Lessons from His­tory

The pre­served walls of Kraków echo with a deaf­en­ing si­lence that re­veals the scars from the past

Philippine Tatler Traveller - - Destinatio­ns | Time Capsule - WORDS: KERRY TINGA PHO­TOS: KAYE, KERRY, AND KYLIE TINGA

While many of the cities of Europe were rav­aged and re- built af­ter the Sec­ond World War, it is said that the beauty of Kraków saved it from Nazi de­struc­tion. Fol­low­ing the in­va­sion of Poland in 1939, War­saw was razed to the ground, and Kraków, con­sid­ered by Hitler as a “Ger­man” city— from the mixed ar­chi­tec­tural styles cap­tured in Wawel Cas­tle to the stun­ning me­dieval Main Mar­ket Square— was named the cap­i­tal of the Gen­eral Gov­ern­ment by the Third Re­ich. No build­ings here were bombed, no bat­tle was sieged, but Kraków would be for­ever changed. The scars in this city run deeper, and are in many ways harder to heal— than any of the bom­barded cities of Europe.

Across the Wisła River from the breath­tak­ing Old Town is a suburb of Kraków per­haps not as beau­ti­ful, frag­ments of the walls sep­a­rat­ing it from the rest of Kraków still vis­i­ble with a plaque that reads: “Here they lived, suf­fered, and died at the hands of the Ger­man tor­tur­ers. From here they be­gan their fi­nal jour­ney to the death camps.”

The Kraków Ghetto in the area of Podgórze was where Jewish in­hab­i­tants of Kraków were forced to re­lo­cate. As snow fell, and the sun­light dimmed, it seemed like the world turned black and white, with­out colour or life. I imag­ined the harsh con­di­tions of those who were made to live here, who packed up their lives in Kraków to be crammed into rooms they shared with other fam­i­lies, starv­ing, bru­tally at­tacked or even shot by Nazis, then sys­tem­at­i­cally trans­ported to their deaths as part of The Fi­nal So­lu­tion. The Nazis looted their houses and cleared the area of the pris­on­ers so that all that was left was a dis­con­cert­ing mem­ory that brought a chill to my spine. A re­minder of these atroc­i­ties are the bronze chairs in the Ghetto He­roes Square, where aban­doned pos­ses­sions of the de­por­tees were laid be­side the bod­ies of those shot and killed.

Just a short car ride out­side of the city (much too close for com­fort), the tem­per­a­ture hit neg­a­tive


dou­ble dig­its, the cold wind blast­ing at our faces and the icy ground mak­ing us slip and fall. Yet we dared not com­plain. Above us were the words “ar­beit macht frei,” a Ger­man phrase mean­ing “work sets you free,” mark­ing the en­trance to Auschwitz.

The con­cen­tra­tion camp is syn­ony­mous with the hor­rors of the Holo­caust, of the atroc­i­ties com­mit­ted by the Nazis, of the heart­break­ing sto­ries of men, women, and chil­dren who did noth­ing wrong but were killed any­way. We walked along the rail­road tracks, barbed wire on ei­ther side, where pris­on­ers crammed into trains would be told to go to the right, and work as labour­ers, or to the left, and be sent im­me­di­ately to the gas cham­bers, put to death by a method cru­elly cho­sen for its ef­fi­ciency.

The var­i­ous build­ings in Auschwitz I (the orig­i­nal con­cen­tra­tion camp) hold relics that tugged at our heart­strings and brought tears to our eyes. Amidst pho­to­graphs of starv­ing pris­on­ers in striped pa­ja­mas on dis­play, there are hun­dreds of baby shoes, bro­ken eye­glasses, and even mounds of hair that pris­on­ers were forced to shave off. A step into a gas cham­ber or a cre­ma­to­rium and I was al­ready over­pow­ered with grief, so much death writ­ten on the walls.

Back in Kraków, in a branch of the His­tor­cal Mu­seum of the City, the time of oc­cu­pa­tion comes to life through dra­matic set de­signs of the Ghetto, video in­ter­views, news­pa­per clip­pings, para­pher­na­lia, and per­sonal ob­jects that help us un­der­stand be­yond the statis­tics and into the in­di­vid­u­als af­fected. It is housed in the for­mer enam­el­ware fac­tory of Oskar Schindler, a Ger­man and mem­ber of the Nazi party who used his en­tire wealth and risked his rep­u­ta­tion and, in­deed, his life to save over a thou­sand Jews: a story known by many through Steven Spiel­berg’s Schindler’s List.

So as I walked through a hall­way de­signed to show­case Nazi pro­pa­ganda aimed at de­grad­ing the Jewish pop­u­la­tion, I re­mem­bered that it was within these walls that saved some of their lives.

Be­fore the Holo­caust, Poland had one of the largest Jewish pop­u­la­tions in Europe. It was here that more Jews were killed as well as saved than in any other na­tion: it is where most con­cen­tra­tion camps were lo­cated and it has the largest na­tional con­tin­gent of the Righ­teous Among the Na­tions. This is not so much a con­tra­dic­tion but a sign that there is al­ways hope in hu­man­ity. While we of­ten travel the world seek­ing the ad­ven­tur­ous and glam­orous, on this trip we were walk­ing through a mon­u­men­tal part of mod­ern his­tory, search­ing for a sense of hu­man­ity amidst such bru­tal­ity.

FROM TOP More than 900 years old, the Wawel Cathe­dral is the Pol­ish na­tional sanc­tu­ary and tra­di­tion­ally has served as corona­tion site of the Pol­ish mon­archs as well as the Cathe­dral of the Arch­dio­cese of Kraków

FROM TOP At the Schindler Mu­seum; the en­trance to the Auschwitz Con­cen­tra­tion Camp

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