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.
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.
from there, we headed deeper into the former ussr.