What does the average American think when they hear: “Poland”? Throw the word out and you’ll probably get blank looks (just judging from my students’ reactions!) A few people might say: “World War II” and then list off any number of harrowing points associated with the war. Less commonly, you might hear: “cold, communist, Russian.” (Don’t ever tell a Pole that you think of them as ‘Russian’!) The point being, most of us know little about the central European country, and the words we associate with it tend to have a negative connotation. While there are certainly good reasons to associate all of the above-listed terms with Poland, I wanted to share a different image of this unbelievable country: Poland is beautiful.
To begin, let me preface this by saying that my interest in Eastern Europe began before I turned ten. I grew up surrounded by history-nerds and became fascinated with the cold landscape, the Romanovs of Russia, the wars that devastated half a continent, and the Slavic languages. While Russia was my first “Eastern European love,” I shifted my attention to Poland as a doctoral student. In large, I have my Eastern European History course that I took as a PhD student to thank for the shift. Much of the course focused on Poland’s history from the seventeenth-century to the present. And quickly, my romanticizing brain equated Poland with the iconic (if over-used) phoenix rising from the ashes. I tried to count on my fingers the number of times Polish lands had been fought over in the past four hundred years, but it soon was evident that I needed at least two or three extra sets of hands. And yet, in 2016, Poland is undeniably still “Polish.” The country has regained and retained its autonomy in spite of the cataclysmic events of the twentieth century. For that, I admire its people immensely.
Given my interests and admiration for Poland, it should not come as a surprise that when the opportunity to spend four days in Krakow presented itself, I seized the moment. I was terrified to leave the safety and security of Berlin (where I could converse easily in German with people) for a city/country where I knew only a handful of basic phrases. The fact that I left for Krakow in January, decidedly not their prettiest time of year, did not help ease the tension I felt. My husband had accompanied me on my travels throughout Germany and Austria but had to return home for work before I left for Krakow. My isolation in the middle of Europe similarly did not alleviate my fear. So why did I do it? The reason is two-fold. First, I wanted to visit what historian, Simon Schama, called “The Landscape of the Holocaust.” The human rights scholar in me would never have forgiven myself if I had not pursued this opportunity. Second, I wanted to meet and to know the Poles and to see them as more than just the victims of war and genocide. I wanted to see and know the people who had triumphed over war, genocide, communism, and foreign occupation. I wanted to see “Eastern Europe.”
After an eight and a half hour bus ride, I arrived in Krakow at 9:00 PM on a bitterly cold, clear, January night. My cell phone did not work. My printed directions from Kraków Główny (train station) to the Secret Garden Hotel in the Kazimierz district showed that I would have to walk three miles across the city lugging my rolling nightmare of a city. So, I opted for a taxi. The driver spoke virtually no English. I spoke virtually no Polish. Needless to say, it was an interesting trip that involved a lot of clutching of the door handle as he swerved through wet, neon-glowing streets! Then as quickly as they had come, the neon streets faded and were replaced by wet, cold, black streets. The driver dropped me off at my hotel. Only I didn’t see it! After attempting to explain it to me, he reluctantly turned off the car, hauled my suitcase onto the street, and took me by the hand. Up to an iron gate he led me and pointed. I finally caught on and deposited more than enough zloty in his hands to compensate for the extra help. This made him brighten considerably. Such was my first interaction with a native Krakovian. I trusted in the overall kindness of human beings and was immediately rewarded. Moreover, I would 100% recommend the Secret Garden Hostel to anyone. It was glorious and affordable with excellent, Polish breakfast spreads!
But what of Krakow and Poland? What can be said about the city and country as a whole? Unfortunately, I had only four days to explore. That said, I saw a lot and quite a bit of it was by foot. I devoted my first day to exploring World War II memorials and sites. Unsurprisingly, I found traces of the war across the city. First, my hostel was located in the old, Jewish district, Kazimierz. Those of you familiar with Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster film, Schindler’s List, would recognize the district as the backdrop for many of the film’s shots. The bridge in the film is over the Vistula River and connects Kazimierz to the Podgórze district of Krakow. This is the district where the Jewish ghetto was during World War II. It is sadly, still less vibrant and kitschy than Kazimierz. It was also here that I visited Oskar Schindler’s Enamel Factory (it is still the same building and definitely worth the visit) and the remnants of the ghetto wall and house. In addition, I took a long walk to see Płaszów labor camp on the outskirts of Podgórze. Again, those of you familiar with Schindler’s List will know the camp as the horrific site where SS Hauptsturmfuehrer Amon Goeth over-worked and executed Jewish prisoners. But what can you see now? A sad landscape dotted with trees, a few ruins, and winding paths that lead through the snow. Mostly, it’s up the visitor to supply the story. And for my part, I prefer it that way. It is an incredibly introspective site and requires the traveler to imagine much of what happened. For this reason, I found it to be both more harrowing and more important visit than even my visit to Auschwitz.
