We’ve returned to Eastern Europe after a little vacation in Vancouver. As always, Vancouver was sweet and spectacularly beautiful. We’d missed the Pacific Ocean and the mountains, and spent a couple of weeks recharging and re-stocking for our next long leg.

We’re in Poland, another country that’s had a long and, at many times, very tough history. Tough history has been the thread running through our travels the last few months. Last fall we were in Berlin and Ukraine. In March we were in Japan, followed by Palestine and Israel; then we visited Armenia and Georgia. Each place is haunted in some way by its history. In terms of tough history, Poland has been through the ringer.

First of all, Poland today is a totally delightful place to spend several weeks. This is an easy place to be. The food is delicious. People are lovely. Modern, safe and clean, this is Europe without the vast numbers of touts or tourists. Things are changing, of course, as they are everywhere. The growing Disnification of Krakow’s main square, crawling now with pony rides and surrounded by KFC, Starbucks, Italian restaurants and pizza joints, is a pretty good indication of the general trajectory for Polish tourism. Just like everywhere else, this unique and ancient city will soon look, well… just like everywhere else.

Krakow’s medieval main square.
There’s no shortage of great vegetarian food in Poland.
A minor obsession of Karen’s. Ice cream with a local Polish sweet that just doesn’t translate.
Krakow’s main square.
Krakow’s main square.

The official tourism promotion here revolves around celebrating the brighter, more uplifting sides of Polish history: Warsaw is the city of Chopin and Copernicus. Krakow defines the country’s well-preserved medieval cultural, artistic and religious heritage. They love to drink beer and to encourage visitors to drink it too. And they quite rightly make a big deal about the taste and quality of Polish food. We could get very fat here if we let ourselves.

Warsaw is the city of Chopin. His statues are everywhere.

Obviously, no one wants to be remembered for a period of vicious human lethalness and evil, but the country’s devastation by fascism and the Holocaust is the unavoidable story for us.

We started in Warsaw. It’s a beautiful and remarkable city. There was so little left in 1945, so few buildings remained standing and so many people lay murdered and buried beneath the ruins, that it was almost left abandoned.

The Warsaw Ghetto after its liquidation by the Nazis in 1943.
(Photo by BI Sandars / Associated Press)

One proposal included leaving the city as a massive memorial to the dead. A new capital would be built instead somewhere else. However, many tens of thousands of refugees had already returned to the city when the Nazis were driven out, so reconstruction was undertaken to house them.

Many European cities were completely destroyed during the war. Most restored the famous cathedrals and historical landmarks and then rebuilt the rest anew. Warsaw decided to rebuild the historic Old City completely, restoring not only the ‘important’ landmarks, but also all of the buildings that were destroyed there, residential and commercial. It was rebuilt from memory, photographs, and any pre-existing architectural records they could find. Warsaw is the only authentic replica city in Europe. An incredible achievement.

Warsaw’s Rynek Starego in Old Town.
Street scene in Warsaw’s Old Town.
Warsaw’s Old Town.

Every public square and building in the historic Old Town was re-created from ruins. This wasn’t the abominable attempt to create a cartoon version of itself that characterizes Tbilisi’s Old Town or Beijing’s ridiculous shopping arcades masking as historic neighbourhoods. It was a serious architectural reconstruction. And it paid off. Warsaw’s Old Town is spectacular. And though it hosts a lot of tourists and the requisite cafes and souvenir shops, it still feels authentic and part of a living neighbourhood.

We explored the historic city on our own, but were really interested in the history of the Warsaw Ghetto. So we did a walking tour of Jewish Warsaw. This is not an easy thing to do. Yes, the subject matter is hard, but what makes such a tour so challenging is the absence of things to see. The Nazis erased Jewish Warsaw. In 1939, Poland had nearly 3.5 million Jews living here, less than ten per cent of the total population but among the largest Jewish communities in Europe. In 1945, just 300,000 remained alive. The simple fact of so many murdered people is itself mind-boggling. But the detailed, thorough and systematic and calculated cruelty with which it was carried out is utterly incomprehensible.

