This post is was originally written in February 2012 after one of my first weekend trips to Krakow, Poland, during my study abroad semester in Prague. Thinking back, it may have been the first time when I truly felt the need to write down my thoughts in order to fully make sense of my experience. Upon returning to Prague, I wrote this post in a Word document, including the pictures below, and sent it to a close group of my family and friends. Now that I have a whole website of writing about my travels and in honor of Holocaust Remembrance Day this past week, I felt it made sense to post the piece (slightly edited) that really started it all.
The weekend began with our group meeting in Prague at midnight on Thursday/Friday to get on our bus for an arrival at Auschwitz youth center at 6:30am. We ate and layered up for the gloomy, cold, rainy weather and began our tour at 8 am at Auschwitz 1. This was the smallest of the three camps in the area and it didn’t really hit me for a while where I was. The buildings were all two-story brick-looking ones, like a nice version of summer camp. Our tour guide took us in many of the buildings, which were set up similar to a sparse museum. I first was really affected by a glass case with hundreds of suitcases behind it, each with the name and address of someone who died. Seeing the names and the hope that was in each suitcase after being told they were going to a better life was extremely sad. Afterwards, we went in to a room with glass cases on both sides with piles of shoes in each that stretched the length of the whole room of people that died in the camp. This probably had the biggest effect on me. The fact that each pair belonged to a person really hit me and expressed the gravity of the numbers of the Holocaust. Lastly, we saw photos to show the starvation endured by some of the prisoners. It was shocking to see women who lost half their body weight in a span of months. One woman’s leg was thinner than any arm I’ve ever seen.
The last thing that stood out to me at this first camp was seeing the gas chamber and crematorium. I realized that I had never really comprehended the number of people that were brought to these camps, told they were taking a shower, and immediately were killed for no reason whatsoever. I feel like in school we always read survival stories, but in reality only a very slim number of people taken to these camps were even given the chance to survive. One of my friends later pointed out that she noticed as we went in that looking around at that space was the last view millions had of the world.
Next we took our bus to Auschwitz II-Birkenau. The immediate effect of the large main gate enhanced the bleakness of the weather as the wind and rain started to pick up. It was amazing to walk to through the gate, along the central train tracks, to the back of the camp. A few times I caught myself feeling miserable with the weather, only then to remember that the prisoners had to stand in often harsher conditions without my puffy North Face jacket and boots, but rather usually barefoot standing on ice with a thin layer of cotton “pajamas.” Our tour didn’t even begin to span the entirety of the camp, which stretched to the sides for what looked like forever. We walked past the memorial with 22 plaques for the 22 languages spoken by prisoners at the camp. There is an English plaque although no English speakers were present. Our guide was so grateful that so many English speakers come when none of us had representatives from our country directly sent to Auschwitz. He then shared that closely after WWII the first guides at Auschwitz were survivors. I still cannot even imagine after enduring so much hardship and seeing so much evil to relive it for others so soon after.
We next walked to one of the many crematoriums that were destroyed by the Germans closely before the Russian liberation. Our guide described the systematic method of killing where thousands a day undressed in one chamber, were led to the gas chamber, and then brought in an elevator by fellow prisoners to the crematorium. The Nazis began with accomplishing 4,000 killings a day in this style, but this was not considered fast enough. The prisoners employed with this job often had to bring their family members and neighbors up from the gas chamber to the crematorium. Every 3 months these prisoners were relieved of this position by being killed by new prisoners. The new prisoners would then take on this job knowing that in 3 months the same would be ordered for them.
Let me stop to talk about how sickeningly brilliant the Nazis were at mentally destroying their prisoners. This psychological torture, in addition to the numerous other methods of emotionally and mentally destroying the prisoners was almost worse than the physical: making men and women embarrassingly strip naked in front of their families and children, spraying prisoners on and off for hours with scalding hot and frigidly cold water, de-humanizing prisoners so that children who survived did not even remember their own names. Even later in the city of Krakow we saw the walls of the Jewish ghetto that were tall, dark grey, stone slabs with rounded tops made to subconsciously look like tombstones. It is amazing to think that people sat around and actually concocted such a well-thought out plan of torture. Even scarier is that thousands of Nazis then had the willpower to implement it.
The last part of Auschwitz that really stuck with me was seeing the barrack for sanitation. Previously a stable for horses, the long brick building had rows of concrete holes for excretion—not so different than a basic port-o-potty system. However each barrack was to be used by 2,000 prisoners only twice a day, morning and night. On average, each prisoner had 10-20 seconds to use the toilet squeezed next to another prisoner potentially of the opposite sex or with a large age gap. Having the job of cleaning these barracks was considered lucky and came with connections. Instead of going off to work and being forced to soil oneself due to starvation-induced diarrhea all day, which often caused death by typhus, these prisoners had access to these toilets all day long.
The rest of Friday was left for emotional recovery and fun in Krakow, which there is definitely no shortage of. Going to Auschwitz was my main reason for going on the trip but Krakow as a city is amazing on its own. I am not sure what I expected from Poland, but Krakow was a great “European” city with charming, winding streets, cobblestone, a huge main square with a market and clock tower. If I had not studied in Prague I would most likely never have gone there, which really would have been a shame. It showed me that even the smallest, often underrated city has so much to see and do. This goes for traveling abroad, but also within the United States. After seeing so much in three short days, it baffles me that when at home, Americans rarely travel around the United States on short trips when our country on its own has so many great places to visit. I know that I get comfortable at school and feel like I would be missing out if I traveled away from campus. Definitely something I want to change when coming home.
