the partitions of Poland, the political prisoners were Poles who fought against the invaders for independence. During the Second Republic, they were often communists. Then, during WWII, the Nazis took over Pawiak. Most of the people held there during the war were members of the Polish resistance, but even innocent passers-by weren’t safe from being captured during random street roundups. People from all walks of life ended up in the same place – men, women, families with small children, pregnant women. The only commonality was their Polish heritage.

Pawiak Prison Museum

Inside the museum

The museum is small but powerful. The best part is these video interviews with people who were imprisoned there. They talk about the different aspects of life as a prisoner, painting a pretty brutal picture. In summary, the food was horrible (think soup with worms in it). Cells were stuffed to 4x their intended capacity. Prisoners were frequently interrogated, and when someone was taken, no one knew if or in what condition they would return. A mini-resistance formed inside, and messages were often passed on through Polish doctors and nurses working in the prison hospital. An estimated 100,000 people were imprisoned in Pawiak during WWII. 37,000 were executed by firing squads, and 60,000 were sent to concentration camps.

One of the cells in Pawiak. A cell this size was intended for 3-4 people but held 10-18 in WWII.

One thing that I found interesting but so confusing was that they said mothers were taken care of. They might kill you in your 9th month of pregnancy, but after giving birth, you were placed in a separate mothers’ wing with the baby. They had interviews with people who were born and lived in the prison for the first few years of their lives! It just doesn’t seem consistent. One woman said that she was arrested just after having a baby, and she begged to leave the baby with her family rather than bringing him with her. Then, at the prison, they asked if she would be willing to breastfeed another baby whose mom had stopped lactating. Why go to so much trouble?

Names and photos of some of the victims

At the end of the war, the Nazis blew up Pawiak, including the prisoner records, so there’s no complete list of the people who were imprisoned and who died there. A lot of the information they have was volunteered by relatives, etc. I love that. It’s a group effort to preserve history, with people volunteering information, pictures, objects, etc. to the museums to make them more complete and to honor the memory of their family members.

The only remaining part of the actual prison is this gate and small portions of the wall.

This tree also remained standing after the prison was destroyed, and people started covering it with memorial plaques. Eventually, the tree was infected with a disease and had to be removed. It was replaced with a bronze version, and the remains of the original are now inside this case in the museum.

The bronze Pawiak tree.

My daffodil


After leaving Pawiak, I made my way to the Museum of the History of Polish Jews. Outside, they were getting ready for the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising anniversary event. People all over the city were wearing paper daffodils in commemoration, and when someone on the street gave me one to wear, I did so with pride because I feel like I’m a little bit Polish now. The info pamphlet they gave me said, “By wearing them, we demonstrate that together we remember those who perished fighting for their dignity.” I can definitely get behind that.

Setting up the stage for the night’s events

The Warsaw ghetto was established in 1940, and over 400,000 Jews were herded inside. Conditions were horrible, and people were killed by starvation, disease, and mass executions. In 1942, 300,000 Jews were deported to Treblinka (a death camp), clearing out much of the ghetto. Those remaining knew that certain death awaited them and decided to fight back. On April 19, 1943, Nazi forces entered the ghetto to remove the remaining inhabitants and were met by a resistance of about a thousand. The insurgents were outnumbered, under-equipped, and exhausted, but they chose to die on their own terms. Over the next four weeks, residents fought back as the ghetto was cleared out and burned to the ground. By May 16, the ghetto was gone and the Great Synagogue was blown up. A few managed to escape the burning ghetto through the sewers, but most were killed or committed suicide to avoid capture.

Flowers outside of the museum

The story doesn’t have a happy ending, but stories of the participants’ bravery inspired more acts of resistance. Inmates at Treblinka heard about the uprising and held their own revolt, leading to the eventual dismantling of the camp. Many survivors of the Ghetto Uprising participated in the Warsaw Uprising the following year.

Wearing my daffodil at the top of a tower near St. Anne’s Church

I popped into the museum since it was also free on Thursdays and was completely overwhelmed. They did a great job, but it’s absolutely massive. It starts with the first Jews coming to Poland and goes through modern day. I did a quick skim of the background stuff and mostly focused on the Holocaust forward.

