The title of this post is sort of a running joke in my family… I really had no idea that we were Polish until our family had one weird conversation in our car, while we were discussing a school project I needed to do about my family’s ancestry
I’ve always had an unusual last name by American standards. Definitely not O’Donnell or Sullivan.
My Dad: Kim what did you think we were?
Me: I just always thought we were Irish with a weird last name…
My grandmother ‘Busia’ always held a special place in her heart for Poland and the Poles. The town our ancestors came from is not far from Krakow. So when we had the opportunity to visit Poland. We made sure to visit Krakow.
So after Warsaw we hopped on a train to Krakow.
(Believe it or not-traveling by train is not too complicated in Eastern Europe- for many it’s the preferred mode of travel). It’s also super easy to travel to Krakow from Warsaw.
Krakow is one of the most well preserved cities in Poland… and just maybe, Eastern Europe.
You may just meet the friendliest Poles in Poland here…
Although, this is a city… there is a very relaxed atmosphere- that you don’t get from most modern day European cities.
(And yes– according to legend those pigeons are saints guarding Market Square)
Krakow may also have the best mushroom soup in the world- served in the cutest little bread bowls you’ll ever see
My brother and I did some research on things to see– being fans of Steven Spielberg’s Schindler List we decided to visit Schindler’s Factory.
The factory that Schindler originally used when Jews were sent to the Krakow ghetto, has been turned into a Jewish holocaust museum about Jews presence in Krakow before and during Nazi occupation.
(I thought this was cool since it was by Roman Polanski).
One of the most haunting things was seeing what ghetto quarters were like– sometimes 4-6 families lived in a space about the size of my mom’s walk-in closet (yes– that pretty’s shocking).
Admittely my family and I were more interested in learning about Schindler’s work in Krakow… However there was only one room with a few exhibits dedicated to Schindler and the Schindler Jews.
This is Itzhak Stern (portrayed by Ben Kingsley in Schindler’s List).
Schindler’s factory made pots in Krakow during World War Two.
There were a few videos of Schindler Jews displayed in this room… (a lot of them had been portrayed in the film and some of the interviews seemed to be in the DVD extras of the film).
I asked a museum attendant- this isn’t the typewriter… but they set it up so you can lean by it if you want to pose for pictures.
There was also an memorial in the center- listing the names of every Jew sent to Schindler’s factory (who ultimately survived the war because of that).
“I knew the people who worked for me… When you know people, you have to behave towards them like human beings.”
1,200 people that survived because one flawed human individual decided to make a difference.
Was Oskar Schindler a womanizer?
Was he a closet alcoholic?
But he is also proof that even flawed human beings can end up making a difference in extraordinary ways.
If you haven’t seen the film. I recommend you do.
Holocaust survivors describe it as one of the most accurate portrayals of the holocaust… and while the movie is dark it is also incredibly hopeful.
It’s even listed on the American Film Institute’s List of Most Inspiring Films In American Cinema.
And yes the museum cafe has some movie memorabilia and stills.
“The list is an absolute good. The list is life.”
-Itzhak Stern (Schindler’s List)
After that, we all headed onto a tourist cart parked out in front of the museum.
(You can find them at pretty much every museum or tourist attraction in Krakow.)
The good thing about tourist trams/carts- is they take you to multiple parts of the city… for little to no cost.
And yes- there was time for some brother-sister photo hijinks.
And you can find Pope John Paul II pretty much everywhere here.
He’s sort of a Krakow legend/celebrity.
The cart ended up parked in front of Wawel Castle so we headed over there. Just so you know- they have a set number of tickets sold during each day(so it’s best to try to purchase them in advance at your hotel!).
We ended up missing out on going inside the castle because we didn’t have tickets.
For lunch my family found a cute Ukrainian restaurant near the castle.
After the busy day- my family had a good long nap at our hotel. But, we all woke up in time for dinner at the Hard Rock Cafe which is located on Market Square.
For me personally, I loved it– since it was the first time in nearly a year that I had some purely authentic American food(I love my macaroni and cheese!)
The next day was pretty somber. We packed into a car my dad rented and headed over to Auschwitz (which as about an hour to two hour drive out of Krakow).
I’ve visited Auschwitz before- but the enormity of it is always overwhelming…
This place- represents the absolute worst of humanity and senseless violence.
Sometimes I worry that this place has become too touristy. That it is simply not respected in the ways it should be.
But, at the same time- if this site was ever closed.
The world would be shut out from seeing what the Nazis accomplished… and we promised ourselves to never forget.
“Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed….Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never.”
There are two sections of Auschwitz a museum (Auschwitz I) and the actual barracks/where the gas chambers were located- (Auschwitz II- Auschwitz-Brikenau) . To visit the museum you need to go with a tour group… going solo can be difficult.
Honestly, I’ve never really felt comfortable with the museum– it seems really touristy and is always packed with tourists (the tour can also take 3 hours).
My family ended up visiting just the barracks (which is open free to the public since its considered a memorial).
Here the mood is much more respectful and it’s more of a personal experience… That impacts each visitor in different ways. (You also don’t need a tour group to visit this section).
This is the section where they have what remains of the gas chambers and the train tracks that took so many to a horrible fate…
There are also memorials to those who died, as well.
It’s a mass grave site and is treated as such.
You’ll find that if you ever go to Auschwitz-Brikenau, the atmosphere there is very calm and quiet.
People for the most part are respectful and reflective.
But it can also be emotionally overwhelming for some visitors (many who had ancestors that were lost in the holocaust)… it’s not uncommon to see visitors leave in tears or leave flowers in certain places.
“Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere.
When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant.
Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment - become the center of the universe.”
(I shall never forget)
After that, my dad packed us in our rental car. The town where our ancestors came from is only about a 2-3 hour drive away from Auschwitz. What’s weird is our GPS came up with about 10 Janowices (some of which weren’t that far from Kiev).
Throughout my service- many Ukrainians have been telling me my last name is actually Ukrainian. (Yes. I’ve been going through a bit of a mild identity crisis here).
The borders changed so much between Poland and Ukraine throughout the years- it’s a possibility that my family is part Ukrainian.
My dad ended up getting lost and ignoring the GPS half way through the trip: “Kim I’ll feel it… when I know we are there.”
It took an additional hour detour but we finally found it (with my dad’s infamous homing pigeon skills).
But this is the Janowice my family likes to think- is the right one and where we believe our ancestors came from.(We’ve been told from a few relatives that it is ‘our’ Janowice):
It’s a really quaint small town… and if any Poles that live in Janowice remember those wacky Americans in August with cameras so excited to see that town sign (it was my crazy family! And you might be related to those crazies too ).
It’s pretty beautiful here!
And it’s more than a little special to see the place where your family is rooted/came from.
But it made us miss this woman:
A lot. Love you Busia!
I wish people would associate Poland more with hope rather than, devastation. Poland and the Poles have experienced some pretty horrible things.
For a land that’s been conquered.
Decimated by war.
Become associated with mass graves… and human cruelty.
There is so much beauty here.
So much kindness.
…And so many things we could learn from the Poles and how they dealt through adversity…
Without any bitterness or hatred.
With patience and unity.
“The defense of our rights and our dignity, as well as efforts never to let ourselves to be overcome by the feeling of hatred – this is the road we have chosen.”
I have some sort of crazy hope that we all could learn from the example of the Poles.
And yes our family may be Polish by chance- but we’re proud by choice.
Poland will always be special to our family.
(And it’s nice that people can correctly pronounce our last name here! )