Kraków and Auschwitz

Our last study trip of the semester was a trip to Poland. We left at night by train and arrived in Kraków the following morning. 

women on bunker beds in a sleeping train
The three of us shared a sleeping compartment on the train

We were told to dress for cold weather, but I definitely wasn’t prepared enough. It was so cold and the wind was even harsher. 

On our first day there we had a city tour with Barbara, a local and long-time friend of Hermann.  One of my favorite landmarks was St. Mary’s Basilica located by the main market square. The gothic church was a work of art to look at as the walls were designed by Jan Matejko and created by Stanisław Wyspiański; all hand-painted!

colorful tall walls of a church
The walls of St. Mary’s Basilica

The next day we woke up to take a bus to Auschwitz and Auschwitz – Birkenau. Prior to our visit to Auschwitz, I read Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning.” Frankl was a psychiatrist that survived the Nazi death camps. He later wrote many books on his and his patient’s experiences. 

The plaque reads: "for ever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity, where the nazis murdered about one and a half million men, women, and children, mainly jews from various countries of Europe.
At Birkenau

But nothing prepares you for the realness that are these ex-concentration camps. It was eerie to see people take selfies in front of the arbeit macht frei (work makes you free) entrance sign. But it was also a reminder of how one in a place like this shouldn’t act.

The next day, I went to Kraków’s modern art museum, where I found an installation that questioned the “novelty” around Auschwitz; in if people go there because it is an important historical moment to never forget or if they go there because you need to go there when in Poland. 

It was a faux souvenir stand where people could “buy” Auschwitz merchandise. It was a hard installation for me to take in, considering I was in Auschwitz just a day prior, but it also made an important commentary on the matter at hand. 

artwork at the Cracow modern art museum
The installation of Auschwitz souvenirs

On our last day, we took a trip to the Wieliczka salt mines a bit outside of Kraków. The mines are a UNESCO site and there is a salt church 150 meters (492 feet) below ground. Kara and I took the opportunity to lick the salt walls; it was safe to lick the walls since salt is an antiseptic. 

The stairs down to the salt mine
The stairs down to the salt mine

My favorite part of the Krakow trip was the time spent in the Jewish Quarter of the city. We ate at a restaurant in the area where they had live music Jewish/Yiddish music. The group was lovely and by the end of it, we were all in awe from the talent of the lead singer. It was also a reminder that Jewish culture and history goes beyond the horrors of WWII. 

Poland was a cultural experience that I would have not been able to have had without the help and planning of AAIE. They prepared me both for the fun and also the necessary educational experiences I had.