I was fortunate enough to stay in Krakow in south Poland for a few days with my study abroad. Krakow is the second biggest city in Poland, as well as one of the oldest. The city is notable for its main square, which dates to the 13th century and is a center of the city’s culture. During World War II, the city was the capital of the German General Government. According to the Nazis, Krakow was an ancient Germanic city.
The sights of the city are wonderful, the city avoided bombing in World War Two, so its pre-war architecture is still intact. For example, St. Mary’s Basilica dominates the northeastern side of the main square, and it was finished in 1347. Wawel Castle is also another notable landmark which was actually used in WWII. During the war the Castle was used as a residence by Hans Frank, the Governor General of the German-Occupied Polish territories.
Our first order of business in the city was touring the Historical Museum of the City of Krakow, or more commonly, the Schindler Museum. The museum sits at the site of Oskar Schindler’s enamel factory, where he saved some 1,200 Jews via employment. Interestingly, the museum does not focus on this, but teaches about Krakow’s role in WWII. This gave an interesting point of view, as Poland was overtaken but had technically not surrendered. When it came to Schindler, the museum had a large glass box filled with enamel ware made in the factory that one could walk into on all sides were the names of prisoners that Schindler saved.
Our second related journey during the Poland leg was a trip to Auschwitz I and Auschwitz-Birkenau. These were concentration and extermination camps set up by the Nazis, and 1.3 million people were sent there. Of those 1.3 million, at least 1.1 million died, and 90% were Jewish. Words cannot fully describe what I saw, and being there was completely surreal. In one room of Auschwitz I, human hair was piled from floor to ceiling. This hair was typically used for textiles and taken from inmates involuntarily. In another room, 75,000 shoes were gathered in a similar fashion.
Auschwitz-Birkenau was the portion of the camp where cattle cars full of people were unloaded. Directly after this, the new prisoners were evaluated and either kept as workers or sent to one of two gas chambers nearby. In the latter choice, victims would take the “Walk of Death,” which we also did. At the end of the road, the two gas chambers are destroyed and a memorial marks the grounds. We eventually walked back to the tower that stands over the rail line that led so many to their deaths, and a spot of sunlight cut through the clouds to a distant land.