Entering Krakow was not something I had ever ventured to expect in my life. I had no idea what I was walking into and without knowing a lick of polish I was more nervous than any other city. But to my surprise I found it to be one of the greatest cities I’ve visited to date. Krakow had some of the most beautiful buildings. The city was not flooded with modern architecture or skyscrapers. Most of the building didn’t exceed 5 stories and were painted a beautiful pastel color, enhancing their historical design. The market in the town center was bustling with local artists and vendors and the food was delicious. The people around town were incredibly friendly and were always up to something interesting, such as concerts on the square.
Unfortunately for Poland, their city life was not always this bright and enjoyable. During World War II more than 70,000 Jews were deported from the city with only around 3,000 surviving. Today there remains little of the Krakow ghetto, where many Jewish people were forced to live at the beginning of the war. The Schindler factory, run by Oscar Schindler was located within walking distance of the ghetto. This enamelware factory became a saving grace for more than 1200 Jews who otherwise would’ve been sent to concentration or death camps. Schindler, originally interested in making the most profit saw the Jews as a cheap alternative to the polish workers he was originally employing. He however eventually began to see the horrors, and realized he could make a large difference in the lives of many. He employed entire families with his youngest worker being around 10 years old. He spent his money on bribes and pay offs, ending the war penniless and without his company. We spent our first morning visiting this factory as it was opened as a museum in 2010. Throughout the museum was a timeline of Poland during the time span of 1939-1945. It began with the joyful and celebratory life before Germany and the Soviet Union began their invasion. Poland fell quickly and from then on suffered under the German occupation. The Germans were quick to spread anti-Semitism and by 1940 all of the Jews were relocated to the ghetto. The museum tried to focus on this part of the occupation and recreated the ghetto conditions. It was unbelievable how dirty, dark and inhumane the living conditions were. There were several families packed into a single room and rats and other rodents were scare as they were used for food. The inflation was so high, food and other goods were around 500 times what they were just outside the walls. As we continued, we entered a room which recreated a basement that 8 human beings living in for months. This room had no light and the floor was dirt. 8 people lived there and with 3 other people in the room for a few minutes, I was uncomfortable. I can’t even begin to imagine how unbearable life must have been. The museum ended with two books, a white book and a black one. The white contained the names of those who had aided and provided refuge to the Jews and the black contained the names of informers. This seemed terrifying to me as I read the names and crimes committed by the people in the black book. One woman betrayed her own husband because she was fearful for her social future. This seemed to be one of the more disturbing concepts to me as it gave great insight to the thoughts of people at the time. It proved just how easily people could be convinced to join the bandwagon and how fear is sometimes the most powerful motivator. Although the general content of the museum did not focus on Schindler specifically, on the outside of the building there were photos of many of the people he helped. His office also remained relatively untouched with the addition of a beautiful memorial to those he aided. The memorial contained 1200 metal pots for the representation of all those who were saved by the factory and on the inside were the names of each individual.
Our second day in the city continued to deepen my understanding of the horrible crimes committed during the war. Day two was our trip the Auschwitz-Birkenau. This camp remains exactly as it was in 1945 when it was liberated by the Allies. It genuinely surprised me how close the surrounding town seemed to be to such a significant sight. It seemed strange to me that people were living their daily lives just meters from a place in which so many innocent people lost their lives. I also was shocked at the amount of visitors that came each year, totaling around 2 million. Arriving in the parking lot we were only one of several groups of students, with most being much younger. The Polish school groups looked to be either middle or high school students. It was interesting to see how these school children were being exposed to something so horrific.
We entered the camp through gates inscribed “Arbeit Macht Frei” or work will set you free. This gate, for so many people, was the difference between life and death. Upon entering this gate there was no hope for escape. Being inside a place in which such devastating crimes occurred was overwhelming. Whilst listening to our tour guide it was almost impossible to believe a lot of what he was saying. Once we entered the buildings we were shown the remains of what the Germans had left behind in their haste to escape. This was the most tragic. Upon entering the first building, 2 tons of human hair had been preserved. The Germans had left almost 7 tons in their retreat. The 2 tons filled a room larger than the entire first floor of my home. This was unbelievable to me. The excessive greed and complete dehumanization of these innocent people was truly shown in this room. Whilst the hair was meant for fabric, stuffing, and other miscellaneous uses the room also contained enamelware and eyeglasses. This was the most sickening proof that could exist for the Nazi use of these lives for profit. Actually seeing these amounts of items was truly eye opening for me. Although statistics had been thrown at me my entire life, there was something completely life changing about seeing these mass amounts of daily item in person. I can now understand the emphasis placed on keeping Auschwitz forever in the eyes of the world. By visiting this camp I could finally begin to comprehend the numbers and statistics I have learned about. Being in such a significant place gave me a new more personal connection to something I hadn’t been able to fully understand without seeing. Our tour guide also provided us with personal accounts and stories about the prisoners which helped increase my understanding as I was standing in the same place. By the end of my visit to Auschwitz I had been an entire new appreciation, respect and general heartbreak for the victims of such treacherous crimes. It made me thankful to know that Poland would never let what happened to the people of their country, and those of so many others be forgotten.