Krakow: Lessons From History
While many of the cities of Europe were ravaged and re-built after the Second World War, it is said that the beauty of Kraków saved it from Nazi destruction. Following the invasion of Poland in 1939, Warsaw was razed to the ground, and Kraków, considered by Hitler as a “German” city—from the mixed architectural styles captured in Wawel Castle to the stunning medieval Main Market Square—was named the capital of the General Government by the Third Reich. No buildings here were bombed, no battle was sieged, but Kraków would be forever changed. The scars in this city run deeper, and are in many ways harder to heal—than any of the bombarded cities of Europe.
Across the Wisła River from the breathtaking Old Town is a suburb of Kraków perhaps not as beautiful, fragments of the walls separating it from the rest of Kraków still visible with a plaque that reads: “Here they lived, suffered, and died at the hands of the German torturers. From here they began their final journey to the death camps.”
The Kraków Ghetto in the area of Podgórze was where Jewish inhabitants of Kraków were forced to relocate. As snow fell, and the sunlight dimmed, it seemed like the world turned black and white, without colour or life. I imagined the harsh conditions of those who were made to live here, who packed up their lives in Kraków to be crammed into rooms they shared with other families, starving, brutally attacked or even shot by Nazis, then systematically transported to their deaths as part of The Final Solution. The Nazis looted their houses and cleared the area of the prisoners so that all that was left was a disconcerting memory that brought a chill to my spine. A reminder of these atrocities are the bronze chairs in the Ghetto Heroes Square, where abandoned possessions of the deportees were laid beside the bodies of those shot and killed.
Just a short car ride outside of the city (much too close for comfort), the temperature hit negative double digits, the cold wind blasting at our faces and the icy ground making us slip and fall. Yet we dared not complain. Above us were the words “arbeit macht frei,” a German phrase meaning “work sets you free,” marking the entrance to Auschwitz.
The concentration camp is synonymous with the horrors of the Holocaust, of the atrocities committed by the Nazis, of the heartbreaking stories of men, women, and children who did nothing wrong but were killed anyway. We walked along the railroad tracks, barbed wire on either side, where prisoners crammed into trains would be told to go to the right, and work as labourers, or to the left, and be sent immediately to the gas chambers, put to death by a method cruelly chosen for its efficiency.
The various buildings in Auschwitz I (the original concentration camp) hold relics that tugged at our heartstrings and brought tears to our eyes. Amidst photographs of starving prisoners in striped pajamas on display, there are hundreds of baby shoes, broken eyeglasses, and even mounds of hair that prisoners were forced to shave off. A step into a gas chamber or a crematorium and I was already overpowered with grief, so much death written on the walls.
Back in Kraków, in a branch of the Historcal Museum of the City, the time of occupation comes to life through dramatic set designs of the Ghetto, video interviews, newspaper clippings, paraphernalia, and personal objects that help us understand beyond the statistics and into the individuals affected. It is housed in the former enamelware factory of Oskar Schindler, a German and member of the Nazi party who used his entire wealth and risked his reputation and, indeed, his life to save over a thousand Jews: a story known by many through Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. So as I walked through a hallway designed to showcase Nazi propaganda aimed at degrading the Jewish population, I remembered that it was within these walls that saved some of their lives.
Before the Holocaust, Poland had one of the largest Jewish populations in Europe. It was here that more Jews were killed as well as saved than in any other nation: it is where most concentration camps were located and it has the largest national contingent of the Righteous Among the Nations. This is not so much a contradiction but a sign that there is always hope in humanity. While we often travel the world seeking the adventurous and glamorous, on this trip we were walking through a monumental part of modern history, searching for a sense of humanity amidst such brutality.
- Images Kaye, Kerry, and Kylie Tinga