Our time in Paris had ended and we began the journey to our next destination: Poland. We arrived at Charles De Gaulle airport and after some confusion; we were on our way to Brussels, Belgium. There we had a layover where many others and I bought some authentic Belgian chocolate before hoping on the plane to Krakow. I had no idea what to expect from Poland. Whereas London had been very familiar for a city dweller such as myself, and I spoke enough broken French to get by in France, I had no knowledge of the Polish language or even currency system. This appeared to be quite alright as the landing and arrival at the hotel went off without a hitch. After getting settled, we headed down to the town square/park area to hear my classmate Morgan give her site report. Morgan’s report focused on the area known as the blood lands during WWII—which of course included Poland. These areas were called the blood lands due to the number of civilians murdered by occupations and the war. Poland was a special case as not only the Nazis, but also later on the Soviet Union occupied it. Morgan highlighted that the Polish population suffered a great deal under the Nazis, especially as Polish Jews were targeted. What perhaps stood out to me the most was the fact that the Nazis did not intend to eventually “Germanize” the people of Poland they deemed fit, but instead planned to kill all the Polish citizens and use the land as living space for the German population. This was new information to me, and I found myself even more disgusted with the Nazi regime—something I did not think I could be. Poland is the site of many Nazi concentration camps, including the death camp Auschwitz (which we visited later on), which only contributed the number of civilian deaths. Up until Poland, we had seen the good in the war. The allies’ triumphant struggle against the great forces of evil and their eventual victory over fascism and hate. Yet with Morgan’s report, she highlighted Poland’s struggle and thus the worst parts of the war. The indiscriminate killing of civilians and the subsequent suffering of a brutalized and broken nation. This idea of the suffering stuck with me throughout Poland, and left me struggling to understand how the nation survived despite the Nazis’ goal to wipe the population out. Despite the heavy matter of the site report and what I knew we would learn in the next couple of days, the group explored Krakow and enjoyed the culture the town square had to offer. We had dinner (including traditional pierogis) in the town square while listening to street performers and enjoying the view of the magnificent church across the square.
We started the day at the Krakow War museum in Schindler factory (where the story that the movie took place is based off). The museum is different from those in London and France as it focuses exclusively on Poland and Krakow during the German occupation. It follows a chronological order from 1939 to 1945, and features a lengthy section on the treatment of Jews in Poland. It is in my opinion the best museum we visited, as it is detailed and I truly struggled to find a bias. One can argue that it focuses exclusively on the Germans and how the Poles became victims, but granted that is what happened I felt it was all but appropriate. The most striking part of the museum is a room in which no one is prepared for and honestly, it knocked the wind out of me. The room is found right after the 1939 section and is representative of what happened as soon as the Germans entered and how the Poles found themselves thrown into the Nazi ideology and utterly surrounded by the propaganda. The walls are lined with newspaper headlines and from the ceiling hang three Nazi flags that one must walk through to continue exploring the exhibit. As I weaved through the flags, I found myself a little sick to my stomach. They had been forced upon me, and I felt uncomfortable being around such a known symbol for hate. I can only imagine the Polish citizens felt something similar in 1939 when the Germans took over their country and begin spreading Nazi propaganda like wildfire. The room is truly uncomfortable as even the floor is covered in swastikas. The museum does an incredible job immersing you in those years, especially with this room and the ghetto exhibit. When the Germans arrived, the Jews were not deported immediately, but moved into ghettos. The museum has a sense reconstructed them as it has walled in that part of the exhibit so that you have to walk isolated for the duration of it, just as the Jewish people were totally isolated from the outside world, you are isolated from the rest of the museum. The exhibit is filled with personal accounts and pictures of what life was like, but that was not what shocked me the most. What got me was the shape of the wall—tombstones. The Nazi’s surrounded the Jewish people in the ghettos with tombstones, as if to let them know what soon awaited me. Upon reading that I found myself struggling with a question I still cannot answer: How could this happen? It appears the more I learn about the true cruelty of the Nazi regime the more I cannot understand how the world ever got there. Though the museum left me with many questions, it did help me understand one thing: Poland in itself was a causality of the war. The people and in turn the culture were massacred, and what we saw in Krakow was remnants of what had once been—especially since the Germans destroyed monuments and anything remotely “polish”. Especially with the Jewish population, which never truly recovered and is left a small fraction of what it had been. I learned that Poland suffered not one but two occupations in the war and directly after, leaving it with a decimated population and no real unique world identity. I left the museum understanding what the war had done, and how the Polish people’s suffering cannot be ignored when studying this period.
