Krakow, Poland was described to me once as “Prague, like ten years ago.”
I have no idea what that means. But I love how pretentious it makes me sound when I say it to my friends. The truth, however, is that Krakow is way cooler than Prague.
My wife and I had low expectations when we decided to visit this city on a whim. It’s not discussed much as a European travel destination (at least in the US); but now, I would say that this city is a must-see destination for anyone visiting Central and Eastern Europe.
Some highlights from our six days in Krakow:
The city of Krakow
Krakow has everything you could ask for:
- A beautiful, walkable city
- Awesome history
- Lots to see and do
- Great food
- Nice people
- …and it’s cheap
After Istanbul, I think that Krakow is my next favorite city in Europe. Go visit soon because in a few years, Poland will adopt the Euro currency and this place will no longer be as cheap.
My wife and I were pleased to find that Krakow is not diluted down by tourism, yet. It’s only a matter of time though before the secret is out about how awesome this place is. I’ll be sad if this place ever becomes another cheesy tourist trap like Venice.
Auschwitz lies about one and a half hours away from the city. For those of you who aren’t read up on your World War II history, this was the largest of the Nazi concentration camps, where 1.1 million politicians, gypsies, POWs, homosexuals—and mostly Jews—were murdered.
Make no mistake: this is not a fun way to spend your day. The guides do an excellent job of literally walking you through the history of the Auschwitz camps, showing in exacting detail how genocide was carried out systematically and coldly. It’s difficult to stomach and the tone of the crowds here is somber.
My wife and I will come back someday; and with our kids. Why?
The Holocaust is a period of human history that every person should study. The more I learn about the events the led up to genocide, the more I realize that history does indeed repeat itself. Hitler came to power through democratic processes. The Nazi party started off as just another crazy extremist political party, but through a combination of voter apathy, a stagnant economy, lack of jobs, and some other seemingly mundane issues, Hitler was able to build a nationalist movement that allowed him to become elected as head of state. And we’re all familiar with what followed…
The lesson my wife and I learned at Auschwitz was that inaction can have as many ramifications as action. I want to become a more active citizen to support the causes and political issues I care about when I come home.
In anticipation of our trip to Krakow, my wife and I re-watched Schindler’s List, a movie about a Nazi named Oskar Schindler who saved 1,200 Jewish people by employing them in his factory during World War II. We were so pumped to visit his Enamelworks factory right in the city, and we saved this visit for our last full day in Krakow.
Unfortunately, I screwed up. It turns out that the visiting hours to this place is a bit confusing and that the hours are significantly shortened for the first Monday of each month. Thus, no visit for us. We were so bummed!
Here’s some more information about Oskar Schindler:
In popular culture, he is known as a civilian Nazi party member who came to Krakow to make money off of the war. To save on expenses for an enamel factory he acquired, he hired Jews from the city ghetto, who were cheaper to employ than non-Jewish citizens. Schindler made a ton of money, and over time he became more and more protective of his Jewish workers. When the orders came in from the Nazi party to exterminate all the Jews, he spent every penny he earned (until he was broke) to bribe officers and buy the lives of each of his workers. His efforts allowed him to save nearly 1,200 Jewish people from certain death.
A nice story, right? Well, our Krakow tour guide told us a different version of this history. Our guide’s version goes something like this: Schindler was a member of the Nazi party, but he also worked as a Nazi spy before civilian life. He acquired an enamel factory and did employ Jews to save on expenses. He was a real jerk though to the Jews and had a reputation for being abusive toward his workers. When Schindler realized that the Nazis were going to lose the war, he devised a plan to save his ass by protecting his Jewish workers. That way, if he was ever accused of crimes against humanity after the war, he could claim that he was trying to protect Jews. This plan apparently worked, and when Schindler was caught after the war, his workers supported his case. After all, he did save 1,200 Jewish people from certain death.
I’m not quite sure which version of Schindler history is true, but I tend to think that the one our tour guide shared is closer to reality. Hollywood is in the business to entertain with stories featuring strong protagonists. In real life though, people are complicated and flawed.
I really hope I can come back and see this factory someday.
I probably should have booked an extra day in Krakow, but it’s now time to move on. Next stop: Berlin, Germany.