Auschwitz

In August, before going to Bucharest, I went to visit Auschwitz. The former extermination camp is located around 70 kilometers west of Krakow. From Krakow, you have many options to visit Auschwitz. You can go by train, bus or car.

Although I have read many things about this extermination camp, it’s entirely different from being there. It is one thing to get info about the life in the death factory and a different experience to be in a chamber where hundreds of thousands of people were killed.

Entry to Auschwitz extermination camp. In front of the well-known iron gate with the message “Arbeit Macht Frei.”

The Auschwitz camp was first used as a labor camp and then, from 1942 to 1945, was an extermination camp. In January 1942, the Nazis decided to kill all the Jews from the German-occupied territories. Therefore they start moving more than one million Jews from Ghettoes to the exterminations camps by trains. Those who were not able to work were sent directly to the gas chamber. That included old people and children. It is estimated that more than 1.1 million people were killed in this camp. During the war from the six extermination camps, this was the camp with the most victims.

An electrified barbed-wire fence separates areas in the extermination camp.

The Nazis tried hard to hide the atrocities they did everywhere and the massacres against innocent people. Their actions to conceal facts failed. For example, in Auschwitz, they blew up the gas chambers before leaving the camp in January 1945. The Auschwitz museum was open soon after the war in 1947. Since 2016, more than 2 million people have visited the Auschwitz museum in the concentration camp each year. Having many visitors is a good sign that we learn from history not to repeat the same horrors.

Gas chamber II was blown up by Nazis before departing the camp. There were four gas chambers in Birkenau and one in Auschwitz. The gas chamber in Auschwitz is the only one that tourists can visit.
Aerial view of Auschwitz II Birkenau extermination camp from 1944. Gas chamber II marked on this image was shown in the previous picture.

That day in August, I heard about many atrocities and impressive stories told by our guide. I won’t mention those things here as this is not the purpose of this post.

In one of the buildings, there were two long opposite walls with pictures of former inmates. On one wall, there were pictures of men while on the other of women. Under each image was written the date when they entered the concentration camp and the day they died. They were all prisoners selected for work. They had better physical condition when they arrived. The guide told us that, on average, men resisted more prolonged than women. That was not because of physical strength but because of mental differences. During that time, women were expected to marry, have children and grow them. For many being there meant the end of life, that they were prepared to live. In many cases, the death happened within weeks after the arrival in the camp. It was not dying because of hunger or physical extermination but because of giving up hope.

Auschwitz-Birkenau: a memorial plaque written in Romanian

I wanted to understand more of what was causing that. I read Viktor Frankl’s book “Man’s Searching for Meaning”. Viktor Frankl was an Austrian psychiatrist imprisoned in Auschwitz and wrote about this experience.

He said that those who had a purpose in the life lived longer. His advice for humans was not to ask “what life offered me?” but rather “what can I do for this life?”. The answer would help us find meaning in life.

Another idea from the book is that the things that happen to us are not under our control. What matters is how we respond to the things that happen to us. Seneca said this in a format of heroism: “The bravest sight in the world is to see a great man struggling against adversity.”

There was one more insight. Viktor Frankl quoted Goethe, who said: “If we treat people as they are, we make them worse. If we treat people as they ought to be, we help them become what they are capable of becoming.” I have resonated for a long time with this statement.

On my departure from Auschwitz, I looked back over the camp and saw the light coming down through the clouds over Birkenau. That light was over the place on earth where some human beings killed so many innocent humans. The ashes of so many people rose to the sky there, and human beings suffered a lot. We should not forget this.

Birkenau – a place that we should never forget

Krakow Half Marathon 2021

The 7th edition of the Krakow Half Marathon took place on October 17th. The Krakow Municipality organized this event. Due to Covid restrictions, this year, organizers allowed a maximum of 5000 runners at the start. They did a great job. The highlights were: running on both sides of river Vistula, in Krakow city center, and impressive finishing on Tauron Arena, the biggest arena in Poland.

We were crossing the bridge over the Vistula.

The weather was cold that morning, around 10 Celsius, but great for running. It was the 7th year in a row when I ran a half marathon in October (starting from the MIB edition in 2015). For this race, my goal was to finish in under two hours. Since I was familiar with the half marathon distance, I started slowly. According to the statistics, after 10 km, more than 3000 runners were ahead of me. From 15th km, I increased the pace to faster than 5′ 30″ per km.

On the other side of the Vistula river

For the last 2 km, my speed was above 12km/h, which means running less than 5 minutes per kilometer. Indeed the finish on Tauron Arena was spectacular. There were lights and excellent visual effects in the vast hall. During the last 5 km, I went from place 3007 to 2478. The reason was not necessarily my increased speed. It was because many people ran too fast in the beginning and got tired. That happens every time. This race made no exception.

