This essay was originally written shortly after I studied abroad in Poland back in March.  While it was my final assignment for the class, I feel it deserves to be read by more people than just my professor. However, it is a bit “inside baseball.” At some point I do want to retool at least parts of this essay for more general audiences. 

-M.B. Herring

 

There was one thing on my mind upon landing in Poland: Exactly how badly do I smell? Expecting the flight to be cold and uncomfortable, I had worn my thickest winter coat and sweatpants. The flight, while certainly uncomfortable, was hot. Given my already overactive sweat glands, by the time of our arrival in Frankfurt, the onion patch was in full bloom. Somehow, though, I was able to make it through customs without poisoning any of the other new arrivals.

Despite having performed an emergency costume change in a very nice handicap bathroom in the Frankfurt airport, by the time we reached Warsaw, if I didn’t make it into the shower within the hour, everyone on the trip would have voted me off the island due to rankness. Thankfully though, our extremely energy efficient hotel in Warsaw had an extremely energy efficient, but also lovely, shower.

From the shower I emerged moderately refreshed enough to take on Warsaw. After illegally riding on a street trolley, we arrived at the Museum of the Warsaw Uprising. With the knowledge of Poland’s right-wing nationalist government, at the various displays of the museum, I found myself asking “Is this too nationalistic? Is this too patriotic?” Unable to find an answer, I shifted my focus to the musuem in a technical sense. I was won over by it’s in house machine-gun bunker, collection of uprising armbands, and the various free paper handouts.

This would happen over and over again during the course of the trip, though more so in Warsaw than in Krakow. Our tour guide in Warsaw, was particularly obsessed with the term “national hero.” She taught us of Józef Pilsudski, the one man loved by all Poles regardless of political factions, as evidenced by the endless statues of his mustachioed face around the city. She taught us of Tadeusz Kościuszko, a Polish and American revolutionary war leader, who we of course would all be familiar with as he was a national hero in both countries.

I, of course, had never heard of him. Does this negate Kościuszko from being a national hero? While I like to think I am capable of rejecting stories of “Great Man” history, I embrace them more often than not. Sure I may or not have known who Tadeusz Kościuszko was, but I am not attempting to write a biography of another revolutionary war hero, Haym Solomon? Do I not have a deep reverence for George Washington?

I see Józef Pilsudski as the Polish equivalent of George Washington. They both formed their countries into the countries as we now know them. (They also both had horrible dental hygiene.) Whether or not they actually “founded” their countries, whether or not their countries would be the same without them, are questions that can’t be answered. However, they do both form a foundation myth, a common narrative that their fellow country men and women can identify with. In Poland, a country who has been repressed again and again throughout history, these sorts of myths seemed to amplified a bit more than at home. But, then again, this amplification was only perceived due to my American bias.

…..

We didn’t stay long in Warsaw; One full day plus 2 half days.

We left many stones unturned.

I could have walked around old town Warsaw much longer than we did. Our guide had a habit of showing us so many cool places, such as Madame Curie’s birthplace and the restaurant of the Polish Gordon Ramsay, and getting us really interested in them before quickly moving us along to the next site. This was especially evident in our tour of the Museum of Polish Jewish Life. 1000 years of Jewish history was located there. I would have liked to have spent more than an hour in it.

Even though we did spend a lot of time in the Jewish cemetery, I could have walked around it for a lot longer. In the Christian cemetery right next door, I wish I would have visited more graves than just that of Krzysztof Kieślowski.

I wish I had gotten to see more of the city outside of standard tourism sites. After our last offical site visit in Warsaw, The National Museum, a group of us split off and went on a “Stadtbummel” We discovered Charlie’s Cafe, the namesake Charlie being Charlie Chaplin, with the restaurant’s theme reflecting this. It seemingly wasn’t a tourist hangout, which was great to experience. Later in the day, after our arrival in Krakow, I would have a similar experience. Another group of us found a literal hole in the wall pub, and passed the night there.

This day also happened to be the only day, where we didn’t really experience anything related to the Holocaust. (That is, save for Lego Concentration Camp ) On this day, we didn’t experience Poland as place of horror and tragedy. On this day we probably came the closest to experiencing average Polish life, as we could as American tourists.

…..

Upon arrival in Krakow, I fell in love with the city again. In the 5 years since my last visit, I had changed tremendously. Yet, felt like an old glove. Upon hitting the pedestrian tunnel that marks the entrance to old town Krakow, I knew exactly where we were and took over as tour guide.

