Krakow, Poland: A New Perspective on World War II

After an exciting week in France, we flew to Kraków to begin the fourth leg of our journey. On our first day in Kraków we were shown around the city and stopped at a small park to listen to Morgan Moon’s report on the area known as the “bloodlands.” Morgan did an excellent job to provide context on the nature of the atrocities in Poland and the Ukraine beyond the concentration camps. Particularly, she made interesting points about the Soviet’s significant responsibility for the horrors in the bloodlands, as well as an interesting argument from her author, Timothy Snyder, that statistics regarding the Holocaust and the bloodlands should not be rounded, but should rather be presented as exact as they can, in an attempt to humanize each life lost.

We visited the Oskar Schindler museum the following morning, which was located in his old factory. Other than the museum’s failure to acknowledge any Polish collaboration with the Nazis, they presented a fair account of the struggles Poles faced from 1939-1945 and even into the Cold War. Their was one particular section on Polish ghettos that consisted of narrow hallways and dim lighting, which I believe was intentionally designed to make the viewer crammed and uncomfortable.

Additionally, this museum was different from any other we had previously visited because Poland experienced an entirely different war than France and Britain. British museums emphasized how the people persevered through rationing and the Blitz and the French museums focused on how the French survived Nazi occupation and joined the Allies in retaking their country in 1944. The Schindler museum, however, lacked this triumphant nationalism, focusing more on the atrocities they faced and the betrayal they felt after the word watched Germany invade them. Even after defeat in September 1939, Polish authorities did not sign the act of capitulation because they believed help from France and Britain would be coming soon. It never did.

The well-known entrance to the Auschwitz I work camp, which states “work will set you free”

On Wednesday, under a gray and gloomy sky, we visited Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II Birkenau. Both subsections of Auschwitz spoke to how systematic the camp and killings were. In Birkenau, 300 buildings were plotted in a massive field, each barrack looking exactly the same, with symmetrical crematoria at the end. Our tour guide took us around the well-known train tracks and we made the same short walk that hundreds of thousands of prisoners made, from boxcar to gas chamber. The gas chamber and crematorium in Auschwitz I further illustrated the Nazi’s disregard for human life. As many as 700 to 1,000 prisoners were crammed into a space barely larger than an average living room. As Zyklon B dispersed and bodies fell, those who did not die as quickly were forced to climb through dead bodies in a hopeless attempt to survive. The crematorium was a tiny room, unlike what I had previously imagined, where bodies were shoved into brick ovens that were barely large enough to fit them.

The railroad splitting Auschwitz II Birkenau. A crematorium stood on each side of where this picture was taken.

Additionally, the museum at Auschwitz I effectively showed that the victims of Auschwitz were more than just a statistic. There was a display that contained two tons of human hair, which was only a fraction of the total found when the camp was liberated. There was rope and textile on display that were made from this human hair. Our tour guide summarized this well by saying that the Germans valued every little thing at Auschwitz, except for human life. One display contained 70,000 pairs of shoes, including many that clearly belonged to children. Others displayed the pots and pans the prisoners brought with them under the guise that they’d be starting a new life, as well as the tallit from the more religious prisoners.

Nicole Beck and I concluded the evening with a joint site report outside of the wall of Auschwitz II Birkenau. We discussed the timeline of the camp’s creation and purpose, intermixed with discussion of Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz. Nicole finished with interesting points about how the site became a political statement for multiple countries after 1945, and how the anti-Semitism that came with the camp was not fully recognized until after the Cold War, forty-six years later.

The Schindler Museum and Auschwitz both demonstrated that the war did not end in Poland in 1945 like it did in much of the world. The Poles suffered through Soviet occupation from immediately after the war until the end of 1991, so they have only just recently been an independent country for an extended period of time. Thus, their perspective on World War II is much different from the British and French, and I am sure that the German’s will also be unique.

We now depart for Berlin, where we will spend the end of the trip from where the heart of Nazi command was.


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