Freshmen year of high school I had to read The Diary of Anne Frank for an English class. I knew very little about the Holocaust and WWII. I will later write a blog discussing the failures of the education system in my town but I’ll just say that when reading this book I was taken aback by the story. What I knew about the Holocaust I saw watching Schindler’s List. To be able to read the writing of a little girl who was hidden away in a secret annex for 2 years and 1 month blew me away. It was the first of only 3 books that actually made me cry. From 14 years on I became obsessed with the Holocaust. I wanted to know the history behind it and everything attached to it. What made a man like Hitler so bent on destroying the Jews not to mention gypsies, homosexuals, the list goes on. I longed to travel to Poland to see Auschwitz. It wasn’t until 2 years ago I had the chance.
Krakow, behind Paris, is my favorite city in Europe. You look around and it is not a typical European hub for tourists. It is busy, yes, but not like Paris or even Bruges. There is graffiti everywhere. It is as much a part of the city as the inhabitants are. The Kazimierz quarter is easily my favorite part of the entire city. It’s the old Jewish quarter before they were taken away by the Nazi’s. It’s quiet, even when busy. There are little memorials throughout the quarter marking the lives lost. I found it eerie but not in a bad way. I just looked around and while it is a vibrant city I also found it a bit sad. I would walk down a sidewalk and stop and think about what it was like to be Jewish and in Krakow during the war. Sometimes I was a bit overcome by the sadness. There was a plaque next to a Jewish cemetery in which it stated money was donated by a family that lost 88 members during the Holocaust. That almost broke my heart. Imagine that many people from your family just gone.
After a day in Krakow I proceeded to Auschwitz-Birkenau located in Oświęcim, Poland. The bus ride was maybe an hour or so (probably longer but I don’t really remember). The Polish countryside is beautiful. I love all the little houses nestled by the road. I longed to have the bus driver stop and let me get off so I could walk around and knock on doors and be invited in so I could see how they lived. I’m sure that’s strange but I don’t care! By the time I got there it was a mob scene of tourists and because I got there too late I had to do a guided tour. I have to be honest, I was not a fan of the guided tour at all. Not that the tour guide wasn’t knowledgeable because he definitely was. I just felt like I was being herded. And there were so many tours going on it was hard to really get a feel and a sense of the camp. At least a first. Then we went into the room that was filled with hair, hair that was shaved off. It was just the strangest moment for me. In that room I felt…something. It made my heart skip a beat and I just couldn’t look at it for too long. The area with all the eyeglasses…prosthetic limbs…suitcases. It made it all so real to me. Too real. I couldn’t wait to get outside.
Once outside the guide took us to the Shooting Wall which was enough to send anyone over the edge. Flowers and candles strewn around it, flowers tucked into holes in the wall. I had to suck my breath in and kind of walk around. I remember how nice it was outside. Very sunny and a very clear day. Definitely a bite in the air. I could only imagine this camp in the dead of winter and filled with prisoners. We then proceeded to the crematorium which needs no explanation. Afterwards we took a bus to Auschwitz II-Birkenau. The famous train tracks, the camps, the fact that around 1 million people died there. I walked around, listened to our guide talk about the latrine, how the prisoners had 30 seconds to do their business or they were killed. I followed the tracks down to the crematorium that was blown up by dynamite. There was some sort of ceremony being held by the remains of the crematorium. A big group of teenagers had flags and were praying and playing music. We all stopped and watched for a minute, it was very chilling.
My experience at Auschwitz is probably like many others. I’m sure others have felt the same way I did while there. I know I can’t be the only one to feel sadness while strolling around Krakow and to have to catch their breath while strolling the camps in Oświęcim. It was an experience I will never EVER forget. Our next trip after Paris and Belgium will more than likely be Sweden and Poland. Besides Krakow I will also be able to visit Warsaw, another city I am dying to see.
Some pictures from Poland. Click for larger image.