Poland was a wild couple of days. From exploring the charm and openness of Krakow’s city square, to visiting Auschwitz and the Schindler Museum, and being evacuated from our hotel the first night, I experienced a whirlwind of emotions.
Auschwitz-Birkenau was a gut-wrenching and gripping experience. Seeing the camps for myself really put into perspective the genocidal campaign the Nazis executed against Jewish people. I was astonished with the collection of victims’ hair that was displayed in the museum. When I first saw it, my stomach dropped. I had the same feeling when I saw the pictures of starving, bony, suffering children when I first visited the Holocaust Museum in D.C. While I knew about the horrific events of the Holocaust, both exhibits sparked a reaction in me that was like: “wow, this is really messed up.” The vastness of the site changed my visualization of the Jewish experience at Auschwitz. By seeing how prisoners arrived on train, walking in their footsteps toward the gas chambers, and seeing how millions of Jews were packed into small living quarters throughout the site, it illustrated the massive organizational campaign the Germans took just to demolish Jewish people.
On the second day, we visited the Schindler Museum, which was dedicated to occupied Krakow during World War II. It stressed the destruction Germans brought to the city of Krakow and its residents. Both Jewish and non-Jewish Poles suffered, and Jews were often moved to ghettos separate from the German parts of the city. At times, the museum misled in its attempt to push Polish national innocence. Our tour guide mentioned how there was not much Polish people, including those of her ancestors, could do to save people during that time. She also mentioned how Poland was a “Catholic country,” subtly downplaying the amount of Jewish suffering that occurred. Yet, we learned this semester that not all Polish people were innocent bystanders under Nazi rule. Pogroms in towns such as Jedwabne, located in eastern Poland, decimated the Jewish population. Non-Jewish Poles carried out acts of violence against their Jewish neighbors, yet Polish memory is often silent on this event, blaming most horrific events on the occupying Germans. Their absence of national sovereignty during the war is used as a shield from accountability. as they are focused on maintaining their independence and morale with a unified national message.
My Poland experience is twofold. I learned of the destruction and hate brought by the Nazis on occupied Polish lands against Jews and Polish citizens. I also gained a sense of their national pride, sometimes even to a fault, when it comes to their history grappling with the Holocaust during World War II.