There were times during my year in Poland when the blank curtain of my general illiteracy was momentarily pushed aside and I could read and understand language in the public sphere. Our Soviet bloc flat, which in fact is among hundreds of such 1950s communist buildings, is situated in the middle of the ghetto that the Nazis constructed a wall around in 1940. Stenciled lettering on the sidewalks mark the boundary of the former ghetto: “Litzmannstadt Getto 1940/1944.” Just down the path from our door to the outside world—almost to Pizzeria de la Vita—there is a vacant lot, and on it I discovered a small black commemorative plaque in several languages, one of which is English. Those English words say, “SITE OF THE CENTRAL PRISON COMPLEX FOR JEWS SENTENCED BY THE GHETTO COURTS. DURING THE DEPORTATION PHASE, THE PRISON SERVED AS AN ASSEMBLY POINT FOR PEOPLE DESTINED FOR THE DEATH CAMPS.”
The largest Jewish cemetery in Europe (with at least 260,000 graves) is located on the northern edge of the ghetto and contains the remains of numerous ghetto residents who were murdered on the spot. Just as one enters the gate to the cemetery, one sees seven large holes meant to accommodate a mass burial of Jews. In 1944 the Nazi’s left in a hurry, this final job unattended to.
Those death camps, Auschwitz and Birkenau, are just a short train ride from Krakow. Auschwitz was originally established in 1940 for the extermination of Poles, but it was not long before the Nazis were transporting people—mostly Jews—from all over Europe. In 1941 Birkenau was needed to accommodate increasing numbers. If you ever start to doubt the reality of sin and evil, then take a bleak mid-winter’s day stroll among these chambers—note the stacks of inmate suitcases with their names and addresses on them, the heaps of spectacles, the hills of shoes (mostly children’s)—and have your convictions restored.