It was on my second day in Poland that I visited Auschwitz. In order to get there from Krakow, you must catch an 8 AM bus and be prepared for a two-hour drive (that is stunningly pretty) through the flat, Polish countryside. Though it is trite to say, there are no words to express the emotional surge that comes with visiting the sites. Most people will simply be taken aback by the enormity of the camp, and the fact that there are actually three camps: Auschwitz I (restored/reconstructed and what became predominately the men’s work camp), Auschwitz II (the massive extermination camp), and Auschwitz III (a subcamp affiliated closely with IG Farben). Due to time constraints, I only saw Auschwitz I and II.
You might think, “So far, I’ve seen nothing beautiful in your description of Poland. It’s sad and depressing.” And you would be correct! But keep in mind, this is the historical context of the country. And consider how Poland is now one of the most successful, thriving countries in Eastern Europe. Moreover, allow me to share what happened to me when I returned from Auschwitz on my third night in Poland.
Shy and slightly paranoid of new situations by nature, I swore that I would not walk alone after dark in Krakow. But when the bus returned, it was already dark (though it was only 5 PM). Once again, I found myself at the train station. A three mile walk lay between my hostel and me. At least I didn’t have my suitcase this time! My first order of business was to eat some piping hot goulash and hot chocolate once I returned from Auschwitz. A super-kind woman at the station brought them out to me and never has food tasted so good! It rejuvenated me. And when I stepped out of the station, I had the most cathartic experience imaginable. After two days of seeing evidence of human depravity, I walked into one of Krakow’s shopping squares and saw people of all ages ice skating, throwing snowballs, rocking-out to Creed, and tossing Frisbees. My curiosity then got the better of me because I saw a sign which said: “Rynek Główny .” That is, “Main Square.” My feet led me there before I knew what was happening.
Touted as one of the most beautiful squares in all of Europe, I would have to agree. It was stunning. Millions of red, blue, and white Christmas lights were strung across the narrow streets and from a massive Christmas tree. Local quartets played polkas next to open fires, horse-drawn carriages with swaying lanterns carried passengers under heavy green blankets. People of all ages danced, threw snowballs at one another, offered samples of pierogi and goulash. It was, simply put, one of the happiest scenes I have ever beheld. Into the clear sky, the spires of St. Mary’s Basilica pierced while the medieval Cloth Hall invited shoppers to come spend tons of money on all sorts of non-essential trinkets.
The following day, and my last in Krakow, I set aside all of my interests in World War II and the Holocaust and decided to see the city anew. Of course, it is impossible to visit Krakow and not the majestic white castle, Wawel, that sits atop the hill near the city’s center. Wawel is splendorous and the site of six/seven hundred years of Polish kings and nobles. In its courtyard, you’ll see sculptures of King Kasimir the Great and John Paul II (still the only Polish Pope!) You also will get the chance to see the modern excavation work going on under the castle itself. A treasury houses the crown jewels of the Polish royal families. Do not miss Wawel. You will regret it! Moreover, it gives the visitors spectacular looks of the city, including the river. Below, you’ll also see the Wawel Dragon. In the summer, you can take a tour of the castle’s catacombs to see where the dragon allegedly lived. In winter, you can see the Wawel Dragon with his six heads belch fire about every three to five minutes at the base of the castle. But Krakow has much more to offer, also! There are gorgeous walking parks with flat, winding paths. It is the city of Nicholas Copernicus too, so you’ll get to see statues of him near Jagiellonian University. The ancient Barbican fortification still stands as a reminder of the city’s medieval heritage and near it is St. Florian’s Gate. Both are compelling and harken back to the era of chivalry and knights when Poland was a massive empire. Finally, Rynek Główny never disappoints. It is the heart of the city in no uncertain terms. It has medieval charm and modern convenience. In addition to the historic sites: St. Mary’s, the Cloth Hall, the Town Hall Tower, and the statue of Adam Mickiewicz (Poland’s literary genius), you will discover endless pubs and restaurants. Generally, there are also local bands and/or musicians playing any variety of music you can imagine: polkas, contemporary rock, and Chopin.
So, is Poland beautiful? In a word…YES! It is gorgeous. But it is different. No one needs to write a blog that says: “Germany is Beautiful” or “Austria is Beautiful.” We already know that because of the countries’ respective mountains, lakes, and coasts. What makes Poland so attractive is not only its sites and cities, or even its flat landscape dotted with trees, creeks, and timber-houses with cobalt shutters. The people make Poland. I spent four days there as a lone American, but I never felt lonely. The Poles were receptive and treated me exceptionally well. Never once did I feel fear (other than perhaps with thoughts to what passed at Auschwitz). I discovered the warmth and strength of the Polish people. And though I am by training, a scholar of Modern German History, it is Poland that my heart yearns most to revisit.
John Paul II in Wawel Courtyard
Corpus Christi Basilica interior
Dragon! Krakow’s Symbol
St. Florian’s Gate