Thursday, April 16, 2009

Poland 3

Polish history is very complicated and I won’t try to relate it, but everyone there is very aware of the genocide of the Jews by the Nazis during the German occupation. Krakow had a very large population of Jews, who lived in an area which is now part of the city. Estimates vary but the consensus seems to be that there were over 60,000 Jews in Krakow before the war, of whom only 2000 survived by escaping the city or just by not being killed in the camps. Nowadays there are only 200 people in the city who identify themselves as Jewish, and only one synagogue is used for services out of the 90 active ones before the war.

It’s so hard to conceive of such inhumanity. And it would be some tiny comfort to think that nothing like that will never happen again. If only.

There’s a memorial to the dead in a square in the formerly Jewish part of the city. It takes the form of 33 larger-than-lifesize chairs on illuminated plinths and 37 smaller ones, arranged in the otherwise empty space. We heard various explanations of the symbolism of this memorial. One is that the chairs represent the furniture thrown out of the ghetto apartments after the Jewish people were sent to the camps. Another is that the empty chairs symbolise those who have gone and will never return; and a third that Jewish people will now always be welcome in Krakow. Any and all seem appropriate and it was very moving to see them. Sorry for the tininess of the photo. We didn't take any pictures of the chairs ourselves.

There are day trips to Auschwitz, which is not far from the city. We didn’t go. Cowardice?


  1. So nice, not having ever been there, to have you as our virtual guide! I just started reading The Boy In the Striped Pyjamas----somewhat related?

  2. Anonymous11:43 pm

    I don't think I could go to Auschwitz either. I've thought about it before and I think I would have a major meltdown.

  3. Just the Holocaust Memorial in Boston struck me hard. Living there, my path took me there every week, at least. And there were times when I had to walk far around.

    I think Auschwitz is for the unsure, the doubters, the ones who have a hard time realizing the enormity. Those who can see it all too clearly maybe don't need the proof in it's most graphic forms.

  4. Anonymous2:50 am

    I find it difficult to face such tangible realities of our own inhumanity. It amazes me beyond my own comprehension that any person can lack the empathy to feel the pain of another.

  5. An enormous number of Polish people were killed in Auschwitz, as well as Jews. The Polish intelligensia were the first to be exterminated.
    The experience of Auschwitz is something that remains with me every day. It is so near to Krakow, and approached through attractive forests. It is so unbelieveable in every way that there seems the risk that it could happen again.

  6. Wow, your trips sounds so fascinating -- I'd love to go to Poland one day (but Scotland keeps getting in the way LOL.) Like Relatively Retiring mentions, we often forget how many non-Jews were killed in the camps.

    When we lived in Germany, I worked with another American (non-Jewish)who's father had been a mayor of a town in Poland. My co-worker was 4 when the Nazis came through his town. They killed his father and put his mother, his 2 yr. old sister and him on a train to Auschwitz. She had some jewelry with her, and on a stop, she bribed a train guard and he turned his back while they ran across a field to hiding. They somehow managed to make it to the states where he grew up. He and his wife and sons were living in Germany just for a few years so they could travel around Europe. It was a very sad story and he was very bitter.

  7. We went to the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC and it was almost painful to walk though it. I can't imagine visiting an actual concentration camp.

    When I was in college, Irene Gut Opdyke spoke to one of my classes about her experiences during WWII. I'm pretty sure there wasn't a dry eye in the room by the end of her talk. I think the Holocaust is still a very painful topic 60+ years later.

  8. I have seen the movie, The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas. Very moving.
    I would not like to visit Auschwitz.