I had some expectations when we decided to tour Auschwitz on our first day in Poland. But I’m still processing the experience.
First, I did not know that the first to be rounded up by the Nazis and sent to Auschwitz were the Polish intelligentsia, who could be resistance threats. So if I had been a college graduate in 1939, I very well could have been among the 150,000 Poles interned and exterminated there along with 1.3 million Jews.There were several staggering exhibits: the collections of shoes & luggage; the firing squad Wall of Death; and the gas chamber and crematoria. But even more shocking was when the tour moved to the Birkenau Camp and I comprehended the scale of mass extermination that was designed and implemented over the course of only six years. Yes, let this place forever be “a cry of despair and a warning to humanity.”
There were other museums and sights on our tour of Central Europe that bore witness to Nazi terrors as well as the decades of Soviet domination. There were also stories of hope and persistence such as the Warsaw Uprising in 1944 and the rebuilding of Warsaw from rubble.
This was one of those lifetime trips. I joke that my wife Lynne and I watched so much Masterpiece Theater on PBS that we finally gave in to those Viking River Cruise ads.
We are glad that we did. The cruise itself was great. Our pre- and post- cruise nights in Budapest and Prague added those cities to our favorites list. The Parliament in Budapest and the Charles Bridge in Prague are major photo opps.
Looking at a map of our Viking itinerary, we realized that we had never been this close to Poland, where my father’s family emigrated from in the early 1870’s fleeing from domestic policies in the German part of partitioned Poland, where poverty, unemployment, and official discrimination aimed at Catholics were prevalent. So we added six more nights in Poland to our itinerary.
We especially enjoyed Krakow with all its buildings that avoided destruction in the war. Its Market Square is the largest medieval square in Europe, set out in 1257. Located in the center of the Square, the Cloth Hall is a former and present place of trade, where we did our souvenir shopping.
Throughout our guided tours, the history of these places was pervasive. Standing in Prague’s Wenceslas Square, one can imagine, among all of today’s retail options, where in 1989 hundreds of thousands of Czechs gathered for days and launched the Velvet Revolution, jangling their key chains and telling their communist oppressors — “It’s time for you to go home.”
Getting off the tram in Krakow on our way to Schindler’s Factory, there were the 33 memorial over-sized chairs in Ghetto Heroes Square, another historical testament and warning to humanity.
God knows; these are again times to be heeding such historical warnings.