Funky architecture inside the lobby

A few months before my visit, I read about how the Polish government was in the process of passing a law criminalizing the mention of Polish crimes against Jews during the Holocaust. Essentially, the president said that Poland was 100% a victim of Nazi Germany, and anything Poland may have done against Jews was forced. People freaked out, and after going through the museum, I understand why. Yes, Poles weren’t actively fighting with the Nazis, but that doesn’t mean there were no moral failings. Even Jews did things that hurt the collective in hopes that it would help their families. In this museum, a museum in the capital of Poland, the same city where the legislation passed, it talks about the roles that the Polish people played during the war. Often, they were hiding and protecting their Jewish neighbors. Other times, however, they were believing the propaganda, letting fear take over, and attacking or turning in their former friends and neighbors. In one town, the Jewish residents were gathered together and burned alive in a barn… by their Polish neighbors. I just don’t understand the value in making such a statement at this point. It’s nothing more than a barrier to healing and productive conversation.

Cool exhibit design!

My last museum stop was the Warsaw Rising Museum. I was so excited because everyone gave it such glowing reviews, and I wanted to learn more about this important part of Warsaw’s history. For me, the museum was beyond confusing. I had a map and tried so hard to follow it, but I never felt like I was in the right place. Maybe it was user error. Maybe I should have gotten an audio guide? I spent three frustrating hours trying to piece the timeline together (and dodge giant groups of school kids), and every time I thought I understood what was going on, I’d realize that my timeline was all mixed up again. I don’t know if it’s because they assumed some base level of knowledge which I didn’t have, but I probably would have been better off watching a documentary. I’ll spare you the rest of my museum struggle details, but I don’t want to skip talking about the Warsaw Uprising because it’s pretty awesome.

Warsaw Rising Museum. It’s located in a former tram power station.

The outside of the museum. In the bottom half of the picture, you can see some formerly black and white images that have been colorized. So cool!

A Polish resistance began to form almost immediately after Poland was occupied by the Nazis and the Soviets. The “Polish Underground State” was practically an underground Polish republic. It was loyal to the Polish government-in-exile in London, and there were divisions concerned with every aspect of life. Underground printing houses distributed books, newspapers, and other uncensored printed materials. An extensive underground school system gave students, from primary school through university, the chance to continue proper studies (the Nazis banned schools past 4th grade, and the children were to be taught as little as possible). Very few Polish Jews survived WWII, but many of those who did were aided by the resistance.

This symbol represents the Polish Underground State. In Polish, the PW stands for Polska Walcząca (“Fighting Poland”).

There was also a military component to the resistance. Polish spies carried information to the Allies. German supply lines were disrupted. Representatives were sent into concentration camps to gather information and organize prisoner revolts. The Polish Home Army also fought a couple of major battles against the Nazis, one of which was the Warsaw Uprising. On August 1, 1944, the uprising began with the ultimate goal of liberating Warsaw from the German occupation. People worried that if Warsaw was “liberated” by the Soviet army, the government-in-exile would not be recognized, and Russia would take over. So, the only option was to liberate themselves.

Warsaw Uprising Monument. You can also see another Chopin bench in the bottom left.

The uprising lasted for 63 days. In the beginning, the Germans tried to break the will of the resistance through massacres in some outlying neighborhoods. Soldiers went from house to house and murdered everyone inside, regardless of gender or age. This brutality only strengthened the resistance’s resolve, however, and they fought on.

The main part of the monument shows resistance fighters in combat as a building collapses behind them.

After about a month of fighting, the Polish forces had control of Old Town, and the exiled government was desperately asking for help. The Soviets refused to support the resistance army and also obstructed other Allied countries from sending aid. Without any support, the situation was hopeless, and the decision was made to retreat. In two days, over 5,000 resistance fighters fled the city using the sewer system (a major transit route throughout the resistance efforts). The uprising was officially over at the beginning of October, and as punishment for fighting back, Warsaw was systematically destroyed. About 25% of the city had been destroyed in the uprising fighting, but now destruction was the major goal. Houses were firebombed, and national and historical monuments were drilled and blown up with dynamite.

This part of the monument shows fighters sneaking into the sewer system.

A model of the Warsaw sewers in the Uprising Museum. You can walk through to get a sense of what it was like. It was… uncomfortable. You have to bend over the whole time, and I’m sure the ground wasn’t dry like in the museum model. When the resistance evacuated, they were in the sewers for over 5 hours!

