arbeit macht frei….

Let’s take a stroll down the cobblestone walkways of Europe, shall we?

 This memory is from my trip to Poland back in 2007. While most of my friends were jetting off to bask in the remaining sun along many of the southern Mediterranean beaches, or maximize their credit limits at le chic chambres in Paris, my roommates and I decided we wanted to cater to our curiosity of European history, and set out to embark on a tour of the soul. We began our journey in Germany, splitting off into two groups in the Czech Republic, then joining again for a discovery of Poland.

I have a personal interest in Poland as my grandmother is from that country. I have many ancestors who were born and raised as Poles; a great uncle was even the Mayor of Warsaw (pronounced vahr-shah-vah in Polish). Therefore, I was keenly interested in visiting this country in order to catch a small glimpse into my past. We actually flew into Warsaw, before taking train down to Krakow, where we were planning on spending the majority of our time. Flying into Warsaw, I was met with a dim, dark city. The clouds hung low over the tops of the buildings, and everything seemed to rest in a layer of gray. The overcast weather did not ease the feeling of sadness that lingered in the air. What a difference from the bright, festive streets of Germany! I felt as if I had been transported back in time, to the war torn days of World War Two. At any moment I expected to see a soldier in the traditional garb march past me on duty. It was surreal. Taking the train through the countryside of Poland only set to reiterate the feelings of nostalgia. As we chugged across the country, miles and miles of worn down buildings and ramshackle farms sat vacant. Cows and sheep dotted the hillsides, chomping away on grass, oblivious to the few sights and sounds around them. Even inside the train, the feeling that we had stepped back in time was present. The train reminded me of the one on Harry Potter that the children take to Hogwarts. Sitting in our vestibule, my roommates and I were joined by a young Polish man. Finding out very quickly that he spoke no English, the conversation took a humorous turn. Since my Polish is limited to czesc (hello), tak (yes), and nie (no), I didn’t get very far in conversing in his native tongue. It thus became a fun game of charades, mostly with us girls pointing to things, and our companion sounding them out in Polish. Now, if you have ever heard or read the language, you know that it is VERY difficult to pronounce. The syllables and consonants each have such a distinct sound. Literally, one click of your tongue on the wrong accent, and you’ve said an entirely different word. It is VERY frustrating! Needless to say, the ride was entertaining…..Pulling into Krakow, we were met with yet more dreary weather. However, the city immediately felt different. The buildings were colorful and beautifully decorated; the streets were a charming cobblestone.

Beautiful Parks in Krakow

 Castles dotted the hillside surrounding the city, it was magical. Krakow was a beautiful gem that had somehow survived the war that had so devastated it’s country. Our goal for our trip was to soak up as much as we could of the history of the city. Since Poland was such a large Jewish hub of the war during 1940’s, there were many remnants to be found reminding us of the tragedy that struck. We took a tour of the Jewish district in Krakow, as well as the area where Shindler’s factory presided.We also partook in a tour of a salt mine. Travelling down MANY winding floors of stairs, we made our way down half a mile into the earth, to a labyrinth made up entirely of salt. It was glorious!

The salt mine

The best part of the trip, for me, was visiting Auschwitz and Berkinau. They were two of the largest concentration camps built during the war. Now, I am 90% certain that I did not have relatives come through these camps (my family is mostly Catholic), but nonetheless, the trip hit me like a brick to the stomach. I have always been fascinated by the history of World War Two. For some reason, I am drawn to the astoundingly horrifying nature of the human psyche. Now, before you go “WHAAAAA?” hear me out: The human nature, its capacity AND capabilities, as well as all thought and reason, spans a great distance. Our minds and consciences are capable of experiencing such a realm of emotion and thought. It frightens (and intrigues me) to think of how Hitler and his Gestapo must have operated. They were so removed from natural human thought and instinct that it blows my mind. The ability to create genocide on an entire population, and presumably not feel any regret or repentance towards their actions makes my head spin. Another reason I am intrigued by this era are the stories of survival and triumph that have emerged from it. From prisoners in the concentration camps, to sympathetic Germans who risked their lives, there are countless stories that will make your hair rise on your arms in utter amazement and wonder.

 The camps were everything I had read about, and much more. The day that we toured happened to be overcast and dark, which only aided in the portrayal of suffering and pain that they embodied. In order to take it all in, we all went off on our own solo tour. I walked the grounds of the camps in reverential awe. It was so eerie to look into the remains of dorms and gas chambers, and to think about what had occurred there. There were times when I was walking that I felt tears just stream down my face, a silent homage to the pain that was felt.

Birkenau

 There were museums at each of the camps, set up to display stories and small remnants of what had survived the closing of the camps. One room was filled to the brim with human hair from the prisoners. I gasped upon entering, seeing the giant mound of locks. The smell alone made my stomach turn, but looking on all of that hair, knowing how and why it was taken, just made my heart sink even more. Room after room, I witnessed such tragedy and heartache. However, amidst all of that, there was still hope. Stories of survival and courage were displayed right alongside the pain. Those emotions went hand in hand.

images of courage

 I feel like it would take more than a blog post to fully display the feelings and insights that came about from our trip to Auschwitz and Birkenau. However, I hope you enjoyed this small piece!

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Comments

  1. Whoa, i don’t think we were friends yet when you wrote this post. I saw the Poland tag and hit it cuz i’m obsessed with anything Poland. I loooooove hearing others perspective of Poland since to me it’s home and many of the cultural aspects are normal to me so I dont always notice them as obviously (like someone at work mentioned to me how the only thing he remembers from his trip to Poland is that he was served lard… haha, and that’s weird? ha yum). But I’ve been to all these places and hearing you describe them is so true. Krakow is my favorite city, so charming, young (people, not buildings), and fun night scene! And you didn’t have to be Jewish to be put in camps, my grandparents and great aunts and uncles all went through work camps, not Auschwitz thankfully, or i wouldnt be alive today. That place is extremely eerie (fyi, it took me 4 google tries to get the spelling of that word), and really hits home, especially since i had a survivor tour guide! he was a child then but still, wow. To me Warsaw isn’t how you described, to me it’s very “new age” for Poland since most of it’s been rebuilt after being destroyed so they make it very new and showy. I will have to keep that in mind when i go this year, and see what i think, since i think the last time i went was a decade ago! Thanks for sharing, this post got me just more excited about my trip!!

    • oh and one more thing… I have become American enough to be totally part of making fun of Polish males! Not all, but many of them are so creepy/weird. Eastern Europe in general (this stereotype is based by some creeps i work with). I hate to disappoint my parents, but a Polish husband is most likely not in my future.

      • yeah, what is it with the stares! it’s like they’re baring down into your soul! haha it reminds me of the SNL digital short called “the creep”…you should watch it if you haven’t already! 🙂

    • You know, I think my opinion of Warsaw was jaded because it was so dark and rainy…I didn’t get to see much of the city…I’m sure if I went back and spent more time, that would change…it was SUCH an amazing trip though! History like that really makes me love travelling. I would love to get back there someday. I have a grandmother who is full Polish and going back with her would be a dream! so glad you are pumped up about your trip!

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