My week in Krakow began beautifully with yummy Polish food, fresh air, and the discovery that I am rich in Poland ($1 = 4 zloty). You can read about these lighthearted excursions here. However, the cheerfulness of our first impressions faded to melancholy as we made the emotional journey back in time to World War II.
Auschwitz was the major Nazi concentration camp that housed and killed over a million people in World War II. Most startling is that it is located only an hour away from the city of Krakow. It’s scary to think about how affected we, Americans, were by losing loved ones to battle during WWII, but it is nothing compared to the fear and misery that people must have felt to be living only an hour away from a major death camp. I supposed that almost everyone in Poland must know someone who died in Auschwitz.
Being in Auschwitz, as you can imagine, is unsettling to say the least. The area is very deceiving because I could hear birds chirping and see beautiful mountains and sunshine beyond the barbed wire fences. It was an eerie sort of beauty inside the camp. It’s almost as if the Nazis were present in the scenery, making one last attempt at their propaganda. I couldn’t believe that I was actually in the place where families were split apart and people were starved to death.
After seeing many atrocities that took place, several things stuck out to me:
I will always remember seeing the cell where St. Maximilian Kolbe offered his life up to the Nazis to be starved almost to death until being poisoned. Kolbe took the place of another man who wasn’t ready to die. That man lived until the end of the war.
I had a very hard time looking at the room full of human hair. The Nazis shaved the corpse’s heads after they gassed them, and they made the hair into Nazi uniforms and blankets. I tried focusing on one woman’s braid and thinking about what that one woman must have gone through.
Inside the dormitories where people slept three to a twin bed, there were pictures on the wall with a check in date and a date of death. It was hard to find anyone who lived longer than two months in the concentration camps. The famous words on the gate read, “Work will set you free.” The work was designed to kill, and it was good at it.
Near the end of the tour, we saw areas of Auschwitz where the buildings had been burned and torn down to hide the Nazi crimes. There, a memorial was placed to remember the victims of Auschwitz. The same inscription was written across the memorial in Polish, German, Italian, Russian, and all other languages that the victims of Auschwitz spoke. Though there were no English speaking victims, they also had the inscription written in English.
“Forever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity, where the Nazis murdered about one and a half million men, women, and children, mainly Jews, from various countries of Europe.”
This was a heavy and unforgettable day.
The next day, we had a much more uplifting tour in which we followed the life of the greatest Polish celebrity, Saint Pope John Paul II. I loved seeing how much the Polish adore John Paul II. They refer to him as “Our Pope.” This proved to me that John Paul II really brought a lot of hope to this city that went through so much despair during WWI and WWII then the Cold War. It was amazing to see so much dedication to him.
Our tour took us to Wadowice, Poland, which is the birthplace of John Paul II. There, we saw a beautiful church where he was baptized and attended mass as a boy. Outside the church on the ground, were small memorials of all the countries John Paul II visited. He is famous for having traveled to over 100 countries! I was shocked to see so many countries on the ground. I had a hard time naming a country that he hadn’t been to.
In Wadowice, we also got to visit John Paul II’s childhood home, which had been turned into a museum. This was the coolest museum I have ever been in! It told a story about a young boy who had a very troubling childhood. His mother died when he was very young then his only brother died not long after. From a young age, he was devoted to the Virgin Mary because she could be the mother that he never had. Despite this trauma, He earned very impressive grade in school, the top in his class, and he excelled in acting. Everyone thought he would go on to do great things as an actor or a poet. Instead, he joined seminary, and eventually became the Pope that gave hope to the world.
My two favorite parts of the museum came at the very end, and they were both super emotional. The first was a room about the assassination attempt against him in 1981. On display was the gun and the bullets that were fired at him. Even more heart-wrenching was the pictures of John Paul II visiting his assassin in jail and forgiving him. Wow. My other favorite room had the walls covered with personal letters that people wrote to John Paul II in many different language. On the far wall played a video of John Paul II being announced as the new Pope with all the crowds cheering. Everyone was getting emotional reading these letters. Even our tour guide got choked up and thanked us for making her work so meaningful.
I’m sorry this post was so long and wordy. There was just so much that I wanted to tell. And guess what! There is going to be even more! Yes, that’s right. Krakow, Part 3 is on it’s way.
Thanks for reading! Lizzie