A Lot on my Plate
This past weekend, as I alluded to in my last post, I travelled to Poland. There, some friends and I spent a few days exploring the wonderfully quaint and snow-swept city of Krákow. We were fortunate enough to stay in a hostel overlooking the edge of the city’s historic center, a formerly walled-off section of the town whose defensive ramparts of yesteryear have been replaced by a lovely park. This section of Krákow has a striking balance of old and new. Having survived all of Europe’s various wars in tact, some of its buildings (including the one in which we made our temporary home, pictured below) are remarkably old fashioned, with large wooden doors and looming stone facades. However, also sprinkled around the grid-patterned streets are brightly colored, modern buildings and storefronts. This gave Krákow a richly cultured and lively glow.
Once we had dropped our bags and located a Kantor, or currency exchange, to get our hands on some złoty, the Polish currency, we stopped into the first restaurant we saw. Lucky for us, we could not have picked a better spot. Located just moments from our hostel, the single-counter restaurant was open 24 hours a day and served a wide variety of traditional Polish foods, most notably pierogi. For those of you who have not had the pleasure, pierogi are a type of Polish dumpling. After a few short minutes of waiting, we each had steaming plates in front of us, piled high with the stuffed delicacies and sprinkled with tasty toppings. Suffice it to say, we all ordered seconds. And then we revisited that same restaurant upwards of a half dozen times during the remainder of the weekend, all without a shred of shame. It was that good. Fortunately, so were all of the other Polish restaurants and foods that we found. Personally, I gorged myself on a mixture of kielbasa (Polish sausage), potato pancakes, goulash (Polish beef stew), sauerkraut, and, of course, more pierogi. On top of the abundance of high quality and extremely cheap Polish beer, my appetite was thoroughly pleased with my time in Krákow, and my taste buds will not be quick to forget the wonders I discovered there.
When the group of us wasn’t busy stuffing our faces with top-notch Polish cuisine, we wandered around the city. In only a few hours of walking, we were able to see much of the old town, including the picturesque Main Market Square and the oldest site of Krákow, Wawel hill, now home to the stunning Royal Wawel Castle. By night, we roamed the Kazimierz district (the old Jewish quarter), which now serves as the hub of the Krákowian bar scene and nightlife. Despite some confusion prompted by our reliance on English, we spent many a happy hour among the Poles in Kazimierz, talking and dancing and enjoying ourselves our time there to the fullest. Then, after each night of hearty fun, we wound our way back our hostel, sidetracked only for a quick dessert of apple and cream pierogi at our favorite hole in the wall.
Now, not all of my time in Poland was spent in the merry, food-coma-esque daze described above. In fact, let me give a little disclaimer. This next section is bar-none the most serious of any that I have put into this blog so far, as it deals with some very sensitive subject matter. I hope that anyone struck by it will feel compelled to share their thoughts with me in any way they can. That said, here goes.
In the late morning of Saturday, the last full day of our stay, a service we had purchased sent a driver to pick us up from our hostel in a small van. We then drove about hour away from the city to the town of Oświęcim. This town is probably more known by another name, the name given to it by its German occupiers during the 1940’s and World War II: Auschwitz. It is home to one of the most infamous networks of concentration camps in the history of the world, operated by the Third Reich during the Nazi occupation of Poland. Once there, we received informational tours of the original work camp, Auschwitz I, as well as the larger and more extermination-oriented Auschwitz II—Birkenau, located a few kilometers away. Nowadays, both are visited daily by a large volume of tourists from around the world. There are tours and informational signs provided in just about every major language, and the spectators ranged from historians to school groups to selfie-stick users. The former prison barracks have been turned into a slew of exhibits that showcase the living conditions of those unfortunate prisoners of the camps, their mountains of now-ownerless belongings, as well as some of the primitive gas chambers and crematoria. There is a lot to take in. With Auschwitz having hosted around 17,000 people at a time and Birkenau 90,000, there is certainly more area and information on the premises than one person can absorb in a single visit. And, from what I discovered, each person’s visit there is entirely unique and highly personal. Even within my group of friends, each person was struck by different aspects of the camps and each of us reflected upon the horrors represented in Auschwitz in our own time and mental space.
For me, I found the whole experience acutely and overwhelmingly sobering. On the day we visited, it was actually quite crowded. Given that it was a Saturday with above-average weather for mid-winter Poland, I guess this shouldn’t have been surprising. Yet, despite the bustle, the constant clicking of smart phones and cameras, and the rambling voices of the various tour guides, I found myself distracted. I found myself blank-minded and blank-stared, losing track of the information passing through my ears, and even of the group I was walking with. At times I even wandered away from the pack, away from the exhibits, and just sort of looked. Looked out at the various chimneys, fences, and walkways that made up an undeniably horrifying place. A place that during the lifetime of my own grandparents had seen the systematic undertaking of some of the most terrifying crimes imaginable, on a larger scale than any human can quite wrap their head around. The weight of the place, the sheer immensity of it, left me feeling empty. I will refrain from specifics moments or areas of the camps that struck me, for the sake of time, but I will be happy to answer questions or elaborate further if any of my readers wish to correspond with me directly.
I’ll leave you with this: Elie Wiesel, a renowned author of Hungarian Jewish descent, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, and a survivor of Auschwitz, wrote in the introduction to his first book, Night, that the Holocaust “belongs to our collective memory.” As human beings, we have the responsibility to remember and understand what happened at Auschwitz and so many camps like it, both as recognition of our shared humanity and as a warning for future generations. Even if you never visit Poland, even if you have absolutely no personal ties to the Holocaust or to Judaism or to anything else, you, just as I, carry the collective burden of the millions of lives lost during the Holocaust and so many tragedies like around the world.
This weekend was special for me in many ways. Ultimately, I know that my time in Poland was completely worthwhile, both in what I saw and what I learned. It may not have been easy to swallow, but I am glad to have gone through with it in the way and with the people that I did. Looking forward, I have many more weekends to come, each with their own sort of adventures. I look forward to seeing what they have in store, and sharing them with you here.