It was a bit of a surprise to us all when we realized we were a bit sad to be leaving Oświęcim – it had been a long 12 days. However, after we had received a very heartfelt farewell from our hosts and individual certificates of completion noting 80 hours of education on site, I felt like I had done something really unique and special and that an incredibly precious opportunity had just come and gone. I believe I will continue to reflect on and appreciate this for a long, long while.
In the meantime, our next stop: Kraków!
We started off our time in the city by visiting one of Europe’s oldest-surviving universities, Jagiellonian University! Our tour was inside the museum, but the university continues to function. It was pretty amazing to see some of the instruments used to study back in the day and to see how a universities were constructed and for what purposes!
Our relatively short day of activities ended with a lecture on sites that are forgotten – sometimes quite deliberately – when it comes to World War II and the genocide of Jewish people and many others. We would later visit one of those sites, where the former Paszow Concentration Camp existed, was nearly entirely destroyed, and is only now just beginning to earn its right to be memorialized.
We had a long day of walking tours that offered us an abundance of history on Kraków’s architecture and art as well as its Jewish history. We started with a tour of the Wawel Cathedral and then explored the core of the city. One of the really interesting parts for me – besides how different Poland is aesthetically from home – was the fact that the city is basically built 5m above its original level! You can see it in one of the photos below, where a shopping centre is built around the original walls and above the original ground of the city. After a break, we went on to learn about how Jewish culture shaped the city and then disappeared from it.
As I mentioned earlier, in one of our first lectures in the city we learned about “non-sites” of memory, where atrocities occurred but are not currently commemorated. We had the opportunity to visit one of these sites and see how nearly totally the former Plaszow concentration camp has been erased. However, we were able to see works being done by archaeologists to uncover evidence and artifacts, as well as memorials that have been placed to honour the victims. I encourage you to take a look – they were striking to see in-person. The student tour guide gave us a unique opportunity to handle some of the objects that have been found on-site that would have been brought to the camp by captured individuals or that would have been used by them once they were imprisoned.
If you want to learn more about this site, take a look here (link).
Before moving on to our next scheduled activity, we had a break where we went to explore the city quarters a bit more and to get some studying done (following a fruitless attempt to acquire fried broccoli from McDonald’s – McDonald’s is looking good in Poland!). We found a lovely spot called Cytat Café where we hunkered down for a while and enjoyed some uppity beverages and yummy food!
Our final stop that day was the Schindler Factory Tour. This was one of the more “touristy” activities we had done (and would do) during our time in Poland, but it was still interesting to see this side of presenting the events that occurred. It was skimmed over a bit too much for my liking that Schindler found that he could hire Jewish people for cheap labour and that this motivated the beginning of his list. We went on to learn a few more aspects of the war in this part of Poland, but with very little emphasis on certain aspects, such as images of individuals being hanged without any context offered. However, it was still a valuable experience and helped remind me, at least, of the depth and breadth of the education we have been receiving on this topic and how important it is to dig deeper when considering such incredibly complex issues.
The only item on our agenda for our final day in Kraków was an extensive tour of the city that highlighted its Jewish history and the ghetto experience. Our tour guide was a bit fiery and offered a mixture of objective and subjective information and ideas, the latter of which I believe we all appreciated as students who had been receiving largely historical information that aimed to be as objective as possible. Perhaps, though, it was the energy with which our guide became frustrated and angry and enthused about certain things that really made the tour special. We poetically completed our tour at a public art installation that includes 63* chairs, each representing 1,000 Jewish people that suffered there with some facing in the direction of important parts of the city/ghetto at that time.
I would like to take a moment to highlight our two days of VEGAN BURGERS (and zapiekanka, and avocado chocolate cake) at Farama Burgerownia:
Thanks, Kraków – I wish we could have stayed and gotten to know you better!