Nicole, my grandma and I flew into Warsaw and spent several days there exploring Old Town, visiting the Warsaw Uprising Museum, seeing what remained of the Jewish ghetto, and luxuriating in our hotel's rooftop pool and hot-tub overlooking the whole of the city and the Vistula River to the east. (Actually the pool part was just me, Grandma and Nicole were sampling vodkas at the hotel bar).
Being in Warsaw I had a difficult time separating what I saw in the present with what I knew had gone on there during World War II. The city was essentially reduced to rubble and you can see it in the rebuilt city today: modern highrises neighbor communist-era buildings of expressionless functionality, while the Soviet-constructed Palace of Culture looms arrogant and imposing on the horizon. Old Town exclusively was rebuilt in its original manner immediately following the war, owing, according to a Condé Nast article I ripped out of a doctor's office magazine (shh) a few months back, not to the city's financial capability but rather its lack thereof. Warsaw had evidently been so destroyed that it needed to recreate a part of life from its better days.
Aside from the architecture, I also spent my first few days wondering whether each Pole I passed in the street felt as if he or she had this enormous weight hanging from his or her shoulders made up of World War II and the atrocities that went on in that city. Warsaw is known to me for its significance in World War II and the decades following, and I know the people who live there have a much larger culture and identity outside of those parameters, but I wondered if there's some sense of guilt for not acting sooner on behalf of the Jewish population. The Warsaw Uprising was a major counterattack on the part of the Poles, but even so it came at a time when the interests of the majority - not just the Jewish - were being severely curtailed. By no means did the Poles come out advantageous within this all - countless, not receiving the expected support from the Soviet troops outside the city - died in the Uprising, and the survivors were still under the thumb of foreign militaries at its end, but at the same time there were Jewish people starving to death a block away on the other side of the wall. Nicole very fairly asked me if I felt guilty about the Japanese internment camps in the U.S. She's right that the U.S. has a litany of guilt counts, but what I saw and know of Warsaw is so wrapped up in that horror that I don't think I did a very good job of seeing it for its character today.
We took a train from Warsaw to Krakow and stepped into an entirely different world. Krakow looks much as it has for years prior to the war and is adequately charming and wanderable. We spent a good amount of time near the main square, which was heavily touristy but comprised mainly of visitors from eastern Europe or Germany. I met only a handful of English-speakers during the entire trip, and none who were from the United States (come on people, why don't we travel?). It rained almost daily and the temperature hovered around the high-50s, but the flavored vodka Poland is known for kept us warm. Grandma, Nicole and I spent many nights in the hotel room drinking lemon vodka on the rocks and watching Polish soaps. Telenovelas: a universal unifier.
Nicole and I also went out to the bars a time or two but were met with some odd receptions. We tried going into a bar to watch the football game and it was one of those slow-motion-turn-your-head-and-stare-in-silence occasions when we got in the room. Turning around. Next spot a guy came up to us with a menu tucked into the neck of his shirt, planted himself a foot away from Nicole and I, then stared. Didn't say anything, just opened his eyes reeeal wide. Turning around. The next place finally stuck, but I don't know if people are just a little more contained with their relationships in Poland or what, but we made no friends. :(
On one of our last days we made the hour bus-ride to Auschwitz-Birkenau. It was the strangest experience because it felt like the camps were too much to take in, and yet what I was trying to take in wasn't even the first of it. It is unbelievable to walk through the buildings and see the photos and personal items of the victims and try to grasp that it's real. How can it possibly be real? How can we as human beings be capable of that? The Holocaust is such an atrocious stain on our history but I can't help but think that we wouldn't care so much if it hadn't happened in the western world. There are enough examples of genocide today to suggest that people as a whole don't really care. And what's my role in it? Tourist? Pretty saddening..