We began our next leg of the trip with a flight from Paris, a connection in Brussels, and finally landing in Poland on May 22nd. I spent most of my time exploring the city of Krakow with Katie and Beau, including visits to the Wawel Castle, St. Mary’s Church, and local market. We were largely guided by a list provided to Katie by her father, who spent his early life in Krakow. Wawel Castle was built for King Casimir III the Great and is built in the styles of medieval, renaissance, and baroque periods of architecture. It is one of the most historically and culturally significant sites in Poland and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Originally built to house the kings of Poland, it now contains an art museum. We made several stops to the market at the city center which once played a more vital role in the city but now houses souvenir goods. Polish Eagles and amber jewelry, apparently quite popular with the locals, were incredibly popular. We paid a visit to Saint Mary’s Church in the Main Market Square (after Katie purchased a shirt to cover her bare shoulders) to see the gothic architecture and its wooden altarpiece carved by Veit Stoss. Every hour, a trumpet is played from the tower, with the tune breaking of mid-stream to commemorate a 13th century trumpeter who was shot in the throat while sounding the alarm before the Mongol attack on the city. It was founded by King Casimir III the Great and completed in 1347. The main group stop aside from our final day was the Schindler Museum, which examined not only World War II but its origins and aftermath. This was a different perspective that what I’ve seen thus far. The material on Oskar Schindler’s aid to the Poles who worked in his factory was only a small piece of an exhibit that moved through the war through different rooms set up to detail the experiences of different population groups throughout the war. Unlike the other countries we’ve visited, the war could not be neatly bookended in Poland. The destruction of the war was followed by a forty-year Soviet occupation of sorts. In the present day, the Polish people are still developing a new national identity through museums like this.
Our final day in Poland was spent at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. Auschwitz I is primarily a museum, with displays in several of the barracks and some preserved to provide a sense of daily life for inmates and guards. Auschwitz II Birkenau is what remains of much of the camp and purpose-built for the Final Solution. It is what the average person imagines when thinking of what a concentration camp might look like. It is a place that can be visited, the history can be learned, and attempts can be made to imagine it, but I found it to be beyond comprehension. I was struck by my lack of emotion walking through the camp, as I had anticipated to be shaken by my visit. Even now, I have yet to process my feelings completely. I’ve found that I’ve become frustrated with my reaction (or lack thereof), but it seems that my experience was not unique. After discussing this with other students on the trip, I’ve found that many people feel the same as I do. There is a disconnect of the history from the location in my mind, as though it was a story I’d read and not atrocities tied to a location and committed by other men and women. Thus far, I’ve settled on the idea of the camp as a stark reminder of history that cannot be denied. The camp is a monument to the importance of tolerance and it stands to remind people that never again can a megalomaniacal leader be allowed to coopt a nation’s power and, in a genocidal rage, attempt to eliminate a population group. Despite its power, it is disheartening to know that genocides have continued to occur across the world without regard for this lesson.