My plane landed in Krakow on a sunny July morning. I had come there to participate in a program of graduate coursework and cultural exchange organized by the Transregional Center for Democratic Studies at the New School in New York City, where I was a graduate student at the time. As we passed through the green and yellow fields of the Polish countryside, I remember feeling a mix of uncertainty and excitement about what was to come.
Although I immigrated to the United States from Russia while still in elementary school, and therefore quickly picked up on the nuances of American life, Eastern Europe has always had a hold on me. This trip was an opportunity to visit a new country and gain cultural knowledge. But it was also the fulfillment of a longtime goal—to return to that part of the world and see it from a new perspective.
Our group, representing more than a dozen countries, stayed in a hotel hidden away in a mountain forest, about a twenty-minute drive from the city. A boxy, concrete building, the hotel had served as an army barrack during the years of communist rule. Its sparsely furnished rooms, rickety elevator, and the smell of musty wood that permeated it gave away its age. Overnight, I had gone from the hubbub of New York to a secluded place that moved at its own pace.
With its baroque architecture, wide-stretching parks, and seemingly endless monuments and clock towers, Krakow is a charming and extraordinarily beautiful city. Almost miraculously, it avoided destruction during the Second World War, preserving the richness contained in this crossroads of Europe. Both medieval and modern landmarks are interspersed throughout the Old Town, with the Royal Route (Droga Królewska) cutting through the center. Trams run along the main streets, and horse-drawn carriages roll through the narrow, curving alleys lined with cobblestones.
Now more than twenty years after the fall of the communist bloc, there are unmistakable signs that the culture of modern globalization changed the social landscape. Name brand stores and slick, eye-catching advertisements exist in and on buildings hundreds of years old. This erosion of local culture is best represented by the transformation undergone by Kazimierz, the city’s old Jewish district. Today the neighborhood no longer bears the distinct identity of its origins. With many of its residents displaced and killed during the war, Kazimierz fell into disrepute during the following decades, until a recent revival turned it into a gentrified area. Today its many bars and cafes cater to a crowd of tourists and urban middle-class youth.
In this way Krakow’s Old Town acts as the battleground for the playing out of tensions between the old and the new. But another neighborhood, located at the edge of the city, remains a symbol of a different period in Poland’s past. Nowa Huta, constructed during the postwar years to house thousands of industrial workers, stands today as a relic of a less favorable time in the country’s history. The apartment blocs, built in the recognizable Art Deco style characteristic of the Stalinist era, along with the broad boulevards and planned quality of Nowa Huta contrast sharply with the cramped alleys and squares of central Krakow.
Perhaps nothing in Nowa Huta—nor even in all of Krakow—better symbolizes Poland’s post–Cold War transition than a square at the center of the neighborhood where a famous statue of Lenin once stood. It has now been renamed Ronald Reagan Central Square (Plac Centralny im. Ronalda Reagana). One larger-than-life individual has replaced another, and a neighborhood that once housed the working class now commemorates a man who presided over the global advance of neoliberalism.
Just down the road from our lodgings, on the edge of a cliff with its terrace overlooking the Vistula, stood Przegorzały Castle—a large, elegant building that, much like the rest of the area, still bore the remnants of the past. During the years of the German occupation when Krakow served as the capital of the General Government, Przegorzały was one of the regional headquarters of the Luftwaffe. Many people had lost their lives in the very same area where we were comfortably nestled.
While still living in Russia, I read in my school textbooks about the Great War and the heroic victory over the German invaders. After moving to the United States, I lost the connection to the real impact that the war had on the people of Europe. In Poland, I was again reminded of its magnitude and immediacy. Seventy years later, the trauma of the war has not ended. Poland is still trying to come to terms with that time, and even though Krakow managed to avoid the destruction that befell other Polish cities, the war touched it in a different and more harrowing way. Just sixty miles east is Auschwitz, the very name of which is enough to summarize the past century’s grim legacy.
It was a gray, cold morning when we arrived at Auschwitz, passing through the iron gate reading Arbeit Macht Frei that remains one of the best-known symbols of the camp. This was the oldest part of the camp, primarily used by the Nazis as a detainment center for Polish political prisoners. Inside one of the buildings, individual photographs of the inmates lined both sides of a long, well-lit hallway—the heads of the men and women shaved, their pinstriped shirts hanging loosely off their emaciated bodies. But it was the looks they cast that shook me the most, and it is the single memory of that place that stays in my mind every time I think back.
Walking through the corridor, I felt the collective gaze of those dozens of eyes—at the same time accusatory and questioning. Here, where human life was laid bare, one person’s death was as good as another’s. This was part of the internal logic of the camps, and in the writings of those who survived, one often finds the feelings of guilt at having outlived the others, not by any virtue but by what was often a mere stroke of luck. Decades later, people like me, with no notable connection to the place, can still set foot there and feel that the dead are judging the living.
Just down the road was the sprawling Auschwitz-Birkenau. Today, this vast rectangle enclosed by barbed wire carries a disarmingly peaceful air. As gray clouds came and went, periodically giving way to rays of sunlight, a quiet and tense atmosphere hung over the area. After seeing the main guard tower and the barracks, a few of us broke off from the group and wandered on the outskirts of the camp. Just off the main railway track that runs like an artery through the camp were the remnants of the gas chambers—the part that today still resists understanding. In the peaceful silence I only heard occasional, hushed whispering from my companions and the rustling of the birches in the summer breeze. At that moment I felt how futile words and language were for making sense of everything we had just seen.
The visit to Auschwitz, and the time spent in Krakow as a whole, pushed me to ask what the idea of belonging could mean after a people assimilated into one of Europe’s richest cultures could suddenly find themselves excluded in such a previously unimaginable way. The question of identity is the defining problem of our time. If the modern world has broken apart the bonds of tradition, the push to recreate a sense of belonging can be just as destructive. The way from here, I thought to myself, cannot be a return to the past. The uneasy mix of the old, local culture and the new, global one that I came across during my visit attested to this reality.
AS SOMEONE who had lived a portion of his life outside the United States and was brought up in a blend of different cultures, I have never felt comfortable with the idea of taking on a single national identity. Seeing firsthand how the landscape of the Old World was being transformed, with cultures and identities becoming more fluid and integrated, confirmed what I had felt intuitively. Nationalism or patriotism can no longer serve as a defining way of seeing ourselves. The complexity and interrelatedness of today’s world does not allow for that. When our national or ethnic identity becomes the only lens through which we acquire a worldview, we begin to lose the ability to appreciate the diversity inherent in the human condition.
Rafael Khachaturian was born in 1986, in Moscow, Russia. He is currently in the Ph.D. program in political science at Indiana University. Prior to that he studied politics and philosophy at the New School. His trip to Krakow took place in July 2008.