Poland, for me, was difficult. A country that at first glance seemed drained of all life, all joy and all enthusiasm. I visited in November of 2013 with my university when the weather was grey and the temperature was below freezing each day. First impressions i have to say where fairly disappointing…but then we wondered.
Our first day was spent settling in to the hostel. Now, when i picture a hostel in Europe, i image scenes from the movie franchise Hostel which completely put me off the idea of travelling there. As we approached the outside of the hostel, i felt my nightmares come to life. It was located down an old street then down a small, dark walkway. It’s safe to say we were all horrified. Fortunately, the interior was a complete contrast to the exterior and the owners were warm and friendly. Things were looking up already.
The whole trip consisted of long, independent walks around the streets of Krakow which allowed each group to interact with locals, try the food and study the area. I surrounded myself with friends of the course, as did everyone else. One thing i noticed during our walks was the architecture. Poland is famous for it’s gothic style which made its mark on many towns and cities during the 13th century. I like the think that the city of Krakow is in a class of its own in this sense, but i’m clearly not well travelled.
Of course, as any other study group would do, we visited the infamous Auschwitz and Birkenau sites. I don’t think anyone could’ve prepared themselves for this visit. My dissertation was focussed on ‘dark tourism’ or ‘thanatourism’ which is defined as a form of travel that is based around death-related events that have happened throughout history to date. Popular in Western societies, some scholars argue that dark tourism has become commercialised and is ‘mocked’ for the sake of art, money and entertainment. Others suggest dark tourism provides an opportunity to contemplate death of the Self through gazing upon the Significant Other Dead. My thought process upon the visit to each site was the purpose of my visit. Little did i know what impact it would have on myself and others around me.
Auschwitz I – as we walked around the site, it was like being in an open museum. I was worried that if i had touched anything i would damage a part of history. Reluctantly, i continued my walk around the grounds. We entered a few buildings where we discovered glass cases filled with shoes and hair – all of which once belonged to the prisoners that had slaved their final days there. Our final visit within the grounds was to the gas chamber. From what i remember, this was the only one on site. I’m not quite sure what i expected to see when i got inside but what i did see horrified me, the rest of the university course and everyone else in there with us. The room itself was small and dark with a small opening at the top. There were scratches on the walls that were still visible. Everyone in the chamber went quiet. Many had to leave. To think that hundreds of prisoners died in that chamber is almost unspeakable.
Auschwitz II (Birkenau) – This site was built later as a combination of concentration camp and extermination camp. The vast site saw an estimated 1.3 million people sent to the camp on the transport trains. 1.1 million people died. Most died not in the gas chambers, but of starvation, infection, medical experiments and slave labour.
To think i visited these historically significant sites for my own benefit disgusts me on some level. On every other level i believe that by visiting sites that have seen death, it allows me to understand the devastating effects it had on Poland and the whole world.
On one of our final days, we visited the Soviet Union.