The time Mandy and I spent in Poland gave us another perspective to the horror and destruction of war, as well as a view of a country currently undergoing an economic upswing and modernization process. What I knew less of before the trip was how held back many central European countries were by the Cold War and association with the Soviet Bloc. This association has in many ways restricted growth for an entire generation, and has created a period of economic modernization within our current technological and social environment. This contrasts with western Europe, and it provides central and eastern Europe with a unique identity that blends old world Europe and modern society. In many ways, it leaves out the social, design, and infrastructural developments of the 1950’s through 1980’s but incorporates more modern developments within a pre-World War II cityscape. With this reality in mind, the dichotomy between the older and younger generations is a much starker contrast than that of their western European counterparts. These two generations have grown up with opposing world views and now occupy the same physical space. On the other hand, in western Europe, while changes in viewpoints have developed over the generations, the complete shift in paradigm never occurred. Recognizing the shift from communist to capitalist systems is key to understanding the current reality of these societies today.
Poland is one of the largest and most impactful countries of central Europe. It holds a large population of over thirty-eight million and an area of over 120k square miles. Over its history it has been invaded and conquered by many of its neighbors. Given its central location in Europe, it was a frequent target for invasion and in WWII it was invaded by both Germany and Russia. A few years later, Germany took over the country completely and proceeded to kill off a large portion of its citizenry as well as almost its entire Jewish population. It was one of the largest casualties of the war as over 6 million of its people were killed. It became a satellite state of the USSR after the war and didn’t gain full independence until 1989. Today, Poland is a regional and emerging world power. It has the eighth largest economy in the European Union, and its economy is growing quickly. It has lifted its standard of living and educational system while at the same time remaining open to immigration. Many immigrate to Poland from elsewhere in Central Europe in search of work. Poland has recently seen a large influx of Ukranian citizens seeking economic opportunity and an escape from the tumult now plaguing their home country. In addition to being a member of the European Union, Poland is a member of NATO. Poland acts as a large counterweight to Russian power in the region and Russia has strong opposition to Poland's involvement with the US and NATO.
Our time in Poland was spent in Warsaw, Krakow, and a daytrip to Auschwitz. Warsaw is Poland’s capital city and largest by population at 3.1mm in the greater metropolitan area. We spent two nights and stayed in the old city and Jewish quarter of town. The city itself was severely damaged in WWII and was considered prior to the war to be one of the most beautiful cities in Europe. The area we stayed in was well preserved but much of the city displayed a modern feel and was completely rebuilt after the war. During the war, to control the Jewish population prior to deciding on programmatic extermination, the Jews of Warsaw were forced to live in two small neighborhoods known as Ghettos. We stayed where one of the ghettos once was and it was sobering to think of the plight the Jews of the city must have gone through. They were given incredibly deficient rations of food and were made to live in extremely harsh and cramped conditions. After a large uprising by the Jews in the ghetto in 1943, most of the population was shipped off to the death camps in Auschwitz. So much strife and suffering occupied this city that it’s difficult to comprehend. It is dubbed a Phoenix city due to the cultural and economic rebirth it has experienced in response to the devastation of the war. We spent our time in Warsaw walking the old town, seeing many of the monuments and learning more about its history. It rained for most of our stay, so it kept us indoors and in museums. We spent half the day in the Museum of Modern Art and caught a workshop on hypnosis. We and about fifteen other people sat on bean bag chairs in a large room while we were taken through a hypnosis session. I had never done anything along those lines in the past and it felt more like meditation – I am still skeptical it worked but it kept us out of the rain for an extra hour.
We arrived the next day in Krakow as the sun was starting to set. We made our way to the central plaza to grab a bite for dinner and came upon huge crowds of young tourists in the expansive central square. The city felt much more alive than Warsaw and as we discovered, is a destination for bachelor parties, particularly British ones. You could make out their accents within the din of the crowd and blare of the music. The central square was lined with lively bars, clubs and restaurants and we watched the sunset as the swallows swooped in and out of the central tower in the square. I had no prior knowledge of Krakow and it made quite the first impression.
