Wie geht’s (what’s up)? I have recently arrived back to my flat in Graz after a short, but eye-opening and unforgettable journey to Kraków, Poland.
The pre-semester German intensive courses ended this past Tuesday, so Lauren, Abbey and I decided not to let our long weekend go to waste. We left for Krakow on Thursday evening, and had our first experience with the night train. Although the train was relatively comfortable, I didn’t sleep that well. I think I was too excited.
We arrived in Kraków at around 7am Friday morning, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. Our first objective was to find our lodging, the Let’s Rock hostel. During the 15-minute walk to our hostel, we got our first taste of the lovely city of Kraków. It’s similar to other European cities that I’ve been to in that there are various beautiful churches and other fine works of architecture-art, but Krakow also has a personality and a uniqueness all its own. I loved it.
We couldn’t check into our rooms at Let’s Rock yet, but we were able to drop off our stuff in the luggage room. From there, we went back out into the city to enjoy our day. First, we exchanged some Euros for złoty, the Polish currency, and walked around the main square, as well as a park nearby.
It was in the main square of Kraków that I gazed upon one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen: St. Mary’s Basilica. Specifically, the inside of the Basilica. The ceiling and walls are decorated with the most intricate and delicate of patterns colored a beautiful teal-blue and gold. I could admire that ceiling for hours on end. It was magnificent.
That afternoon, we took a three-hour tour of the Wieliczka Salt Mine, one of the oldest salt mines in the world. It was a dizzying 378 steps down to the main chamber, but luckily, we got to ride the lift back up when we were done with our tour. The coolest part of the mine is the enormous underground Chapel—the Chapel of St. Kinga. It is exactly 101 meters underground, and services are performed there regularly!
That evening, we also walked around the Wawel Castle, which was situated very near our hostel, and ate a delicious dinner of traditional Polish food: pierogis. My mouth is watering just thinking of them!
We returned to our hostel that night anxious for the next day, in which we experienced something that I’m sure we will never forget: a guided tour of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camps.
The drive from Kraków to Auschwitz takes about 45 minutes. We had hired a driver to take us there, and we shared the van with five other students our age who are studying to be veterinarians in Slovakia. Three of them were from Scotland, and two were from London.
The full-guided tour of Auschwitz-Birkenau takes about five and a half harrowing hours. Learning about the terrible events that unfolded there in history class and seeing the grounds in real life are two very different things. To walk in the footsteps of so many people who suffered and died tragically and needlessly is an experience that is profoundly devastating, yet absolutely necessary.
Visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau was nothing short of sobering experience.
It was hard for me to breathe, the air seemed so thick with desperation and depression. In order to display the enormity of the transgressions that occurred there, they have several rooms filled with belongings of the victims. An entire glassed-in room filled with human hair that was shaved from dead bodies to be used in production. Displays filled with eye glasses, razors, hair brushes, pots and pans hair grease and tiny children’s shoes. It makes your heart drop in your chest, and stay there.
The sight of train tracks and the main guard tower in the background at Birkenau will always haunt me. Over one million human lives were lost there after arriving in cattle cars. It sickens me to no end. Even so, we must remember.
We must never grow complacent. Be it with brash acts of violence, or quiet acts of discrimination and racism, we must resist at every corner and at all costs. What happened to the world all those years ago must always be remembered, and never repeated.
I don’t want to write that Auschwitz -Birkenau was the highlight of my journey to Poland, because it was much more than that, much heavier. It was powerful, and I will carry it with me all my life.
Kraków, Poland, is truly a gem to behold. It has a beauty and personality all its own, and I hope to return someday.