Contemporary Krakow: The War’s Legacy Through Polish Eyes

The Nazis created a narrative that Krakow was an ancient Germanic city.

Kate Greer

History and German, Class of 2020

In Poland, it is illegal to speak about the Holocaust with any implications that the “Polish nation” was complicit in the genocide of European Jews and other minorities. When our class first read about this new law at the beginning of spring semester, we joked that we would all definitely be arrested in Poland just for talking about the material we were going there to learn. None of us, however, truly realized the monstrous and deeply tragic shape the Second World War took in Poland until we read Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland. In this book, historian Jan T. Gross tells the harrowing story of a Polish town that systematically murdered its Jewish inhabitants in 1941. Through our class discussions about Neighbors and other Holocaust readings, we learned that anti-Semitism was not imported to Poland when the Germans invaded; it had been deeply rooted in Polish culture and belief for decades, and Hitler’s rhetoric simply empowered people to act on their prejudice. Everyone on the World War II trip knew we were going to Poland to see remnants of some of the worst oppression humans have ever inflicted on other humans, but none of us knew how these crimes manifested themselves in modern Polish society, especially with the new Holocaust law in place.

Listening to a site report about Poland under the occupation.

Krakow definitely surprised me for many reasons. For one, I expected the city to display much more of a Soviet influence than it did. I didn’t realize how well preserved the medieval architecture was, mostly spared by the Nazis, who believed it to be an ancient Germanic city. I also was pleasantly surprised by how well the Poles spoke English. In Krakow, I encountered a young, vibrant population who are still helping their newly democratic nation develop its national identity. Reminders of the war’s legacy were not visible throughout the city though, as they were in London and Bayeux; we had to truly seek out local perspectives in order to understand how World War II lives in Polish national memory today.

At both Auschwitz-Birkenau and the Oskar Schindler Factory, our group followed a young Polish tour guide who helped us better understand her nation’s view of the war. On the bus drive to Auschwitz, she very clearly articulated to us that the camp was a “Nazi concentration camp,” rather than a “Polish concentration camp.” During her tours, she also focused on the Poles as a group that was oppressed by the Nazis. In Auschwitz, she was careful to point out a place where a Polish Catholic priest sacrificed his life to save a Jewish stranger and told this story in detail. Her interpretation of events, combined with the passage of this new law, communicated to me that the Poles feel that they were victims too during World War II, and they want to find ways to draw national pride from this dark period of their history, instead of shame.

The medieval city center, spared from Nazi destruction.

Our tour guide also carefully instructed us on how to best be respectful of the places we were visiting. In Auschwitz, the group witnessed some truly insensitive and disgusting behavior from tourists, who were taking selfies and chatting loudly in spaces where terrible things happened. The Polish guides, however, were very serious about reflection and education in the concentration camp, and I noticed that, even though they lived close to the camp and had visited it many times, the torture, enslavement, and execution still deeply affected them.

Today, in Poland, the people still understand the atrocities that many committed on their soil, as they viciously sought the eradication of specific groups of people. Where the Poles fail to bring honesty to their national narrative, however, is exactly what the new Holocaust law addresses. After decades of tyrannical occupation under the Germans and Soviets, the country would much rather move on and rediscover their national pride than come to terms with their complicity in the violence of the past. Although modern, exciting Poland surprised me with its thriving culture, impressive architecture, and friendly citizens, there is still that dark history lingering underneath the surface, and time will only tell whether the Poles admit to their wrongdoings, like those uncovered in Neighbors, or continue with a streak of denial that risks repetition of history’s worst.