Remembering Nazi Atrocities
There is an article in our Krakow tourist publicity booklet entitled ‘The Female Schindler’, about Irena Sendler who rescued many Jewish children from the Krakow Ghetto under Nazi German occupation. I laughed out loud when I read the final paragraph: ‘last year she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, though the prize went to the unspeakable Al Gore’ - their choice of words, not mine. Some may think such thoughts, but here in Krakow, they say it.
Krakow is a wonderful city, full of interesting places to visit, cobbled streets to wander along, cafes to linger in, churches to admire, the castle hill of Wawel to climb and concerts to enjoy. Pope John Paul II is honoured and loved throughout the city. Polish by birth, and the bishop of Krakow from 1963 to 1978, he was the first non-Italian pope for over 400 years.
But over and above all this is the spectre of the history of the Jewish people in World War II, including the Jewish quarter, the ghetto created by the Nazis, the factory of Oskar Schindler, and the sites of the death camps outside Krakow. We stayed 3 nights in Kazimierz, the district of Krakow where Jewish people lived for 500 years until 1940, when the Nazis removed them to a ghetto area across the river, and subsequently to the death camps.
Before 1940, 60,000 Jews lived in Krakow, and today it is only a handful. However, the quarter has come alive again after the communist years with a number of restored Jewish synagogues open to the public, Jewish restaurants, hotels and shops, a great place to stay. With the O’Reillys we took a golf cart tour of Krakow which included Kazimierz, the ghetto area and Schindler’s factory. The latter was only re-opened as a museum last year and tells in excellent fashion the story of Krakow during the war under Nazi occupation and the plight of the Jews. Very moving and thought provoking.
The following day we walked part of the tour trail, visiting some of the synagogues. Streets are called Estery, Jakuba, Izaaka and Jozefa (the latter actually after a Habsburg emperor). Some of the synagogues date back to the 16th century with fragments of original wall scriptures still visible. Badly damaged during the Nazi occupation, they have been lovingly restored and one or two still operate as working synagogues.
One can hardly go to Krakow and not include Auschwitz, 60 kilometres away, on the itinerary. But why spend a whole day subjecting yourself to the dreadful litany of man’s inhumanity to man? Remembering the truth of what took place, remembering and honouring the dead, remembering the brave who lost their lives speaking out or giving help to others.
Walking through the barracks, seeing the piles of human hair and the heaps of children’s footwear, viewing the pitiful sanitary conditions, standing near the remaining gas chambers and incinerators – it is a harrowing experience. In the last days before the Soviet army arrived, camp officials blew up most of the gas chambers, hoping the world would not discover their crimes.
The ironic words over the entrance read in German: Work makes you free. The truth is that those consigned to hard labour would last about three months before dying of disease, starvation and exhaustion. Large photographs of inmates around the camp add to the pathos – especially those depicting little children, robbed of the opportunity of life. We saw the bunker where Father Maximillian Kolbe and others were starved to death; the Polish priest had offered his life to save another inmate, who incidentally lived into his old age.
As we listened to the guide, our tour group became very sombre, each one insulated in his or her own world, struggling to come to terms with what we saw, the faces of the young particularly showing the impact of the experience. Our guide has been taking tours for 15 years – what motivates such commitment, we wondered. Did she have family who had died in the holocaust?
From Auschwitz we went to nearby Birkenau, much larger, where the majority of Jews were murdered. Together they form the largest of the Nazi death camp operations, with about 1 million Jews murdered there, plus about 100,000 Poles, Gypsies, Soviet soldiers and others. It was impressive that nothing was haphazard about the way things were done – it was so meticulously organised and planned.
Auschwitz is a major tourist venue with hundreds of people coming daily, by the bus load and individually like ourselves. One hopes that the memory of the place lingers long in their minds. At Birkenau there are 21 plaques in the 21 languages of those who died there, which read: For ever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity, where the Nazis murdered about one and a half million men, women and children, mainly Jews, from various countries of Europe. Auschwitz-Birkenau 1940 – 1945.