The Poland Experience
The weekend I had been looking forward to, since I even knew about it, finally came. I was going to see the country where I could have been born in, where I would have grown up, learned the language, and seen so much history in. The Jewish Learning Center program focused on the Holocaust is a wonderful opportunity to learn more about one of the more interesting, and saddening, subjects I studied for many years already. To see all of the places I had learned about would be a very emotional and a very real experience. I knew I had to prepare myself emotionally for this, so I built up a resistance in my mind to keep very positive about my experience. I kept thinking of how lucky I was to see Krakow, and Poland, and how I always wanted to go to the country where my great-grandparents grew up and finally decided to leave with their parents. These thoughts were supposed to keep me from crying and getting too affected by the events that had happened in the same places we were touring. It didn’t help.
Arriving into Poland, I could not describe the happiness I felt stepping off of that small jet onto an airport that almost looked abandoned, the wind was whipping my hair around and it was cold and rainy but I couldn’t be more excited. The smile on my face grew wider after each gust of wind, I was in my element as I prefer the cold and rainy to sunny and hot days. But I could not stay out there long as I had to find the rest of the group to sort out taxis and where to go. Of course we had to split up the groups, and I was with the usually grouped together Jenna, Katie, and Joanna. Along with Sabrina we took a large cab that was quite spacious and reminded me of the style of a London Cab. Again, I was getting more excited. We scrambled to find any email we could open without wifi to find the address of the hostel we were staying in, until I pulled up the most recent one from Dara to show the cab driver. I felt a bit like a hero at that moment as some were starting to panic that we wouldn’t be able to get there. After all the stressful moments along the way, we were finally in the city and on our way to our temporary home for the weekend; Momotown Hostels. All I can say about them are that they are friendly and it is a very interesting place. We were all assigned roommates and rooms that were not attached to the main building. I was to stay with one of few people not from Meredith, a girl named Hannah Garza. As some of our group kept asking me who it was I was going to be with, and as I read the name off the paper, I heard a voice from the door say “Oh, that’s me!” Little did I know at that second, as I looked up to see who it was, I would be looking onto the face of someone that I will become very great friends with in under four days. She had apparently become lost searching for the apartment building we were assigned to, and came back for more directions at the perfect time. We walked together and talked excitedly about the weekend to come as we found the square, similar to an Italian Piazza, where our Momotown apartments were. As I passed a few buildings that were decorated in a suspiciously tourist-like way, I started to realize that I had previously read about this area. We were in the Jewish Quarter of Krakow! And staying right in the middle of this historic center. In fact, right in front of our building was an old cemetery that lost all of their headstones from the war but had a giant boulder with inscriptions to commemorate the spot. There were also Jewish themed restaurants every few feet, and three synagogues just in this stretch of land less than a mile long. That night we had an amazing Polish dinner of pierogi and I had a delicious plum drink called Kampot, and it was really nice to have food other than pasta or pizza for a change. For the dinner, we introduced ourselves to the three other students who were not from Meredith and got their names as well. We talked about the reasons of why we were there, how much we knew previously about the Holocaust, and what we wanted to learn. It was a good night to start the program off.
The next day, we began with touring the Jewish Quarter. Starting at a synagogue at one end, with a tour guide who is a friend of Dara’s, the coordinator. I had never been in one and never knew about the Torah Ark, a cabinet holding the sacred Torah Scrolls that every synagogue had to have for worship. Every ark, we learned, must be situated a certain way so that the people who face it are facing Jerusalem, and it is the holiest spot in the synagogue. All of the synagogues we saw had a raised platform where the Rabbi would stand to read prayers, called a bimah. The one we saw in the first synagogue was beautiful, it was made of what looked like iron, and shaped like a small gazebo. We learned a lot about the Jewish culture that day, like how men must where a kipa (the small cap that sit on the top of their head) in all synagogues or holy places. Another learning moment was when we toured the cemetery attached to another synagogue, we saw that instead of moving bodies to make more space, they put another layer of ground on top of the tombstones and continue to bury people there. It was forbidden in their culture to desecrate or move someone’s body after they have been buried, and it was hard to find more land in a city to bury the dead. The wall of that cemetery looked very familiar to me, if you looked closer at it, you could see that it was not made up of the usual materials to build a cemetery wall. The old tombstones that used to sit over the buried dead were taken by the Germans during the war to use for many things, and all that were saved and still intact were afterwards placed back in the cemetery over a random grave, but those that were broken were all put together to surround the perimeter of where they used to sit in the ground. You could still see the names and words written on them, and all of them were different colors and shades. It was a sight I had seen before in pictures, but was much different up close. I wish I could have read every name on the grounds, but we had more to see.
We made our way across the river to the Jewish Ghetto of Krakow. So many horrible things happened in this place, where all the Jewish people of the city were forced to live together, work, and later were deported from here to concentration camps. In the middle of the square were many giant chairs of some kind of metal, all facing one way and sat empty, reflecting the absence of people that used to be there. It was a chilling sight to see all of the emptiness in a large space. It was hard to imagine being there with a fourth of the Krakow population stuffed in the small section of city. We next toured a pharmacy in the square, owned by a non-Jewish man before the war, who had to pay to keep the business when they moved the Jews in that area. He would let the Jewish residence work for him and saved some of their lives in the end. It was a very cool experience to see, as they recreated the interior of the pharmacy in some places and had many things to look at with so much history. We next had lunch after swinging by Oskar Schindler’s factory, a very famous place where he had saved thousands of lives during the war by hiring all Jewish people and protecting them.
