In my last few entries I have mentioned that I was planning and looking forward to a trip to Krakow, Poland that I would be taking with some friends that I made here in Uppsala. I returned from Poland Saturday night and had an incredible time. We had such a full couple of days there that I truly cannot recount all of it concisely, so I will instead describe some of the trip’s most powerful moments.
This past Wednesday, three of my friends and I boarded an early morning train to Stockholm to begin our journey. We then took a bus to a small suburb named Skavsta, where from we flew to a small airport in Krakow, Poland. From there we took a bus to the city center before walking to the One World Hostel, which is where we stayed from Wednesday through Saturday.
We did not arrive at our hostel until about 7:00 PM on Saturday evening, so we didn’t see too much. We walked about two kilometers from the hostel to a local food stand and each bought a Zapiekanka. Zapiekankas are basically baguettes which have been cut in half and topped with cheese, mushrooms, onions, and salami. Delicious! To be honest though I think it might only have tasted so good because none of us had eaten since leaving Uppsala about 12 hours earlier. Anyway, we awoke the next morning around 6:00 AM and began planning our day. We all agreed that we would do two things for certain while in Krakow: go to Auschwitz and go to the Wieliczka salt mine. We decided to go to Auschwitz first because it would require the most time and because we agreed that it warranted priority while in such an historic city.
On Thursday morning we met two great people in the hostel lobby and invited both to join us on our way to Auschwitz. The first was a 19 year old girl named Lydia who was traveling around Europe during her time off from the University of Cambridge. The other was a well-traveled and lively Australian named Tom who had been riding his motorcycle around Europe, Asia, and the South Pacific for the past two months. So, we all rode from the Krakow bus station on what seemed to be a 50 year old bus until we arrived at the gates of Auschwitz.
The Auschwitz concentration camp in Krakow, Poland was one of the most murderous places to which Jews and others were sent during Nazi Germany’s occupation of most of Europe. In these death camps, Jews were crammed into unlivable quarters, made to work as slaves, and killed by the hundreds of thousands. Auschwitz impacted me deeply. My great-grandfather, the man after whom I am named, lost his entire family in the holocaust. My grandmother’s entire family was removed from their homes in Hungary and likely killed as well. I have no way of knowing if my family was sent to Auschwitz, but regardless, actually standing on the same ground that more than a million Jews stood on before facing their deaths was an incredibly moving experience.
Our trip to the Wieliczka salt mine was extremely enlightening as well, although for a different reason. This mine has been in operation since the 1200s and is one of the oldest salt mines in the world. We travelled down a long and winding wooden staircase to a depth of about 135m before returning to the surface. The mine has essentially been retired due to recent flooding (which dissolves the salt) but the art carved into the salt deposits continues to attract over a million people each year. Unfortunately it was far too dark in the mine for me to take any pictures, but extraordinary images of the salt carvings can be found online. To be honest, however, I spent more time looking at the surrounding geology in the cave than at the actual salt deposit or carvings! The whole experience was so awesome, though!
Anyway, the actual city of Krakow made me think of a cultural intersection between Copenhagen, St. Petersburg, and San Francisco. This is not because of similar languages or currencies, but rather in the city’s atmosphere and architecture. The buildings in Krakow contained obvious elements of Scandinavian and Eastern European architecture. Like American money, Polish bills and coins (złoty) bear images of former leaders and nationalistic symbols such as the polish coat of arms. The Polish language sounded a bit like Russian to me, but seemed to be spoken with a much softer intonation.
Overall, this trip was immensely rewarding and educational. I feel as though I became acquainted with a historically central and representative culture while receiving an emotional, historic, and psychological education. Visiting Auschwitz was one of the most intense experiences I have ever had. While I was there I remember finding it odd that a city with such a dark history was also so beautiful and bustling. Now that I really think about it, though, it doesn’t seem odd at all.