Sad history of Cracow

On Corpus Christi, the shops were all closed, and the city’s many Catholics came together to worship. It was an amazing sight, and I wish there had been more time for me to participate, but instead I elected to explore the “Jewish quarter”. We crossed the Wisła (Vistula) into a square with many metal chairs, set there as a remembrance of the events there. This is where the Jewish residents brought their belongings to be “relocated”. They were told they had new homes, but in reality everything was stolen from them here. At the corner of the square is the Apteka Pod Orłem, “Pharmacy under the eagle”, which the Nazis only kept open because they feared a typhus outbreak. The pharmacist, the only non-Jew allowed to live in the ghetto, risked everything to help the Jewish residents with smuggled medicine and other items. His shop is preserved to remember the good nature of people.

Then we proceeded down a street and through a gate through which contraband was smuggled into the ghetto. My hairs were standing up. We went to Oskar Schindler’s factory, covered in photos of workers. A movie I watched in high school is not real, but this place is very real. We then crossed back and found the “new Jewish cemetery”. It sure didn’t look new. Even though a few recent graves are in the front, nature is really reclaiming this place. Moss covers piles of stones, spun light filters through overgrown trees, wildlife sounds drown out the traffic. The cemetery walls are made from hundreds of broken headstones. We learned that the Nazis stole the markers made of valuable stone and left the rest. No one is here to visit their loved ones or tend the graves, even if they could find them. A whole community has disappeared with little trace except where concerted efforts are made to preserve history.

We took a day to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau. It is nearly impossible to use words for what is there. We all know what happened, everyone has read the sordid accounts of the SS cult of death: gas chambers, teeth-pulling, starvation, freight cars, medical experiments, gewgaws made from human body parts. It’s different when a guide is pointing at a photo and telling you they executed every educated Pole they could find, when you are standing outside the dark hole where they killed Maximilian Kolbe, when you peer into the ovens where they forced Jews (the Sonderkommand) to burn their own family members. I didn’t ask anything about the LGBT people who were sent here, simply because some of the others have family connections to this place and I wanted to be respectful. But I know they were imprisoned here, as “undesirables”. I feel anger about this, that it happened, and that we seem to have so far to go, even today.

I thought to myself, they tried to destroy this country, but they failed! One of my colleagues mentioned that there was laughter here, even in the worst of it. I think visiting the museum can be morbid, but also it is a place for hope.DSC00506 DSC00505

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