Memory wall with a list of the names of those killed in the uprising

This unnatural hill on the fringes of the city is the Warsaw Uprising Mound. The hill itself is 120m tall and is actually a giant pile of rubble and remains of those found in the destroyed city. This is also supposedly the longest staircase in Europe, and I believe it.

Even though the Uprising was ultimately unsuccessful, it is amazing what the resistance was able to accomplish with limited resources and support. After learning about the struggles of the Polish nation, it’s not hard to understand why people are so proud to be Polish. They’ve had a rough history with more low points than high, but they’ve endured. Poland exists today because of the persistence and endurance of the Polish people. That’s pretty darn cool.

History of Poland, 1797 – Today

When we left off last time, Poland had just been partitioned for the third time, resulting in ALL of the Polish lands being given to other countries. Poland was gone. Clearly, considering that Poland is a country today, that’s not where the story ends.

This statue is of Tadeusz Kościuszko, the man who led the uprising that resulted in the Third Partition. He also fought on the US side in the American Revolution and returned to Poland afterward where he joined political reformers in pushing for the creation of a constitution. In 1791, Poland became the first European country to adopt a constitution.

After the Third Partition, the Poles continued to resist, grasping at anything that might lead to their victory and independence. They fought with Napoleon Bonaparte against Russia, but he was defeated in 1815 by the “Holy Alliance” of Russia, Prussia, and Austria, formed to guarantee the elimination of any radical movements. Two more Polish uprisings were attempted in 1830 and 1863, and both were crushed.

Despite the lack of a Polish state, the Polish people continued to make their mark on the world. Frédéric Chopin (1810-49), the famous pianist and composer, grew up in Warsaw. In 1853, Polish inventor Ignacy Łukasiewicz developed the modern kerosene lamp (fun fact: his family was Armenian! Of course haha). The scientist Marie Skłodowska Curie (1867-1934) was born in Warsaw, earned two Nobel prizes for her work in physics and chemistry, and named the element “polonium” after her beloved Poland.

The Chopin memorial in Warsaw.

The Marie Curie Museum in Warsaw.

Russian was made the official language in the Russian-controlled areas in an attempt to stifle Polish culture, and the Prussians and Austrians similarly tried to keep control of their Polish subjects. However, the Polish people were determined to keep their language and history alive and operated unofficial education centers. They also advocated for Poland to the enemies of their invaders, waiting for a chance to get their land back.

That opportunity came in 1918 at the end of WWI. Poland fought with the Allies and was rewarded with land and independence. The Second Polish Republic was born, coming into the world with the simple task of rebuilding and uniting a country divided for over 120 years. Adding to this strain, Poland quickly entered a border war with Russia until an unexpected Polish victory in the 1920 Battle of Warsaw crippled the Soviet forces.

When Poland was formed, it was placed under the control of a “chief of state”, Józef Piłsudski, who had been a general during WWI. A new government and constitution were created in 1921, but the first president was assassinated after only one year. Unimpressed with the new government and certain of its collapse, Józef led a coup in 1926 to restore order and served as a quasi-dictator, working to stabilize the country, until his death in 1935.

Poland never even got a chance to catch its breath. In 1939, Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany signed an agreement to split Poland between them. On September 1, 1939, the Nazis invaded Poland from the west, marking the start of WWII. On the 17th, Russia invaded from the east, splitting the country into two. Poland fell in 27 days, and its government fled to exile in London.

I took this picture from the western side of Warsaw. This was the side occupied by the Germans and was almost completely destroyed. The Soviet-occupied side of the city was across the river.

WWII was not kind to the Polish. On the Russian side of the country, the invaders quickly worked to bring the Polish people under their control. Hundreds of thousands were imprisoned or killed. In one incident, the remains of 4,500 Polish officers were discovered in a forest in April 1943. The Soviets tried to blame the massacre on the Nazis who, despite committing countless atrocities during the war, were not responsible for that one. After the Nazis invaded Russia in 1941, Russia and the exiled Polish government signed a peace treaty. Russia released its approximately 200,000 Polish POWs, but after the discovery of the massacre and continued disagreements about where the Polish-Russian border should stand, relations between the countries remained tense.

