Although many of us have returned to the states, the memories of Europe are still fresh on our minds. The last week in Europe we spent in Kraków – a beautiful, sleepy city in southern Poland. After arriving on Sunday, we were immediately met by our tour guide for a walking tour of the city we would be staying in for the next few days. A few of the stops on our tour included the main market square with its cloth hall; the Katyn Cross commemorating the Katyn massacre; the Wawel dragon; the Wawel Castle built in the 14th century; the Bishop’s Palace, where many Bishop’s have stood in a window to speak to the people of Kraków; and St. Mary’s Basilica, where we heard a trumpeter play a traditional song played four times every hour, on the hour. Throughout the tour, we learned of Poland’s history including its close ties to Lithuania, golden age, and time in the 19th and 20th centuries as a state-less nation.
The tour continued on Monday but not before a guest lecture on “Polish Identity Construction”. To be Polish is not just to live in Poland but instead to have certain characteristics of a Polish Identity. This identity is composed of three things:
1. Polish culture including history and the language. As our speaker described it, true Polish were expected to know Polish as a first language and be patriotic for the Polish people, not for the regime they were being suppressed by.
2. The Roman Catholic Religion.
3. Collective Suffering. The Polish have always seen themselves as the noble sufferers – the ones who were oppressed and only fought just wars though other countries might tell history from a different point of view.
These characteristics are important because Poland grew in the 19th century as a nation without a state. The Polish had no state and therefore no citizenship, so it became important to define Polish identity as something else. In a time of oppression, borders were based on culture not maps.
However, after Poland became its own state again in 1989, it has become a much more diverse nation, leading the Polish to reconsider their culture and national identity. For example, how will Poland’s membership in the European Union shape its identity? In addition, many citizens of Poland are not Roman Catholic, something that used to be a major identifier of a Polish person. The Polish identity has begun to change and our speaker was not certain where it would be heading.
As globalization and intermixing of cultures continue, many nations whose identities were previously based solely on a common culture may also need to rethink their national identity. This seems to be less of a problem in America because America has always been considered a melting pot or mosaic of different cultures. For example, the recent influx of immigrants into Europe may lead to reconsideration of national identity so that these minority groups are protected as the European Union has bound itself to do.
After our lecture, we continued our tour from the previous day but this time moved into the historically Jewish area in preparation for our visit to the Schindler factory. We traveled to the Jewish quarter of Kazimierz (Don’t ask me to pronounce it.) and ate Zapiekanka, the delicious Polish “fast food” made by putting mushrooms, cheese, and, if desired, other toppings onto half of a piece of bread and then baking it for about 5 minutes. We enjoyed our cheap (8 Zloty!) lunch while traveling further in the Jewish quarter by the Isaac Synagogue and many of the locations where the movie Schindler’s List was filmed. Our guide told us the tale of how Isaac had a dream one night of a great treasure under one of the bridges in Prague. He journeyed there and began to search under each bridge for the treasure. He finally had one bridge left, but the bridge was unable to be reached because it was being worked on. He talked to one of the guards about his dream, and the guard said that was silly. He had been having a dream recently about going to Kraków and looking in the stove of a Jewish man named Isaac for treasure, but he was not about to travel to Kraków and look in every Isaac’s stove for treasure. Isaac quickly returned home and found the treasure right there in his own stove. The guide said that the story has a beautiful message – You may leave your home and travel far and wide for treasure just to return home and find it sitting right there under your nose. With that beautiful message, we moved on with our journey and visited the only Kraków Jewish Synagogue in use before moving into the Jewish Ghetto.
We learned of the difficult times in the Ghetto and how only those who were able to work and received a blue working stamp had even a chance of surviving. The living spaces here were cramped and the rules strict. Many parents were separated from their children because while the parents were able to work, the children were still too young, and parents would oftentimes decide to stay with their children and face an earlier death or deportation than leave them behind. Our guide reminded us that whenever we think we have hard decisions, just remember that there were and are people who have to make much harder decisions, and we should be glad that are choices are simpler in comparison. I think this struck home for a lot of us, and the Memorial of Empty Chairs in the center of the ghetto reminded us of the vanished Jews of Kraków. Before the second world war, nearly 60,000 Jews lived in Kraków, which was a fourth of the total population. During the war, most Jews left or were deported, and now the Jewish population of Kraków stands at a mere 200 people. After having such a thriving Jewish population, so little of that piece of Kraków culture now remains.
Our last stop was the Schindler’s Factory museum. Jews during the second world war had a much better chance if they worked, and working in the Schindler factory was one of the best jobs available. In addition, Oscar Schindler worked to keep his Jewish workers out of the concentration camps for as long as he could, pretending to change the production of his factory to arms manufacturing so that it would be essential to the war effort. His story and the story of his workers led to the movie, Schindler’s List. However, not everyone in this area decided to help the Jews. They did not all decide to be heroes, and we should not have expected them all to be because these same people would have been risking their own lives to help others. We were reminded of the difficult decisions many people had to face during this time. However, there were some bright spots. Schindler helped Polish Jews as did many others, and we learned beautiful tales of how people had put themselves in danger to help Jewish sufferers of the Holocaust, whether that was food, safety, or simply a tale of hope that a friend or family member was still alive.