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Published: February 27th 2015
My final weekend of my travels during my midterm break was to Krakow Poland. This served as a good home base to get out to Auschwitz and it is a beautiful city. Poland has long been a very religious place, especially Catholic, and walking through Krakow it is evident. Everywhere I looked there was a church. This is all helped by the fact that Pope John Paul II was Polish and attended school in Krakow and would later become its Archbishop. On my first real day in Krakow, I took a free walking tour of the Old City and our guide told us that 95% of Poles consider themselves Catholic and about 60% attend church regularly. By far the largest percentages in Europe.
My walking tour on my first day started out on the main market square. The square is not like most European squares in that it has a huge building right in the middle. This building is an old market and is still used today. Now it is mainly stalls selling handmade Polish souvenirs. From the square our tour took us out to the medieval walls and by the opera house before we made our way back to the main market square to hear the trumpeter play his tune from the top of St. Mary’s Cathedral. He plays every hour, 24 hours a day and can be quite noisy. His original purpose was to look for fires and sound the alarm when he spotted one. He also became a time keeper for the people on the main market square and for that matter the people of the town. His melody sounds cut off at the end and the legend is that, the trumpeter was sounding the alarm about attackers when they shot an arrow and it went right through his throat ending the melody abruptly. This has been found impossible by scientists, but it is still a fun story. After hearing the tune, we headed to the old university area of Krakow where Carol Wojtyla, later Pope John Paul II (JPII), studied Polish literature before entering into a secret seminary during WWII. From there we continued onto JPII former residence while serving as the Archbishop and where he stayed when he returned to Poland. We also went into his favorite church to pray in and it was a beautiful Dominican church. From the church we moved to the castle and saw some more JPII sights on the way. I feel like every stone that JPII walked on is somehow enshrined. He is very loved by Krakow, but when considering he was born in the area, served as the Archbishop, and credited with ending communism there, it all makes sense. The castle was very nice, at least on the outside. The King's Chapel is the real beauty. It like so many others, was magnificent and no sum of money was spared. Walking through the chapel is like walking through Polish history as so many Kings and other famous Poles are buried in there.
In the afternoon I took another free walking tour of the Jewish Quarter, Kazimierz, and the former Jewish Ghetto. In the Jewish we saw the memorial to the 65,000 Krakow Jews that were murdered. Krakow had 68,000 Jews before WWII and only 3000 survived and only about 1000 now live in Krakow. The Jewish Quarter is now the up and coming neighborhood and is where all the locals go out at night. Also in the Jewish Quarter we saw some places where Schindler's List was shot. The most famous being the stairs and balcony shown during the liquidation of the ghetto. After walking around the Jewish Quarter, we headed across the river to the former ghetto, which does not resemble what it used to look like at all. New apartment buildings dominate the area and the only thing that makes one think about it being a ghetto is the former Nazi office and memorial that stands at one end. As we were told, the area that made up the ghetto housed 3000 people before the war and once made into the ghetto the Nazis forced 18,000 Jews to live there. The memorial that stands at one end is rows of chairs to resemble the chairs that the Jewish people brought with them so they could sit during the liquidation. The ghetto was created in 1941 and liquidated in 1943. After our tour ended, I headed to Schindler's Factory.
Schindler's Factory is a museum that is dedicated to Krakow before and during the war and there are only two rooms dedicated to Schindler and the Schindler Jews. The museum takes visitors through the lead up to the war and then the take over and daily life under the Nazi rule all the way till the end when the Red Army liberated Poland to only put it under its own communist regime. The museum is packed with artifacts and stories from Jewish people about how things changed and life in the ghetto and then the liberation of the camp. There are stories and quotes that are absolutely sickening and heart-wrenching. There is one quote from a Nazi officer saying that, "If I had to put up a poster for every seven Poles shot, the forests in Poland would not be sufficient to manufacture the paper". This was at a time when Poland was nearly 30% forest. The cruelty is hard to believe.
My time in Krakow was quite a somber experience, but the city has so much to offer with its history that I really enjoyed the city. I ended up meeting two kids from U of I staying at my hostel which was too funny. My hostel was also sandwiched between a Gentleman's Club and a sex shop so that was interesting to walk past every day, but the hostel was great and the people made it that way. I met a guy from Australia who is traveling Europe for 180 days with not plan. Also met a kid from England who is doing the same but for two years. It’s amazing how they view life compared to so many Americans who are business, business, and business. What a life they are leading, something I couldn't do without a plan, but they are really just going where the road take them. I would highly recommend a trip to Krakow after my experience and another positive, it is super cheap!
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