The effects of WWII are still very evident in Krakow. I don't know how to explain it, but it's a feeling in the city, in the face of the buildings.
We visited the Auschwitz and Birkenau concentration camps during out stay. It was difficult, heavy, and surreal. It was important.
I'm struggling to fully detail what it was to visit. I'm thinking of a list of adjectives, and I'm worried that they won't relay the impact by themselves. It was haunting.
We learned from our walking tour (see below) that in November 1939, some time after the German Nazis decided that they wanted to make Poland a nation of slaves, they organized a meeting, invited all of the professors and intellectual leaders. They knew that to make a country of slaves, you had to take away the education. At this meeting, the Nazis told the Polish professors and scholars that they had offended them, and then shipped them off to concentration camps. This was early in the war, and Italy and Slovenia helped Poland to persuade the Nazis to release the professors. The Jewish professors were not allowed out, and many elderly had already died in the inhumane conditions. The Nazis organized another meeting of this sort, months after the release, and chose to execute all of the professors and scholars immediately, rather than deal with the bargaining. After the war, Poland suffered the loss of six million residents, of which three million were Jewish.
It's important that we understand the devastation and ensure it doesn't happen again.
Let's switch gears. On our last day in Krakow, we took a free walking tour from the freewalkingtour.com group. Essentially, we did this trip backwards. I would recommend looking them up if you're in a new city. the tours are full of factoids and are free, but remember that the guides rely on tips. Just a warning so things don't get awkward when they're hinting.
We toured old Krakow. There was St. Mary'c church, a cornerstone in one of the largest and oldest main square in Europe.
And there was the Florian gate, one of the main entrances to the once-walled city.
The architecture of the city was impressive. Poland's had so many periods of occupation, and all have left their mark, through an architectural design or through evidence of decay.
We visited some areas of Pope John Paul II's life, too. I'm not especially religious, but I was baptized Catholic and grew up with Polish Catholic grandparents that love John Paul. I admire him for the strength he gave Poland during their time under communist rule. Our guide recounted a story of him opening his window in the place he was saying to talk with the people that had gathered. He said, "You don't have to be afraid." This was in the midst of Poland's time under communist rule, when everyone was afraid. Many credit him for changing the thinking of the people from an everyone-against-each-other mentality to a we-are-stronger-together thought. It's hard to pinpoint a tipping point, but that line may have made all the difference in moving Poland toward freedom.
I'm bouncing around on this, but it's hard to transition without telling you what we'll be seeing at our next tour stop.
Wawel Castle is more of a fortress than a royal residence, but impressive nonetheless.
Poland had such a turbulent history that there wasn't much time for royals to reign and fully establish a legacy. The cathedral within the castle is impressive, though, and demonstrates the impact that Catholicism has always had on the country.
I'd be a failure if I didn't mention the dragon. Legend has it that a dragon used to live under the castle. The dragon didn't terrorize the city so long as he was offered a virgin once a week. The details seem a little cloudy there. The time came when the only virgin left was the king's daughter, and he wasn't keen on offering her up. So he promised her hand in marriage to anyone that could defeat the dragon. Someone had the idea of feeding the dragon a sheep laced with explosives so that the dragon would internally combust. The dragon breathed fire, though, so again, the details are a little cloudy. The dragon bit the bait, literally, and then started to feel the rumblings in his belly. Did that sound like a line out of Winnie the Pooh? He crawled over to the river and started to take large gulps of water until he eventually combusted. I'm really not sure how that happened.
That's the source of Krakow's probably unofficial motto: Don't drink too much.
Up next: Polish treasures! That's also known as shopping, but here's the background. Jump back to see the first day in Poland here.