As soon as I stepped foot on the streets of Krakow’s old town, I knew that my blog post about the city would be conflicted. Krakow is beautiful and is one of the only parts of Poland that was able to retain some of its pre-World War II historical architecture. There were shops all throughout the main square selling, not just kitschy touristy items, but jewelry and some incredibly comfy looking scarves that I kind of regret not buying. The exchange rate between US dollars and Polish zloty makes it so that you can buy huge amounts of food for amazing prices. I ate my fair share of pierogis during our limited time in Krakow, and I am sure that once I get home I will find the frozen grocery store ones to be lacking. Overall, I had some of the most fun of the trip so far in Poland, so I want to be mindful in balancing that with a sensitivity for the most important reason we were there: Auschwitz.
The Schindler museum was a fitting precursor to the experience. It is built in Oskar Schindler’s original factory and features exhibits dedicated to his efforts to save 1200 Jews, as well as a general history of the Nazi occupation of Poland. The museum offered a welcome contrast to the many others we had visited in France as it presented history more from a social than military perspective. The Schindler Museum’s design was considerably effective in giving the viewer some idea of the environments that the Polish people had been forced to inhabit. The room that covered the initial Nazi invasion was filled with swastika insignias; the tiles on the floor were even swastika-shaped. This atmosphere served to reinforce how completely the Nazis took over Poland and turned it into an unrecognizable place. Most impacting to me, however, was the exhibit dedicated to the ghettoes. It took you through a dimly lit hallway, and mounted on the wall were written personal accounts from people who had lived in the Warsaw ghetto. It was deeply moving to read descriptions from children as young as five-years-old who had seen their loved ones be killed right in front of them. It was even more devastating to realize that most of those Jewish people would have later been killed in death camps. It is those personal touches that help me to fathom such massive devastation on a smaller scale.
Without a doubt, touring Auschwitz was a deeply moving and important experience. The exhibit that affected me the most emotionally was the room filled with 70,000 shoes belonging to the men, women, and children who had been killed at the camp. Most of them were practical leather, but some were decorative heels, and far too many looked as though they could have belonged to toddler-aged children. Witnessing that sheer scale and looking at the separate types of shoes drove home that every person killed during the Holocaust was a real human being. Even worse was the realization that those shoes belonged to only a tiny percentage of the 1.2 million individuals killed at Auschwitz. Another powerful experience was walking through the last remaining gas chamber and crematorium. It was hard to fathom that so many people had lost their lives in such a relatively small room. The last thing that helped to drive home the reality of the Holocaust was walking along the train tracks at Birkenau toward the remnants of the burnt down gas chambers. It felt surreal to stand in the spot where thousands of Jews were sentenced to death after disembarking from their crowded train cars, especially because I had previously seen so many photographs of it happening. Still, I expected to be more emotionally affected by the tour of Auschwitz. I think a large part of the problem was our tour guide. She was effective in conveying facts and statistics, but she seemed too rehearsed. There was a lack of emotion in her delivery that made it hard for me to connect the sites I was seeing to the atrocities that had been committed there in the past. Because of this, I appreciated Jon and Nicole’s site reports. Hearing the story of Primo Levy personalized the experience of being imprisoned at Auschwitz more than our tour guide was able to. His closing words also served as an important reminder that there is no bright side to the Holocaust and that we should not disrespect its victims by trying to search for a happy ending.