Working in Dresden for past couple of years had presented me with the unique opportunity of exploring the somewhat under appreciated eastern Europe. After a while, all the cities do look annoyingly similar, but it it does not take much effort to observe how historical background has shaped each city's character uniquely. It is never possible to get a complete picture in weekend trips, but as they say, something is better than nothing.
Krakow in central Poland was my destination last weekend. Like most of the east European cities recovering from communism, it also has a deep disdain for the Russians. The leftovers from socialist era, however are still there. The most prominent were the so called milk-bars, the highly subsidized canteen style eateries, where we had excellent and cheap perogies. Food is generally cheap, and most people spoke some English.
Sandwiched between mighty Russia and Germany, Poland always had a difficult existence, suffering aggression, conquest and persecution. Pretty it was, with the usual assortment of imposing churches, castles and palaces, but also with the somber reminders of terrors of not too distant past.That is where I spent most of my time. They are undoubtedly depressing, but also in a strange way makes you appreciate life more.
The German occupation during WW2 , and subsequent brutality were the dominant theme of the two places I visited in the city. Jagiellonian University, which is one of the oldest universities in the Europe, and the museum housed in the enamel factory of Oscar Schindler. Nicolas Copernicus and Pope John Paul II are probably the two most famous inhabitants of the city and they both studied at the university at different times. It was forcibly shut down during the German occupation and a group of professors were arrested. The next destination was Oscar Schindler's enamel factory, made popular by the Steven Spielberg movie, which was also filmed here. This has now been turned into a permanent exhibition depicting the condition of Krakow's inhabitants, both Jewish and Polish, during the Nazi occupation. This is a not a typical museum, rather gives one a feeling of walking down the streets while everything unfolds around him, thanks to original video and audio recordings, photographs, and the carefully designed exhibition space. We are forced to confront the horrors of life under Nazi occupation firsthand, and to put it mildly, it was not pleasant!
However, that barely prepared us for the mass murder fields we were to visit next day. The adjacent cities of Auschwitz and Birkenau were the location of the largest WW2 era concentration camps. Not much remains now at Birkenau, where most of the "evidence" were destroyed by the Nazis while fleeing. Still the occasional pits and chimneys, and the barbed wire fences serve as a jarring reminder of the cruelty. This was the place were trains packed with prisoners arrived, and many of them were led directly to gas chambers. The rest were crammed in stable-like shades, where not many survived the utterly pathetic living conditions. Walking across the snow covered eerily quiet landscape, it is hard to imagine that men can be so cruel. While top Nazi leaders were certainly driven by ambition and ideology, the foot soldiers were merely doing their job. And to most of them, this was probably just another job - what perhaps required an incredible amount of de-humanization of the jews.
The Auschwitz camp was much smaller, with closely spaced barracks. Nothing apart from the cruel fences, and the gloriously inappropriate sign "Arbeit macht frei", would make it stand out . Many of the buildings house exhibitions now, some showing how people from different countries from across the continent were brought it here, and some showing the condition of the camps. The sheer scale of the Nazi effort is mindbogglingly depressing. Torture almost lost its meaning, and death was cheap. It was an "industrial" revolution of a different kind.
Some pictures are here.