Updated on May 18, 2016
A historic week in Poland
Whenever I said that I was going to Poland, all my friends and family looked at me as if I’ve gone mad and asked “what are you going to do there?” Oh well… I will answer: Poland is a wonderful blend of beaches, lakes, forests, mountains, and interesting cities with lots of history. However, a lot of people don’t really know much about Poland and have stereotypical thoughts about the country and its background, there is also the awful fact that Poland has the worst and most horrifying Jewish concentration camp in the history of Nazi Germany – Auschwitz, which I always wanted to see (I shall explain why further down this post). So, if you like history, especially if you are into WWII, Poland needs to be in your list.
This time I went to Poland for its culture and history and didn’t have time to explore its natural beauties. I started my trip in Krakow and its surroundings and then I moved to Warsaw. Each of these Polish cities have a distinct feel and culture that goes from Krakow’s historic pride, to Warsaw’s urban vibe.
Krakow – the old royal capital – is well known for its architectural monuments and a friendly atmosphere. It lost its position of Polish capital in 1609 and this allowed its Old Town to be spared of the attacks of the Second World War.
After exploring this UNESCO Heritage site, we headed to the Wavel Hill. If you love castles, make Poland one of your top destinations. Poland’s castles can be found in various states of preservation, from ruins to buildings that maintain their original structures. Wavel Castle, it’s royal chambers and beautiful cathedral do worth a visit when in Krakow.
In the 20th century Poland suffered from both German and Communist occupation and, not far from Krakow, we can find two sites which could represent the good and evil of this period. One is the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. The other is Wadowice, birthplace of the late Pope John Paul II, who was for many a symbol against Communist rule and is now a saint.
I started the day visiting the UNESCO World Heritage site of Auschwitz-Birkenau passing under the same arch millions of people (people before Jewish) passed during the Nazi period. The famous arch says “arbeit macht frei”, one of the cruel tricks of the Nazis making people to believe that they could be freed if they just worked hard enough.
I always wanted to see Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. Whenever I said that, people would ask me with a mixture of terror and surprise: “WHY?!?!” I will explain my main reasons below.
To make it real. It was very sad, it was unfortunate, but it was distant. Those people belonged to my boring history classes at school, documentaries and movies. They were just stories from a war that happened before I was born and very far away from where I come from. But the truth is that it wasn’t that long ago – my grandparents ran away from Europe to Brasil to scape the consequences of the IIWW – and it happened with people very much like me or you.
Standing in the place where millions of people were imprisoned and murdered, the heavy atmosphere, seeing the piles of hair, shoes, and personal belongings, made this whole event feel real, it was no longer a chapter in history but but an actual place where millions people became the victims of the biggest atrocity in the history of Europe. Standing there, the reality of what happened hit me in a way that no history book, TV documentary, movie or history teacher had managed to do.
To learn. A visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau is a bigger lesson than anything else you could read or watch about it. It is hard to understand how so many people could be so wrapped up in hate, cruelty and mass murder of so many others. The only answer I could come up with was ignorance, fear and skilfully exploited Nazi propaganda.
To Remember the horrors of the past to prevent them from happening in the future. Remembering the true horrors of the Holocaust can help us to challenge prejudice religious intolerance, persecution of minorities, hate, abuse and discrimination nowadays.
Auschwitz is a set of blockhouses that you walk through on a guided tour listening about the process of selection and extermination of prisoners. In Auschwitz you get a glimpse of the horrible conditions, torture and even bizarre “medical experiments” that numerous people were submitted to live and also died in.
Walking along the corridor of one of the blocks the guide drive our attention to the mugshots pictures hanging on the wall. The photos showed a prisoner with a shaved head and dressed in white-and-blue-striped pyjamas, under the image we could read a name, the arrival date at the camp and the date they died. What really upset me was to realise that very few of them survived at Auschwitz for more than 9 months.
We then took a shuttle bus over to Birkenau, located about a mile away from Auschwitz. Birkenau can be found today in the same condition as it was left when the camps were liberated in 1945. As far as the eye can see there are chimneys from the demolished barracks and watch towers, the air is heavy and quiet.