The only surviving remnant of the original Warsaw Ghetto wall. It was attached to a building later moved outside the Ghetto and thus survived the destruction of 1943.
Modern street memorial that marks the original boundaries of the Warsaw Ghetto.
One of the few surviving original buildings from the Warsaw Ghetto. It was marked outside of the later ghetto boundaries and thus survived the destruction.
Memorial to the heroes of the Ghetto Uprising in 1943 as it stood in 1948. Three years after the war, most of Warsaw (and all of the former ghetto) still lay in ruins. (Photo by Hank Walker/Getty Images)
The Ghetto Uprising memorial today. The memorial was built from black stone purchased in Sweden by the Nazis for construction of their new reich government buildings in Poland. After the War, Sweden gave the stone for the memorial.

In the case of Warsaw, the Germans didn’t just murder all of the Ghetto’s Jewish residents, in 1943 they used dynamite to raze the entire area down to rubble and dust. By August 1945, all of Warsaw was destroyed by Allied bombing, but the Nazis had leveled the Jewish ghetto two years earlier in punishment for the Jewish uprising.

Our guide for the walking tour announced at the very start that this would – necessarily – be an imaginary tour. There were 400 synagogues in Warsaw before the war. There is one in the city today. The city was home to nearly 400,000 Jews in 1939. There are now 500 registered at this sole remaining house of worship. Nearly everything else is gone.

Warsaw’s last remaining Synagogue.

It was a moving experience, standing on the corner of some street and being shown black and white photographs of what had been there. We passed small fragments of the wall reconstructed as a memorial, or a modern memorial artwork marking the infamous bridge of sighs that crossed between the two sections of the Ghetto.

We walked among the lovely spacious streets of one of modern Warsaw’s more expensive neighbourhoods. The neat, modernist, post-war apartment buildings were built on earthen mounds, the bulldozed ruins of the Warsaw Ghetto. These ruins today house the bodies of an unknown number of victims. It’s an entire neighbourhood built on an unmarked graveyard.

Apartments in Warsaw today are built on heaps of rubble left from the Warsaw Ghetto.

In Krakow, the Jewish Ghetto created by the Nazis remains intact, as well as the area of the Plaszow concentration camp, made infamous by Schindler’s List. Here in Krakow, you can still see evidence of the Nazis’ immense and twisted cruelty. When building the Ghetto wall that would enforce the enclosure of 20,000 people, the Nazis built the wall to resemble Jewish gravestones.

One of only two remaining sections of Krakow’s Jewish Ghetto wall.
The Nazis built Krakow’s Jewish Ghetto walls to resemble Jewish gravestones.

They built Plaszow concentration camp on the grounds of the city’s Jewish cemeteries and used the gravestones to pave the main road. It wasn’t enough to murder millions. The Nazis deliberately tortured them psychologically and physically. Death was the outcome, but abject humiliation was the actual point.

A small copy of the Torah left by a young Israeli schoolgirl visiting the Plaszow concentration camp site.
The main parade ground of Plaszow concentration camp.
The eighty hectare site is now a public memorial and maintained as a vast memorial to the dead.
Remains of the original mortuary building for the original Jewish cemeteries that lie beneath Plaszow. Plaszow’s camp director used it a stable for his horses. As they fled back to Germany, the Nazi’s destroyed the building. One final act of spite.
Plaszow concentration camp.

A large lime quarry lies nearby to the former site of Plaszow concentration camp. Jewish inmates were forced to labour here as well.

Poland was the killing field of the Holocaust. Millions of non-Jewish victims were killed, too. Captured Soviet soldiers, Poles, Rom people, homosexuals, disabled people, anyone the Germans considered inferior were sent to Nazi camps in Poland to be executed. But only the Jews were singled out for total extermination as a people. This is something easy to forget, especially as you visit places where genocide or other mass killing has occurred. There has never been a lack of misery in human affairs. From Stalin’s mass murder of his own citizens and the madness of Pol Pot to the centuries of African enslavement by Europeans and Americans, human beings have carried out horrible, terrible and evil things against other people. But the Jewish Holocaust is something unique and it shouldn’t be forgotten.

