Updated: Feb 3, 2019
We both found visiting Krakow to be a very humbling experience, based on it's quite depressing history. I say this with the greatest respect.
Poland has struggled many times throughout history, not to mention when the country did not even exist as it was split at the end of the 18th century among the three neighbouring powers - Russia, Prussia and Austria, only to regain independence in 1918. World War II then reared its ugly head in Poland when Germany began invading countries and, behind Germany and Soviet Union, Poland was arguably the most affected country from the war as over 20% of its population were killed.
So we knew coming to Poland that there would be lots to learn about the war and it's interesting past, however, the focus of the local history in Krakow is very much toward the Jewish Community and how they suffered at the hands of Hitler. The main reason is Auschwitz. For those who do not know, this is the infamous concentration camp where Hitler killed the most people during the Holocaust:
"According to historical investigations, 1.5 million people, among them a great number of Jews, were systematically starved, tortured and murdered in this camp, the symbol of humanity's cruelty to its fellow human beings in the 20th century."
I won't go into too much detail about the history and finer details as it is a little harrowing. Those who are really interested do google it. It is amazing to know what actually took place, however very sobering to say the least.
Now a Unesco world heritage site, Auschwitz Birkenau is a very good visitors centre that is not to be missed when travelling to Krakow. It is just over an hours bus journey from the city centre and when you arrive you must join one of the tour groups organised by the centre which run every hour. We went just out of season and we were in one of 2 groups of 30 people on English speaking tours. There are other language tours going on at the same time so I am sure you can imagine how crowded it might get during peak months. And with the heat around 25 - 35 degrees in the Polish summer you might be mad to go then.
The first half our tour was walking around the Auschwitz I site which is where the Germans first started housing prisoners and then brought people there purely for extermination. It was previously Polish Army barracks that they took over, to save on money. This part of the experience involved walking around the cells and was very busy with other tours so we didn't quite get the true feeling of suffering with hundreds of well dressed tourists and constant camera flashes going off around you.
That said, we heard all the scary facts about this period and saw original artefacts and pictures that really do take you back in time. This include learning how the Jews were told by the Nazi's they were going for a shower before they could move into their new barracks. They would obediently give up their belongings and strip naked to be hoarded into a fake shower room with 1000 others to then be gassed. We also went into a room full of human hair (all Jews had their heads shaved before they were gassed) and another room full of 40,000 shoes.
The second half of the tour was at Birkenau (Auschwitz II), a 5 min bus ride away, which is the site purposefully built (by prisoners working as labourers) to improve the Nazi's ability to kill people (Jews) quicker. This is an enormous site the size of dozens of football fields with much more open space but less original buildings as they were destroyed by the Germans as they fled at the end of the war. During the latter part of the tour we learnt more about the awful working conditions that prisoners suffered and due to less overcrowding with other tourists, we were able to concentration on the lessons being taught and felt their pain a little more. I imagine going on a bitter cold and grey winter day would allow you to feel closer to what people had to suffer during those last horrid months of their lives. I am sure not everyone would want to do that, but to appreciate their suffering more I would recommend it over a sweaty and tourist filled July. We were very glad we went but very sad to learn about what the Jewish people went through.
Following on from this emotional journey we walked around the old town of Krakow which was pleasant and pretty, like most old towns we pass through. But more interesting than this was the Jewish quarter, which was very vibrant and wonderfully decorated with pride. Examples are the classic quirky, hipster cafes and bars we have grown to love, bright community buildings and overflowing art centres.
Like other cities in Europe we have visited, they too have been awfully affected by wars and communist rule. But from what we saw and experienced here we certainly felt the oppression much greater. Maybe this was because we were staying in the same spot where the Jewish Ghetto area was during WWII and we were no more than 50m away from where Schindler's factory was and still is.
They have a fascinating museum called Schindler's Museum which mainly teaches you about the German invasion of Krakow when they herded (for want of a better phrase) all the Jews into the Jewish Ghetto to live. They were squashed into awful living conditions before later being sent to concentration camps (death). That is if they even survived as often Jews were just killed then and there for any show of disregard to the German's new rules. The museum also touches on Oskar Schindler's factory and what happened there. If you have not seen the film Schindler's list then have a quick read on his Wiki page.
Krakow has cheap beer in cool bars and good hearty local foods that we tried. The kind of stuff that warms you up in the winter as it gets to -25 degrees. It is a good small city to visit for that alone. More importantly, the history is overwhelming, confronting and humbling and I would urge anyone to go there to learn more about how others have suffered.