Sunday, March 11, 2012

Chelsea: Our First True Polish Experience

Statue of Pope John Paul II in front of his childhood church in his native town of Wadowice

Headstones in Hebrew at a Jewish cemetery outside Wadowice

Today was our first true day of exploring and learning in Poland. It was a rough morning for me at first as I was battling an upset stomach. I have a weak stomach for travel, but to me it is definitely worth it to risk the minor suffering in return for a once in a life time experience! We began our morning under a gloomy rain but luckily by the end of the day the sun came out and I felt better and the day improved. Our first stop was the town of Wadowice: the former home of Pope John Paul II (pictured above). When we arrived we briefly explored the local market square, which is a fairly quiet and empty place due to some construction. We took a look at the outside of the Pope's native church as well, where we would be attending noon mass later in the day. The next stop was a museum commemorating the life and work of Pope John Paul II. This is a temporary exhibit set up due to continuing renovations on his old home, which will be the new site of the museum. It was very interesting to learn about Pope John Paul II for a number of reasons: he was native to Poland, the only Polish Pope to ever be elected, he was the first non-Italian Pope in over 400 years, and more relevant to this course, he was a key player in the improvement of Christian-Jewish relations. My only regret about the visit to Wadowice was that I was too sick to enjoy the Pope's favorite dessert: Kremowki. 

While most of our time in Wadowice was spent investigating the Catholic part of Polish culture, we spent the rest of the day delving into the Jewish history of the area (yes, history, because unfortunately the Jewish community no longer exists in this part of the country). During our time in Wadowice we drove to the outskirts of town to visit an old Jewish cemetery (pictured above). The cemetery is no longer in use and most of the stones remain from before the war. It is a quiet place on the edge of a river, but a certain presence still lingers. Though the Jewish community is non-existent in that region, evidence of activity are still visible in the cemetery. Polish cemeteries, I have learned, are well-kept, heavily visited, and very colorful. The more active cemeteries are filled with flowers and lamps of all colors and we're told that at night they are lit up. This Jewish cemetery, though for the most part abandoned, even has a few of these lamps proving that they are not completely forgotten.

The latter part of the day we spent in the town center of Oswiecim. We toured a Jewish museum and learned more about the Polish-Jewish community of the past. We saw the remnants of a standing (yet not practicing) synagogue as well as the empty pit that used to hold Oswiecim's Great Synagogue. As was the cemetery visit, this tour was a sobering experience and a reminder of what the country was like before the war, and the heavy absence that rests upon the community today as a result of the Holocaust.

We ended the day with a lecture from Father Manfred, another educator at the Centre. He spoke to us about three different perspectives of WWII and the Holocaust: the Jewish/Israeli perspective, the Polish perspective, and the German perspective. This foundation is vital in understanding the complexity of the dialogue of memory and reconciliation that began after the war. Fr. Manfred is an expert on Auschwitz; he wrote his dissertation on the camp's commander. One quote in particular from his lecture stood out to me. Speaking of Auschwitz, which is literally across the street from our accommodations, he said, "Everything is difficult here. The past is far away and the most important things are no longer here anymore and must be imagined." This statement helped to mentally prepare me for tomorrow, which will be our first visit to Auschwitz. It is a reminder that Auschwitz is not only a horrible reminder of human cruelty, but it is an engaging place; it provides the location, the context of history, but it is OUR responsibility to place our minds in the past and try to empathize with and better understand the suffering that faced victims of the Holocaust. And with this in mind I prepare myself for the long and heavy day that is before me.


  1. Sorry to hear you weren't feeling well enough to try the dessert. I was going to try to make it for you when you come home, but the recipe is not in my polish cook book.
    Sounds like a great trip and you are learning so much. Gram C.