I was in Krakow during the week for four days along with my parents and a group of family and friends. Of the fifteen who travelled ten were able to avail of their bus passes.
With the average age well into the sixties we nicknamed the trip the ‘bucket list tours’. I have to confess I nearly didn’t travel due to a mix-up between my brother and myself.
I had organised the hotel rooms with the presumption that my brother was booking the flights. Duly he booked flights for my mother, father and himself whilst I organised a flight for one of my friends.
What I couldn’t understand was why my brother didn’t ask me for my passport details to complete the booking. The night before we left I asked him did he need my passport number for the flight? In response he looked, stared and said to my dismay: “What do you mean?” To my horror I discovered I had no flight but thanks to the wonders of technology he was able to book through his smart phone.
I have heard much about Krakow as a beautiful and historic city and it does not disappoint, although it was cold and this caused a dilemma for the younger women of the group. Having to wear bulky and layered clothing they worried about the impact this would have on their figures and so they carefully watched what they ate and drank as a result.
The prices for dining out were very reasonable which kept the pensioners happy. Time, during the four days, seemed to have flown due to our hectic schedule.
The first evening we braved the biting cold to visit central Krakow. In the middle of the town square stood the Old Cloth Market which now buzzed with activity as tourists crowded around the shops and stalls looking for a bargain or simply trying to stay warm.
On the first morning we ventured up to the castle and cathedral which stood on a nearby hill next to the river. In the afternoon we took the bus trip out to the salt mines which were an amazing adventure.
In total we walked three kilometres, over three levels of the mine, roughly one percent of the total tunnels excavated. As we descended nearly nine hundred steps through the duration of the tour it brought my mother’s need for a knee replacement ever more urgent. We visited three underground churches which were dug and craved by the miners. These were truly remarkable creations and a testimony to the ingenuity, hard work and faith which inspired the men.
The next day we were introduced to the other extremes of humanity’s capabilities when moral blindness and hate-filled ideologies are allowed to dehumanise and destroy a people, a particular race’s dignity and their very existence.
Our trip to the concentration camps was one hour’s journey away from Krakow. The trip was a profound, emotional and humbling experience. An inscription on one of the walls in Auschwitz bears testimony to the reason why we visit such places - ‘The one who does not remember history is bound to live through it again’, George Santayana.
The guide described different and harrowing aspects of camp life and the horrors endured by the prisoners. In one of the buildings we viewed on the walls photographs of prisoners with their date of birth, country of origin, when they arrived at camp and the day they died on.
For many of the women in the camp, death arrived after five or six weeks of hard labour, poor conditions and malnutrition. In the case of men it could have been a matter of three or four months when death followed.
As the faces stared out from the walls the uniform and prison numbers robbed all the victims of their identity. As we arrived at the punishment cells in the basement we passed the cell in which Saint Maximilian Kolbe died when he volunteered to take the place of another prisoner who had a wife and family. It’s impossible to comprehend the enormity of the Holocaust. When you heard of personal accounts of the brutality and cruelty which characterised these camps, you feel ashamed, helpless.
Only in Christ do we discover the true dignity of humanity, only in a faith inspired vision of human nature can we find firm and solid ground to protect and celebrate the value of every person. In the scene of the Transfiguration, Jesus allows his glory to be seen. As adopted sons and daughters of God we discover in Jesus the new Moses who guides God’s people towards the new Promised Land. This experience of Jesus revealing his identity which was witnessed by the disciples on the mountain became a source of hope and consolation amid the struggles and tribulations to follow. Following along the pilgrim path has never been easy and there are times when we are tempted to give up and fall into despair. These are the occasions when we are asked to allow ourselves to be carried and supported by one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. As the body of Christ as we share in Christ’s gifts so we are asked to bear one another’s suffering because we all share the dignity of being made in the image and likeness of God.