Krakow is achingly, pristinely reminiscent of a city, imbued with the majesty of “Cross & Crown”; unscathed by the military might of WWII, the former capital of Poland, oozes with tales of religiosity and the monarchy; approximately 120 Churches testify to the endurance of the Catholic faith. The Church of Saint Peter & Saint Paul, funded by King Sigismund III in the late sixteenth century, unparalleled in its grandiosity, anchors the historical old town. Concerts, inclusive of all peoples, are held in the evenings; extraordinary musical feats cloaked with the celestial.
Outside Krakow is the UNESCO World Heritage site of the Wieliczka Salt Mines; a staggering, awe-inspiring subterranean, cavernous wonder of the world; established in the late thirteenth century, it is one of Poland’s most astounding tourist attractions; the home of the largest “Underground Salt Cathedral”; overwhelming vastness, intricate salt sculptures, a manufactured lake; a pillar to the ingenuity and iconic craftsmanship of men who, unlike Ozmandias, we look upon their works and believe.
Billions of words have been spawned, exhausted on the subject of the Holocaust and the death camps; words shrink into meaningless mush, crippled in explaining disembodied reason; the birth of a blight on humanity, defying a foothold in one’s comprehension. Kierkegaard believed that “life can only be understood backward; the trouble is it has to be lived forward”. This premise led my friend and I to visit Auschwitz and Birkenau, museums, testaments of astronomical dehumanization.
Auschwitz, built as a military barracks pre –WWII; recreated into a concentration camp in 1939/40, its original inmates: political prisoners, quickly expanding to Jews, Romas (Gypsies), physically-impaired. The Nazis inimitable organizational skills allow visitors visual acuity to grasp the depth of their damned souls: vitrines of millions of strands of human hair, a tapestry of degradation; thousands of discarded spectacles, relics, reminders of the morally blind perpetrators; walls of luggage, with the names of the doomed, tombstones reflecting annihilation of God’s chosen people. Auschwitz contained one gas chamber, capable of eliminating 700 hundred at a time; in January 1942, at the Wannsee Conference, the Final Solution was initiated, resulting in the manufacture of Zyclon B and the rise of Birkenau.
Less than two miles from Auschwitz lies Birkenau, a monument to incomprehensibility, cocooned in a landscape of serene beauty; deathly quiet; naked, bombed crematoriums; loss of life, estimated between 2-4 million; over 175 acres; sensing the ghostly spirits, overwhelmed by the magnitude of iniquity; walking for miles, realizing the sole survivors, witnesses still breathing, blowing, reigning, unconquered by the forces of supreme evil, were the trees; in their captivating branches rest the phantoms of innocents.
Understanding this nadir in history is impossible; never forgetting, a commandant.