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A Transformative Trip to Poland

Most travel bucket lists don’t begin with Poland. Places like New Zealand, Japan and South Africa—outlandishly spectacular destinations in every way—tend to snag the top spots. Poland, a central European country that borders the Baltic Sea and is roughly half the size of Texas, has some stiff competition when it comes to once-in-a-lifetime trips. For me, however, it has always been an unlikely front runner.

Contact Indagare for assistance planning a trip to Poland. We can book you at the hotel that’s right for you and arrange guides for the cities and Auschwitz.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve felt it was important to take a World War II–focused trip while people who lived through the conflict were still alive. Over the past few years, this desire has intensified. In 2014, the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany estimated that 500,000 concentration camp survivors remained; in 2017, the number had fallen to 100,000. For context, someone who was five in 1940 is 84 today. In just a few years, no one who lived through the Holocaust will be around to speak about it. The extermination of six million Jews is about to be relegated to the history books.

With this in mind, I decided I’d waited long enough and finally planned a trip to Warsaw and Kraków. And the trip I’d looked forward to—despite its solemn significance—was everything, and nothing, like I’d expected. Warsaw, the capital and business center of Poland, is a rapidly developing metropolis with a young population of creatives. The city, almost completely destroyed in World War II, was largely reconstructed in the immediate postwar period and today has a burgeoning foodie scene and spectacular public parks. Highlights include the 200-acre Łazienki Park, whose most notable attraction is the neoclassical Palace on the Isle, built on an island in an artificial lake, and the Wilanów Palace, a 17th-century royal residence often referred to as the Polish Versailles. The grande dame Raffles Europejski Warsaw hotel, which launched in 1857 and was a hot spot for visiting luminaries and local artists, recently reopened after a renovation as the first true luxury property in the country. It has an elegant Art Deco décor, a full-service spa, a gym and indoor pool and a striking contemporary-art collection comprising almost 500 works by more than 120 Polish artists.

Kraków, on the other hand, is the cultural heart of Poland. The city survived World War II with its rich Renaissance, Baroque and Gothic architectural heritage untouched, and its centuries-old Old Town is one of the most beautiful in Europe. Horse-drawn carriages still wheel through the main square, pierogi stands serve hundreds of variations on the dumpling-like Polish specialty, and in the summer months, all the restaurants have terraces where locals and visitors mingle over bites and drinks. World War II, however, decimated the city: of the 68,000 Jews who called Kraków home before the war, 65,000 died in the conflict, and most of the 3,000 who survived, with no family or friends to return to, left the country. Today, the city has only 200 citizens who identify themselves as part of the Jewish community.

Visitors can learn more about this with a guided tour of Kazimierz, the city’s dynamic Jewish quarter that dates back to the 14th century. The district was peacefully shared by ethnic Poles and Jews until 1941, when the latter were forcibly relocated to the Kraków ghetto, Podgórze. Today, it is one of the city’s most important cultural destinations, filled with cool boutiques, cafés and atmospheric streets. It also doubled for Podgórze when Steven Spielberg shot Schindler’s List in Poland, and important landmarks from the film can be seen while walking through it.

One hour outside Kraków by car is the Auschwitz complex, which is now a memorial but once consisted of three concentration camps: the original, Auschwitz I; Auschwitz II (Birkenau), a massive camp and extermination center, where Jews, Poles, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, gypsies, political prisoners, Soviet POWs and other ethnic groups were killed; and Auschwitz III, which housed prisoners assigned to work at the synthetic rubber works. Perhaps the most important historical site in Poland, Auschwitz is so challenging and complex that a half-day tour hardly does it justice. You could return hundreds of times and never hear the same story twice. The memorial employs 300 guides and educators who have been trained on how to explain this sensitive material to visitors. They are essential, as the exhibits you see and accounts you hear are not easy to comprehend.

I expected to leave Poland feeling sad. Instead, upon my return, I told all my colleagues and friends that it was the best trip of my life. This statement was met with expressions of disbelief: “You’ve been practically everywhere—how could Poland be your hands-down favorite?” “How could it compare to being on safari?” Well, it doesn’t compare. Each trip is different. Some leave you wonderstruck by the world’s natural beauty and others by the people you meet and the unique cultures you experience. On some, you simply rest from your busy life. All are worthwhile experiences. But my visit to Poland made me immensely grateful that I could see firsthand a place so important to human history. With that perspective, given a choice between a relaxing vacation and one that will change my essential being, my answer is clear.

At the end of my tour of Auschwitz, I asked my guide how he felt about visitors’ posting photos of the camp on social media, something I felt hesitant to do. Without skipping a beat—I sensed he got this question often—he replied: “There are more than seven billion people in this world and only 44 million have visited Auschwitz so far. My hope is that everyone who is able to see this place shares it with others, because there are people who say the Holocaust never happened.” Being able to do that is the greatest gift this trip has given me.

Contact Indagare for assistance planning a trip to Poland. We can book you at the hotel that’s right for you and arrange guides for the cities and Auschwitz.

– Emma Pierce on June 7, 2019

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Kraków is a beautiful city, and our visit was terrific. Auschwitz was very moving, and our guide was super-knowledgeable. It was a topnotch trip. My only complaint is that we didn’t have enough time!
~ Erik Ragatz, Indagare member since 2012

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