After this, we yet again found ourselves in town square for lunch. After more pierogis, a group of us made our way to the castle despite the rain. Having never seen a castle before I was quite content (it was the site of the German government during WWII, so it even tied into the trip). It came complete with a dragon statue that breathed fire, which of course provided all of us with a much-needed laugh.
I knew today would be hard before we even left, and everyone had been emotionally preparing himself or herself for what we knew to be a tough site to see: Auschwitz-Birkenau. Auschwitz-Birkenau was the biggest Nazi death camp and the site of 1.5 million murders—mainly Jews who were murdered as part of Hitler’s final solution. I knew the site would be tough to stomach, as one can never truly understand the reasoning behind the Holocaust, and so far seeing sites dedicated to it had only left me more confused on why it had to happen. We started the tour at Auschwitz I, which was more a concentration camp than a death factory as its Birkenau counterpart. Originally started as a camp for political prisoners, Auschwitz was later converted to a death camp to aid in the extermination of Europe’s Jews, especially those from Hungary in 1944. The barracks for the most part are closed off, and all but one that are open have been converted to exhibits. We followed our guide from room to room, and saw the true horror that took place in a place now very desolate. The worst part for me was seeing what had left behind by the prisoners after they were murdered, and the room filled with the artifacts shocked me. At Auschwitz, they have a room filled with two tons of human hair, and it estimated that it came from about 32,000 people. That is only a small fraction of the people of they died there, and still it was enough to make me sick. As I held back a terrible nauseous feeling, our tour guide showed us the items confiscated from prisoners such as luggage and shoes. As I looked at a pair of children’s shoes, she said something that I felt truly echoed the belief of the Nazi regime, that “everything in the camp was valuable except for human life”. The prisoners were murdered and even then were still exploited, from hair to shoes the Nazi’s made them less than human in life and death. After that room, we went over to bunk 11, the prison for prisoners. In here, we saw cells were human beings were left to suffocate or starve, and rooms where they would undress before being murdered outside the barrack. Bunk 11 had been preserved and was cold, dark and had a weird scent to it. It was uncomfortable and frankly horrific to see, as the whole camp was. We finished our tour of Auschwitz I at the crematorium. As we walked through the former gas chamber and passed the ovens where the corpses would have been burned I found myself completely numb, feeling too much to totally comprehend it all. I felt disgusted, remorseful and utterly somber all at once, with the question of how something this horrific could happen running through my mind the whole time.
We then moved to Birkenau—the actual death camp where Jews and many others were murdered almost immediately after arrival. The SS conducted selection on the platform, and 70-75% of every arrival group was sent straight the gas chambers regardless of ability to work or anything else. Those who were old, sick, young, weak or even just climbed out the wrong side of the boxcar never stood a chance. We walked down toward the platform and stood in front of a boxcar similar to the one actual people would have been transported in. It was much smaller than I imagined, and could not understand how 80 people could fit in there, or how humanity could actually be that cruel as to force that many people in there at once. Birkenau housed four crematorium, and could in turn burn corpses 24 hours a day, as we walked toward them, I thought of all the people who walked this road and never came back. People who had been picked for no reason and sentenced to death because one man decided so. People who had been the victims of a senseless tragedy and one the most horrific events of the 20th century. They had no suspicions; they did not know they would be killed in one of the most inhumane ways possible at the end of that road. When we reached the ruins, I felt more than I had before, including anger. Anger at the Nazi’s for attempting to hide their crimes and destroy the camps, for trying to escape punishment for the terrible evil they committed. I quelled the anger for the time, as the people who died here deserved more than hateful vibes. I walked along the memorial and read the inscriptions, reminding the world that what was done there must never be forgotten. Birkenau is a somber place, and it has a sobering effect on those entering. A feeling of despair and hopelessness hangs heavy in the air despite the number of years since its operation. Yet, life goes on around it. The town surrounding it has since expanded and people drive by, run by, and walk by on a daily basis. Even though it may stand desolate and empty, as it should, Birkenau remains full of one thing: lessons for humanity. It stands as a testament to the great evil that humanity is truly capable of, as a monument to those who lost their lives there and as a reminder to the world to never let anything such as the Holocaust happen again. I left understanding that these things do not just happen, and in order to prevent senseless disasters such as the Holocaust from happening again, people must be willing to understand that no one population can be scapegoated for the world’s problems and that personal opinion cannot shape policy. People must be vigilant when they say “never again” and know that preventing the dehumanization of one group before it begins is the best way to prevent anything as tragic or unnecessary from happening again.