A fortress filled with historical buildings lies within the city of Krakow; cobbled streets, castles and dragons adorn this magnificent city. But an hour away in a town called Oświęcim (or Auschwitz as it is commonly referred to) lies the true horror of human capability.
Auschwitz and Birkenau
Visiting Auschwitz and Birkenau was never at the top of my “to-do” list, mainly due to the horror that surrounds it. But upon arriving in Krakow, I knew that I needed to visit; not only to educate myself but also to pay my respect to those who were murdered.
Walking around Auschwitz filled me with dread; there were rooms of torture, photographs of the deceased, gas chambers, and hair from the Jews that were murdered. Tons of hair. The whole ordeal was devastating to see and as the tour guide took us around and told us about the brutality that took place here, my stomach turned and my emotions fast drained.
After visiting Auschwitz we drove to Birkenau which is a large death camp. People were brought here, had their belongings taken from them and sorted into two lines (those who could work and those who would be sentenced straight to death). Those who could work were set to work and slowly starved with only 200 calories a day despite their hard labour, and those who were sentenced to death (mainly women and children) were told that they were getting bathed and were sent straight to the gas chambers to their death.
It is important that everybody gets a chance to visit Auschwitz and Birkenau which is now a Museum and Memorial to those who spent their time there. It is a brutal reminder that history should never repeat itself.
The city of Krakow
Krakow itself has become incredibly touristy with groups and tours exploring the city and visiting the various places of interest on a daily basis. There are many tourist attractions around the city, such as walking tours, Auschwitz and Birkenau and a trip to the Salt Mines just to name a few.
Some people come to Krakow due to its cheap nightlife and drinking culture but many come to see the major historical aspects of the city and the surrounding towns.
Things to see and do:
- Visit Auschwitz and Birkenau
- Schindlers Factory
- Walk around the city
- Visit the Castle
- See the dragon spit fire (go in the evening as you will be able to see it better)
- Free old town walking tour for fun myths and legends
- Free Jewish ghetto tour for a REAL understanding of what happened in this city. I would actually suggest doing this tour as soon as possible. The tour will take you through the Jewish ghetto, give you an idea about the life of the Jews in Poland before, during and after the war along with some horrifyingly brutal facts.- DO NOT MISS THIS!
- Plac Bohaterow Ghetta- Memorial to the Polish Jews that were murdered.
Food and drink:
- Pierogi (polish dumplings)
- Zapiekanka (half a baguette style bread topped with pizza toppings)
Krakow is a great city to visit but what made the experience fascinating were the people that I met at the Hostel; people of various nationalities who were friendly, welcoming and intriguing.
I had so many engaging conversations about world history and political events which enriched my experience. Our collective understanding that we as a society are so close to repeating our mistakes again gave way to a mutual recognition that we are again choosing a minority and persecuting them in ways that will soon get out of control. We spoke passionately about immigration and how we were embarrassed at the intolerance of our countrymen, we spoke of humanity and that before skin colour, gender or creed we are human first, we spoke of world leaders who are helping to project a negative view of these persecuted minorities and it enraged us.
One of the most memorable things that I was asked in Krakow was “Would you open the door?”
Context: So many people ask why the Jews didn’t fight back. They did. They fought hard but they didn’t have weapons that matched the Nazi Germans. Many others ask why didn’t people help the Jews. A few did. BUT in Poland if you were caught helping a Jew, the sentence was death. In other countries you could have been sent to prison or to a concentration camp. But in Poland it was death. They would make you watch as they killed your family and then killed you last so that you suffered the most. If you were single and alone would it be easier to save people? Would you change your mind if you had a family?
If a Jewish person had come to you in desperation… “Would you open the door?”
It’s a terrifying question that nobody needs to know the answer to. But please think about it.