Broken Jewish Tomb Stones - Kazimerz Cemetary
Without trying to be too preachy, not everyone has the opportunity to get out and see stuff in the world, sometimes people have not been able to travel outside their own town, and perhaps due to the media they are fed by which ever governement they live under (North Korea's been popping up on BBC World alot in the last few days), they may have a pretty limited understanding of the larger world around them. I always feel a certain responsibility to myself to learn as much as I can while I'm traveling. A good day is a day that sends you to Google to research something further.
Without setting out for it to be that way, this trip has been quite a religeous education for me. As I've said previously, I dont hold any strong religious beliefs, but at the same time, the concept, culutural traditions, shared beliefs and historical backgounds of the major religions is fascinating and learning more gives you a much deeper understanding of the world today. It just so happened that Ive ended up travelling through Biblical lands and Muslim countries and now in Krakow I am in what was once one of the most important centres of Jewish culture in Europe. I say 'was' in that there are now only approximately 200 practicing Jews in the city following the devastation of the war, but then it is still a major site of Jewish pilgrimage and has the grave of a prominent Jewish holy man. We hired our own local guide to give us a walking tour of Kazimerz, the historical Jewish disctrict. We visited Synagogues and learned alot about Jewish culture and traditions.
Learning stuff is not neccesarily always a fun experience either - our next stop was the site of the wartime ghetto, where the local Jewish population were moved into and literally walled in - a starting indication of the deliberate cruelty was the fact that the ghetto walls were made in the shape of Jewish tombstones. Close to there was the Oscar Schindler factory. with an excellent newly completed exhibition on Nazi occupied Krakow. Not an easy exhibition to go around, even though it was housed in a place linked to an uplifting message - i.e the thousand or so jews on 'Schindlers List' who he managed to save.
Finaly an experience which is hard to describe and whilst certainly not being enjoyable, was profoundly moving and again a travel experience to learn and take something away from - Auschwitz.
I found the diverging train tracks at Auschwitz II - Birkenau, where someone had left flowers at the junction quite symbolic as essentially when people arrived at the camp and got down from the trains the first thing that happened was the 'selection' where they would either go to the left if deemed fit enough to work or to the right - straight to the gas chambers and cremetoria if not.
Also very effective for putting things into perspective were the collections of possessions found in warehouses on liberation of the camps. When you look at the piles of shoes, shaving brushes or suitcases and really imagine each one belonging to a different person, and that these were just a tiny proportion found there at the end, it gives you some idea of just how many people passed through these camps where in the words of Rudolph Hess, the only way out was through the cremetoria chimneys. And then of course this collection of 3 camps was not the only one in operation in Europe.
I've been joined in Krakow by my 80 year old parents who were in their early teens during the war. My mother found the Auschwitz camp experience particularly unsettling I think, as she remembers very strongly feeling petrified as a girl of the Germans being succesful in their attempt to invade Britain and what would happen to her if they did. As it was they lived through the air raids and remember the bombs. It does make you think how lucky you were to be born in a certain place though - i.e on an Island as opposed to just over the border from Nazi Germany.