On the Nazi side of the country, people were sent en masse to concentration and, eventually, extermination camps. The Nazi plan was to keep the Poles as slaves, but that required an uneducated population. The educated were killed, schools were closed, and any resistors were sent without second thought to concentration camps.

These wires show the outline of a bridge that used to join the two sides of the Warsaw ghetto. The only way for Jews to pass between the two sides was using this bridge.

The Jewish population, which had been thoroughly integrated into the Polish population thanks to years of tolerant policies, was separated out and placed in ghettos. The ghettos were emptied in 1943, and the Jews were sent to be killed at the Auschwitz and Treblinka extermination camps (Treblinka was about 60 miles from Warsaw and was the second deadliest camp in Poland, responsible for killing 700,000-900,000 Jews. About 1 million Jews are estimated to have been killed at Auschwitz).

This cattle car is an example of the ones the Nazis used to transport people to their concentration and extermination camps.

WWII ended in 1945, but that was too late for the approximately 6 million Poles who were murdered, 3 million of whom were Jewish.

Poland was “liberated” in 1945 by the Soviets. The exiled government returned from London, and under pressure from Russia, it became more and more communist over the next few years. The government of the “People’s Republic of Poland” was nothing more than a Soviet puppet. During the post-war negotiations, the entire country was shifted west. Russia took possession of the eastern land that it wanted, and some of the eastern part of Germany was given to Poland. About 2 million people were resettled as a result of this shifting. For much of its history, Poland was extremely multi-ethnic. Between WWII and the following resettlements, it became very homogenously Polish.

The forced communism of the post-WWII years made Poland’s rebuilding process much slower than in Western European countries. Instead of having a chance to recover from the impact of the war, the Polish people continued to fight for their rights. There was constant unrest, and protests were always brutally suppressed. In 1970, demonstrations against rising food prices were met with violence from troops, killing many of the protestors.

This monstrosity, the Palace of Culture and Science, was built as a gift by Stalin after WWII. Soviet workers were sent to construct it. As you might imagine, it’s a bit controversial. As out-of-place as it looks now, it was even more ridiculous when it was first built because most of Warsaw was in ruins from the war.

In response to this disaster, a new leader took control, Edward Gierek. He attempted to make things better by borrowing from the west to raise the standard of living. The problem came when the loans needed to be repaid, and there was no money to do so. In 1980, food as much as doubled in price, and workers went on strike across the country.

In the city of Gdansk, shipyard employees went on strike, leading to the formation of the “Solidarity” Trade Union which quickly spread across the country. At its peak, there were 9 million members or about 25% of the Polish population. Eventually, Solidarity managed to break Soviet control. In 1988, freedom of the press was finally granted, and a portion of the Polish Parliament went up for a free election. Nearly all of the available seats were won by Solidarity members, starting the transition from communist to capitalist and a new form of government, a liberal parliamentary democracy. The first elections of the Third Polish Republic were conducted in 1989.

The Cold War ended in 1991, and the Soviet Union collapsed. Poland passed a new constitution in 1997, joined NATO in 1998, and joined the EU in 2004.

What a journey, huh? After all that, I’m sure you’re ready to get out of the classroom and start exploring! Next time, Warsaw!

History of Poland, 996-1797AD

Are you ready for a Polish history adventure? I hope so because this is a long one, but in order to understand the Poland of today, I think it’s important to know the history behind it. Let’s go waaay back…

The Polish lands have been occupied on-and-off since prehistoric times. Starting in the Iron Age (around 700BC), there’s evidence that Celtic tribes and Germanic tribes settled in the area, followed by Baltic peoples and eventually, around 500AD, Slavic tribes moved in. The “Slavic” ethno-linguistic group is the largest in Europe and basically encompasses all of the European countries to the east of Poland and in the Balkan region (Croatia, Serbia, etc.).

“Poland” as a country is usually cited as being founded in 966AD when the first documented ruler, Mieszko I of the Piast Dynasty, converted to Christianity and thus declared all of Poland to be Christian. The first coronation was held in 1025AD. Bolesław the Brave became king, and the Kingdom of Poland came into existence for the first time.

