Eugene suddenly stopped walking to turn his back against us, paused for a long moment and pointed out a small and unassuming bronze plaque in the distance. The plaque was placed on the brick wall that surrounded a church, right next to a giant archway entrance. Before he could speak again, a priest in a black robe and a white collar walked out from the entrance and gave Eugene a welcoming yet subtle enough smile that probably indicated that they only knew each other from their daily run-ins by this plaque. He then laid his Union Jack umbrella down on the ground and gave us a thorough description of the area in Krakow. He surprisingly knew a lot about the city – for someone who has lived there for fewer than three years.
Eugene was pale and of average height but had classically beautiful blue eyes. He wore a knitted navy blue hat that matched his navy blue gloves. He was a corporate lawyer in Ukraine but had to flee his country because of the war. He had a good grasp of the English language but spoke with an accent that he described as being “like the Russian people in the Hollywood movies,” and insisted that if we didn’t understand him that we freely interrupt and yell, “Eugene! Eugene! We don’t know what you are saying!”
“Back in the Ukraine, I used to work with these big companies. I woke up everyday wearing fancy suits, going to business meetings, and all that important stuff! But here in Poland, I am a tour guide! But fear not, my mother is Polish and my father is Ukrainian, so I am sort of qualified. I speak four and half languages, including English, Polish, Ukrainian and a little bit of Russian. But for today, we speak English,” Eugene told us.
He waved his Union Jack umbrella, indicating that we were in fact in an English-speaking “free” walking tour of Krakow. Back in Ukraine, as I assumed he would have, Eugene probably made more money than the average citizen. In Krakow, his salary solely depended on tips. He told us that the free walking tours were essentially, as promised, free of charge. But he explained after that the average paid walking tour in Krakow was between 50 to 70 Zlotys, or 14 to 20 American dollars and depending on our satisfaction with his knowledge, charisma, and wit, it was up to us how much we think he deserved. Eugene also traded his “fancy suits” for a more casual and nicely pressed pair of blue jeans, a puffy evergreen jacket, and a bright yellow backpack. He had this vivacious sense of energy that matched the vibrant colors of the well-preserved pre-war buildings, the lively spirit of the main square with its plethora of souvenir shops, food stalls, and music performers of all sorts, and the beautifully sunny and cloudless sky that day. He also spoke of himself in the third person, which I initially found a bit odd but quickly thought was actually quite adorable.
“And if there is no further questions, Eugene will start walking now and you follow me.”
Krakow Nearly 75 Years Ago
At the height of World War II, unlike the capital Warsaw, Krakow was not obliterated to the ground. In fact, the city survived the war unscathed. Eugene explained that it was a model German city and the Nazis were adamant about preserving it. As a result, pre-war buildings such as the iconic Saint Mary’s Basilica located on the Main Square, remain and look the same way as it was first built. The preservation of buildings especially in Europe is quite unique, since it seems like just about every other church in the continent was destroyed by war through fire, through other human-induced causes through fire, and through natural causes that lead to a fire. The church is so well preserved that it actually predates the first attack of the Mongolian Empire in Poland back in the year 1240. Throughout the city, many of the impressive thirteenth century architecture remain standing, which adds to its reputation as one of the most beautiful and historic cities in Europe.
Despite this, most Poles in Krakow suffered the same fate as the rest of the country. German SS still rallied up local citizens and transported them to what later became the largest and most prominent Nazi concentration camp during the war, Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Auschwitz is about 66 kilometers outside of Krakow and the closest major city to the concentration camp. Unsurprisingly, the heavy and tragic topic of the Nazi invasion of Poland was eventually brought up on our walking tour. I strongly felt that moment was coming as soon as Eugene took a long pause right outside the church that had a bronze plaque placed in the brick wall.
Engraved in the plaque was a depiction of a priest, and under him said “Maximilian Kolbe.”
Kolbe, as Eugene powerfully told his story, was a Polish priest in Krakow who, along with four other clergy members, was arrested by the German Gestapo in 1941 after refusing to sign the document that acknowledged their German ancestry and sheltering more than 2,000 Jews in their monastery from execution. Kolbe was first sent to Pawiak prison, but eventually transferred on May 28, 1941 to Auschwitz as prisoner #16670. There, he continued practicing his faith. He regularly led prayers among fellow prisoners which resulted in violent harassment such as lashings and beatings.
Two months after Maximilian Kolbe entered Auschwitz, ten prisoners mysteriously disappeared from the prison blocks and were nowhere to be found. As a response, the deputy commander of the camp ordered for ten men to be randomly chosen and be starved to death to dissuade other prisoners from doing similar attempts to escape in the future.
Eugene described the horrific scene like a cruel game of life and death. Nazi officers would walk up and down the aisles of the prison cells, boots loudly clanking on the concrete floor, while the prisoners were quietly sitting standing by their bunk beds, waiting for their fates to be called out.
One by one, each prisoner was selected. Each name called was pretty much a guaranteed death sentence. Among these ten men was Franciszek Gajowniczek, a former Polish army sergeant captured while crossing the border to Slovakia.
Eugene said Franciszek pleaded for his life — “my wife, my children!”
