This weekend I went to Kraków, Poland with my study abroad program. The weather was gloomy and the mood was too – which was fitting because we went to Auschwitz and Birkenau.
My program took an 8 hour bus ride from Prague to Kraków, where we stayed at hostels in the old town square. On our way to Kraków we watched Schindler’s list, which definitely set the mood for the weekend.
On the first full day, we took a 2 hour walking tour. It was raining, but the city was still beautiful. We saw the castle, a university, famous statues, and the Jewish ghetto. The city was very well preserved and in tact, given that they were under heavy Nazi occupation in the past. Next, some of us went to Schindler’s factory for a tour. It was really interesting to see, but I wish I could’ve seen more because our guide rushed us along. I also wish there weren’t so many ignorant students there. Before entering the factory, I overheard a student loudly complaining, “I hope this isn’t like Anne Frank’s house where you just walk in, see some shit, and leave”…people are so disrespectful sometimes!! There is clearly more to Schindler’s factory than “some shit to see” and the house where Anne Frank was hidden in Amsterdam, for that matter.
Without letting people’s ignorant comments get the best of the weekend (although the comments continued), I headed to Auschwitz concentration camp the next day. There we saw firsthand the impact of the holocaust – prison cells, examination rooms, execution walls, and gas chambers. One of the most disturbing parts of the experience was when we walked into the room in which piles of hair that were cut from victims remained preserved behind glass walls. I’ve seen displays like this at holocaust museums in Los Angeles and Washington D.C., but nothing could prepare me for the visual of fallen locks in the exact place they were cut from innocent women and children’s heads. As I entered the room, I felt the tears in my eyes emerge, but I held them back. Seeing brushes, glasses, shoes, and expensive valuables like pottery and jewelry all piled up was so sad. These people were under the impression that they should bring all their belongings on the trains because they thought the trains were leading them to a better life, not a death camp where their valuables were stripped from them.
After an intense walk through the main Auschwitz camp, we headed to Auschwitz II Birkenau, where the tour was held outdoors. It rained on and off all day. It reminded me of what people always say when it’s raining at funerals – that the sky was crying as if to pay respect to all the lives lost. Here we saw the tracks that led victims to two lines, one for labor camp and one for immediate death. People were hardly given a thought before being assigned to a line; they were just simply glanced at and a decision was made. We walked through the grounds where victims once worked, now nearly gone from the Nazis trying to destroy evidence of their wrongdoings. We observed a holocaust memorial next to former gas chambers and crematoriums, with words written on plaques in many different languages. At the end of the tour, I bought some postcards to remember my time at the camp museum. I left the concentration camps with a better understanding of what occurred in Poland and all over Europe during the war. I also left with a greater appreciation for my ancestors, those that could have easily been apart of the fallen victims of Oświęcim.
After a heavy day of learning about the Holocaust, we ate dinner at a restaurant next to our hotel. I got pierogi, Polish dumplings with potato and cheese. Pierogis are really good!! I have to have my friend Kristin make them for me sometime (she’s Polish)! I loved them and I ate them every night for dinner in Krakow. The next morning I bought some souvenirs to bring home, a little Jewish statue and an obligatory tourist shot glass before heading back to Prague.
My weekend in Poland was emotionally draining, but worth it. I have always wanted to go to Auschwitz and see the destruction with my own eyes. To be able to pay homage to the 1.1 million victims of Auschwitz and 6 million victims of the Holocaust was very important to me. While the weekend was difficult, it was one that I will always remember.
“Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it” – George Santayana