The next morning, we got up early and boarded a shuttle to Auschwitz. Auschwitz lies a few hours’ drive from Krakow and was a death and work camp constructed and operated by the Germans in WWII. This camp facilitated the death of around 1mm European Jews and over 150,000 Poles in just a few short years. This camp was turned into a museum of the Holocaust to document and commemorate the savage murder and genocide that took place there. Prisoners were either immediately sent to gas chambers or starved to death in work camps on a daily ration of a slice of bread and scoop of soup broth from rotten vegetables. Most of the prisoners in the camp only lasted a few months. The facility is staggeringly vast with a few different sections spread throughout the area and was expanded multiple times over the course of the war. Trains would transport Jews from all over Europe in cattle cars in a journey that could last several days. The passengers were loaded in these cattle cars well over their capacity with no toilet, water, or food for multiple days. There was not enough air and ventilation so in many cases people would die of suffocation on the journey to the camp. Immediately upon arriving, men and women would be separated and a doctor would spend a few seconds looking at each prisoner and would decide who was fit for work. This judgement sent the weak, sick, old, and young immediately to the gas chambers. They were told they were taking showers and ordered to strip naked and hang their clothes on numbered hooks and to remember the number so they could retrieve their clothes after the shower. The people were then led downstairs into the gas chambers and once inside, the doors were closed and the chemical agent Cyclon B was dropped through the ceiling slowly poisoning everyone inside. It would take about twenty minutes for the people to die a slow and painful death. The dead were then taken out of the chamber and loaded into cremation ovens and the process was started all over again. Several thousand could be killed in just an hour, and the level of killing done here was unprecedented in human history. Those that were chosen for the work camp suffered immeasurable starvation and suffering. Forced into hard manual labor on less than 500 calories a day, the prisoners were slowly starved to death. The barracks were poorly built and people were crammed together in deplorable conditions. Prisoners were only allowed to use the bathroom once per day and disease ran rampant. They were so sick that they would soil themselves in their bunks drenching those underneath them and spreading disease. These barracks were hot in the summer and cold in the winter and in walking them, you could immediately get a sense of the level of suffering endured by those held here. The level of cruelty I learned of was not only disturbing, but depraved and will always stick with me.
We visited the first phase of the camp and walked through many of the barracks turned into specific monuments. Our tour group was led through each barrack and in the first, there was an entire room full of eye glasses. Thousands upon thousands of these glasses were piled in the room which were confiscated from the Jews upon disembarking the trains. The next room contained cups and dishes and cutlery as far as the eye could see. I was led into another barrack and was stopped in my tracks – shoes. Thousands of shoes piled to the ceiling, obviously from another time but in every style color and size imaginable. All the shoes were incredibly dirty - evidence of a harrowing journey to the camp. In the next room was hair. The Germans shaved the heads of their prisoners and used their hair to make rugs, ropes and clothes for the war effort. When the Soviets found the camp, they found the stockpiled hair. I was almost driven to tears while looking out over this large room piled ten feet high with hair all mixed together. Assorted colors, lengths styles all piled together like animal hair. It was incredibly disturbing. I find it disgusting that people claim the Holocaust is a hoax. What I saw at Auschwitz was the most blatant evidence of evil incarnate I have ever seen. I have never held a simultaneous desire to forget and remember.
I walked away from this experience angrier and more confused than when I had walked into it. So many questions swirled through my mind as the snapshots of suffering unceasingly sprang into my head. Most central was the question I think we all have: how were the Nazis capable of committing such horrible atrocities to their fellow man? I don’t understand how a large group of people could have been persuaded to commit such acts and I think a lot of effort should go into gathering a more complete understanding of this to prevent it from happening in such a big way again. I scarcely think a person could be brought to carry our such brutality to animals, much less other people. Most striking was the selection of the elderly and the children to be immediately killed – the most guarded and respected of human beings being cast to the fire like useless rubbish. I think if everyone could see this monument to evil, our world would be a lot less tolerant of bigoted ideologies.
The beginning and end of our time in Poland created starkly different feelings within me. Upon arriving I was struck with the energy and optimism of the country as well as some reflections on how its past has shaped its present. In leaving, I was shocked by the horrors of WWII and the Holocaust and felt pessimistic about humanity in general. While difficult to reconcile these two feelings, I have realized what makes Poland so unique. A land that has seen both the best and worst of what we are all capable of reflects humanity itself. Despite what it has experienced in the past, Poland is on the rise. I hope we can all take this lesson of recovery and rebirth to heart. // Jeff