Throughout the rule of the first dynasty, the Kingdom of Poland warred with the Romans and Mongols. They managed to hold their borders and even expand the Kingdom. The second-to-last Piast king, King Casimir the Great, ruled over a Polish golden age. The first university was founded in Kraków in 1364, laws were reformed, and Jews were protected, resulting in a large influx of Jewish people from less tolerant countries.

University of Krakow

In 1384, the only Piast remaining was a woman, Jadwiga. She was crowned king at age 11, reigned until her death at age 25, and is known as one of Poland’s greatest monarchs, establishing and restoring schools, hospitals, and churches across the country. At the beginning of her reign, she chose to marry the ‘elderly’, 35-year-old Lithuanian Grand Duke Jagiello (called Władysław after his baptism) for political reasons, rather than her young Habsburg fiancée. This was the start of the Jagiellonian Dynasty period, and the marriage joined Lithuania and Poland in a union that lasted for 400 years.

This is inside the courtyard of the palace in Warsaw. There are three coats of arms represented – Poland, Lithuania, and Austria. These are the countries of origin of the wives of the last Jagiellonian king.

The strength of the Polish-Lithuanian Union helped in fighting outside threats. The greatest threat of this time was the Teutonic Order, a Christian crusading army that arrived in 1226 to convert the neighboring Prussians to Christianity. Eventually, however, they began to attack the union, despite the fact that Poland and Lithuania were both converted countries. The Order was decisively defeated at a battle in 1410, and a treaty was signed in 1466.

In the early 1500s, the government was reorganized, giving the nobles a great deal of power. No decisions could be made without their approval. Despite this, Poland experienced its greatest golden age and the Polish Renaissance. Nicolaus Copernicus published his heliocentric theory of the universe in 1543. There was a policy of religious tolerance that attracted persecuted people of all religions. Prominent artists from across Europe moved to Kraków, the Polish capital. Poland was influential in Europe, both culturally and politically, and it grew territorially.

The Academy of Sciences in Warsaw with a monument to Copernicus in front.

Then, in 1572, the last Jagiellonian king died without an heir, and the government was restructured again. The nobles continued to hold most of the power, and the “king” became an elected position. Poland and Lithuania made an even stronger union, joining together to become the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. It was the largest, and perhaps most powerful, country in Europe.

The whole “elected king” concept is a bit strange… it resulted in the election of kings who were also eligible for the throne in other countries. For example, the first elected king left soon after beginning his rule… to claim the throne in France as King Henry II. Later, Polish King Zygmunt III was heir to the Swedish throne and was crowned King of Sweden DURING his rule as monarch of Poland. So he was king in two countries at once. He is also the one responsible for moving the Polish capital from Kraków to Warsaw so that it would be closer to Sweden.

King Zygmunt III stands on top of this column outside of the palace in Warsaw.

The mid-1600s were the beginning of the end for the Kingdom of Poland. The country was weakened by internal uprisings by their vassals and an invasion by Sweden called the “Swedish Deluge”. The conflicts ended with Poland as “victor”, but they took a toll, both economically and physically. In Warsaw, about 80% of the population was killed as the city was captured and recaptured repeatedly during the conflicts.

The last great victory of the Kingdom occurred in 1683. At the Battle of Vienna, the armies of Poland, the Roman Empire, and the Habsburgs joined together to fight the Ottoman Empire as it attempted to expand farther into Europe. Led by Polish King Jan III Sobieski, the Ottomans were defeated and their European expansion halted.

The palace in Warsaw

By the 1760s, Poland was a disaster. The governing structure meant that a single noble could veto any measure, and the government was completely paralyzed. Stanisław Poniatowski was elected king in 1764. He was romantically involved with Russia’s Catherine the Great, and she helped to place him on the Polish throne, as it was in Russia’s best interests to keep Poland weak and divided. However, after his election, he refused to be a puppet king under the Russians and tried to stop the country’s collapse by introducing reforms.

Meanwhile, Russia was in the middle of a war with the Ottomans. They were doing well, and Austria began to worry that it would lose territory to Russia. It threatened to join the war on the Ottoman side. To avoid this, Russia and Austria agreed to redirect Russia’s expansion to the west, into Poland. Poland was weak and unable to resist, so on August 2, 1772, the Polish Parliament (called the Sejm) ratified a treaty between Russia, Prussia, and Austria that took about 1/3 of Poland’s land (and ½ the population) and divided it between the three. This was the “First Partition of Poland”.

