Hard History Lessons (Krakow)

Aushwitz-Birkenau 1940-45 plaque, krakow
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There’s just enough light in the sky to know the suns awake. A calm wind rustles the leaves of a nearby tree and the ground is wet from the late night rain. I’m sipping my tea, half hanging off of the porch so I can keep an eye out for an arranged taxi. I glance left, no one. I glance right and slurp the tea in my hand; no one. Just me, the birds chirping in the tree branches across the street, the warm steam rising from my mug and my thoughts. Today I adventure to Poland via Budapest with one of my best friends. I smile knowing the two of us have been keen on an international adventure for years without having had the opportunity, until now. But an even sillier grin replaces the wide smile as my mind backtracks to the events of the evening, only a handful of hours behind me. I shift my body weight to the other foot and testify to the jury in my head; presenting the strongest bit of evidence including the fact that I hated washing him from my skin this morning. The jury deliberated this fact and conceded to grant me the morning (maximum) to act a fool.

I sleep soundly on the flight, waking only from the jolt of the wheels touching the tarmac. I’m disoriented and my eyes burn and appear swollen from the desire to be shut, again, for longer. We’ve got three hours until our scheduled Flixbus to Krakow—which gives way to the opportunity for eight more hours of sleep. Boarding the bus we quickly discover there’s only one set of two seats left. We take them and get comfortable as possible behind two guys who’ve reclined their chairs to the max. This action—reclining—has long been a pet peeve. I don’t see the sense in it, especially when seating arrangements make it impossible for someone with long legs, in turn, to sit comfortably behind the so inclined-reclined. Bestie and I bicker about this in Macedonian, sure that no one else on this vehicle will understand us. After falling asleep for about half of the trip, I wake to the blinking brightness of daylight through tree trunks. We’re in the mountains just outside of Banska Bystrica and continuing north through Slovakia.

Plump with plunder, Pigeons scatter across the sky as well as the ground. They drink and bathe in pots of water left out by locals. I’m enjoying the sunshine after the rain while I dine on zapiekanki; a Polish style flatbread pizza with toppings of your choice. Some emotional runoff from a difficult morning puts me in the right frame of mind for the free walking tour through the old Jewish Ghetto in Kazimierz—so named for the King who reigned in the 14th century and helped Jews migrate to Poland despite growing anti-Semitic rhetoric. Seen as hard working, passionate about education and dedicated to economic development, Jews who settled in Krakow became scientists, professors, and engineers, ultimately, propelling the Polish economy. I’m quiet and observant as a member of the free walking tour. The stories I’m hearing make my stomach churn. So much loss of life; pointless loss of life. The stories of heroism intertwined in the horrific facts do little to ease my nausea. All I can think about is the terror of day-to-day life for Jews during this time in history. Treated like less than rabid animals Jews were systematically wiped out over three and a half (give or take) years—close to 3M to be exact. We walk through the old square, movie sets from the famous ‘Schindler’s List’, past alleyways where hundreds were massacred during the liquidation (the removal of Jews from the ghetto to be executed or sent to death camps). We learn the truth about Schindler (not all the Hollywood film has made him out to be) and the untold stories of countless others who risked everything to save the lives of thousands.

The streets and back alleys of what was the Jewish Ghetto of Krakow


Ghetto Heroes Square

The sounds of the city leak through the cracked windowsill of the hostel dorm room before creeping into my foam earplugs. The sharp noise of the tram clanking, metal against metal, big-wheel trucks holding metal containers of cargo is fortified by an anonymous, consistent ringing—perhaps a door alarm of a neighboring building. My eyes are tired and crusty with sleep. They burn and water when I attempt to keep them open, but open them I must. As a follow up to my visit to Schindler’s Fabrika and the historical walking tour through the Jewish ghetto, today I journey an hour and a half to the west of the city to Auschwitz-Birkenau. As one of the only remaining death camps created by the Nazis, Auschwitz is one of the few camps that survived the liberation (end of the war). Most of Birkenau was blown up, destroyed on purpose to hide evidence and/or burned to the ground by the Nazis, an attempt to cover their tracks.

The camp is still and eerie in the morning mist. There’s an energy in the air I cannot place, but it sets the hairs on my arms on end. It’s a humid day in July and I stare at the beginning of the barracks that make up Auschwitz 1 through the windows of the waiting room—each tour group enters separately—I attempt to imagine this place blanketed in snow. I wipe sweat beads from my forehead as I reflect on history book photographs displaying the emancipated bodies of those starving in thirty below temperatures of the Polish winter. Exiting Block 8 the wind picks up. I’m grateful for the breeze and the fresh air it circulates in my nostrils. I could barely stomach what I’ve seen: thousands of shoes, suitcases, even human hair from the victims. Stripped of their belongings upon arrival, Nazi’s would hoard anything that could be recycled into the war or used to bribe those within it. Nicknamed “Canada” the warehouses were these items were sifted and sorted were handled by Jewish prisoners and was considered one of the “good jobs” because they had direct access to medications and other supplies. These items prolonged the lives of some, granted moments of reunion for others if used to bribe SS soldiers. I take a deep breath and let my head fall backward. Blinking up towards the sky I observe there’s not a single bird chirping or flying within my line of sight. I wonder if that’s a concept of energy or a coincidence. The trees just outside of the grounds roar from the growing strength of the wind coming in waves now. The collision of the leaves with the gusts of wind sounds like rainfall. The decay of the history here offering up a ghostly contrast to the lush green fields and forests so close to what was an electric fence. The wattage was enough to stop your heart. I say a silent prayer for the damned souls lingering here, tricked and terrorized until the day of their execution, that despite this final resting place that the proximity of the forest and being surrounded by nature now offers some serenity.

[embedyt] https://youtube.com/watch?v=pZcVXdITp40[/embedyt]


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