A couple weekends ago, my program took us on a weekend trip to Krakow, Poland. While in Krakow, I had the privilege of visiting the Jewish ghetto, Oskar Schindler’s Factory, and Auschwitz I & Auschwitz II-Birkenau concentration camps. Each of the places I visited was a unique personal experience of its own and incited a number of different thoughts and emotions. This blog post is an account of my weekend in Krakow as I visited some of history’s darkest places. As you’ll soon find, this post takes on a heavier, more somber tone than my previous ones. It’s longer than some of my other posts because such horrible places necessitate more words. Finally, it’s written chronologically, and if you visit Krakow on your own, I would suggest visiting these places in the same order that I did. And now, let the emotional rollercoaster ride begin.
The Bus Ride
Don’t worry, I won’t be chronicling every single detail of the weekend. However, there is one thing from our bus ride to Krakow that I wanted to share. During the 9 hour drive, our program decided it would be a good idea to play the movie Schindler’s List, meaning no one on the bus was exempt from watching. For those of you who don’t know, Schindler’s List is, in my opinion, one of the most graphic and heartbreaking Holocaust movies you can watch. While this wasn’t my first time seeing the movie, it had been several years, and I’d forgotten just how disturbing many of the scenes are. At the time, I wasn’t exactly thrilled about the choice of movie (I really had my fingers crossed for Shrek). However in hindsight, I’m really glad I saw the movie before visiting the ghetto and the camps. The movie really helped me picture the atrocities that happened in these places while I was actually visiting them. If you go to Krakow, I recommend watching Schindler’s List before you go. It helps bring the history to life.
Jewish Quarter & Ghetto
On our first morning in Krakow, our program assigned us a tour guide who would show us around for the day. After a walking tour in the morning, our guide led us through the Jewish Quarter and the Jewish ghetto. The Jewish Quarter is small, and besides some restaurants with blatantly Jewish and Hebrew names, there isn’t much to see. As we walked around, our guide pointed out different landmarks that appear in the movie Schindler’s List, which takes place in Krakow.
To reach the Jewish ghetto, we crossed over a parallel bridge adorned with beautiful acrobatic sculptures and lovers’ locks. The ghetto looks like any normal city, but a dirty one. Our guide told us that the city of Krakow relocated 3,000 citizens to create the Jewish ghetto, however, 17,000 Jews later occupied that same area. We learned that each Jew was allotted 4 meters of living space and was given food rations that amounted to about 250-300 calories a day. I had always known about the existence of ghettos as a sort of temporary holding place for the Jews before they were transported to concentration camps. But I had never realized just how awful the conditions were in the ghettos, nor that thousands of Jews died before even reaching the concentration camps. In the heart of the Jewish ghetto is a main square where thousands of Jews were executed. Today, the square is covered with dozens of empty chairs that represent all the Jews who were once there but are no longer. Each chair represents 10,000 Jews who died.
I think the most chilling thing about the Jewish ghetto is that people continue to live there today. A train runs right next to the main square where so many were executed. In the exact place where life ended for thousands of Jews just 70 years ago, where so many atrocities were committed, life for thousands of others goes on. This concept perplexed me, and after some thought, I realized how dangerous it can be. How easily life can just go on. If I had blindly stumbled upon the Jewish ghetto, I wouldn’t have known what it was or that thousands of Jews suffered and died there. We have to bear witness to make sure the world never forgets what happened to millions of innocent people.
The next morning we had several hours of free time before we were to depart for Auschwitz-Birkenau. I spent that time touring the museum located in Oskar Schindler’s factory. For those who don’t know, Oskar Schindler was a businessman who saved thousands of Jews during the Holocaust by naming them to work in his factory. To my disappointment, the museum barely touched on Oskar Schindler and his story, with only a single room dedicated to him. The rest of the museum is about World War II and how it affected Krakow, the named capital of the Nazi party. While the museum wasn’t what I expected, I still recommend it. I learned a lot of interesting information and read some heartbreaking stories about life in the ghetto. And of course, it’s a surreal experience just to realize you’re walking through Oskar Schindler’s factory.
