Poland: An Emotional Detour
Dates Visited: April 13, 2023
Cities Visited: Krakow, Poland and Oswiecim, Poland
Accommodations: Our Airbnb was in Krakow, on Jana Street. It was part of the Fragola Apartments and it was amazing, both in terms of the location and also the apartment itself. The total cost for one night was $117.55 and, though this was on the expensive side that we looked at, I wanted to make sure it was in a safe neighborhood. It was well worth it!
Sites Visited: Auschwitz, Main Market Square
I was around thirteen when I was first introduced to the Holocaust. My introduction wasn’t from school — at least, if it was, I don’t remember it. I’m not sure exactly how I knew that “the Holocaust” was a thing, but I wanted to write a book about it. I knew I didn’t know enough, so I went to the library to check out a book or two about it. I found Martin Gilbert’s The Holocaust: A History of the European Jewry. This book changed my life.
I’ve written about the many reasons the Holocaust is important to me here and in poems. I’ve dedicated post after post about the traumatizing effects child sexual abuse had on me. When I was a teenager, I was hurting so badly that it was hard to believe things would ever get better; a stranger holding a door open for me and a happy, homeless man convinced me that there were still good people in the world and gave me strength.The Holocaust, as horrible as it was, gave me hope because I knew miraculous stories that took place alongside the evil ones. The Holocaust ultimately taught me how to look for those small moments of hope and to cling to those when I didn’t think I could get by. It was incomprehensible, the evil, and yet, the stories of hope I’d read about made me believe I could get through my “worst case scenario.” I could survive the abuse because there were people who had survived Auschwitz. As a side note, this thinking is flawed: I found hope in the fact that what I was going through wasn’t “as bad as” what the Holocaust survivor went through but, in retrospect, this hurt my healing by leading me to downplay the seriousness of what I went through. You can’t compare pain.
At the end of the day, learning about the Holocaust has been something I’ve done for the last thirty or so years. I’ve written books about it, I’ve read everything I could get my hands on, I visited the Holocaust Museum in D.C as a teenager. Overall, it helped me heal by teaching me to actively seek out hope, and to believe hope exists even in the worst of circumstances. To be that close to the Auschwitz camp and not see it simply was heartbreaking to me.
Since we had a full week in Italy, taking one day to see Poland made sense, especially since the airline tickets (also on a budget friendly airline, Ryanair) were so inexpensive from Italy. Breathe offered to come with me. We landed very early in the morning and hired a cab to take us to what I initially thought was the apartment. Instead, it was the office for Fragola Apartments: the office is located at the square. And the square was one of our favorite parts of the entire trip. The office allowed us to leave our luggage and directed us to a place for breakfast, Loza restaurant. We were able to sit outside and fell promptly in love with the square. There were church bells ringing, horse drawn carriages walking around (we wanted to take a ride in one, but they were between 50-60 dollars for a fifteen minute ride, and I wasn’t prepared to spend that spontaneously. There was also a flea-market like place inside of a really big building. Pigeons were everywhere. All in all, the square was amazing, the breakfast at Loza was amazing and I loved Poland in large part because of this square.
After breakfast, we hired a driver to take us from Krakow to Auschwitz and back. It was about an hour and a half drive and we enjoyed the scenery. Our tickets to Auschwitz were timed and our driver warned us that sometimes the drive could take longer than anticipated if there were wrecks. Luckily, we arrived just in time and did not have to wait in line. Seeing the long brick building made butterflies swarm in my stomach. The tour started with a short movie in an auditorium and then we met the guide. I’d debated whether or not to use a guide because I knew I’d know the stories behind most of the barracks. At the end of the day, though, Auschwitz allows individuals to freely enter without a guide in the late afternoons — which I didn’t have time for, since I was going to have to login remotely to work that evening. Additionally, even though I knew I’d know a lot of the stories behind each building, I wasn’t sure I’d know in which buildings the artifacts were kept or in which order to see the buildings. So, we opted for a guide.
There were about 15 of us in the group with our guide, and we had earphones so that we could hear the guide talking even if we weren’t right with him. The guide did a good job of providing information about each of the buildings and kept us moving. We saw too many significant things to recount, but the entire journey was meaningful and emotional. Because I knew the significance of certain block numbers — say, block 11, for example — I was able to warn Breathe of what we were about to see before we saw it. When I saw certain blocks where stories I’d read about for so many years took place, I found myself choked up. I cried, for instance, when we entered block 11 because I knew that we’d be going to the basement where Zyklon B was first experimented with on Soviet POW prisoners. For Breathe, some of the most overwhelming moments were seeing the thousands of survivors’ suitcases, their hair, and the clothes, especially the childrens’ clothes.
Block 11 was difficult for lots of reasons. It was known as the “torture” block; it was a prison within a prison, designed for “difficult” prisoners. Each room within the block featured a different way for you to be killed. Outside was the firing wall. After going through a one minute mock trial where a German declared you guilty with no evidence and no chance at a defense, many prisoners were taken outside, lined up against this wall and summarily shot. We were taken closer, to the heart of the firing wall, where there are flowers set as a memorial. There were many places, such as the basement of Block 11, where I did not feel comfortable taking photographs because these were real people whose end of life involved incomprehensible terror. Auschwitz guides also do a good job of asking for silence and no pictures in certain rooms — like where you are confronted by more human hair than you can imagine and in Block 11.
We passed through the infamous gates, where the phrase “Arbeit macht frei” (work sets you free) greeted prisoners. To imagine walking beneath that to the sound of barking dogs, a scene of utter chaos behind you as people are being ripped from families as they disembark the most dehumanizing train ride of their lives, passing by an orchestra (played by prisoners) with the sight of smoke rising in the background was overwhelming and made my stomach churn.
It is hard to comprehend the level of evil that existed here. The hardest part of the journey was the last part, where we went into the crematorium and gas chamber. It is hard to describe the feeling, but Breathe and I both talked about how heavy the air was in the chamber, how you could feel the sadness and the haunting loss. These were human beings who hadn’t done anything wrong. They were targeted for breathing. They were targeted for being different. They were targeted because of hatred. And they were murdered — they were worked to death, they were beaten to death, they were humiliated and dehumanized and they were incinerated in numbers that are hard to comprehend. Their ashes fell from the sky and landed on the Nazi’s black boots and on the prisoners as they dug their own graves. The bravery of those who resisted (only one of the crematorium remains today: two were destroyed by Nazis as they abandoned the camps. One was destroyed by prisoners who blew it up in an escape attempt) is awe-inspiring.
I am so thankful for the opportunity to have visited Auschwitz. It was a heavy day, with a lot of difficult emotions. For me, the Holocaust represents more than I can adequately express in words but, as I stood on the grounds, I thought about how the Nazis were ultimately not successful. They wanted to eradicate all of Europe of every last Jew. They were not successful. Similarly, the evil of child abuse screamed that I wasn’t good enough, that it was my fault, that I would never amount to anything–it tried to destroy me. But it was not successful. The truth is that as powerful as evil is — kindness, resilience and hope are always stronger.