Here’s a map from the Encyclopaedia Brittanica that shows the land lost in the First and subsequent partitions. It explains the losses much better than I could with words.

This map from the Encyclopaedia Brittanica shows the land lost in the three partitions of Poland.
In the first, green went to Austria, dark red to Prussia, and dark grey to Russia.
In the second, bright orange to Prussia and light purple to Russia.
In the third, yellow to Austria, dull orange to Prussia, and pink to Russia.

So as you can see from that map, the First Partition wasn’t the end. Poland continued trying to pull itself together by adopting a more liberal constitution. A conservative confederation was formed in response, and it asked Russia to help bring back the old constitution (because who better to ask for help than one of the countries that clearly has an interest in destroying you). Russia said, “Sure!” and came into the country with the Prussians. They forced the Sejm to sign another agreement that led to the Second Partition of Poland, giving away more than half of Poland’s remaining land.

Finally, in 1794, an uprising in Poland was squashed by Russia and Prussia. The two of them, along with Austria, made a deal to divide the remaining Polish lands. On January 26, 1797, the Third Partition of Poland was officially settled, and Poland was completely wiped from the map of Europe.

The End.

Just kidding! Obviously Poland exists as a country today. So, what happened between 1797 and today? Read the next post to find out!

The Land of Petrified Trolls

Continued from the previous post

Our next stop was to see a glacier! I was excited because it was our first one of the trip. We weren’t sure if it was worth stopping just to take a look, but we figured why not? The glacier is called Mýrdalsjökull (jökull = glacier), and we went to this one part that sticks out a bit called Sólheimajökull. At least that’s what I think the situation is with the names, but honestly it’s a little hard to keep track, especially with all of the crazy Icelandic names. Mýrdalsjökull is on top of Iceland’s largest volcano, Katla, which is due for an eruption anytime. The big eruption in 2010 that sent ash all over Europe was from a smaller volcano nearby… and usually, the eruption of one leads to the eruption of the other within a decade. Katla is very closely monitored because even minor eruptions can result in major flooding from the glacier melt.

Me with Sólheimajökull! Mýrdalsjökull, the full glacier, is the 4th largest in Iceland.

I thought the glacier was awesome, but we were pretty far away so we didn’t get the full effect. It would have been cool to do some glacier hiking or whatever it’s called. I’ll have to add that to my list of things to do when I go back to Iceland one day!

Mike, me, and Tony

Sibling pic on some petrified trolls. Mike said I could go on a higher one so that I could be taller for once. Thanks, Mike.

This is where the craziness of Iceland’s landscape diversity comes in… We were at a glacier, and then 30 minutes later, we were on the beach. Reynisfjara is a black sand beach, but the really cool thing is the rock formations there. They look like a bunch of pencils bundled together and sticking up at different heights. There are two options for how they were formed:

  1. The columns are trolls that were turned to stone when they were caught outside at dawn.
  2. They’re basalt columns (basalt is one of the rocks formed by lava). They’re formed when lava cools and contracts, making hexagonal rocks.

Guess which option I prefer.

It was more of a pebble beach than a sand beach. The ground looks super cool!

Mike holding up the entire cave with his super strength

There’s also a cave at the beach which, of course, has a name of its own: Hálsanefshellir. The rock formations in there are similar to the petrified trolls, but since it’s a cave, they’re coming in from all directions instead of being just straight up and down. I think we got lucky because we were there at low-ish tide, so we could get into the cave. It was still a bit of an adventure because we had to run towards the ocean as the water retreated to get to the other side of the troll rocks and then run away as the waves came back in, re-separating the two parts of the beach. And, we had to watch out for sneaker waves…

I love all the shades of blue and grey in the water and the sky

Inside the cave

Tony and Mike messing around

Full view looking out from the cave

Sneaker waves are basically waves that are much bigger and come much farther into shore than the others, hence the “sneaker” part of the name because they can sneak up on you. The concept of sneaker waves is not at all funny… people have died from getting swept out to sea by the strange and unpredictable tides. We were quite entertained by the signs though, and the fact that they’re called sneaker waves never fails to make me giggle.

