A city of culture and tragedy, Seán Hayes recalls his visit to the Polish city of Kraków.
I DON’T know why, but from the moment I pull into the station at Kraków Glówny, I’m filled with a deep sense of unease. Perhaps it’s just the bitter weather outside; the temperature in Kraków at this time of year barely rises above freezing. Perhaps it’s the bleak, imposing buildings that I’ve passed on my way into the city. Perhaps the pages of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, which I’ve just finished, are beginning to particularly resonate with me as I walk into a city that is, while still European, distinctly different from the Western familiarity I have left behind.
Kraków’s history can be traced back to as early as 50,000BC, with excavations uncovering Paleolithic stone tools buried in Wawel Hill. By the 10th century, the city was an important commercial centre for the amber trade and by the 14th century was established as a cultural hub for artists, intellectuals and scientists.
In September 1939, Nazi German forces entered Kraków and set up their General Government in Wawel Castle, exterminating the Jewish population in the process. After World War II, the city fell under the thumb of communist rule, becoming a Soviet satellite state for more than two decades, until Poland emerged as a republic in 1989.
My hostel is located on the edge of the Old Town, and so I begin my exploration of the city that evening at the Main Square – the largest medieval town square in Europe. I arrive to the sound of a trumpet playing from the tower of St Mary’s Basilica, capturing the attention of the people below.
Halfway through the tune, however, the trumpeter unexpectedly stops, breaking off mid-stream, and leaving the unfinished tune lying disquietly in the air. The effect is unnerving, and yet the people around me continue about their day unconcerned. (The tune is purposefully performed this way to commemorate a 13th-century trumpeter who was shot in the throat while sounding the alarm before an attack on the city.)
“She’s truly captivating, and the room she is held in is deadly silent, her magnetic appeal capturing the attention of everyone who views her.”
The square is dominated by an immense, Renaissance hall and tower. Cloth Hall houses a bustling indoor gallery of market-stalls, with vendors offering everything from antiques to handmade knitwear. Restaurants spill out from underneath the rounded arches onto the surrounding square, and a pianist plays what I recognise to be Chopin.
I continue down the cobbled Royal Road, keeping out of the way of the horse-drawn carriages that trundle by. I stop at a street-vendor selling szaszlyki, and try some of the traditional dish made up of skewered pork, peppers, onion, mushroom and tomato. I get to the end of the Royal Road, which ends at the foot of Wawel Hill and look up at the castle ahead.
It is unlike any castle I’ve seen before and seems more to resemble a strange group of buildings plopped together. Heavy, defensive walls surround the fortress-like structure, while inside there is a Gothic cathedral accented in gold, the Royal Residence and an expansive Renaissance courtyard that echoes with the steps and voices of the visitors inside.
The castle is home to Leonardo Da Vinci’s Lady with an Ermine. Dating from 1490, it’s one of Da Vinci’s most important masterpieces. A portrait of Cecilia Gallerani, the mistress of the Duke of Milan, she is portrayed, draped in fine pearls, intimately stroking a tame ermine. She’s truly captivating, and the room she is held in is deadly silent, her magnetic appeal capturing the attention of everyone who views her.
The real reason for my visit, though, comes the next day, and that morning I get a mini-bus with twelve other people into the Polish countryside. We pass charming villages and wooden houses – it seems like an idyllic lifestyle. Yet this apparent tranquility is jarring given the fact that I am about to arrive at Auschwitz, the former Nazi concentration camp, where at least 1.1 million people were killed during the Holocaust.
“Yet the people around me seem unaffected; they continue to take photographs, to talk amongst themselves.”
I don’t know how to feel when I get here. A group of school children run excitedly along the train-tracks, the same tracks which brought prisoners to their almost certain death. An elderly couple sit on a window-sill eating ice-cream. No behaviour or reaction feels appropriate for the gravity of the situation.
We are first brought into the museum. It houses displays made up of hundreds of prisoners’ personal belongings: piles of suitcases, shoes, toys, books and kitchen utensils. One room is particularly distressing; it displays the shorn hair of female prisoners whose heads were shaved upon arrival.
Back outside, we are brought around the cramped buildings where the prisoners slept, as well as the tiny gas chambers where prisoners were murdered. Many of the prisoners suffocated from the sheer amount of people forced into the space before they were ever gassed. Yet the people around me seem unaffected; they continue to take photographs, to talk amongst themselves.
That night, I find myself in a small bar in Kazimierz, the historic Jewish quarter of Kraków. The barman, after introducing me to a sickly sweet Polish vodka, explains to me the concept of thanotourism. It is a term I am unfamiliar with, and yet is the reason why Kraków is visited by 12 million tourists each year. Also known as dark tourism, it describes an industry involving travel to places associated with tragedy. As a people, we are unexplainably attracted to grief and death.
I’m not quite sure how to feel about this. On one hand, what I saw today wholly undermines the suffering of millions of people. It makes a novelty out of a site of complete horror.
On the other hand, however, as the barman explains to me, without operating places like Auschwitz as museums and memorials, the memory of what originally took place there could be forgotten too, and that might just be the greatest tragedy of them all.