A fact I read: Krakow is the only large Polish city whose old architecture survived World War II. Like Belgium and the Netherlands, Poland was a country with a relatively small population stuck between more aggressive, powerful neighbours. It had subsequently suffered the uncontrollable consequences.
At the hostel I stayed in at Krakow I shared a room with a group of German males in their early twenties. I struck up a conversation. I was curious as to what they thought of their grandparents gassing hundreds of thousands of Jews just down the road at Auschwitz. But it appeared smarter to avoid the subject and hence I simply asked what they were doing in Krakow. They told me they were in the city to drink cheap beer.
That was strange I thought. Most people from the other side of the world would associate Krakow with the Auschwitz concentration camp. But when you are from Europe, with a couple of thousand years of history, turmoil and war behind you then perhaps past atrocities are more easily forgiven. Perhaps you can be a young German in Poland and not even give a second thought to visiting Auschwitz.
But Auschwitz was the primary reason I was in Krakow. The next day I caught the early morning bus to the concentration camp which resided 60 kilometres away. After arriving,I began my inspection by walking around the empty barracks. I then saw a group of males been lead about by a tour guide. I guessed from their accents they were from North America. The guide seemed to be offering more information than my solitary research could obtain so I joined the tour group, standing at the back at an unobtrusive distance.
The tour guide told us the significance of the sign that stood at the entrance to the concentration camp. Translated into English it stated "˜Work Brings Freedom." The guide thought of the sign as incredibly ironic, as though it somehow summed up Auschwitz. A small malevolent smile appeared upon his lips, perhaps thinking of some sick joke at which no-one was laughing.
We were led to Death Wall; concrete slabs against which some of the Jewish captives had stood in front of the German firing line. We then went through to the gas chambers and finally were shown the hanging platform used to execute the Germans officers at the end of the war. It was a sign of closure if not perhaps of total forgiveness.
All these symbols of atrocity were preserved as a reminder of the potential for evil within mankind. Perhaps it is an acceptance of the evil within many people which leads to some been so ready to forgive. Once again I was asking myself the now familiar question of my place in the jumble of a new order if New Zealand should ever face such barbarism. Would I be so ready to forgive?
After trying to look as inconspicuous as possible, the tour group invited me onto their minivan for the trip back to Krakow. Of course I accepted. This would save me my bus fare which was a double bonus as I had already received a free tour of Auschwitz.
Despite taking advantage of their hospitality I couldn't be bothered stringing up much of a conversation with my new found tour buddies. Instead I was left alone at the front of the bus eavesdropping on their conversations. I heard they were a United States army unit stationed in Europe and on a few days leave.
Back then it would not have been standard procedure for army personnel to offer stragglers a lift. Today this generosity would be impossible. What if I was a terrorist carrying a neatly concealed explosive? What if I had an agenda based upon some misplaced thought of justice? I would now have my opportunity to become an instant martyr, taking fifteen United States army personnel to the after life with me.
We had just visited a museum of living hatred after all.
Safely back in Krakow the United States army personnel dropped me off near the hostel. It was getting late but there were still some sights to see.
Not taking into account cheap beer and Auschwitz, the city of Krakow was still known as a worthwhile tourist attraction. I went for a walk up a hill, complete with its own castle and cathedral and then continued down to the local town square. Crowds were gathered listening to gypsy South American musicians plying their trade. Not quite authentic Polish music I thought.
Well I shall be in Munich in a few days time. At least there I should be able to hear a German oompah band in action. Who needs cheap beer when you have that sort of entertainment?