When I started making plans to study abroad in Prague, I knew I wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to travel throughout Europe. It turns out that my classes are all on Wednesdays and Thursdays, which means I have a crazy amount of free time to travel. Our first weekend trip of the semester came fast than we anticipated because Keith’s friend Sarah was visiting Europe and wanted to go to Poland with Keith. It worked with our schedules to go the first weekend in October and I joined along for a quick trip to Krakow.
I honestly had never thought much about Poland, other than imagining freezing Jewish people in the dead of winter during the holocaust. I had no idea how beautiful, and full of delicious food, it would be! We stayed in an Airbnb that I later found out was in the area that had once been the Jewish Ghetto during the holocaust. One thing I quickly learned about visiting Europe is that WWII has left a mark on everything. Even more than seeing landmarks of Civil War battles in the South, everywhere I’ve been in Europe has the backdrop of WWII lurking in the background. It still impacts the people, architecture, and geography of everywhere you go.
We had incredibly beautiful weather while we were there, which we took advantage of by wandering the beautiful streets of the Jewish Quarter, staring in awe at Catholic churches that look like castles, and finding practically every bakery and pierogi restaurant in town. Poland is even cheaper than Prague, which meant that our “fancy meal” cost $32 for 3 people! That gave us plenty of room in our (measly, grad student) budget for every kind of delicious baked good that Krakow had to offer. I’ve been surprised at the lack of bakeries in Prague and Krakow more than made up for it!
Funny side story- I’d spent the last 3 weeks in Prague looking for popcorn kernels. Making homemade popcorn on the stove is one of my favorite snacks, although even I couldn’t have predicted how much I wanted it when I moved here. Every time I’ve been or lived abroad for a significant amount of time, there is some food that I inexplicably miss more than anything else. In the Middle East, I couldn’t get enough Nutella and peanut butter. In Europe, all I’ve wanted is popcorn. I’d been searching without success in Prague and then one night in Krakow we went into a small grocery store and I happened to find bags of popcorn. You can see how happy I was in the picture above! I bought 4 bags to bring home with me and it’s been a perfect evening snack ever since.
Touring the museum at the Auschwitz, was number 1 on my list of things I wanted to while in Europe. I had never been to a concentration camp before and knew that while it would not be a fun experience, it was an educational experience I knew that I needed. I’ve directed and acted in plays about the holocaust, listened to survivors speak in-person, read books, and learned in a many history and ethics classes about the horrors of the holocaust, but I still knew that visiting the site would be important for me.
On an impossibly beautiful October day, we took a bus an hour outside of Krakow to the town of Oswiecim, where the Germans built three concentration camps known as Auschwitz. Auschwitz-I was created out of old Polish military barracks and was relatively small; Auschwitz Birkenau-II was the largest concentration/ extermination camp, holding up to 90,000 people at one time; and Auschwitz Monwitz-III was the smallest camp in town for slave laborers. Until visiting, I didn’t know that there were three camps there.
The camps at Auschwitz are where 1.3 million people were murdered, including over 900,000 Jews. 1 in 6 Jews who were killed in the holocaust were murdered here. These numbers are hard to truly comprehend, even after walking the grounds myself. The tour included going through the barracks, the torture chambers, piles of stolen belongings left behind, and the one remaining crematorium. That was by far the most difficult part of the tour and I refused to take any pictures. To see the gas chambers and furnaces was too much for me.
I was actually surprised at how fully prepared for this experience. I had seen so many pictures that there was little that surprised me, which I am grateful for. I am grateful for the teachers and educators in my life who taught me well so that even if I didn’t have this opportunity, I would know the truth of what happened all those year ago.
As hard as the scale was to comprehend, the cruelty and horror was harder still. The depths of the evil and inhumane atrocities that the Nazis inflicted on innocent lives is horrifying in every sense of the word. It was not only the murders, but the way they treated the prisoners that disturbed me the most. I cannot imagine watching starving people freeze to death or lie in vomit as they slowly die. The inhumanity is almost too much to handle.
I wished that I was part of a larger educational trip (like Museum Without Walls) because I longed for deeper conversations and a better tour guide. Still, it was what I hoped it would be- sobering, painful, and invaluable.
It seemed strange, even wrong, to leave the tour and go on having fun on our trip. How dare we enjoy our time after what we had seen? It feels wrong to even put this altogether in one blog post. And yet, times moves on and so did we. With mixed feelings, I let myself enjoy our afternoon and evening in town.
On Sunday morning, we went to the Wieliczka Salt Mines outside of town that have been mined since the 13th century. On the recommendation of a friend, we decided to the tour and it was absolutely worth it. I’d never been in a mine before I felt like I was in Moria from Lord of the Rings. It was all very touristy, but we had a blast (and obviously bought some salt souvenirs).
All in all, we had a fabulous time in Poland. With castles, peaceful rivers, and the beginnings of fall foliage, it felt like we had stepped into a fairytale. I had no idea how much I would enjoy it. A weekend trip gave me just a small taste of the country and I’m already hoping to visit again someday.