My idea of spring break was not dealing with -10 degree temperatures and snow, but I went with it anyway. Most people would not think of visiting Poland for their vacation but being a sucker for history, I saw the opportunity and took it.
What’s the first thing you can think of when you hear about Poland? The war? Communism? Vodka? All of those things would be correct but not in the way you think. As a history nerd, all I could imagine Poland to be was cold, gloomy, traditional and worn out. Once I got there, it checked off all the boxes but what I underestimated the most about it was its charm.
It is in every way the same that you’ve seen in pictures and newspapers but it feels so much more than that. While exploring the city center and town hall, it was everything that I imagined. Churches, old Kremlin looking structures, brick walls and antique streetlights trailing on each side of the street. My first assumption about Poland was soon proven wrong, you’d think that a young newly independent country like Poland would be far from religious or cultured due to its history under the Soviet Union but you’re wrong. Polish culture thrived on religion and belief, I saw some of the most beautifully built and maintained churches, and apparently, this wasn’t even half of what I had yet to see in Krakow.
Although the Jewish Quarter in the old part of Krakow was the complete opposite of what I had been seeing in the last couple of days, it happened to be one of my favourite bits. Communist authorities neglected the Quarter after the Second World War but since then, Jewish Culture has been re-introduced to a generation of Poles who were forced to grow up without learning that part of history. I walked the same streets Spielberg shot his film Schindler’s List on and let me just say, it really hits you that those events happened right there and then. You’d never imagine yourself to be standing on the same spot decades later. Never ever. The Jewish Quarter was full of Jewish-themed bars, bookstores, vintage clothing shops and it was basically every retro kid’s dream.
My personal highlight and the most important part of my trip was visiting the German concentration camps, Auschwitz and Birkenau. The camp till today remains a dominant symbol of the Holocaust. As cheesy or clichéd as it sounds, that day happened to be one of the coldest days during my trip. Wrapped up in four layers of sweaters and jackets we drove to Auschwitz. Within the first hour of me being there, my heart was broken. You grow up reading and learning about the Holocaust and you remember the big numbers like 7 million Jews were killed or how gas chambers were used but you don’t know the little details. The museum depicted how each part of their humanity was stripped away from them; their hair, shoes, luggage and you see millions and millions of those objects placed right in front of you. Suddenly, those numbers don’t matter anymore because you’re seeing piles and piles of hair, real hair that once used to belong to them.
You see their faces on the wall and you wonder what their life was before the terrible tragedy hit them and somehow you can’t. The museum was just a collection of things they managed to save, the real camp was still to be seen and here I was standing on the rail tracks of Auschwitz. The same tracks where millions of men, women and children were brought from different parts of Europe and were stripped of their normal lives. You see the beds, the toilets (the lack of them) and the Crematorium and suddenly everything you’ve ever learned about it doesn’t do justice to what you’re seeing in front of you. It’s not a feeling I can accurately describe in words, all I can say is that I left with a hollow pit in my stomach.
Poland beautifully surprised me. I grew up learning the most common and inaccurate stereotypes about Poland but I was sweetly proven wrong. Even with their traumatic history, I was intrigued by their culture, experience and their identity. Their country endured some of the most drastic changes that defined the future and the rest of history. From slipping on ice and almost cracking my skull open to finding an underground jazz bar to eating loads and loads of Polish dumplings, Poland ended up being a more than a pleasant surprise literally and figuratively.
“Forever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity where the Nazis murdered one and a half million men, women and children mainly Jews from various countries of Europe.”