The sign says:
DANGER
– Very dangerous sea currents
– Deadly sneaker waves
– Never turn your back on the ocean
– Supervise children
The graphic in the middle shows the danger zone close to the waves that you should avoid, the light blue ones are “ordinary waves” and the dark blue ones above are “deadly sneaker waves”.
To the right, it gives information about a tourist death due to the waves.

I kept imagining someone standing on the beach with a big cartoon wave behind them, tapping them on the shoulder… Surprise! The signs tell you to “never turn your back on the ocean!” We had a lot of fun yelling that at each other. And then we turned our backs on the ocean a couple times (unintentionally!) and found ourselves sprinting up the beach to avoid getting soaked by surprise waves. So that’s what we get for not listening. (Strongly recommend that you heed the signs.)

Standing at the edge of a foamy wave, definitely keeping one eye out for sneaker waves…

Mike doing some earthbending

I found the perfect spot to protect me from the sneaker waves!

Cool rocks near the cave

There are also some rock formations out in the water, Reynisdrangar. In typical Iceland fashion, each of the three rocks also has its own name because why not. They are the remains of two trolls who went to help tow in a large ship… and then the dawn came and petrified the trolls AND the ship. Trolls must be extinct considering how many rock formations are attributed to their failure to keep track of time.

Hooray for black sand beaches!

We had a little more driving to do before we got to our campsite for the night, but we still had plenty of daylight (thank you, super long days). We’d hit all the major destinations for the day, so we consulted Aunt Judy’s list of notes to give us some ideas for a few more stops to make along our route.

On our way to see a cave from her list, we passed a sign marking the start of a hike on Hjörleifshöfði mountain. I have no idea what convinced us to do it, but we had some time and why not? Okay, I’ll take the blame. I didn’t think it seemed that long. In the end, I’d say that at least 50% of it was underwhelming mostly because the entire world was brown (it’s probably fab in the summer), but in terms of Icelandic history significance, it wasn’t a complete bust! We trekked across the treeless mountain, through mud and snow and little ground plants, until we finally reached the top of the mountain where there’s supposed to be an amazing view of the surroundings… and guess what? A heavy fog set as we were approaching the top, so we couldn’t see anything except the faint outline of some strange stone structure.

Looking back at the path as we climbed up

Mike surfing a dirt wave on a dirt surfboard

Multicolored mud

So. Weird.

Ground plants!

Mike paying his respects

It turned out to be a Viking graveyard! This is one of those situations where we wouldn’t have been surprised if we had done ANY research or had even just read the signs before starting the hike because it’s kind of a big deal. Oops. Hjörleifur Hróðmarsson is buried there, the “second settler of Iceland”. His brother was Ingólfur Arnarson, the first settler. Hjörleifur only survived one year on Iceland before he was killed by his slaves. He was avenged by his brother, and apparently, the mountain is now haunted by him… add that to the list of things we didn’t know. Maybe that explains the fog.

The graveyard itself was very confusing. There was this big cylinder/cone thing that was next to the plot of land where the graves were. I thought maybe it was some weird Viking burial thing since it didn’t seem to serve any obvious purpose, but turns out it’s a marker built by Danish surveyors.

Hjörleifur’s grave

Family plot from some more recent inhabitants of the mountain with Hjörleifur’s grave mound in the background

Finally, as we started to walk down from the gravesite, the fog cleared and we had a view of the seemingly endless lava fields stretching in every direction. The mountain we were on must have dropped out of the sky because it’s the only one in the area, and around it is flat, flat, flat.

Going down

Mike and Tony, thrilled to be here

The top of the mountain was weird

Lava fields stretching to forever

On the way back to the car, we passed some ruins/old foundations of two farms. The former farm inhabitants are buried on a plot next to Hjörleifur. I thought the whole thing was kind of cool. Mike and Tony were probably just trying to figure out why they’d listened to me about the hike. Sorryyy.

Farmhouse ruins

Walking back down into the valley

Hjörleifshöfði cave

Since we were already so close, we did stop by our original target (2 hours later…) Hjörleifshöfði cave. It was probably worth a quick stop, but at that point, I think we were all tired and hungry and slightly grumpy. After a brief poke around, we headed to the campsite for another much-needed sleep on the cold, hard ground. This night was extra cold. Ugh.

Little caves along the base of Hjörleifshöfði mountain

Our car outside of the cave. Doesn’t this look like a car ad?