Tag Archives: Poland

Beauty, darkness and hope: or today would be a good day to be in Kraków

I love living in the city and I have loved travelling to numerous cities around the world. There is great beauty in the history, the architecture, the art, the culture, found in the compactness of an old city. Side by side, layer by layer, the joys and accomplishments, alongside the sorrows and horrors. The best and worst of humanity can often be seen. Beauty just across from darkness, and somewhere somehow in the midst, hope.

Kraków is Poland’s (and one of Europe’s) oldest continuously inhabited city. While one of my main goals is visiting this part of the world was to spend a significant, but certainly not ‘good’, day at Auschwitz-Birkenau, Kraków was an unexpected delight. It is a gorgeous city, but it also has its own historic horror, and I found myself looking for both beauty and hope.

What did I love about Kraków?

Kraków’s entire medieval Old Town is on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

The town square is a gathering place of art, food, performance and music.

At one edge sits St Mary’s Basilica.

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Inside is its famous Gothic altarpiece,

and its stunning painted ceilings and walls.

Every hour a trumpeter appears from the highest tower to play a traditional anthem.

Down the city’s narrow streets are hidden gems of buildings …

… and gardens  …

… and courtyards.

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Overlooking Old Town is the fortified castle hill of Wawel,

with its Cathedral consisting of a conglomeration of chapels and domes of varying styles and periods.

The Jewish history of the city is seen in Kazimierz and its own market square, Wolnica.

Here, the beautiful Three Musicians sculpture and its adjacent tree caught my eye.

From there it is a short walk to the Vistula river

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with its modern bridges joining different parts of the city easily and accessibly.

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What did I learn from Kraków?

It is on the other side of the river that some of the darker parts of this beautiful city’s history became more apparent.

Here in Podgórze the Kraków Ghetto was established in 1941.

It was ‘liquidated’ (far too sterile a term) in 1943.

A simple memorial in the square is confronting in its starkness.

Each of the 70 chairs represents 1000 lives.

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One glimpse of hope is the Schindler Factory, best known from the 1993 film, which is today a museum about this dark chapter in world history.

But for the people of this city, perhaps the best glimpse of hope is found in their favourite son, a man named Karol Józef Wojtyła, who lived here during this horrific period in history. After losing his family, he turned not away from but toward God and entered the priesthood.

Some forty years later he was elected Pope, taking the name John Paul II and becoming a beloved figure known for his commitment to peace and reconciliation. Hope out of darkness indeed.

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There is never a good day to be in Auschwitz-Birkenau

Krakow is such a charming old city (one I’m sure I will write a future post about how much I Iove) and the drive to the town of Oświęcim passes through picturesque countryside. It’s hard to comprehend how such horror happened in such a beautiful place. I’m enjoying my stay in Poland, but I’m not sure that anyone could say they “enjoyed” visiting the site of the largest and most horrifically “efficient” mass murder in human history. But it is an important place to visit, to be aware of, to remember … and I’m thankful for the opportunity I had to do all of those things at the memorials of Auschwitz-Birkenau today.

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Memorial text: 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.

I’m still processing what I saw today.

Freight car used to deport Jews from Hungary, 80-150 at a time

Before entering the sites, we watched documentary footage taken by the Russian army when they liberated the camps in January 1945. The horror of first hand accounts by both survivors and liberators had me in tears.

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Walking through Auschwitz and Birkenau themselves, however, I didn’t cry. I can’t tell you why. My most common thought was actually this one:

“I just don’t know how to feel this.”

It’s too overwhelming, too big to fathom, too unthinkable to comprehend.

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How should you look upon the gate with its infamous “Work brings freedom” sign, and the place behind it where the orchestra was forced to play happy songs as their families and neighbours marched out to work, often to their torture and death?

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How do you describe a room filled with literal tonnes of human hair, knowing it was shaved from hundreds of thousands of corpses, people who had been gassed only minutes before?

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How do you respond to the guard tower from which SS soldiers led roll calls that lasted for hours in freezing temperatures with the living propping up the dead because everyone had to be counted?

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What are you supposed to feel when you stand on the railway platform where over a million men, women and children were sent to their deaths with the casual wave of a doctor’s arm?

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What are the right words for the emotion of walking in their footsteps the 400 metre path to the gas chambers, conscious that in a few moments you will get to turn around and walk back the other way when they didn’t?

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Questions like this are relentless in this place. You question your own reactions, you question the responses of others.

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Is it a good thing or a bad thing that there are people chatting, smiling, taking photos of themselves and even laughing as they wander through this place?

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What do you think when your stomach starts grumbling because you haven’t eaten in a few hours and your mind unthinkingly says, “I’m starving,” before you remember that you are walking past barracks where thousands of people died of emaciation, malnutrition and starvation?

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How do you look upon the loud, brash group of young adults from the USA sauntering around proudly draped in modern Israeli flags? Is it right or wrong to find yourself unable to stop from comparing them with the quiet group of older observant Jews wearing yarmulkes and pausing to visibly mourn at various places? And what must they think of the tourists trying to sneakily take photos in places where cameras are not allowed out of respect for the humans whose remains are on display?

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How do I remember and respect in a way that honours the humanity and dignity of individual people, people with stories and hopes and dreams just like me, people who were dehumanised and stripped of all they had, even their names, and whose individual preciousness is even today so easily consumed by the sheer number of all who suffered and died alongside them?

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And most of all, what difference will it make to my life that I have walked through this place? How do I live with hope knowing that people, ordinary people, are capable of such darkness? How do I live with justice knowing that people, ordinary people, chose to turn a blind eye to the incremental shift in attitudes and laws that eventually led to a place like this becoming a reality?

Gas Chamber, Auschwitz

Perhaps the question that sticks with me, and the most confronting one for me personally as a follower of Jesus, was one voiced in a film I watched only a couple of days ago in the Holocaust Memorial in Budapest; one I have been challenged to consider the ramifications of in my own life in the world today.

“The question is not where God was in Auschwitz, but where the Christians were.”

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