During my trip to Poland, I did not get to visit the Auschwitz concentration camp, that of the World War II notoriety. I wished I could have visited the place, but my tourist guide would not hear of it! “We have more to show tourists than ruins of the past,” was the tenor of all our Polish excursions.
Actually, I think I irked my Polish tour guide, as I lumbered on, ceaselessly, asking, questioning, speaking about their dark past. Ignorant about their philosophy of life, and driven by curiosity, I really did want to know how, as a people, they had dealt with their collective memory of the Holocaust. Their history, its gruesome detail did not affect me in any practical sense – only, some part of me was excited. I mean, it was part of my history books at school and college, and here I was, right here in the heart of the theatre of the World War II. I just had to get a first-hand picture of things as they had been experienced, and the residue they had left behind.
What I failed to fathom was that my curiosity, while purely academic in nature, could only serve as a reminder to them of a past that they had clearly learnt to let go, with ease or pain. During the course of my visit, I also learnt that the Polish had a tenacity that could withstand all efforts at attempting to take them back to histories they did not care to remember, or geographies they could not erase, but could certainly put out of their city maps.
So, whether it was in Krakow, Warsaw, Gdansk or Sopot, my conversations inevitably wheeled back to past tales I thought they must have heard from their grandparents and family elders. I must admit, the people were not amused by my insistence on knowing if they felt hatred towards the Germans.
“That was a part of our history. We remember but it does not trigger any hatred when we look at our past. We have moved on,” young Irena Danute informed me patiently.
I was taken to a rather modern place in Warsaw’s city square and not for an inspection visit to the various concentration camps that I so wanted to see. I had no idea that there was something deeper in that gesture than the scars of their history that I thought pained them even to this day.
Remember, during WWII, Poland had been all but razed to the ground. With 66,000 dead and 694,000 captured, their cities, especially Warsaw, destroyed beyond repair or recognition, Poland was a ghost country.
In the words of a fellow traveller, “Warsaw never quite lived up to what it used to be.”
If you consider Krakow, second largest Polish city, and one of the oldest in Poland, it remained relatively less damaged during the Occupation, but it’s loss was deeper. Robbed of important relics and monuments, its cultural loss has never quite been made up.
But the Polish people live in the present. “We have more to show tourists than ruins of the past,” Irena kept hinting. I saw that the present-day Poland is a vibrant picture that harmoniously blends tradition with modernity and is cosmopolitan. Poland has successfully carved its own niche and is the sixth largest economy in the EU and one of its fastest growing economies. As the only EU member to have not taken a hit in its GDP, Poland is at third place among world economies, thanks to its hard working people.
Krakow has over 20 large multinational companies, adding to the country’s economic promise. I paused and reflected over their success as a nation and people. What echoed clearly were Irena’s words that they bore no grudge to anyone.
“That was our history, we accept, we learnt and we let go.” No wonder then, Germany is its biggest market and a valued trade partner. In their letting go of their past, they gained more than they could have ever imagined.
- Hoihnu Hauzel is a Delhi-based freelance writer. She writes on travel, food and lifestyle.