A weekend trip to Poland:
[be warned: this post could be somewhat of a downer.]
I left on Thursday evening from Salzburg and took a short train ride to Vienna where I switched to a night train. I got a whole compartment to myself on the night train, and it was interesting. I’ve gotten better nights of sleep, but it was something I always wanted to experience. “Maybe there was an accident. I think we’ll be in Kraków in 10 minutes.” That’s what the car attendant told me after we were waiting at a train station on the outskirts of Kraków for almost half an hour. I went to his compartment where he was eating his breakfast, and I asked him why we were waiting around for so long. The train did make it to the main Kraków station in 10 minutes though, so there probably wasn’t an accident. It was kind of funny how casually he said it, though, as if it was the norm on any train ride from Vienna to Kraków.
So the train arrived at 8 am, and I walked 20 minutes to my air bnb. After dropping my things off, I went and found a small café for a breakfast. I visited the Jewish culture museum that morning. The exhibit was simply made up of photographs and descriptions. The first part showed evidence of the Jewish culture that was once quite vibrant in this part of Poland. Another section of the exhibit focused on how the majority of Jews here were killed by the Nazis. The last section was more uplifting because it showed how Jewish culture is currently being cultivated here.
After the museum I walked to the New Jewish Cemetery (new meaning post-1800). It was beautiful and also rather sad because of the history. During the German occupation of Poland, gravestones from the Jewish cemeteries, including this one, were sometimes taken to be used for paving roads. After World War II, some people worked to restore the grave stones to their original places in the cemetery. I walked around Kraków for a while in the afternoon and found my way to the Kościuszko Mound, which is a manmade hill that commemorates a former national leader of Poland. It’s not too high up, but I got a nice view of Kraków and the surrounding area.
On Saturday I visited the Auschwitz concentration camp. It’s hard to describe what it feels like when you’re there. I bought a guide book and walked around Auschwitz I first. There was the courtyard with the wall where thousands of people were shot. There was a room where people were starved to death. There was a room with 2 tons of hair cut from women prisoners. Horrible, horrible things. Afterwards, I went to the Auschwitz II – Birkenau camp and walked along the train tracks that led to the ruins of the two main gas chambers. There I saw the place where over one million people were killed. It’s just impossible to comprehend such a fact.
The ruins of one of the main gas chambers at Auschwitz – Birkenau
When I was in 3rd grade, I visited the Dachau concentration camp with my family. I don’t remember every detail, but I do remember a feeling of utter sadness that day. What I saw at Auschwitz was similar to what I saw at Dachau; it was on a much larger scale though. My reaction this time was both similar and different to my reaction from 10 years ago. I felt sad because of the terrible things I saw and read about, but the most overwhelming feeling was one of confusion that had been accumulating all weekend. Let me try to explain my confusion:
On the train ride from Salzburg to Vienna, I read a paper about the struggles that countries are having with educating refugee children from Syria. This was for my class about the protection of human rights. There were some stories from the war in Syria in the paper that were appalling. Here’s one:
The war was outside my door. My children looked out the window every day and watched dead bodies thrown in the garbage pile across the street. One day, they saw their uncle shot to death outside our home. I told them not to look out the window anymore. It didn’t help. When they raided the house next door, we could hear the rape of my neighbor, my friend… We had to flee.
I also read an article about an innocent Tanzanian man who was detained and tortured by the CIA thirteen years ago. Then on Friday, I was at the Jewish culture museum and the New Jewish Cemetery. And on Saturday, Auschwitz.
As you can imagine, all of this was not exactly giving me much faith in humanity. In the evening, I needed something to cheer me up from my somber mood. I found a jazz club in the old town with live music at night. Maybe the peak of my confusion happened when I was walking across the main square to this jazz club. There were people everywhere, a guitarist playing with an amplifier, and from what I could see, everyone seemed to be enjoying the evening. So maybe the question that I can’t figure out is why are humans so hard to understand? One moment we’re slaughtering each other in concentration camps and wars, but on other days, hundreds of thousands of us can live in a city together in relative peace. The situation and the individual obviously determine a lot (look up the Milgram Experiment if you haven’t heard of it…), but it confuses me sometimes. Well, hopefully you have an idea of what was going through my head this weekend. And don’t worry, I did have a lot of fun in Krakow too!
The Cathedral at the castle
Overall, I really enjoyed visiting Kraków. The buildings, as in almost all European cities, were old and beautiful. My favorite thing about Kraków was how cheap the food is. I got a full meal of a salad, goulash, and a beer for 30 zloty, which would be about $8. Another great thing I ate was from a bakery. It was a small loaf of warm bread with a sausage baked in it. Quite simple, but so tasty. On Sunday, the 3rd PZU Cracovia Royal Half Marathon happened in Kraków! I didn’t know about it until I saw a bunch of gates set up around the city, and then I saw part of the race when I was leaving a Polish art museum. I looked it up later, and found out that there were nearly 10,000 runners, and the guy who won it ran a 1:02:59! Kraków is a city that I could definitely see myself visiting again.