Krakow, Poland

  • Krakow, Poland
  • 25,597 miles flown + 775 miles driven
  • 50°04′N 19°56′E
  • Temp: 31 deg
  • 7 books read, 11 massages + 2 hot stone + 1 thermal baths in the books
  • Day 41-44

I knew it was love at first sight with Krakow when I no sooner walked through the door of my hotel and they shoved a paczki in my mouth. Comfort food reigns supreme in Poland and it’s a good thing, because between the heavy history I was here to absorb and the bitter cold, I needed it. Also, vodka.

Let’s start off on a high note with the food, shall we? After a visit to Schindler’s Factory and a stroll through the Jewish Quarter I was in desperate need of comfort. Enter Polakowski, a self service “milk bar” that’s been around for over a hundred years and happily offered up a plate of butter-drenched pierogi and sour barley soup with a side of country charm. All this for $5.

Last night I ate at a restaurant that’s also been around since the time of knights and armor. The interior dates back to the 13th century, inspiring a menu of medieval Polish dishes mostly consisting of a long list of meat like wild boar and deer, grilled over an open fire. When in Rome, right? Sitting in a cavernous room by candlelight, I ordered up a plate of their prized pierogi (apparently they place 1st in whatever competition exists to judge pierogis — side note, let’s figure out when that is and come back) and, of course, the wild boar. All of that washed down with a side of bread with lard spread and a shot of vodka “to help with digestion”. Mmmmm, lard. Mmmmm, vodka. I can’t imagine coming to Poland in the summer and eating this food. You need a good sturdy winter night to take down this cuisine. It’s just what I needed.

Now that we’re fully comforted, let’s talk about the more important things I came to Poland for.

Schindler’s Factory and Jewish Quarter

I wrote my college application essay about Schindler’s List. I’ve also been known to watch the 3-hour movie back to back in immediate succession for 6 hours straight. Why would anyone do that? I think this story is one of the most beautiful and impactful of our time. Every time I watch it I’m completely overwhelmed by what one man did for so many lives, while completely depleting his fortune to do it. There can be no greater act of selflessness than to put another person’s life (let alone 1,000) above all else. I think it should be required for every high school student to watch, with the hope that they will find it so compelling they’ll watch it a second time immediately after. And if it’s been awhile since you’ve watched, might I suggest you queue it up? I fall in love with that movie every time I watch and the count is quite high at this point.

A walk to his factory takes you across a rather whimsical bridge with acrobats suspended on the suspension wires. A little levity before a somber afternoon. 🙂

As you stroll through the streets on the other side of the river, you’ll be in the heart of Podgorze, the neighborhood which was once the ghetto where all of Krakow’s Jews were forced to live. Today if feels like any other urban neighborhood, except for a small, unassuming park that has been turned into a monument with 68 metal chairs installed commemorating the the 68,000 Jews sent here. Adding to the meaningfulness of this small square is Apteka pod Orlem (Pharmacy Under the Eagle) at the corner of the park. This pharmacy is now a museum that tells the story of Tadeusz Pankiewicz, a Polish Catholic pharmacist who kept his business in the heart of the Jewish Ghetto and used it to aid and hide Jewish victims. Another amazing story of someone who risked everything they had for the good of thousands of people.

It’s remarkable to come upon the Schindler Factory, to see it still standing as a large symbol of someone who did so much good in the heart of an area filled with unthinkable horror. The factory has been converted to an amazing museum that takes you through the history of the Nazi era in Krakow and attempts to tell the story of what life would have been like for a Jew living here during that time. *Attempts* being the operative word, because no words or pictures or videos can ever really describe to us what it was like.

I’ve spent the past three weeks traveling through Eastern Europe, visiting Jewish Quarters, Synagogues, memorials and museums. When you hear numbers like 1.5M in a history book, you know it’s a big number, but it’s just a number. When you walk the streets of the neighborhoods where those people once lived before being herded into walled Ghettos, stripped of their belongings, stripped of their rights to even walk the streets, loaded into train cars so crowded there was no room to sit, stripped of all dignity, and in most cases stripped of one’s life, it sinks in what that number actually means. And brings into question how the hell this ever happened at such a massive scale. To answer that very sad and difficult question, I had to visit Auschwitz.

Auschwitz and Birkenau

A visit to Auschwitz is in no way easy. It shouldn’t be. It’s an hour drive from Krakow and then a 3 hour guided walking tour through Auschwitz and Auschwitz-Birkenau. Add to that snow and 30 degrees and you’re guaranteed to feel the impact of the visit not only in your heart, but in your bones. It was emotionally and physically exhausting, and one of the most important places I’ve ever seen. To me it’s astounding that these two camps are still standing. Although the Nazis attempted to destroy two of the four crematoriums, the majority of the structures and evidence of what took place here still stand.

Auschwitz 1 was originally the Polish Army barracks before the Nazis invaded. When you look at the buildings they look sturdy, spacious and by other standards a good place to be housed. The barracks have now been converted to small museums with photos and belongings left behind by those whose lives were taken in an attempt to tell the story of what happened at Auschwitz. The chilling walk in and out of each of these buildings and around the grounds ends in an even more chilling visit to the first crematorium where the Nazis began experimentation with gas chambers and ovens to execute mass murders.

But none of this compares to what you see when you visit Auschwitz-Birkenau a few kilometers down the road. This sprawling camp really conveys the scale at which lives were taken and the horrible conditions prisoners were forced to live in while they waited the inevitable. The camp is 1km long with 45 brick and 215 wood barracks. Each of these barracks housed 400-700 people sleeping in such close quarters they had to sleep on their sides to fit eight to a bed. And by bed I mean wood shelf. No heat, no toilets, and practically no food. It’s not the facts of dimensions or rations or population that surprised me, it was the fact that anyone survived these conditions. Seeing this makes knowing what Oskar Schindler did that much more meaningful.

Where to go from here? First, a drink in front of the fire at my hotel.

Next, a statement about the current world we live in. I do not intend on making this blog political, but I do believe firmly that we must not sit idly by while people in positions of power, protected by power, make intolerable statements about entire ethnic groups. There is something to be learned and remembered here. Power and prejudice is a dangerous thing.

And lest you think Poland is only a somber, heavy place (except for the paczkis and pierogis) let me assure you there is so much more to lighten the mood and delight you. Old Town is an inviting square lined with cafes, pubs, shops, churches, more churches, a few more churches and photo-worthy pastel-faced buildings with tourist-yearning horse drawn carriages. It’s a place to stroll, shop, stop for a warm coffee or a frothy lager. A favorite stop that I stumbled into is a little vodka shop that makes shelves of infused wodkas ideal for taking a taste of Poland home (hi dad!) The 10am hour didn’t stop me from a tasting.

Poland is so many things. If you haven’t been I would highly recommend a visit to lovely Krakow. Everything that I look for in a destination is here — history, charm, good [cheap!] food, streets to stroll, and wonderful, warm locals. Do it.

Xo, xt

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