The official time was 1:56:53. This is 10 minutes below the personal best. However, this time is much better than the result at Bucharest Half Marathon. Given the current situation and my training, I am happy.

Only 2 km to the finish. All good!

One important aspect is that one week before the race, my coach, Stefan Oprina, suggested running 15 km in less than 1 hour and 25 minutes. I told him that I couldn’t do that as this year I am not in great shape. In 2021 I could run 15 km only in 1:27 or longer. Stefan said: “That is fine. Run whatever you can and let me know how it went”. That day I ran 15 km in 1:24. That made me believe that I could run this half marathon in less than two hours.

A gift from Stefan Oprina and the finisher medal from Krakow Half Marathon. The message is the motto of his running team: “Together, we are stronger!”

Stefan’s recommendation relied on the fact that I trained with him and the team for six weeks in Bucharest. During the first training, I was not able to run a kilometer in 5 minutes. Before leaving Bucharest, I managed to run 3 km in less than 5 minutes each.

I’ve learned one lesson from the Krakow Half Marathon experience. Often your brain sets the limits for you. In my case, it was 1:27 for 15km. Once you overpass that limit, you will feel free and boost your self-confidence. For example, last weekend, I ran 15 km in 1:21.

Spring in Krakow

Pablo Neruda once said that “you can cut all the flowers but you cannot keep spring from coming”. Today, March 5th, beginning of spring, my intention is not to cut flowers but to write about something nice. One thing that came to my mind was to mention the beautiful and interesting things I see in Krakow when running on the shores of Vistula. The order of images listed here was chosen to make the narrative easier.

Let’s start with the symbol of the city, the Wawel Dragon. These days many kids take pictures in front of the legendary mighty dragon. To make it look more real, the dragon spits fire every few minutes. A dragon guarding a castle is a fairytale image.

The Wawel Dragon

Guarded by the dragon is the famous Wawel Castle. The former residence of Polish Kings before 1596 when the capital moved to Warsaw. The big castle and cathedral form an architectural complex similar to the one in Prague. In fact, Prague is the city with the most similarities compared to Krakow. Probably it is because both cities were for many years under Habsburg Monarchy domination.

A wing of the Wawel Castle

From the castle, the running path follows the Vistula river until the foot of the hill that can be seen far away in this picture. There are a large park and a big forest. It is impressive to see a forest on a hill in a city. The highest peak that can be seen in the picture below is the Kościuszko Mound. That is a human-made mound to honor the memory of Polish national hero Tadeusz Kościuszko. As a fun fact, I remember in school learning at Geography that the highest peak in Australia is Mount Kosciuszko. At the time, I did not understand why. The internet was not available to search for the answer. I had to come to Krakow to find the answer. For the explorer who first climbed that mountain, it looked like the mound with the same name in Krakow.

The other way of the running path leads to the Kazimierz neighborhood. Far on the right side, you can see a wheel and a balloon.

The balloon and the Krakow’s Ferris Wheel. Unfortunately, the ballon was not flying when I took the picture. For me flying the ballon is not an option as I am afraid of heights.

Another nice bridge is Father Bernatek Footbridge adorned with sculptures. This bridge makes the connection with the Jewish neighborhood. Kazimierz is the bohemian part of the city, with a different atmosphere than in the city center. Under the bridge, a few ships were transformed into restaurants. Some ships make cruises on the Vistula river.

Bernatek Footbridge

As mentioned above, Krakow reminds me mostly of Prague. I couldn’t resist adding a picture of this modern art symbol from Krakow similar to the ones from Prague. It is always funny to admire such examples of modern art. A theory is that the pig, set in a position to be lit ablaze, signifies renewal. 

Running in a fairytale environment makes the experience more pleasant. Hoping that you enjoyed the pictures above, I wish you a great year ahead! Despite all the difficulties, life goes on!

Since all the pictures were near a river, I thought it appropriate to end with a song on a river

6700 km – Running in Krakow

Last summer, I decided to resume my professional career in Krakow. Living alone in a city where I knew no one was not easy but not that hard as anticipated. The fact that the office is open, respecting anti-Covid norms, was very helpful. I could meet face to face many colleagues. The company assisted me with all the formalities needed to work from Poland.

My improvised office while working from home in Krakow

Running helped me a lot. I continued my training under indications from my coach, Stefan Oprina. In Krakow, I ran 540 km, three times per week, before I had to stop in December. The reason was that it was too cold outside. I had a sour throat after running while the outside temperature was under 0 Celsius. The gyms were closed due to Covid. My only option was to run at home with two dumbbells. I did that three times every week. I hope that I will be able to resume running outside starting from March. At the end of 2020, I still ran 1500 km in total.

