Opposites emphasize one another. Contrast refines prominence, allowing positive and negative moments to be felt more intensely. It’s misery that provides joy with a purpose. Darkness cannot be defined without talking about light. Death brings meaning to life itself. My weekend in Poland serves as a reminder that these worn out clichés do contain a great deal of truth.
The bus departed from Prague at midnight. As we travelled through the night, I slept for 10, not hours, but minutes. On top of the fact that I’ve never been skilled in the art of bus-snoozing, my mind was alert with anticipation. I was about to be somewhere I’d read about countless times in history books; a place that receives over two million yearly visitors: the concentration camps of Auschwitz.
Being with a group from our program CIEE, we had the opportunity to begin our tour at 7:30AM before the gates opened to the public. Stepping foot on to a property in which over one million human beings were murdered is a chilling experience. The barrack walls whisper accounts of the horrors characterized by agonizing torture. The leafless trees seem to droop with the sorrow of having witnessed such despair. Massive piles of objects left behind put statistics into perspective, transforming the numbers into individual people that once lead normal lives. There are dozens of victims’ suitcases, children’s shoes, and the most horrifying display . . . 2 tons of women’s hair. Sites like these placed a knot in my throat and blurred my vision with lingering tears. It became even more difficult to remain composed while Eva, our phenomenal guide for the weekend, revealed heart-wrenching true stories that took place within the grounds we stood upon.
As we re-entered the bus to head to Kraków, Eva instructed us to complete two tasks. 1) Call our loved ones to say ‘I love you’. 2) Eat some pierogi. These steps were completed without hesitation. After a few phone calls, I ventured into the town square with some friends to find a local restaurant. We immediately adored the city’s colorful buildings and replenishing atmosphere. Full of appreciation for our family and one another, we proceeded to fill our stomachs with delicious Polish cuisine.
The rest of the trip consisted of wonderful treks around the city. We walked through the old Jewish quarters, saw unbelievably vibrant churches, and stopped for a coffee (or hot chocolate) break in a castle. We also toured a salt mine in the Polish town of Wieliczka on our way home. Don’t worry, the bacteria cannot live on the walls so licking is acceptable . . . Or at least that’s what we were told. In the café 1,073 feet below the ground, we enjoyed our final pierogi of the weekend.