Poland and the Bloodlands


As soon as the plane landed I could tell that Krakow wouldn’t feel the same as the other cities. The buildings and cars inside the city epitomize Eastern Europe. The city is quiet, even if there are 800,000 people living in Krakow you’d never be able to tell. The streets were empty most of the time and the local restaurants were never filled up. What stood out to me the most about Krakow simply from just observing was that the city felt…sad. It is no question that Poland as a country has been victimized for centuries and the country carries a very sad and depressing history with it. In Krakow, the city was a victim of two harsh occupations and lost many of its Jewish residents during the war. I felt that in the city the painful memories of this part of Krakow’s history still exist. In the Jewish sector, I met a street vendor selling Nazi memorabilia no less than thirty feet from a victimized Jewish family’s home. I can’t tell if it’s that Krakow citizens choose to ignore what happened during the war, or if they have just accepted that they can’t escape it and want to move on. Or maybe it was just one ignorant street vendor and I shouldn’t generalize.

Our first stop was the Oskar Schindler Museum. Today the museum is in the same factory where Schindler saved 1,200 Jews during the war by allowing them to work in his factory. Schindler kept his Jewish workers better fed and protected them from Gestapo raids. The museum wasn’t entirely what I expected. It focused on how Jews were treated pre-war, during the war, and during the Soviet occupation. The exhibitions were very in your face with Nazi propaganda and Jewish suffering. Seeing the prison cells and learning of torture methods the Nazis used was incredibly unsettling. I don’t do well in these places, I usually have to step away from the exhibits for a few moments to clear my head. This museum does its job to make you understand how significant Schindlers contribution to their survival was, and just how lucky they were. However, as we’ve discussed throughout the trip, museums typically are biased and put exactly what they want the audience to see in the light. This museum didn’t have anything on Polish collaboration with the Nazis inside the museum. This made me frustrated because it was an obvious attempt to not make Poland look bad by covering up a dark piece of history. However, this vice aside the museum does a good job of illustrating Schindlers contribution.

On Wednesday, we went to Auschwitz. Honestly one of the smartest things I did on this trip was not have any expectations for the camp before going. This ensured I became overwhelmed.  The only mental Picture I had from the camp was from Schindler’s list and the same popular photos inside the camp. But even looking at the infamous “Work will set you free” gate was one of the most humbling experiences of my life. The camp resembled a factory. Rows upon rows of barracks, barbed wire and gun towers illustrate plain and simple what exactly went on here.  I never thought I’d stand inside one of the Gas chambers either. I couldn’t wrap my head around it, for the majority of the time I was inside, I couldn’t believe it. To stand in the same room where thousands were murdered was like a bad dream. But, I realize now more than ever having seen it first hand, how important it is for humanity to look at its dark history to not repeat it. However, the situation really didn’t get grim until we went over to Auschwitz II-Birkenau. This was the true Jewish extermination center. It was a massive field situated in front of two massive crematoriums. It resembled a cattle farm situated in front of a slaughterhouse. I couldn’t get over just how mechanized and factory like the Nazis made this process. After touring Birkenau, we went outside the perimeter to listen to both Jon and Nicole’s insightful site reports about Jewish Transportations to the camp as well as Primo Levi’s personal story of survival in the camp. Having read Levi’s story myself previously, hearing the details a second time around was just as unsettling a second time. Both were solid reports, which isn’t an easy feat to accomplish after a day like we had. Everyone was quiet that night, as I expected. Poland wasn’t an easy place to feel good spirited.

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