Among the many riveting facets of this Polish city is the grievous history that took place on its grounds. Throughout the month that I’ve stayed, vignettes of its haunting past have slowly opened its doors, beckoning for me to enter, to explore and to understand the events that made up the most destructive war in history and the part this town has played and witnessed.
I have watched Schindler’s List years before this trip and, in all honesty, quit the movie halfway because I found it draggy, or rather because I was ignorant that did not care enough to research about its context. When I chose Kraków to be the setting of my volunteer stint (more on this in another post), I had no idea I was to find myself in the very setting of the movie’s story. It was impossible to contain my curiosity, given the many times it had been referred to in countless museum visits, conversations, and tours; hence, I watched it again, this time completely aware of every event, pointing out each scene with vivid familiarity (I’ve seen that! Hey, I was just there!). Historical monument after another, I gradually put the pieces together and pondered upon the themes that were contained and that followed it–Fascism, communism, genocide, xenophobia, antisemitism–all of which still exist in both explicit and subtle variations, today. The Pandora’s Box of Western history, society, and culture was opened upon immersion (as prior formal education was severely lacking). I knew I was merely scratching the surface, and have grown excited to dig even deeper in knowledge, and, upon application, wisdom.
In order to commit this newfound information into memory, allow me to take you through some of the points of interest of the most important war in history through this blog entry–a semi-virtual tour of Holocaust history in Kraków.
Auschwitz I & Auschwitz II-Birkenau
Arbeit Macht Frei–‘Work sets you free’ reads the rusting metal slogan on the entrance gate of the facility, which was once a concentration camp that jailed the Nazis’ political prisoners, and eventually turned into an extermination camp that withstood the largest mass murder in history–a genocide that wiped out 90% of a single race’s population in the country.
One of every six Jews killed in the Holocaust died in this site, mostly in gas chambers, after the Nazis’ decided “Final Solution to the Jewish Question”. It is important to note that Romas, Soviet Prisoners, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, and other nationalities were also murdered here.
Countless brutal activities were performed; some of the most merciless, animalistic treatments were gas ‘showers’ (in which cyanide-based pesticide, instead of water came out of the faucets), cramping of 10-12 people in a one-square-meter cell, The Death March–in which anyone caught slowing down was immediately shot to his death, false promises of letters being sent to loved ones, disposal and/or looting of all Jewish belongings–including corpses’ gold teeth and other precious articles, cutting of corpses’ hair as material for sweaters, public executions, to name a few.
There were simply no words to describe the massive terror I felt standing on what used to be a living hell on earth.
My recollection of Holocaust literature such as Night by Elie Wiesel, Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl, and countless movies such as Polanski’s award-winning The Pianist, came to life, and, for a moment, led me to countless of internal dialogues–to this day unsettled, though I am with full trust that God will reveal His hand in this to me as I question along.
My visit to this place of reminder was necessary–all the precise details, numbers, and names may be forgotten, but the essence of the tragic event itself could not and must not fade into oblivion in one’s memory, for it opens one’s mind to actively shun dangerous ideologies and even its subtle variations, and play a part in keeping history from repeating itself, beginning with true understanding and empathy.
Plaszow Concentration Camp
The slow and pleasant morning on the day of my visit became even more of a delight when I arrived to be the sole tourist of the lonely Plaszow Concentration Camp, which appeared like an open park situated in a residential complex. It is less well-known and much less frequented than its larger cousin, Auschwitz-Birkenau II, though it was the main setting of the abovementioned Spielberg classic Schindler’s List.
I took a leisurely walk, which would have been more comfortable if it weren’t for the scorching noontime heat and the hissing of some unknown creatures hiding behind the high grass (whether they had legs or were venomous, I wasn’t sure). The scenery might have been bland to the thrill-seeking tourist: wide, open air, flowers scattering about, unkempt grass and a concentration of large rocks were present here and there, but it was pleasant for me: a break away from the city’s crowds and heights. I felt closer to the sky, and nature brought solace and breathing space for my mind to reflect upon the events that took place in those grounds, as written in the inscriptions on the boards scattered throughout the now-deserted grassland. Rightly solemn, it was as if the place was designed to incite more thought (especially after I came across the main monument, in front of which I had to sit down for a few minutes).
Oskar Schindler’s Enamel Factory
The most important museum one needs to see in Kraków, the main exhibition walks the visitor through the chronology of World War II, describes the terrors of the Third Reich, and narrates the part a particular German entrepreneur played in saving over a thousand Jewish lives. Creatively-designed and interactive, the exhibit engages the five senses to a journey that not only educates but evokes deep empathy over the suffering, and depicted the heroic character of the man who was struck by compassion, turning his back from a bright and privileged future in order to fulfill a noble purpose, and consequently, the appeasement of his conscience.
