A Poland of gall and beauty | The traveler


A large and diverse country, with a complex history behind it, Poland has many faces, some of them grim. In its splendid cities of sophisticated culture —from Warsaw until Cracovia, passing by Lodz-, as well as in the Southeastern regions, a tragic past beats. The Poles suffered more than anyone during the 20th century. In September 1939, when it was invaded by Nazi Germany, more than three million Jews lived in Poland, almost half of those estimated to be in Western Europe at the time. Most perished in one of the six large death camps set up on Polish territory, three of them in the south, between Silesia and Malopolska. In addition, the Nazis beheaded the other 90% of Polish society, liquidating almost two million people, between military and civilians. And then, a long communist dictatorship fell to that devastated country, a staunch enemy of minorities and differences. A past still palpable.

The streets of Kazimierz

We are in the Wawel Hill, the fortress of Krakow. We have seen the prehistoric bones hanging in the portal of the cathedral and the mausoleum of St. Stanislaus. The wide Vistula meanders down there. We have in our retina the most beautiful square in Europe, Main market (Market Square), which we passed on the way to Wawel and where we had coffee with poppy seed cake. In addition to all this and the friendliness of its people, this city preserves a treasure in the Czartoryski Museum: The Lady with the Ermine, de Leonardo da Vinci.

Through Stradomska street we reached the neighborhood of Kazimierz. The faint colored facades and the defenseless air of its streets still bear the stamp of the sad years. This Jewish quarter, now under construction, where a quarter of Krakow’s population lived, was left desolate in 1945. Here Spielberg filmed scenes from Schindler’s List and now you visit the Schindler pottery factory. Leaving behind the Jewish Culture Center and the plaza New, we entered the sinagoga Remuh, the only one open to worship. Two rabbis in black hats speak in low voices in front of some geometric stained glass windows. With my head covered with the yarmulke, I go out with the woman who accompanies me to a bright and orderly cemetery. There are stones on the edge of the tombstones, the newest ones have a visor; contrasts with the neglected Jewish cemetery of Katowice, the industrial city of Silesia, with modernist profiles, which has swallowed up the annexed city where my friend and traveling companion was born. There, in gold letters on a large black tombstone half hidden by ivy, she came across the last name of her maternal grandfather. I did not know that cemetery. Nor are some of the fields and ghettos that dotted the province during the German occupation.

Stop at Oswiecim

The sun begins to rise over the plain when the train leaves us in a lonely station. Few get off here. Auschwitz-Birkenau is usually reached by bus from Krakow in just over an hour. Nothing reveals that just outside OswiecimHundreds of thousands of prisoners were gassed and cremated, an anodyne flat city, with long and wide deserted avenues. The “German Master”, according to the poet Paul Celan, who survived his terrible rule, knew how to carry out such a machine of exploitation and death with only about 3,000 troops of his own.

Passing under the arch with the motto Arbeit macht frei (work will set you free), guilt descends like a heavy fog over everyone; Chinese, Latin, Polish, Nordic, North American, not forgetting the Germans. Guilt and deeper emotions will grow as you advance in single file through corridors lined with the puzzled faces of deportees, women’s latrines, the gas chamber that survived the destruction by the SS, the display cabinets with the toiletry bags and orthopedic legs, the ruffled sea of ​​moth-eaten hair, a pile of Zyklon B gas cans, the ovens that seem to be waiting to be turned on again. And before a dark cell, the guides direct attention in many languages ​​towards Maximilian Kolbe, the Polish friar who sacrificed his life to save another prisoner.

The morning is clear, the sun is shining at mid-altitude; Atrocious cold creeps into the barracks. In Auschwitz you can forget yourself, even for a few hours. It is the second time that the Polish woman who accompanies me has come here; the first was a long time ago, a field trip from school. The bus connecting the two fields stops short and the loudspeaker roars: “Birkenau, end of journey!” People stumble, lost in thought, onto the tracks of a train that has stopped running. Hours later, I have lost my friend in the crowd and I fear I will never see her again.

Between mountains and lakes

To the south, the call Little poland (Malopolska) displays the gifts that nature gave to this land, which are many. Leave the plains and embrace the majesty of two famous mountain ranges: the Carpathians and the Sudetenland. There is Calvary, with its churches and monasteries in the shadow of the mount tsar. We see the cloister of the bernardinos and we walk the hill Way of the Cross and the 42 chapels of the Way of the Cross. The next stop is Orawka, a town that has one of the curious wooden churches in the area, decorated with beautiful paintings. We tried an exquisite smoked cheese, the oscypek, with a soft wine from the Lower silesia. The montes Tatras, the highest in the country. My friend points to a place on the map, in the far south: Zakopane.

Half covered in snow, the popular winter resort, on the very border with Slovakia, invites you to walk along its trails. We line up the one that leads to the top of the Gubalówka. Before us, the panorama of the valleys and snowy slopes of the Tatras, with wonderful forests, habitat of bears and golden eagles. The next morning, we boarded the funicular in Kuznice that goes up to the peak of Kasprowy Wierch. From there a steep path leads to the idyllic Lake Morskie Oko. The serene beauty and silence of the peaks, which are reflected in their icy cobalt blue waters, mix with the emotions experienced in Auschwitz and we take long sighs.

Jose Luis de Juan He is the author of the novel ‘El apicultor de Bonaparte’ (Minuscule publisher).

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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