Thursday: After a very long day of travel, partly because I had to fly across the entirety of the continent and partly because my flight was delayed due to the fact that I flew over France (yes I said over...because of the strike there are only 84 air control towers working in the whole country so all the flights have to be staggered exactly right), I arrived in Krakow. Luckily in the airport I ran into 3 other girls from the program as well so the four of us shared a taxi to the hotel. Since we were late, because of the whole France thing, everyone else had already left for dinner so we met up with one of the directors who waited for us and then we joined the rest of our group. The group was comprised of 13 students, Jews and a few non-Jews, who were interested in the Holocaust for a variety of reasons. We had a very nice welcome dinner with typical Polish food (cream of mushroom soup and pierogies (Polish dumplings) with coffee and cake for dessert) and then we headed back to the hotel.
Friday: We journeyed around the city, particularly the old Jewish quarter and ghetto. Before the war there were about 600,000 Jews living in Krakow (the largest population in Poland after Warsaw), today there are 160. The picture is of one of the old synagogues. It is the only synagogue in the whole city that is still in use today (thus the cars outside). The Jewish cemetary is also there with a beautifully artistic memorial to the lives lost in the Holocaust. The Nazis used the gravestones of Jews as building materials and so when the community re-established itself after the war they used the pieces they could find and built a wall commemorating the lives lost. We also went to the ghetto. In the ghetto there were a bunch of metal chairs in the main square, which we initially thought was just convenient. As it turns out they are a part of a piece of modern art installed there in the mid-90s. Apparently the artist was inspired by a story told by the one non-Jew allowed to remain in the ghetto, a pharmacist, who said that when the Nazis came to liquidate it they had to burn all the furniture in a warehouse, but they wanted to keep the building. So what they did was throw all the furniture into the square. The piece of art is meant to commemorate this man, remember this story, and symbolize the emptiness left behind when the Jews were forced to leave Krakow. After this we went to Oskar Schindler's factory, Schindler's list, where there is a museum today. It was perhaps the most well-done museum I have ever been to. I suppose museum is even the wrong word to describe it, it was an experience. There were audio recordings, the lights changed depending upon the room, the walls were covered. It was also set up so that you walked through each room to get to the next, you didn't walk in and out of rooms. This meant that you couldn't miss a room if it made you feel uncomfortable. After this, on a happier note, we met with a woman who received the honor "Righteous Among the Nations" (the highest civilian honor a person can receive from the State of Israel) because she, along with her older sister and mother, harbored a Jewish girl throughout the entirety of the war.
These are the two sides of the medal
After that we had a nice dinner and then a group of us went to a pub for awhile to sample Polish beer (not bad by the way) and discuss the day we had.
Saturday: We boarded the vans for the town of Osweiçsm (Auschwitz in German). We began by going to Auschwitz I. Auschwitz is actually a really large complex of camps with three main camps and 40 sub-camps. It was originally for non-Jewish prisoners of war and Polish Partisans. It was also just a men's camp except for a short time in 1943 and the last few months before liberation. It is also the camp that has been turned into the museum. For this reason it was not what I was expecting. There were a lot of people there, large tour groups, and lines to see exhibits. It felt almost a little bit like Disneyland. Of course there were moments that took my breath away and made me so upset, but for the majority of the visit I just felt very empty. Later that day we toured the town (60% of the population of the town before the war was Jewish, now there are no Jews in the town), saw the Auschwitz Jewish Center, and spoke with a non-Jewish survivor of Auschwitz (which I have never done before) who now lives in the town.
Sunday: We went to see Birkenau (Auschwitz II), which is the one that you tend to see pictures of (with the exception of the Arbeit Macht Frei sign which is at Auschwitz I). It has been conserved exactly as the Nazis left it, meaning that it is not a museum in the slightest. Driving up to the camp was something out of a nightmare; it was cold, foggy, early in the morning (so we were practically the only people there) and there were no signs saying that it was coming. It was almost as if we happened upon it. It would be impossible for me to describe for you how I felt being in the camp. The best way to say it is that it was a combination of disgust, horror, fear, anger, depression, disbelief, and awe. The sheer size of the camp is also extraordinarily impressive, it is 500 square acres in size. Following this visit we had a discussion to wrap everything up and then most of the group went home. Myself, along with 3 other girls stayed the night in Krakow. Considering the emotions that were running rampant I think that staying the extra night was really helpful in bringing me back to real life. I don't think I would have fared very well if I had to go straight home after that experience.
So that was my weekend. I'm sorry for the overly depressing post, and I promise that next week's will be infinitely happier.
Hasta la semana que viene.