The sergeant had promised his wife and children that he would come back from Auschwitz and they would be waiting outside for his return. In a selfless act of courage, Kolbe volunteered to take his place instead.
Block Eleven, Auschwitz
The prisoners were then led to the the eleventh block – the block in Auschwitz solely intended to punish prisoners through torture. As Eugene told us, no one gets out of eleven alive. Later that day, we visited Auschwitz and witnessed firsthand the place where Maximilian Kolbe and the rest of the prisoners were taken and tortured. Between the tenth and eleventh blocks stood the death wall, where thousands of prisoners were lined up and executed through a firing squad. The eleventh block was also known for its standing cells, tiny compartments that are only a square meter each with only a five by five centimeter hole for breathing meant to torture four prisoners at a time by forcing them to stand for up to 20 nights while still being forced to work during the day. It was there where Zyklon B, the poisonous gas that was eventually used in the underground chambers, was first implemented to exterminate prisoners.
Eugene continued on telling Maximilian Kolbe’s story, and how he continued leading prisoners in prayer in his cell, cell block no. 18. Every time the prison guards would check on him, he would simply and calmly be kneeling on the ground.
In a sudden change of tone, Eugene then suddenly asked us a scientific question.
“Do you know how long a human can survive without food and water?”
“Three weeks without food, up to a week without water,” one person answered.
“Yes. Without water, humans can only survive up to a week,” Eugene said.
Eugene then quickly switched back to his previous tone, slowly-paced and each word said with a sense of suspense yet courtesy.
One by one, he said, each prisoner died from complete dehydration and starvation and in two weeks, they were all dead. But he slowly added that Maximilian Kolbe, the man who volunteered to take someone’s place in the torture chambers, remained alive.
I felt my heart sank and my stomach started to churn. I was trying my best not to break down in tears, so I looked over the distance, away from the group’s gaze, and subtly wiped away little teardrops that fell from my eyes. Eugene gave the group a moment to reflect and I couldn’t help but think, as much as I do not consider myself anywhere close to the most religious person in the world, that if Kolbe could survive such atrocities after his selfless act of courage, that maybe, just maybe, miracles do exist and there is such a being out there that is truly looking out for us.
Then, just when I thought the story hit its pivotal point and thinking that it was going to end with my religious epiphany, Eugene told us that Kolbe was then injected with a lethal poison that killed him on August 14. It is said that he raised his left arm and calmly waited for the injection that eventually took his life.
At this point, it was virtually impossible for me to keep holding my tears.
But then, the story continued.
“Remember the guy Maximilian Kolbe volunteered to take his place?”
Some people nodded but I instantly felt frozen, waiting for Eugene to tell us the rest of the sentence. Eugene. Yes. Please. Continue. What happened to him? Did he make it out of Auschwitz? Did he get to see his family? Was Maximilian’s sacrifice worth it?
“He survived Auschwitz and lived 40 more years after the war ended,” Eugene said.
I quietly sobbed, wiping the tears away with the sleeves of my sweater.
The return that was never meant to be.
Later that day, when we were walking through one of the exhibits at Auschwitz where hundreds of photographs of prisoners lined up a long, dark, and cold hallway, I couldn’t help but think, “What if each one of these people had 40 more years to live?”
Each of those faces had a story and each had a family and some who were probably waiting outside for their return that was never meant to be.
At the end of our walking tour, we gathered up most our Zlotys in hand and gave it to Eugene. He kindly requested that we also write him a short review on TripAdvisor, which we gladly obliged. As I tried to write my review, I could not help but completely blank out. I felt like there were a million things in my mind and I was still processing the story he told us earlier. On one hand, what an incredibly beautiful city Krakow was. The old historic buildings, the vibrant square, and the unique energy was unlike anywhere I’ve been in Europe. On the other hand, it was also the gateway to one of the most gruesome places during one of the most tragic moments in human history, so it was difficult to encapsulate how I felt about the tour.
As simple as walking through the gates of Auschwitz-Birkenau, we easily and effortlessly walked out after. A few single steps was all it took for us to leave Auschwitz and not even 75 years ago, that was not the case. It took an indescribable amount of pain and horror and courageous people like Maximilian Kolbe for someone to even have the slightest chance of walking alive out of the world’s largest cemetery. I felt an overwhelming sense of privilege, gratitude, and partially guilt that we were able to do that. I kept repeating it to myself quietly, “We walked out of Auschwitz. We walked out of Auschwitz. We walked out of Auschwitz.”
The next day, as we were walking back to our place to pack up and fly back to Copenhagen, I saw a line of tour buses boarding people for their morning tours to Auschwitz by a square. In the middle was a large blue post with poster advertisements for guided tours to the camp plastered all over. As I was processing the story that Eugene told us the day before and witnessing the actual place where it all unfolded, I could not think of a phrase, or a sentence, or anywhere close to summarizing how I felt. However, as I walked passed the blue post, one poster particularly caught my attention.
The ad read UNESCO World Heritage Site Auschwitz. And under it said, “a chilling warning against hate.”
Jez Sabaduquia is a junior studying Information Management and Technology at Syracuse University.