Generally, I was running at a slower speed because the area for my training was where other people use to walk. In most cases, my runs were on the shores of Vistula. For example, in October, I ran a half marathon in two hours and thirteen minutes. Almost thirty minutes slower than the previous year. Still, running helps a lot both physical and mental health.

Last October. View from my window in Krakow center.

Krakow is the most popular tourist destination in Poland, with 14 million visitors in 2019. The city looks great, full of medieval buildings and the biggest old center in Europe. Most of the people speak English as they are used to interact with tourists. That is important for someone who doesn’t speak Polish. Coming here last July was a good thing. All the museums and restaurants were open. For example, visiting Shindler’s factory, I understood the plot from “Schindler’s List” movie. Laying on the hills the city has many spectacular landscapes. A must-see is the Wawel cathedral and castle, the residence of Polish kings before 1596. Then Warsaw became the capital of Poland.

View from Wieliczka Salt Mine

Close to the city, there are many other attractions, the Carpathian mountains with the famous resort Zakopane situated about 110 km to the south. There are hills, small towns, lakes, and nice sightseeings. Other cities in proximity are Katowice with wide-open spaces reminding of US cities, Częstochowa and Ostrava in Czechia.

View of Zakopane from surrounding mountains

Other positive things? The food tastes better and is cheaper than in Romania. Big malls and better roads.

What are the shortcomings? The winter is colder here than in Bucharest. Also, for me, the Polish language is hard to understand, but my colleagues are friendly.

Coming to Krakow was a great decision. A great life experience so far. Maybe I will post later some tourist experiences around Krakow.

Krakow International Chess Festival 2020

Traditionally, at the end of the year, there are many chess tournaments around the world. At that time, most chess players are on vacation. The most famous example is Hastings International Chess Congress, which had its first edition in 1895. This year, because of the Covid pandemic, tournaments decades older moved online or got canceled. There was one exception. The XXXI edition of the Krakow International Chess Festival took place from December 27th to January 4th in a traditional format. Players were meeting face to face. They were grouped by rating in six different tournaments. Almost 500 players participated.

To play chess during a world pandemic… That sounds like Antoninus Block in Ingmar Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal”. “A man seeks answers about life, death, and the existence of God as he plays chess against the Grim Reaper during the Black Plague”. If you haven’t seen the movie, I recommend it. It’s one of the most important movies ever made.

The most famous chess scene in a movie

These days, in chess, Grim Reaper was replaced by computers that can defeat any human being. Computers are trying to kill the soul of chess by exploring all the possible variations of the game.

Returning to real life, there were, of course, special safety measures for the Krakow tournament. All players had to have their nose and mouth covered with a mask. Each player’s temperature was checked at the beginning of the game. The hands were disinfected. Also, no visitors were allowed inside the playing venue. The pictures for this post were taken from the tournament site.

Before entering the playing hall. Arbiters making sure that I respect the tournament rules. On the table, you can see the device for checking the temperature.

Due to the current world situation, I expect to pass a long time until the next chance to play chess at the table. The alternative is not too good. There are many online chess tournaments. The problem with online chess is that some players are cheating with software. They are identified after the games with the help of software that detects computer moves. Unfortunately, the rankings can’t be corrected at the end of the tournaments. The damage remains.

My hope for this tournament was not to get infected with Covid. Now, I can say that I achieved this goal. I was playing in the B section of the tournament. Together with 95 other players and 3 arbiters. We were in the same room for 3 to 4 hours for 9 days. Although we were wearing masks, the risk was present. The context was that at that time, Poland had a high rate of infections.

This is how the tournament B playing hall looked like

The tournament venue was the Galaxy Hotel on the shores of the Vistula river. It is not far from the city center. The playing conditions were great. Many boards were transmitted live on popular chess sites. The organizers had to cancel some other touristic activities planned for the chess players because of Covid.

The only image from the tournament hall where I could identify myself

As for myself, I played in the intermediate level tournament. It was open for players rated between 1700 and 2100. The nine players that I encountered were rated higher than me. I lost 5 games, won 3, and draw one. Not a great result. However, because of the differences in rating, I ended up winning 15 ELO points. More important, I was able to enjoy some chess games. Normally, I would share some chess positions as highlights. Unfortunately, I had no chance to make combinations. The only combination that was played against me was incorrect. I played correctly and my opponent gained nothing out of it. All the games were interesting. It was tough fighting even if there were no fireworks.

Children section of the tournament. The future of chess is in their minds.

I would like to end on a positive note. It makes me really happy that chess is so popular among children. This happens not only in Poland or in Romania but in many other countries around the world. Children can learn a lot of things from chess. Maybe I will write later a post about the benefits of chess.

Across the world, based on the average ratings of the top 10 players, the leading countries are Russia, the United States, China, and India. This can give you insight into how popular chess became worldwide.