You can see the remains of the gas chambers that the Nazis tried to destroy before the arrival of the Soviet Troops, and the crematoria.
At the very end of the camp is dedicated as an International Memorial of the Nazi Victims in various different languages.
I am so grateful for the experience I had of visiting this truly horrible place. It left me with the upset, depressed, and sick feeling that everybody said that I would feel, but while I never want to return, I believe there isn’t anyone on the planet who wouldn’t benefit from seeing for themselves what ignorance and hate can result in.
Two words would describe the whole place and experience: moving and unforgettable.
Looking for some peace for our souls we moved on to visit Wadowice, birthplace of the late Pope John Paul II. His birthplace is now a museum about him, his life and his values. His house is still preserved with some of its original features.
The following day we went for a stroll at the old Jewish district, where you can also find part of the wall that used to separate what was called the “ghetto” area.
We then went to visit Schindler’s Enamel Factory, which now hosts the Museum of Contemporary Art.Although there is a permanent exhibition about Krakow under Nazi occupation, I have to admit I was a bit disappointed to see that the factory itself was not preserved.
In the afternoon we went to another UNESCO World Heritage Site – Poland has 14 of them – the Wieliczka Salt Mines, where the salt sculptures can be appreciated and are a unique feature of its underground chambers. Most of Krakow’s wealth came from the 1,000 years of operation of these Mines
Pictures will never do justice of how amazingly beautiful this place is. The feeling of going “wow!” is present after every corner you turn.
Just don’t walk around licking the salty walls. Or… do it! I’ve done it and they are “saltily” delicious.
After very emotional and sunny 3 days in lovely Krakow we took a train to Warsaw, Poland’s capital since the 16th century. Warsaw is very different, buzzing, more cosmopolitan, but a real “must see” as well.
Warsaw was severely bombed and completely destroyed during the WWII. Consequently, its Old Town was also destroyed. After the war, the determination of its people ensured its restoration. The Old Town has been completely restored to its “status quo” with the help of old photographs, paintings and architectural plans.
Poland’s most famous composer is Chopin, whose statue presides over Lazienki Park.
Walking through this beautiful park on a beautiful sunny day we reached Lazienki Palace.
We started our afternoon at the Warsaw Uprising Museum, which is a very interesting interactive museum about the Warsaw Uprising in 1944. Do not miss the 30 mins video with real footage from that time and also the City of Ruins: the computerized 3D video of a flyover of bombed WWII Warsaw. It took 1 year, over 1000 photographs and extensive research to make this video that shows the scale of destruction with details and an amazing historic accuracy.
After a 20 mins walk from the museum we reached the Palace of Culture and Science. The building was a gift from Stalin to the polish people, stamping his mark on the country’s capital. The locals are not very fond of it, for obvious reasons, and nicknamed it “Stalin’s Penis”.
Designed in the communist style, it’s definitely not pretty but is certainly grand, it is the tallest building in Poland and the eighth tallest building in the European Union with 231 metres in height. The building is now home to various companies, cinemas, several different theatres (that can even host rock concerts), libraries, sports clubs, universities and scientific institutions.
We rode the tiny elevator up to the viewing terrace to look at the views of the city.
The views were good, were not breathtaking. I wouldn’t repeat the experience but this was one of those “check the box” experiences that would make a trip to Warsaw incomplete.
The next day we walked our away around through Royal Way ‘Krakowskie Przedmiescie’
Stopping by the Church of the Holy Cross, an iconic symbol of the Warsaw Uprising
Finishing at The Maria Skłodowska-Curie Museum, devoted to the life and work of the twice Nobel Prize winner. Unfortunately we couldn’t visit the museum as it was closed so we decided to lose ourselves on the lovely little streets of the Old and New Town.
And that’s when we found the most amazing hot chocolate in town – I dare to say in the world! And some chocolates for the journey back home too… Heaven has a name and it’s called Wedel. If you are a chocoholic like me do not miss this.
Poland is still not on the top of most people’s lists when thinking about a European vacation but… I hope this post changes your mind.