Auschwitz I & Auschwitz II-Birkenau
Soon, we embarked on the hour and a half bus ride to Oswiecim, the city that Auschwitz was named for. The bus ride to Oswiecim was a powerful experience for me, rivaling the visit to the camps. For the duration of the bus ride, I looked out the window at the passing scenery. The same scenery that so many Jews also passed, crammed into cattle cars, on their final journey from Krakow to Auschwitz. I kept imagining that I was one of them, trying to understand how scared they must have felt. Every smokestack we passed on the way there, I felt nauseous. Unlike the Jews from 70 years ago in the cattle cars, I knew what was coming.
We finally arrived at Auschwitz I. It was a gorgeous day. So beautiful, in fact, that it was incredibly difficult to comprehend the horrors that happened within the confines of the barbed wire fences. Birds were chirping and the warm sun was beating down on us as we visited the infamous Block 11 shooting wall where hundreds of prisoners were executed. The sky was so blue as we walked to the gas chambers. The beautiful weather was almost mocking the camp’s ugly history.
Auschwitz I existed before the war as a military prison, so it was much smaller than I had pictured. However, the ominous “Arbeit Macht Frei” (or “Work Will Set You Free”) sign and blocks of red-brick houses I had seen in so many pictures looked just as I thought they would. Auschwitz I has been turned into a museum of sorts. We had a guide who led us around the camp and into the different houses which each had a different exhibit. One house contained piles upon piles of personal belongings that were taken from the Jews. Most disturbing to me were the piles upon piles of human hair. We toured the infamous Block 11 where we saw cells for prisoners who misbehaved and a shooting wall in the courtyard. Finally, we made the walk to the gas chamber, where so many thousands of Jews were murdered.
The Auschwitz I gas chamber is one of the only ones that still remains intact, as the Nazis tried to destroy all evidence of their crimes at the end of the war. The gas chamber has a brick smokestack protruding from the top66. As I walked through the gas chamber, I was in a daze. I walked first through an empty room, where the prisoners were told to strip their clothes for a shower. Then I walked into a large, rectangular room with no windows and several shower heads descending from the ceiling. Here was the actual gas chamber where 800 Jews could be killed at one time. The next room held the ovens where the bodies were then cremated and condensed into smoke that billowed out of the towering brick chimney. And then, like so many never could, I walked out of the gas chamber. It’s an indescribable experience to walk through a place that was engineered to make sure you didn’t exist. It was a lot to process, and two weeks later, I don’t think I’ve processed it fully.
A 20 minute walk away from Auschwitz I is Auschwitz II-Birkenau. Birkenau is massive, and was built during the war by prisoners of Auschwitz I. Birkenau looked exactly how I pictured it. Railroad tracks strike through the middle of the camp. It was these tracks that carried cattle cars of Jews from all over Europe to Birkenau. We stood in the crossroads where men were separated from women and weak were separated from strong. One line meant you were strong enough to work and be a prisoner. The other line meant you were destined for the gas chambers. We walked the path from the railroad tracks to Birkenau’s gas chambers. It was a long walk… about 10 minutes. At our destination was a towering memorial for all those who died at Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps. It stands in the center of where Birkenau’s two massive gas chambers used to exist before the Nazis destroyed them. Each one could kill a thousand people at a time. And then, just like so many never could, I walked out of Birkenau.
Day 3 and Present
The rest of the weekend, and every day since, has been spent processing everything I saw. I read Elie Wiesel’s Night on the bus ride back to Prague in the hopes of helping me process. The ghetto and the camps affected me in a way that just reading about the Holocaust or visiting a museum never could. It was chilling to walk the same footsteps as a million Jews before me who were murdered just for being Jewish. Born in another time and place, it just as easily could’ve been me. Despite our tragic history, I’m prouder than ever to be Jewish. Two weeks ago, I placed a stone on a memorial in Birkenau and said the Mourner’s Kaddish. Tonight, I’m going to a Passover seder. I now understand what a privilege that is.