Poland: No Easy Answers in Krakow's Kazimierz District

Americans generally have a hard time understanding European history. But in a place like Kazimierz, the site of Oskar Schindler's heroic fight to protect Jewish workers during World War II, the horrific events of the Holocaust are unavoidable, even if the reasoning behind the cruelty remains unfathomable.

Editor’s Note: This is the second part of a two-part piece on Krakow’s Kazimierz district and its Oskar Schindler Museum. Read Part 1 here.

Why did the Jews suffer so much at the hands of the Germans?

Writer Charles Phillips thought he knew. Talking about the age-old antagonism between the Prussians and the Poles in his book The New Poland, he said: “The man who enters Poland, who would study the Polish people or know the problems with which they are confronted, is obliged to keep in mind this ancient struggle of Teuton and Slav. It is nothing new,” he adds, “It is not the birth of the world war. It dates back to the days of the clans and the tribes!”

Phillips wrote his book in 1923!

Nothing has changed.

Nothing is understandable. It’s all what foreigners outside this continent groan and call European history. What tourist can understand this continent of small nations forced tight against neighbors with common problems and hating them for it? Was it really necessary for Europe to have a Hundred Years War? By what travesty, for example, were Germany’s Bishop Princes allowed to indulge and even exercise their avarice? What was really going on when the Pope mobilized a European Crusading force whose brutality has come back to haunt us eight centuries later? Why did the protocol of the Hanseatic League not endure: make war with commerce not religion?

Why is Europe such a mess? And why, some American visitors might wonder, can’t it be more like us, 3,000 miles across with open borders and relative peace? Well another writer pondered that also. Christine Hotchkiss in her book Home to Poland asked a university friend in Krakow the same question and gave her readers this reply: “They did not want to copy Western democracy; they did not like what they thought they knew about it. They called it ‘a ruthless sink-or-swim society’ where wealthy idiots often order brilliant intellectuals about.”

So there you have it. Farrar, Straus and Cudahy of New York published her book in 1958, 10 years after the United States had spent $120 billion in current-dollar value in Marshall Aid to rebuild Europe after World War II. It was either Walter Winchell or Clare Boothe Luce who first said “No good deed goes unpunished,” but naive America still blunders on trying to improve the world.

The moral for travelers might be explore and enjoy Europe, don’t try to change or even understand it.

Indeed here’s a country of now 38.5 million that lost 20% of its population and virtually all its Jews to the Nazis in World War II and still stood up to Russia afterwards. “The Catholic Church was perhaps more integral to this country than to any other European one,” said a writer. Perhaps that gave the Poles the strength to resist Stalin.

Polish history forlornly includes its times in World War II when Himmler, the Reichsfuhrer of the Schutzstaffel and one of the most feared members of the Nazi party made Hitler’s orders clear, “Every vestige of Polish culture is to be eliminated….There will never again be a Poland.” The Nazis created a puppet Governor-General of this area they ruled and Hans Frank advised his fellow Poles this was now “a new state, the ‘General Government’ not governed by law but by the demands and wishes of the Third Reich.”

Royal pronouncements from the Castle encouraged the Jews they would be treated fairly and an angel mounted on the castle wall continued that belief, however, synagogues were destroyed and Jews, even in times before the Second World War, moved into Ghettos.

So how do you visit a country with such a comprehensive history where English is not commonly spoken especially in rural areas and where the language itself must rival Greek and Russian for its daunting appearance? When you see places marked on a map of Poland for a moment you don’t know whether you are even looking at the map upside down, the names seem like gibberish. How would you ever learn to pronounce words that have eight consonants and only one vowel? At the moment the best way to visit Poland, a country whose tourism structure is only just revving up, might well be with a professional experienced company on a conducted tour by coach, preferably a large comfortable air-conditioned one where the driver speaks English and the guide is fluent in that language, too. We have used such tour operators in the past; Tauck, Trafalgar, and more recently Insight Vacations. Sure, you will be in a group (albeit a small one) but it assuredly makes Polish travel easy. We’ve driven several cars around Europe, especially Spain, Greece, and Italy but we feel we can fake those languages. We surrendered to Polish.

We had independently found the monument to the 1410 victory at the Battle of Grunwald the day before. The guide at the Schindler Museum explained what we were now seeing. The monument of the Battle of Grunwald, was financed personally by Ignacy Jan Paderewski, the world famous pianist. It and went up in 1910, 500 years after the battle to show how the Polish ancestors defended the country in “a just and good cause.” The battle “the most important victory in Poland’s history” was between an allied force of Polish and Lithuanian armies and the Teutonic Knights who later became the Prussian nation. The statue showed the Polish king JagieÅ‚Å‚o on horseback—he commanded the combined army—and, standing in front is the Grand Duke Witold of Lithuania who fought all though the entire battle and, below him, sprawls the figure of the fallen Grand Master of the Teutonic Order, Ulrich von Jungingen. The monument had given a nostalgic thrill to Poles passing by, a reminder that, in 1410, Poles had defeated a more powerful neighbor.

How did Nazi Germany respond to this when it attacked Poland in September 1939 and sacked the country like the Huns they may once have been? They knocked it down, into pieces, although the head of Grand Duke Witold of Lithuania was later recovered from the debris

Exhibits in the Oskar Schindler Museum in Krakow show how crowded the ghetto was and how miserable life was for the Jews to some of whom death must have come as a relief. But as our museum guide tells us those who survived the occupation of the Nazis had to content with a second evil, Communism — and there are significant data that now to show Stalin killed more people than the Nazis.

Photography by the authors

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the New Hampshire Academy of Family Physicians, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.