We’d initially expected to spend just a couple of days in Gliwice, but what with waiting for a spare freehub that didn’t arrive until the Monday, and generally enjoying my sister’s company (!), we ended up spending a whole week there, including a day in neighbouring Katowice and a tour round Gliwice’s radio tower. It was a really nice, relaxing break, but our Russian visa expiration date was ticking away in the background so on Tuesday 12th we thought we’d better get our asses back in the saddle. We decided to head south via Pszczyna where they make a special vodka infused with bison grass. Why there are bison in Pszczyna I have no idea, but there are, and the grass they graze on…or rather the grass they haven’t yet grazed on…is popped into the local voddy. It’s very nice. Then, whilst looking at the map for somewhere with a decent stretch of forest near Pszczyna that might be good to camp in, we noticed that Auschwitz wasn’t very far away. It hadn’t been on our original itinerary, and after having been to Mauthausen I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go, but Keith was keen to get a sense of the scale of the place so we decided to spend another day sightseeing and, after camping in a very comfortable grassy little glade, we headed off in the airless heat to visit the largest of the Nazi death camps. Killing on an industrial scale. On the way we were hailed by a couple of middle-aged ladies on bicycles who’d spotted us the previous evening in Pszczyna and were delighted to have the chance to talk to us. It was the first of two serendipitous meetings that morning that led us to change our itinerary yet again and see the most humbling and thought-provoking art exhibition I’ve ever been to. The two ladies on bikes told us of an exhibition by an Auschwitz survivor that was on display in the crypt of a Franciscan church in a nearby village. Our map wasn’t very detailed so the village was hard to find, but eventually we found it, and discovered the exhibition was entry by appointment only…we were about to give up and leave when the second serendipitous meeting occurred. An elderly couple approached us and, after we explained why we were there, they went and banged on the door of one of the nearby buildings and arranged for someone to show us round the exhibition. How lucky was that? The artist, Marian Kolodziej, had died relatively recently, in 2009, and had not only drawn the pictures but had also designed how the exhibition should look. The entrance was through a shattered glass door and into a dark wooden enclosure to bring to mind the cattle trucks in which people were transported. Photos of his friends who hadn’t made it were pinned roughly to the wood. Our guide explained that the artist had been just 17 when he imprisoned as a political activist and was in the first train-load of prisoners to be sent to Auschwitz. Incredibly he survived 5 years at Auschwitz, only to be liberated by the Red Army and then re-arrested by them almost immediately as they thought he was too friendly with the US soldiers, and he then spent the next 5 years in a gulag. He said there wasn’t much to choose between the two. Anyhow, the drawings. They were almost all done in black and white (good & evil symbolism), either pencil or pen, on large sheets of paper that were then placed together to form huge wall and ceiling coverings. The drawings were all completed in a nine month frenzy following a stroke in 1992. He’d enjoyed a successful career as an artist and stage designer but had never before drawn anything relating to his internment…in fact prior to his stroke he’d never even spoken to his wife of what had happened, but suddenly, he was compelled to bear witness. Whether it was simply a sudden sense of his own mortality, or whether it was, as our guide told us a visiting professor of neuroscience had posited, a re-awakening of buried memories by the stroke, I don’t know, but it must have been quite frightening for his wife to see him suddenly compelled to spend every waking hour on the floor, crouched over a piece of paper, drawing. Faces, hundreds and hundreds of faces: of those who didn’t make it, of those who tortured them, of the desperate starvation, cannibalism, barbarity and utter lack of humanity. And in the midst of this overwhelming horror there were some particularly personal stories. One of his jobs had been to shovel corpses into a barrow and take them to the crematorium. One day he came across the body of his best friend. He refused to use the shovel, but instead, lifted him in his arms and carried him, an act that could have been enough to cause him to be sent for special punishment, but which he needed to do to prove to himself he still had a scrap of humanity left in his soul. From that day on he also took the first name of his best friend, Marian, and has been known by no other since. A few drawings later, the reason why he left his exhibition to the Franciscans became apparent to us. One of the more famous stories about Auschwitz is the sacrifice of a Franciscan friar called Maximilian Kolbe. There had been some infraction, an escape attempt I think, and in retaliation the Nazis selected ten men to be starved to death in the punishment cells. Maximilian volunteered to take the place of one of the other men, who had a wife and children. At first I didn’t really understand the significance of this, to be honest, I thought it was a bit stupid. What’s the point of sacrificing yourself when it doesn’t change anything? Ten men will still die, it just means you’re one of them (although perhaps that’s preferable to living in a concentration camp) and in any case, there’s no guarantee that the man you’ve saved will survive anyway (although apparently he did). However, my ignorance was soon addressed as I began to see it through the artist’s eyes. He had personally witnessed this act of sacrifice and been profoundly moved by it. At the end of the exhibition there was a line of text in which he dedicated the exhibition to Kolbe and said that he’d saved more than one life that day. It seems the mood in the camp had changed following that act. Men who’d previously given up all hope suddenly felt there was something to live for, felt that there was still some good in the world, in men. I’m not doing the exhibition justice with my perfunctory and inadequate description. It spoke volumes more than seeing the camp itself. Some pictures were horrific but you were ready for them, knowing what the exhibition would be about, others, in particular one where his younger self was reaching over the shoulder of his older self and guiding his hand to fill the page, turning endless numbers into endless faces, were shockingly and profoundly moving. It was absolutely masterful and I feel so privileged to have seen it. Everyone should have the opportunity.
Back on the road, we headed south-east into the mountains of the Czech Republic and phoned the couple we’d met in the border museum the previous week as they’d offered us a bed for the night. Unfortunately the night we’d be arriving in Val Mez they would be at a music festival elsewhere, so we wild camped instead and made our way over the next couple of hilly days via Zlin towards Slovakia. We made it into Slovakia on the evening of the 16th with only 80km to go to Bratislava, and as it would all be flat we thought it would be an easy day’s ride after the previous few days of climbing through the mountains. How wrong we were. It was over 30 degrees in the shade and we pedalled into a ferocious headwind that didn’t so much cool as desiccate us. It was great to get to Bratislava, which has a very pretty old quarter with quirky statues peeking round corners and out of man-holes, and have a well deserved cool beer and an ice-cream.
Sadly the campsite in Bratislava is about 8km out of town and is a vile, overcrowded hell-hole, next to a busy road and under a flight path….but it’s cheap and has wifi. After five nights of wild camping the showers were most welcome (although marred by the hordes of squawking teenagers who were for some reason all queuing for a shower at 6.30pm), but the lack of washing machine is a serious annoyance as my hand-washing technique isn’t really up to clearing several days worth of sweat and grime from some seriously stinky cycling kit.
No photos for this blog entry I’m afraid, mostly because we haven’t taken very many recently and in particular haven’t got any of the Kolodziej exhibition which is the main subject of this entry. You’ll just have to use your imagination.