As unpleasant and emotional as it is to review all of this terrible history, to visit these places in person and absorb their histories on location is often a profoundly humanizing and humbling experience. One is forced to examine one’s own mind and suffering in the context of suffering several orders of magnitude more intense. Not everyone has this experience.

There is a disconcerting growth in appetites for macabre tourism that seeks to roll in the chilling negativity of places like Auschwitz or the Holocaust memorial in Berlin. You can watch visitors taking selfies of each other here, laughing and cracking jokes. It’s depressing to watch and a signal of a meaningful shift in social norms and evidence of what looks like a measurable decline in empathy. Clink link here to an article on the subject.

We won’t visit Auschwitz this trip. It has become a mass tourism frenzy, with site managers spending an enormous amount of energy begging people to be respectful. Thousands visit every day, and the site has become less a sacred memorial to the dead and more another site of extreme sensation-seeking.  Krakow is home to the former factory of Oskar Schindler. It’s now a museum hosting exhibits that detail life in Krakow under the Nazi occupation, as well as the more famous story of Schindler and the 1200 Jewish employees he saved from the death camps. Our guide for the museum was Mateusz, a young educator there who also devotes his time to volunteering with the local JCC that maintains the site of the Plaszow concentration camp.

The front windows of Oskar Schindler’s former factory hold the photographs of the 1200 Jewish people he helped save.
The former factory of Oskar Schindler in Krakow.
Schindler’s List used a different building entirely as the office of Oskar Schindler. This is the real one, including his map of the world.

Visiting the places of the Holocaust, internalizing the slow-moving banality with which it developed and was carried out, is also to see into the very real possibilities of our own future.

When we give in to resentment and externalized anger, when we blame others for our unpleasant circumstances, when we give up decency and kindness, we risk taking the dark roads so heavily trammeled by other generations.

The subject of the Holocaust is so difficult to illustrate adequately. The emotions just don’t seem capturable by any single photograph or words. Our time in Krakow ended with a surprise visit to an art exhibition by Polish artist Zdzisław Beksiński. The moment we walked into the exhibit, Karen and I both stopped. This man’s work just seem to perfectly express the raw horror and menace of such a tragic period. Beksinski never titled his paintings or provided any explanation for them. He believed they needed purely to be experienced, not intellectualized.

We’ve noted something interesting in our conversations with people all over the world this past year. Nearly everyone is experiencing some anxiety about the future. Some worry about Putin or terrorism. Some are worried about climate change. Others are worried about how fast their community seems to be changing in ways that scare or anger them. We see this in our conversations with family and friends, strangers we meet on streets all over the world. We see this on the application forms of the people coming to learn meditation. Karen and I also feel it in our conversations with each other. Whether or not it’s simply the reflection of Facebook or Youtube toxicity, a mass media needing to dramatize everything negatively to sell advertising, or whether there really is something dreadful brewing in our collective future doesn’t really matter. People are feeling something that causes anxiety. We can’t change what we can’t control, but we can control how we react to change.

This is the one thing we have come to really understand. When we are aware of ourselves and understand how we are reacting, if we learn how to observe these reactions, giving way to momentary pauses that help us to see things as they really are, we are then free to make better and more considered choices and actions. The result is we suffer less when we experience unpleasant things. We also find it easier to be kind to others when we are not absorbed in our own discontent.

The next few months will mainly involve service, conducting Vipassana Meditation courses in several places in Eastern Europe before heading back to Asia in the late Fall to sit our own retreat. We’re grateful for the opportunity to help others learn to face the vicissitudes of life with more equanimity.  But volunteering our time helps us immensely, too.

When we return from the meditation centre, we’ll write a different post about Poland, one that celebrates its beauty. And it is a very beautiful country. We were also lucky to visit with our friends Ania and Irek. We wrote about them in a previous post HERE. They grew up in small town in western Poland and took us on a visit to the Baltic seacoast.

Tomorrow we leave Krakow and head by train to Kalisz. We’ll write again after the course when we arrive back in Warsaw.

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