Throughout the two weeks we’ve spent in Poland, we have had the chance to experience many new things. We’ve tasted unfamiliar foods, seen beautiful, historic buildings and heard the accounts of many Polish locals. Below, we have detailed a few of our most memorable trip moments.
Rynek Market Square
Old Town Krakow is centered around Rynek Główny (Rynek Square for us English-speakers). During our first week in Poland, much of our down time was spent exploring all this beautiful plaza has to offer: shops, restaurants, pubs, historic monuments and more. We attended mass at the square’s church, St. Mary’s Basillica, and shopped for souvenirs at the Cloth Hall market. We tried out underground restaurants featuring traditional Polish food, and learned about the square’s giant head monument while on our city tour.
My favorite visit to Rynek Square was during the Festival of the Epiphany. Before we even reached the plaza, we could tell we were in for an exciting day. A Christmas market was set up outside of the Cloth Hall, where small small stands sold trinkets made in Poland and every variety of Polish food you can imagine. The smell of sizzling meats, fresh pastries and hot drinks was enough to distract you from the Parade of the Three Kings taking place nearby, where they handed out tasty gingerbread cookies. A large crowd had gathered to watch a live Nativity display, and a few of us spent a while among the crowd listening as they sang familiar Christmas carols in Polish. It was amazing to see a city come together to celebrate religious holiday so dear to their hearts, unlike anything I’ve had the chance to experience in the States.
Churches of Poland
With roughly 90 to 95% of Poland’s population being Catholic, it would be a major challenge to walk the streets of Krakow or Warsaw and not run into a church or chapel. The religious monuments of Poland have stood their ground for centuries yet remain extravagant, reverent, and a true sign of the country’s dedication to God and in some cases, a memorial to their past.
When we had the opportunity to go to mass at St. Mary’s Basilica in Krakow, we entered to the sight of many dedicated locals worshiping on the feast of the Epiphany. Our eyes were immediately redirected to the towering ceilings covered in gold, colors of blue, and paintings of religious figures. The entrancing smell of incense filled the air and the deep sounds of an all-male choir echoed through its walls.
Jumping forward a week to our arrival in Warsaw, we saw a memorial located right outside Old Town that honors the courage of the individuals who fought during the Warsaw Uprising. Adjacent to the memorial is a church that was rebuilt post WWII; however, its foundation remains. The front wall of the church has kept its original form and serves as a symbol of remembrance. Four hundred and thirty innocent Poles were shot and killed against its steps. Bullet holes still parade its side. Sadly a total of 200,000 lives were taken during this rebellion lasting from 1940-1943. With a church in its place, it ensures that although these lives were taken, they will never be forgotten.
Our class spent a whole day at Auschwitz and Birkenau. This day will be imprinted into our minds forever.
As soon as our class stepped past the gate into Auschwitz, there was an instant silence that came over all of us. While walking down the roads connecting each barrack, we could only hear the soft, somber voice of the tour guide along with snow crunching underneath our feet. Each step we took got us closer to the next building holding what seemed to be a worse fate than the last. We walked down the stairs of the death block, warped and so warn down from the hundreds of thousands of people that had taken these deathly steps before us into the gas chamber. Unlike them we were able to go down into these chambers and live to talk about the experience.
These chambers were bone-chillingly cold and empty. All that could be seen were the holes in the ceiling that would release Zyklon-B, killing some instantly and others in less than 20 minutes.
Even though Auschwitz is now empty I could still imagine the screams of the prisoners taking their last breath, one no easier to hear than another.
Walking into Birkenau brought a similar, sick-to-your-stomach feeling. Once in Birkenau, it was obvious that there was no escaping this place. The amount of space that Birkenau took up was unimaginable—Auschwitz was large but nothing compared to Birkenau. You could easily stand in the middle of the camp and barely be able to see the barbed wire fence holding you in. Here, you could only walk through a few of the barracks because the majority of them were destroyed by the Nazis (along with the gas chambers and crematories) at the end of the war. We were able to see the chimneys and displaced bricks
throughout the hundreds of yards the camp occupied. Walking past the trenches, another barrier for the prisoners, it was easy to imagine the smell and stench this camp exuded.
About 67 years ago these camps were filled with hundreds of thousands of prisoners awaiting their fate. Instead, these camps are now filled with tour groups and only the rubble of and stories of what was.
Warsaw was completely different from Krakow in that it is a much larger city with a faster pace. We were moving quickly to validate our tickets and to jump on and off the confusing public transportation system in order to not end up trapped inside. The transportation helped with the freezing cold temperatures which allowed us to see our breath, much like that of the many smokers we encountered as we inhaled their secondhand smoke.
We celebrated our arrival with a dinner with students from the University of Warsaw where we enjoyed a variety of Polish delicacies from pirogues to kebabs to chicken cooked in
every way imaginable. The clinks from our glasses as we saluted our new friends will be a life-long memory.
While these celebratory times were not few and far between as the images of Old Town after the Second World War silenced us as the entire area was in cleared from German bombs. The tour of the Warsaw Ghetto really humbled us as our tour guide told us of the tragic death of thousands of Jews.
Jennifer C. Bailey