My husband and I spent the first week of August 2015 in Krakow, Poland. I am very lucky. The first week of September 2015 we will spend several days in the Bavaria region of Germany—so expect another trip blog post coming soon.
In Krakow, Poland we visited a variety of cultural and historical sites including: The Wieliczka Salt Mine, the market Square in Krakow and the Cloth Hall, St. Mary’s Basilica, the Jagiellonian University, the Wawel Castle (and the accompanying dragon’s den below it), the Jewish History museum, the Vistula River, and the park which winds its way through the core of Krakow. We also made a side trip to Auschwitz.
Auschwitz Concentration Camp
By far the most emotionally riveting experience was our tour through the Auschwitz Concentration camp; we visisted Auschwitz 1 and the Birkenau concentration camps.
Prior to going to Auschwitz I was exponentially ignorant of the Holocaust, especially many of the important details surrounding this tragic segment of history. I still have lots to learn. The emotions that came upon me penetrated deeply and stung for the remainder of the week.
We saw the bare, cramped “living quarters” that the victims were housed in. In the buildings of Birkenau, there were 3 tiers of wooden platforms—starting from the floor to near the ceiling—that served as “bunk beds”. There was barely enough hall space between the wooden plank “beds” that were jammed tightly within the buildings. Up to seven people would sleep on each bare wooden tier that served as a “bunk bed”. There were cracks in the walls of these buildings that allowed for freezing cold temperatures to seep in throughout the winter months.
Many of the Auschwitz victims would live in the concentration camp for as little as three months before they died of hunger, freezing, being shot in the back of their heads, and/or being swiftly ushered into gas chambers. Very few people would live for a year or more. Actually, since many individuals were deemed “unfit” to live, most would be forced into gas chambers promptly upon their arrival.
We walked through one room that displayed mountains upon mountains of shoes. We saw display cases full of cookware and suitcases that the Jews had brought with them to the camp. Many of the Jews seemingly believed that they were just being “relocated” and that their lives and family structure would go on as it was before. Thus, the women brought their cookware thinking that they would be cooking for their individual families. The Jews would also label their suitcases with numbers, assuming that they would be getting their belongings back at some point during their stay in the camp. Little did they know that they would be forced into a rigidly structured death camp, meant solely for their annihilation.
We were taken through the gas chamber and the crematorium. We even saw a room full of human hair which we were told was used and sold by the Nazis as “Mattress filler.” The Germans didn’t want to waste human tissues that could potentially be useful or profitable—after all, the victims were already dead, so why waste it? This was their mind-set.
To me, perhaps the most cogent aspect of the Holocaust was the way in which it was orchestrated. It became clear that this entire morbid enterprise couldn’t have happened so effectively and smoothly without large numbers of people playing different roles in a cold, calculated, incredibly silent and deceptive fashion. While Hitler is most certainly one of the most putrid characters in human history, we must remember that it took an entire nation of people who agreed with him and thought like him for such a feat to take place.
On a lighter note, we truly enjoyed our time in Krakow. We wandered through all the entrails of the city and stopped by the Jagiellonian University (Krakow University)—the place where Copernicus studied. I didn’t know that Copernicus was a polymath. He studied medicine, mathematics, philosophy, economics, astronomy and he was also a Priest (Per our Polish Tour guide who works at the Krakow University). While Copernicus practiced religion, he was still hesitant to share his findings about Heliocentrism until he got much older—and we are all familiar with the reason why he waited: fear of being burned at the stake for suggesting such a preposterous idea! We got to see a copy of his “Revolutions” which is a precious artifact of scientific progress.
We went on a tour of the Wieliczka Salt Mine—one of the oldest salt mines in the world (1000 or so years old!) Please see the pictures of the incredible salt sculptures.
The dining in Poland was great. When you walk through the city you are assaulted with some of the most delicious smells your brain has ever entertained. We enjoyed many Pierogi lunches and we even tried some Georgian cuisine.
So far, my favorite European cathedral is in Krakow. It is St. Mary’s Basilica. This place has towering ceilings and is full of all kinds of ecclesiastical treasures. There are Biblical paintings, stained glass windows, gorgeous statues and sculptures adored in gold and the interior of the church has this unusual yet striking color scheme of steel blue and gold—very celestial, indeed!
I think Krakow, Poland was one of my favorite places in Europe that I’ve been to. Even though the weather was intensely hot and muggy, we enjoyed our time there—even more than Ireland.
Some of the Treasures I bought in Poland 🙂 These include: A painting from a Polish artist (reminds me of a Matisse), adorable skirt, Polish Pottery and little wooden, hand-made boxes.