My desk phone light was blinking when I returned to my desk after a few minutes break; meaning a voice message was waiting for me. I wondered who could it be? Upon checking I found it was my manager. He was looking for someone to visit our Poland office and enquired if I could oblige? I jumped out of my chair. Yeah I am available! I immediately responded back to him to confirm. And soon I was on my way to Poland.
I have travelled so much that travelling within Europe does not excite me anymore. But for Poland; somehow I was overexcited, I don’t know why. I immediately started reading about Poland and borrowed two travel books from the library. I wanted to know more about Poland and Poles (Polish people). The town I live in UK, hosts a huge Polish population along Indians and Pakistanis. Poles started arriving in UK after 2004 when Poland joined EU. I found them generally very friendly & hard working people. But communicating with them is a challenge as most of them spoke very little English. So, what is Poland and who are Poles?
Poland is situated in the middle of Europe, and borders with Germany, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania & Russia. It is obvious that Poland is influenced by Russia.
Population is approx. 38 Million.
Ethnically, 94% people are Polish, rest 6% are mixture of people from neighbouring countries. Other foreigners are rare. So Polish society is highly homogeneous. You will hardly see any coloured person on streets.
Jews once accounted for 30% of the population but holocaust in WW2 (World War 2) eliminated them entirely. You will hardly see any Jew in Poland though they had a strong history here.
Majority Poles are Roman Catholic Christians. Other religions are almost non-existent. Poles are quite attractive race.
WW2 & Poland:
While travelling on road ‘A40’ towards central London, I would always notice that streetlights become unusually short on a small stretch. Then once I realised there is an airport on the left side of the road and the light posts are shortened due to the fly path overhead. There is a Royal air force base here. Then further down the road a sign reads “Polish War Memorial”. Why is polish war memorial here? I could not think on any reason until I read about WW2 (World War 2) & Polish involvement.
WW2 Started by Nazi Germany invading Poland on 1st September 1939. Few days later Russia jumped in too to support Hitler.
Poland was defeated soon. It suffered one of the highest losses during WW2. Nearly 5.6 Million Poles (20% of total population) died including 3 Million Jews. The whole Jewish community disappeared from Poland. Polish influential e.g. doctors, engineers, scientists, leaders, etc., were killed and important infrastructure was destroyed.
Polish army joined with UK & Allies. Its pilots flew planes from UK and bombarded the German army; hence, there is a Polish War Memorial near this Royal air force base.
Poland becomes Raussia
At the end of WW2, a treaty was signed between Russia & UK in 1945 and Poland was handed over to Russia; a communist Poland was born. Poles felt betrayed by UK.
Poland gained independence from Russian in 1989 and established the “Republic of Poland”. It joined EU in 2004. Poland kept its currency called Zloty (abbreviated as PLN) but planned to change it to euro later.
Journey to Krakow
I was going to Krakow, the second most famous city after Warsaw. My flight was via Warsaw. Surprisingly there were less Poles on the flight than other nationalities. It was just an ordinary peaceful flight to Warsaw. There was a stopover of couple of hours which I used to familiarise myself with the airport. I had a longer stay on the way back and I had planned to visit Warsaw utilising that time. Airport was not that busy. I obtained a map from information desk and enquired about bus & train connections to the city centre. I then had dinner at good old McDonalds. Soon I was back on the plane heading towards Krakow. Poland resembled Germany from air, lush green. As soon as I came out of the airport, I took taxi and headed to my hotel as I had a dinner to attend and there was not much time left.
Krakow is a charming small city. Luckily, it survived the WW2 bombing. It has been one of the cultural, educational and economic hubs of Poland. Many technical companies are setting up offices here as there is abundance of young educated poles and costs are low relative to the rest of Europe. Krakow population is approximately 760,000.
While passing through the city I noticed long queues outside a shop. What is this shop, I enquired? This is the most famous ice cream shop in Krakow driver replied, and ice cream is worth the wait! Hmmm, interesting I thought, I shall try this later. I was admiring this city as we were passing through the Krakow streets. I dumped my stuff in my room and rushed back to get to the restaurant where dinner was planned.
It was nearly sunset when I arrived at the restaurant. City was quiet & calm. We passed by the famous Wawel castle. There were few people gathered in front of church. I was told the people are remembering the late Polish President Lech who died in an air crash in 2010.
Dinner was arranged in the basement of an old building. It was quite an experience. Food was good too. Waiter recommended a fish dish and it was tasty.