One of the greatest moments during that weekend was how we spent that afternoon, we heard the recounted tale of heroism straight from the woman herself. Mirosława Gruszczyńska is a Righteous Among the Nations, which is an honorific to recognize non-Jews who saved the lives of Jewish people during the Holocaust. She was only 14 years old when she, her mother, and her sister protected the life of a Jewish girl who was about her age. They hid her in their apartment throughout the entirety of the war, and faced many scares and troubles while keeping her, but not once did she ever regret her decision to save the girl’s life. They are both still good friends today and keep in contact. It was an amazing and unforgettable day to hear her recount her story to us. We heard many tales of heroism like that throughout the day as we continued to tour many synagogues and even went to a Shabbat service that night. It was a very cool experience for me as it was my first witnessing of a service and much different than what I am usually used to. We also ate dinner at the Jewish community center with another group from America, but most of them were actually Jewish and helped to teach us a bit about the culture.
The next day was going to one of the most emotional days of my life, as we travelled the hour and a half ride to Oswiecim. This town used to hold the largest population of Jews in Poland before the war, but is now known for the three very famous concentration camps surrounding it. The name Oswiecim translates to German as Auschwitz, and that is the name that is most known throughout the world for that town, and that community. Today, there are no more Jewish residents in the town, and most of the visitors that go skip seeing the actually attractive city square, which is brightly colored and was rebuilt to resemble what it was like before the war. Most people go straight to the camps that are not very far from the main population. We made our way there after lunch to spend a few hours on a guided tour through the camp of Auschwitz-I, where most of the museum buildings are located. This was the hardest day to make it through for me, as I heard more and more stories of people who never survived and many tales of mass destruction. There were so many rooms that held countless numbers of belongings that were formally of Jewish owners. Shoes, bags, combs, brushes, and even hair were piled on top of each other in large heaps protected by glass, waiting to be seen by the millions of visitors. Each item represented a life that was extinguished before their time. Their lives, just like their belongings, were stripped from them at such a young age. There were too many children’s shoes piled together. There were too many family suitcases that were emptied. There were too many names of people who would never see their loved ones again, and would never grow old enough to discover the wonders of life. Writing this right now, I am taken back to my time in those endless rooms, feeling emotions stronger than I have felt before. Of anger, immense sadness, desperation, and pity. There was no escaping the tears that fell in each and every room, and in the hallway of “mug shots” that were of every adult male victim of the camp with birth and death dates below them. I looked onto almost every face imagining them standing in front of me, alive. It was almost too much for me.
Something that stood with me through our tour of the first camp, was looking through the Book of Names. It held the name of 4.2 million victims, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, of the Holocaust. Of course I had to look for my grandfather’s surname, Kuzminski. After taking guesses at where the letter K was located, I finally found it. An entire page depicting the names of many Kuzminski’s, with their birthdates, death dates, and hometowns if they were known. I found one name that stuck out to me, it was the same name as my uncle, David Kuzminski, form the town of Wloszczowa, Poland. I was later informed by my mother through an email from her great aunt, that the hometown of my grandfather’s family was “a name that started with a W that [she] will never be able to pronounce.” This town name fit the bill, and my mother confirmed that it sounded very familiar to her. I was looking at a name that could have been a family member from long ago. It just goes to show how one massive event could affect the entire world, and so many individuals who may not be aware of their own connection to it.
Our last full day on Poland was spent touring the grounds of Auschwitz-II/Birkenau, a much larger camp than Auschwitz-I and held many more victims. The grounds were designed specifically for killing a large mass of people, as this was the place where train tracks ran through the main gate all the way to the back where many Jewish people were led straight to the gas chambers. It was a foggy and chilly morning, and we were not the only group touring the camp. There were very large student groups from Israel it seemed, as they carried the Israeli flag, and even the Canadian Governor General David Johnston came, with an entire entourage of security guards and photographers. It was an incredible moment to see so many people coming to honor those who died there, and we were among them. This was another long day, though not quite as emotional as the one before it. By the end of the visit, we were all ready to return to Krakow for our free afternoon. We needed the cheering up. I went off with Hannah when we returned, and explored the castle grounds of the Wawel castle, and even went through the natural cave below it. We made our way to the market and saw once more, the beautiful city square before returning for our last group dinner where we spent talking about our experience.
It was an incredible weekend that I will never forget because of the many new friends, seeing the country I have always wanted to, and the gain of so much knowledge in a subject that had interested me. It was an emotional journey that has changed me a little, like this entire trip to Europe has, and was a program that I feel everyone needs to experience in their lives. It really can make you appreciate the life you have, the people you love, and the progress the world has made today.
Skolimowski , Piotr . “Auschwitz Holocaust Exhibition Opened by Netanyahu.” Bloomberg Businessweek 13 June 2013, n. pag. Web. 16 Nov. 2014. <http://www.businessweek.com/news/2013-06-12/auschwitz-camp-holocaust-exhibition-to-be-opened-by-netanyahu>.
Rocheleau, Rachel. “Visits to Poland, the Netherlands and Belgium – Itinerary.” The Governor General of Canada His Excellency the Right Honourable David Johnston. Rideau Hall Press Office, 22 Oct 2014. Web. 16 Nov 2014. <http://www.gg.ca/document.aspx?id=15804&lan=eng