Saturday, we covered what seemed like the majority of the major sights in Krakow. Our first stop was the memorial of the Jewish ghetto, which is a plaza with empty chairs each symbolizing one thousand Jews that lived in the ghetto. The memorial was thought out to replicate the fact that as more Jews were squeezed into the ghetto, they were forced to put their furniture out in the square once there was no more room in their apartments. After seeing a lot of monuments and memorials, the sheer emptiness and repetition of the chairs was extremely powerful in expressing the lack of life and destruction by the Holocaust.
After walking around the Jewish ghetto and Wawel castle, we headed to the main square to go to St. Mary’s Cathedral. Not being Christian and after seeing a lot of European churches, I was not expecting much; however this was by far the most amazing interior of a church I have ever seen. The gothic style meant high, arched ceilings, but the most immediate unique aspect for me was the use of color on every surface. The walls were blues, teals, oranges, pinks, and reds and the ceiling (meant to symbolize the heavens) was blue and gold. The church is most famous for its altar that shows the coronation of Mary. The center scene has figures that are 3 meters tall that were moved during the War to save them from destruction. My friend and I were lucky enough to also make it at 5:45 pm to see the nun close the altar. She took a giant hook and closed the two doors to then show the equally ornate outside.
The most amazing thing I did in Krakow by far though was going back after the tour with one of my friends to see the inside of the museum at the Schindler factory in the more industrial part of Krakow. I think I was expecting a museum that focused on the Holocaust with survival stories and personal accounts, but the museum was powerful though it barely mentioned Auschwitz or concentration camps. I would say the main way to describe its focus was that it was about the Nazi occupation of Poland. First of all it was extremely well done, each room was intricately decorated so you felt like you were physically in whatever location was being described. Second, I have never had a larger range of emotions in my life. There were rooms where I was sad/angry/teary/frustrated/ and many times I felt just plain awful about how much pain the Polish (and Czech) people have had to endure. Both countries became independent states after World War I, went through the Depression, and then had to go through the Nazi occupation only then to have to live through Communist regimes. When I left the museum I couldn’t even really believe that after all the suffering of WWII they then had to deal with so much restricted freedom for decades more.
Third, I had never really realized that the Polish people had tried to fight against the occupation. In history, we always learned that the Germans just came and took over, but the Polish people attempted to fight, though their efforts only lasted a few days. Fourth, it made me so angry to see the way the Nazis came in to these cities and countries and destroyed everything based on such a mentality of cultural superiority. We saw pictures of statues being torn down because they celebrated Polish history. In one room, we stood on a floor tiled with white tiles with swastikas. I wanted to tear up the tiles and throw them against the wall that anyone could have decorated their house in this way. While out in Krakow we met another student from the states who had just come from Warsaw. When I asked how it was he responded that there are no buildings older than 50 years because the whole city was bombed in WWII.
While in the museum, I realized that while both Krakow and Prague lived through Nazi occupation and Communism, the focus in Krakow is mainly on WWII while in Prague it is on Communism. I am not sure why, but my Czech roommate said that because the region of Prague in the Czech Republic was the first territory given to the Germans, Prague was almost protected and considered part of Germany. Czechs are known for being guarded and also non-confrontational, which is different than the Polish opposition to the Nazi occupation. Prague is definitely still living with the memory of Communism at the forefront of everyone’s minds. My Contemporary Culture teacher was in a rock band during the Communist era and the first day of class almost seemed nostalgic for her underground days fighting through art against the government. Krakow’s focus was definitely more on the underground against the Nazis.
It still surprises me that I actually look forward to my classes here. Last week we watched a film called Three Seasons in Hell about Egon Bondy who was an underground poet at the beginning of the Communist era. In fact, some Czechs even welcomed Communism as the anti-Fascism after WWII. It is so sad to now see how wrong they were and had no idea of the reality of the situation they were getting themselves in to. Besides now having a better understanding of WWII vs. the Holocaust, I now also have seen the distinction between Communism vs. Stalinism—the idealized system that was expected versus the reality.
As you can probably tell, traveling to Krakow was an amazingly life-changing experience for me. On the bus ride home I became sadder that so many people never make it to see these sights and learn these things in Krakow or even in Prague. What these people have gone through is so different than anything I as an American can even fathom. In class our professors have asked us—in these circumstances what would you have done? Often no one even tries to respond because while we have not experienced anything close to this, our professors all have.
If you have made it this far down in this really long rambling document, I hope you learned something. Even if you never make it to these places, I hope it gives you an understanding of the reasons why this region has such a unique culture and perspective. While it is definitely a far ways from the United States, I am so happy to be here and learning so much and enjoying learning.
Thank you for reading this and for everyone that made it possible and encouraged me and got me excited to come here. I am glad to share this with you because it is already hard to imagine coming home where such amazing places are not accessible for a weekend and many people barely know where Krakow is on a map. As my friends and I have started to say here when in Prague or Poland or Europe it is best to experience everything and as much as possible. This often leads to the most amazing discoveries and situations. It is definitely true that everyday that I have been here only gets better and better 🙂