When traveling, arriving early in a city is one of the best decisions you can make because it gives you an entire day to explore and get orientated in a new place. We arrived in Kraków around 7am, had breakfast, and dropped our bags off at the hostel all before our first appointment: Auschwitz Tour.
This was somewhat of a stumble-upon. We had wanted to visit but had been unable to purchase tickets since -get this- our country was not on the list of accepted credit cards when we tried to book online. The only option for us was then to show up and hope that there would be room. Thanks to it being January, we grabbed two of the last spots and found ourselves in a black mercedes van on our way out in the Polish countryside.
Auschwitz was an appropriate follow up to Hungary, where we had experienced a people and then learned how many of them were deported to this place in Poland. We had been warned by friends who had been before of how difficult a place it was to see, but it is a place I don’t even want to describe with many more words than “evil.”
Auschwitz: the double layered barbed wire fence. If you got too close, the guards would shoot you. The guards got 2 weeks vacation if they shot a prisoner trying to escape, so sometimes the guards would order a prisoner to walk too close to the gates just so they could get vacation time.
Auschwitz-Birkenau. The first Auschwitz camp shown above quickly grew too small and so this one, the largest in the world, was built. Completely by the prisoners. This is the one you hear most about. It is now a museum and they have displays of many things, one section a variety of sorted belongings. I took only a picture of these shoes: there are 900 pairs, from one of the last trains that came in before the end of the war. It’s chilling to witness the inhumanity, stories I’d be happy to share more in person.
Allow me to soap box for a moment. One thing I took away was a different perspective on the immigration situation we are dealing with right now. No matter the politics or the legitimate worries about space, employment, security, etc., there is an element of faith that simply must be applied to our situation. We have to trust that God will get us through this time in our history. We have to trust that if we make the humane choices, the fears will soon right themselves. The situation in the middle east is not to the extreme of concentration camps. But there are families in danger, women and children being sold into different types of slavery, and people dying because -just like the Jews experienced- not enough people gave them shelter, help, or defense. I don’t have a solution, but I cannot tell you that I walked away from Auschwitz able, in good conscience, to say that due to security reasons I would turn away someone fleeing from war. Those are the shoes of people who wished they could flee and were instead forced to stay.
Auschwitz-Birkenau was the place where Maximillian Kolbe was held. This cell is where he is said to have died, and this is a small memorial set up for his sacrifice. Incredible man.
Coming back from Auschwitz was a dreary ride even through the snowfall and a lovely countryside. We cleaned up from our night on the train and warmed up from being outside all day, and then went out for dinner. This small restaurant was recommended to us by a local and proved to be fabulous. We aren’t really sure what we order because once more we couldn’t read the menu so just asked the waitress to bring us something that we “should eat if you were in Poland for the first time.” It was a delicious meal and only cost us $8.00 because the Polish Zloty is at an incredibly low rate right now.
Later we met up with some friends of Risa’s who were studying in Poland and they took us to the best place on planet earth, a chocolate restaurant. I’d compare it to a Lindt store in the states; they sold gourmet chocolates and had a restaurant area in the back where the 10-page menu had nothing but drinkable chocolate options. Liquid Chocolate? I think yes. Poland is amazing! 😀
We also almost went to the Handball semi-finals in Kraków. What is Handball? I have no idea. But it was a HUGE deal! Apparently Poland was playing Germany, which is interesting for me (side note, upon coming home all I heard on the news for the next week or so was how Germany kept advancing…for the win. I was there for an important game I guess). There’s really no story here except that this is the mascot. The irony is found 1. because the mascot is a hand. 2. It’s a hand that waves to you. with a different hand…?
Kraków is the diocese of Archbishop Karol Wotija, the later Pope Saint JPII. He’s famous here on so many different levels: Politically for his involvement with dispelling Communism, Artistically for his plays and writings, Religiously because he became one of the most famous Popes, and overall Patriotically for being such an amazing Polish man. He’s everywhere- in art museums, in seminaries, Churches, even the airport is named after him.
It’s a proud place to be a Catholic! This is a picture of the building where he attended underground seminary:
Later we visited some other castle. By this time Castles were becoming normal and we felt like we didn’t need to see yet another one. We did, however stop in and see the Cathedral inside the Castle walls. Pictures were definitely not allowed inside here- this is a famous Cathedral throughout Poland and was heavily guarded by what I think were both priests and police. Why? For many generations this was the Church of Coronation for all of Poland’s royalty as well as several other significant events. Famous people were here, are buried here, or donated significantly here. Did you know Chopin was Polish? They take great pride in that. What stood out to me amidst so many other memorable things was the contrast between the beauty (even outer beauty) of the Cathedral and the plainness of the Castle around it. It is signature of a King who in building had less care for his personal dwelling’s decorations and more for that of his King. Cool. Also legend has it there’s a dragon under the mountain so you know… that’s cool too.
The main square in Kraków was huge and simultaneously small. Small in the sense that I felt very at home there for some reason. It was lined with shops and restaurants. A piano inside one restaurant was piped through loudspeakers into the square, so anytime a musician provided dinner music inside, the general public was serenaded as they walked through the open square. It was a place you wanted to be.
Kraków will be hosting World Youth Day this summer and they already have a countdown to the event on the face of Mary Major Cathedral here in the main square. This is the Church JPII is known to have stopped in several times and is a stunningly decorated church inside. They also have daily mass every half hour from 6:30am-noon. Did I mention Poland is super Catholic? yeah. It is. It’s awesome.
Poland was lovely and we throughly enjoyed our time there, even through it included the devastating trip to Auschwitz. We had to catch a flight out to Berlin that evening so we stopped for another glass of liquid chocolate before heading out to the airport. Of course, besides concentration camps, Amazing Popes, great food and open squares, Poland is quite famous for one other thing.
I didn’t purchase you all any, I’m sorry, but here is an obligatory photo of some real genuine Polish Vodka. 😉 Cheers.