The first thing that we all noticed was the smog, not as bad as China, but still obvious. It continued into the airport and was omnipresent throughout the city. Most of us assume it was from industrial production. [NB from Ms. Freeman: I think it was/is fog!]
The first stop was an old traditional synagogue and the historic graveyard. I was introduced to after-death customs like leaving notes and stone at the base of grave stones, as well as how open and 'up for interpretation' Judaism is. I remember most the wall made up f grave stones that the Nazis had taken, broken up, and used as cobblestone. Being an agnostic, the idea of the after life is open and honestly pretty intimidating. No matter what, however, I have a stark reverence for post-mortem customs, all of which the Nazis abused. That concept of disregard for human decency was the biggest theme today, at least for me. In comparison to today, every day before pales, as today we delved into a much more direct emotional assault than days past. I think today was the key to making everything real.
This was our first concentration camp, except the camp itself had been burned away. What was left was a large open field with a bowl-like dip in the center. On the edge of the bowl was a massive statue, visible for miles, overtaking the sky, looking over the field. $ indistinct humanoids, heads bowed, greeted what would have been a beautiful and peaceful meadow, until Freeman explained that we were all standing on mass graves. Thousands of murdered Jews. Unnamed. Largely forgotten. Perhaps it was the disregard of custom that brought about such a visceral reaction, but I immediately began to cry for the first time this trip. She let us travel around and visit the memorial around the graves, and I decided to try the Jewish way of respect: placing a rock, from dust to dust. At the memorial one could see the whole mass grave in all its morbid splendor, knowing what rested unto the soil. I began to cry. I could not imagine what could drive such hatred, such disregard for human life, such that even in death the body is tossed aside, worthless. Something just seems horribly wrong about that.
I continued to walk around the general area and began to notice small-ish lumps of earth with trees grouping out, and I knew that mound was not meant to be there. As terrible as it was, leaving and reflecting I found a certain beauty in the area. The concept of from dust to dust seemed embodies in the grave. In life these people were tortured and persecuted [to put it lightly] but in death they became part of the earthy. Mother Earth came back for her children, and now the area stands as a place to honor and to remember, where their lives live on in each tree, each leaf, each blade of grass. I think that if I can think about it like that somehow these people have found peace. I may not be religious, but I still find incredible value in the concept or idea of an afterlife, entity, or even some sort of universal energy which was thrown off upon mankind's greatest evil.
So many places that we have been to I feel like something is off. Something about the area is just wrong, as though the injustices still bleed from the very earth. Here, however? Here there was certain peace in the air, a promise of sorts. A promise of change and hope.
On a lighter note, Krakow is beautiful. The design of the buildings was a mix of simple German-esc, and complex Corinthian-style design. Churches and synagogues towered into the sky, the streets rang with life, trees swayed and welcomed visitors from all over the world. For lunch we were allowed to wander in groups, making new friends and hanging out with the old. We got vegan food as a small group [best wrap I have EVER tasted, vegan or otherwise], went to market, entered the church, and explored the surrounding area. The market was abound with amber products, tourist traps, and wonderful jewelry. The church had the most wonderful complex interior, with endless ceilings, multiple altar rooms, and magnificent icons. Almost everything was covered in some sort of gold finish, bouncing light around the large cavern.
Turns out, both the Jews and the Catholic/Christians remained fairly open minded about learning and being exposed to a different belief system.
Walking around the sun began to fall and the sky was strewn with memorizing pinks and blue, streaks of purple highlight a brilliant full moon, hanging proudly over a carefully constructed castle. It was a sight worth seeing.
She said "For once I felt as though I really did belong". She is Jewish, and she told me about how the Jewish community is fairly sparse, hidden, even suppressed back in Boston. Here, within the place that used to murder Jews, she felt as though she belonged. Incredible work has been done to restore Jewish culture to Poland, and it has been paying off. In the span of a few hours, I learned more about Judaism than all 16 years of living. Something about that just isn't right. Celebrating Jewish culture and heritage is often overlooked and devalued, but here In Poland it is celebrated and on an upward track to restoration.
Auschwitz! Great...No one is particularly excited for tomorrow. It is more nerves and anxiety, where each of us has a different interpretation and set of expectations for the camp. From what I understand it is museum-esc with information boards and whatnot. It's terrifying. Auschwitz is right there, across the street, and tomorrow we take on something none of us ever imagined. The new day holds new adventures, and an extreme need for the comforts we can find in each others presence.