After work, I dropped my laptop at hotel and left hotel on foot for sightseeing. There are a number of attractions in the city and I managed to visit some of these:
Main Square (Rynek Główny) – This is the largest market square in Europe. There is a building in the middle. Ground floor is occupied by souvenir shops and top floor is a church and some kind of exhibition. I bought few souvenirs from the shops there. Surrounding area is filled with restaurants and bars. Attractive women walk around here and invite you to their bars, but I refused!
There was a young Japanese couple taking photos. I requested them to take my photo. The girl took my phone, clicked once and returned it back to me. Then both talked to each other worriedly. The girl quickly snatched my phone back and pointed to the screen. Oppps, my phone screen was filled with her face; she had taken her own photo instead of mine!!! I deleted it quickly to comfort her. My photo was taken again – by the man this time obviously!
Halal Food – Here Too!:
I was walking around in old streets around the main square and suddenly noticed a doner kebab shop. Could be halal, I thought; and indeed it was… Dinner sorted! I chatted with the shopkeeper. He was from Turkey I remember vaguely. There are two halal shops in Krakow he indicated. And there is a make-shift mosque too. There are not many Muslims in Poland. I had my dinner here and then head back to hotel. It was getting late.
Wawel Royal Castle (Zamek Królewski na Wawelu):
This is an old beautiful castle situated next to the beautiful Cathedral by the Vistula River. All of my colleagues visited the castle together. City views from the top were stunning.
Jewish District (Kazimierz):
I was staying in the east of the city just on the banks of river Vistula. Hotel was near the old Jewish quarter. It is a Historic area of the city where Jews used to reside, though not anymore. The district is transformed into a walking area now with various monuments, cafes & restaurants. I walked around here. There was a cemetery with Jewish symbols but it was visibly clear that the place hasn’t been visited for ages.
Stroll in Krakow City
Whatever time I had in the evening I took to the streets of Krakow on foot. I found it a fascinating small town. Moderately crowded, roads and streets lined with trees, mix of old & new buildings. Architecture is visibly Eastern European – a pleasing to the eyes experience.
Visit to Auschwitz:
Hitler’s Nazi German army established the 1st concentration center here in a Polish town Oswiecim in 1940 during the WW2 to capture Polish prisoners. It was later used to capture and kill massive number of Jews and other political prisoners from all over Europe.
As a Muslim I stand against any aggression, be it against Jews, Palestinians, Rohangiya or Kashmiris. There are archived photos of people; young, old, children, arriving at the camp. Seeing these will make you cry.
Oswiecim is just 30 miles from Krakow. One afternoon I decided to visit Auschwitz I, the original camp. My colleague told me it will be an emotional one and I would not be able to sleep or eat after the visit. With heavy heart, I took a train to Oswiecim. It was an old local commuter train and there were only few passengers onboard.
Train was rolling towards Oswiecim at slow pace but my heart was pounding much faster. I was visualizing in my mind the helpless prisoners making the same journey decades back. Train arrived at Oswiecim’s main station. It was not busy at all. I wanted to find out about bus to Auschwitz. I could not see any information desk. There was an American backpacker’s couple but they did not know either. I went outside and asked few locals standing at the bus station. Eventually took a bus which dropped me near the camp. Everything was so surreal, or perhaps it was my feeling.
My heart pacing fast, I sought the entrance but it was not there. A street sign was pointing towards one street. I had to walk another 200 meters. There was a cabin for tickets. I obtained a ticket that was free of cost. It was late afternoon and most people were leaving back. I passed through the security and there it was; the notorious gate to Auschwitz I camp.
The camp is arranged in blocks. I walked through different blocks which are now converted into exhibitions displaying old artefacts from the prisoners & the camp. The living rooms, washrooms, kitchens, guard rooms, all are intact. I could not follow all the blocks properly as the lady at entrance gave me the wrong map. At the end I visited the gas chambers building too. It is in a separate building adjacent to the camp. Gas chambers were smaller than I thought.
It was nearly sunset and the site was about to close. I left with heavy heart. Islam does not endorse killing of people based on ethnicity. No race is superior to any other; piety is the only criteria.
Beautiful Polish Countryside
On the way back, I took a coach that was leaving just outside the main entrance. I managed to take the first seat so I enjoyed the beautiful Polish countryside as well as small towns. Coach dropped me at the main Krakow bus station.
I walked around in the city for some time and headed back to my hotel.
On the way back I visited Warsaw for few hours. It is a beautiful city but crowded as one would expect any big city. Bus dropped me near the historic part of the city. I walked around the Castle Square for a while and then took another bus back to airport.
My visit to Poland was over soon.