travelogue: krakow

sweeping east on a night train from prague, in which we shared a compartment with a sweet ukranian-american family and their cute baby, i discovered that waking up in a new country is magical.  it also felt kind of special to travel to poland because i have family history there– i have one ancestor from sweden, but a larger part of my family tree originates in poland/ukraine.

krakow is a city full of intense emotional leftovers.   near six million poles were killed during the war, approximately 16% of the population.    not only was auschwitz located in poland, but the nazis implemented practices to eradicate the polish culture and people.  krakow was where schindler’s list took place.  auschwitz is only 50km away from krakow.  the city was heavily bombed during the war, including some of the impressive buildings in the city’s main square, but so much of it has been rebuilt it was hard to tell that anything had ever been destroyed.

the pain of the people was so large–it was hard to walk through the jewish quarter, to visit auschwitz, to see people my grandparents’ age and think about all the suffering.  visiting auschwitz itself was so terrible.  i didn’t even want to go.  i wanted to be a coward and not face its horror.  i was nauseous the entire time i was at the camp.  being there was such a horrible feeling.  it was the worst place on earth, so haunted it was just hollow.  i felt like an animal being led into places it does not want to go.  i wanted to dig in my heels and retreat and not walk through buildings housing crematoria, torture chambers and hair shorn from the one million people who died in the camps. it was overwhelming and terrible. growing up in canada, i really had no concept of how many people suffered in the world wars. traveling around europe, seeing bullet holes in buildings, memorials, etc, really hit it home to me.

the first synagogue i’d ever been inside. so beautifully decorated! still being restored from the damage it sustained during wwii when nazis used it as a stable

inside a jewish cemetery, looking at the old jewish quarter

memory stones (i think) on headstones. this particular cemetery was the only place i saw this custom.

the cemetery wall, made up of reclaimed headstones. the nazis smashed them and used them for paving, sidewalks, etc.

i just cannot fathom the depth of this tragedy.

but krakow was not all pain, it was happy people celebrating the euro 2012 soccer match, people sitting in squares and cafes and visiting farmer’s markets and playing the trumpet. it was 24hr perogy restaurants, the largest square in medieval europe, intense thunderstorms, matryoshka dolls, beautiful amber jewelery, greying plaster buildings, crazy traffic that was only rarely constrained by stoplights.  malls and museums and pastry shops full of things i wanted to eat.  we ate at a swanky hotel which used to be exclusively for communist bigwigs, drank polish beer, cheered for soccer teams like the locals.

a communist-built car, before they started eschewing styles like fins

inside wawel castle grounds

accordions, market square

a latte while i was hiding from a thunderstorm that blew up suddenly

was attempting a long-exposure of the rain, and caught a lightning-strike as well.

planty (park ringing the old city) at night

wheelchair basketball in the main square

from there, we headed deeper into the former ussr.

check out the other parts of my trip: reykjavik pt 1pt 2, oslo, stockholm, copenhagen, berlin, prague .

6 thoughts on “travelogue: krakow

  1. Beautifully written but sad at the same time. I don’t know if I could have toured the camp myself, so I get what you mean. My in-laws are taking a “Band of Brothers” tour through Europe soon and will be gone for almost three weeks and they will visit the same location. I’m glad you enjoyed your time though outside of the sadness because all those pictures show a beautiful area.

    1. yeah, if i was just there by myself i would’ve wussed out. but i was with a family member and he has a family connection to the camps…and really, we have a lot of luxuries having grown up in a place never touched by wars like that. we owe it to ourselves and to the people who died to look the horror right in the face.

      but, like you said, other than the sadness of the camps, krakow was a really beautiful place. the people were so friendly and the food so good!!

  2. It’s good you do not write about the “Polish concentration camps”. Keep in mind that the Nazis were Germans. Auschwitz was built in 1940 mainly for Poles. In 1942, the Germans built nearby second camp Auschwitz-Birkenau, where Jews were murdered en masse.

    1. but of course, concentration camps were built by nazis, not by the countries that were occupied. i don’t doubt that sometimes nazis forced local people to help them, but that is not the same thing at all.

  3. Krakow is one of my favorite cities on earth, for its beauty, culture, and history. It really is a special place and I was blessed with the opportunity to live there for a short time. However, I have to correct you that as far as I know the city wasn’t bombed during the war and is mostly intact (this isn’t to say that a lot of truly nightmarish things didn’t happen there). Perhaps you’re confusing it with Warsaw, of which something like 85% was destroyed. Horrific.

    1. OH, i fact-checked, and you are completely right. while i was there (or just after?) someone told me how krakow had been extensively bombed and even the main market building in the square was demolished & rebuilt. clearly, they were wrong, so i appreciate the correction!

      but, really. krakow is so great! how long did you live there?

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