However, the next day when our official tour guide took over, I realized how much there was still to learn about the city. Sure, I knew of Saint Mary’s cathedral, but I was oblivious as to the myth of its construction and the hidden knife on the market square that bears remembrance to this myth. (With the knife, legend says one of the brothers who built the towers of St. Mary’s Cathedral killed his other brother, thus ending the construction on the Cathedral’s two towers.) I wasn’t aware of the Grunwald, nor Wawel castle, nor the Dragon of Krakow, nor even the history of the market square.

On my last trip to Krakow I had simply been in Krakow. On this trip, I felt Krakow. Its vibrance, it’s Seele der Stadt.

Yet, within the Seel der Stadt, there is darkness. You can avoid, but we were not in Poland to avoid it. We were in Poland not only to enjoy it’s nightlife and cheap goods. We were in Poland to study the Holocaust.

…..

On the bus ride to Auschwitz I threw up. This was primarily due to car sickness, but it set the mode for the rest of the day perfectly.

Upon arrival at the camp, I bought some pretzels and a soda from the snack bar to settle my stomach. I was racked with guilt for the rest of the day because of this.
I kept thinking of the Jews and their journey to Auschwitz. Cramped in cattle cars for days on end, with death being a constant companion, vomiting would have seemed like a minor illness. When they arrived at Auschwitz they wouldn’t have been greeted by a snack bar, but with death or back breaking work in horrid conditions.

Everytime I ate a pretzel or drank a bit of cherry coke that day I was ashamed. I was ashamed by how privileged I was. At the same time I was ashamed that the Jews and other occupants of the concentration camps were denied any bit of basic humanity like salty food and soda for an upset stomach. This shame will never leave me.

…..

I didn’t get sick again over the course of the day. Instead, I just felt…. I don’t know. It wasn’t a feeling of sadness, though I did feel overcome with emotions at several points. Nor did I feel any anger. I wouldn’t even call the feeling of the camp empty or emotionless. When I was at Auschwitz, I was just there; completely present in the moment.

I spent a lot of time staring down at my shoes and the mud. I spent a lot of time trying to imagine what the dirt and rocks had seen. I spent a lot of time just being and thinking.

I don’t know what else to say about my visit to Auschwitz, except for the Twilight Zone quote that rattled in my head all day.

“All the Dachaus must remain standing. The Dachaus, the Belsens, the Buchenwalds, the Auschwitzes – all of them. They must remain standing because they are a monument to a moment in time when some men decided to turn the Earth into a graveyard. Into it they shoveled all of their reason, their logic, their knowledge, but worst of all, their conscience. And the moment we forget this, the moment we cease to be haunted by its remembrance, then we become the gravediggers.”

…..

Our last day in Poland, was my favorite. Save for MOCAK, a museum of modern art and a meeting with the director of the Krakow’s Jewish Community Center, there was nothing on our itinerary.

After focusing so much on Jewish life in the past and experiencing the “Jewish Graveyard of Europe”, it was powerful and poignant to talk with at the JCC about Jewish life in Poland today and to see that it’s future is bright.

I had some reservations about MOCAK, as it was built on the floor of what used to be Schindler’s factory. While the museum to Schindler is right next door in his former office building, before entering MOCAK I couldn’t help but think that having it at place of holocaust memory was bit disrespectful.

I was incredibly wrong.

MOCAK may have been my favorite site that we visited. The pieces, such as “In Case Emergency.” had me inspired and wanting to make some of my own modern art.

In the afternoon, I was free to experience Seele der Stadt for a little while longer. I originally set out alone, dead set on finding a book of Polish poetry and experiencing Polish fast food.

As I hadn’t bothered to learn the Polish word for poetry, I didn’t find any. Nor did I enjoy my experience with KFC Polska. However, those 5 or so hours I spent in old town, both on my own and later on with everyone else were magical.

…..

I don’t know what I’ll most take most from this trip, whether it the haunting void of Auschwitz-Birkenau’s fields or the vibrant Seele der Stadt of Krakow or the determination of the Warsaw uprising. I don’t know when I’ll return to Poland. I don’t know if I’ll regret not buying the sweatshirt that everyone else got, and going for a t-shirt instead.

But what I do know is that the week I spent in Poland will always be remembered as one of the best weeks in my life.

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