Regrettably, I was unable to finish the tour (I took my time, unaware of how lengthy it was!). Three hours wasn’t enough for me to go through everything. On my second attempt to visit during a free-for-all day, the sight of a ridiculously long queue caused me to retract, forming a reason for me to return to this city again. (Ha!)
Gestapo Cells in Ulica Pomorska
Deemed the official Headquarters of the Gestapo, the dilapidated old Dom Słaki building witnessed the merciless interrogations of anyone suspected to antagonize the Third Reich. The main exhibition narrates the timeline of Poland’s repression from 1939 to 1956–from Hitler to Stalin, and contains first-hand accounts of its past prisoners, enabling their mighty words to imprint in your memory the violence and inhumanity of their oppressors.
An even more somber atmosphere took on as I entered the former Gestapo cells. On one side of the shabby courtyard (perhaps maintained in such manner to evoke the atmosphere of the proceedings that took place), I walked down a staircase to find four rooms which used to be an asylum of the interrogated–should they have survived the questioning and the physical torture that notoriously came after it.
For a short while, I felt what it must have been like, although I was certain that my senses could never measure up to the real thing. There was an eerie chill in the dimly-lit basement floor; the walls breathed deeply–its cracks held traces of their suffering, with inscriptions: markings addressed to loved ones–bidding adieu, carvings of their names–as if they were ‘signing off’ from their earthly existence, and scribbles expressing their deepest hopes and restless prayers. Reader, harrowing was an understatement.
Podgorze District: the former Ghetto
In 1941, Jews in the city were evacuated into the district of Porgorze, better known as the Kraków Ghetto, from which I distinctly remember the film The Pianist (but in the Warsaw Ghetto, where Polanski himself lived and escaped from). Fragments of the walls still exist to this day, hence I sought them out: one in the corner of a busy street, and another, interestingly, inside the playground of a primary school. Despite the unassuming posts they took, plenty of tourists still visit this memento.
This is also part of the city where Oskar Schindler’s Enamel Factory could be found.
Kazimierz–the former Jewish district
Home to the Jews of the city for over 500 years, and the most authentic window to pre-war Jewish culture, Kazimierz has preserved more than any other in Europe. Old synagogues, eccentric restaurants serving authentic cuisine, a street market selling antiques and kitsch items, vintage bookstores supplying traditional Yiddish literature, museums exhibiting Hebrew art and psychology, breathe life once again into the city, despite the almost non-existent Jewish population today.
Do allow me to end this list on a brighter note–a detour if you will. Kazimierz is, doubtless, my favorite district in the whole of Kraków. I’m quite the anti-tourist tourist, and I often dislike crowded places, preferring more local neighborhoods to truly experience the heart of a city and not a false (or weak) representation of its true soul. Often drawn to creative districts, I enjoy walking along streets lined with graffiti art, boutique shops, well-decorated cafes, rustic and/or industrial architecture–simply put, a space that welcomes expression: a smorgasbord of artistic styles, beautifully juxtaposed, in which the wanderer cannot say, “If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all,” for she never knows what she will find next. In it she often finds herself stopping to take a photograph of something she’s never seen before–such as witty storefronts or restaurants successfully transporting you to an unfamiliar era, smiling at a peculiar way of serving common fare, such as ice cream, or doughnuts, or stumbling upon a representation of bohemian spirit–the vinyl record store, the second-hand fur coat, the sepia photographs, the old-carpet smell, and the like.
Combined with a rich history, and many fond memories of my own, Kazimierz is a place that’s close to my heart. Kraków’s Old Town, despite its impressive authenticity, caters to a more general crowd and is more apt for children and old-timers. But this part of town is for the youthful free-spirit, and I relish its invitation.
But before you go…
I’m ending this virtual tour by asking you, dear reader, to contemplate, from a few seconds to as long as you like, about the events (as commemorated above) that shook humanity to its core and beckon us to be aware of the harmful, destructive use of power, and the role we may play–whether actively or unintentionally–in contributing to discrimination, oppression, or persecution in any way, for it is our responsibility–individually and collectively, to shape a future that is more inclusive and accepting of all human beings–regardless of color.
Personally, it is my knowledge and trust of God’s sovereign design that all people are made in His likeness–that our individual identity–race, body, beauties, flaws, what have you–was made for a Divine purpose, and most importantly, that His Son died a glorious death for sinners and wretched people of all kinds–that brews in me a heart of love and compassion at its very core–which at times forgets, or fails to express, and needs the comfort of its Maker to make whole again. I wish the same for you, dear reader.