Returning to Krakow at the end of the day, having navigated unaccountably tangled traffic, we disembarked from the airless bus and stepped into a beautiful, cool city evening. One of the few European capitals to have been spared bombing during World War II, Krakow would have been an inviting prospect in any case, but we were especially grateful to be there after our excursion to Auschwitz. It had been a day of virtual silence as we moved methodically from building to building of the infamous Stammlager, or main camp, then after lunch traipsed through the Birkenau sub-camp, built to accommodate the killing of millions of mainly Eastern European Jews.
With poplars glistening in the morning sun, and the branches of monumental birch trees wafting in the breeze, Auschwitz was, as one my students remarked, actually quite beautiful—or would have been, if only we could block out the genocide conducted there. We were a group of undergraduates and faculty from the University of Notre Dame, part of the new “International Economics Abroad” initiative, here to attend a seminar at the Krakow State University of Economics. The focus was the economics of migration and refugees, a topic central to Polish history and national myth.
The morning after our visit to Auschwitz, we proceeded with the seminar. Presenting his research on Polish “remigres”—Poles who return after having lived abroad—Professor Jan Brzozowski began his lecture by emphasizing the mono-ethnic nature of Polish society. Referencing our group’s excursion the previous day, he suggested that we would understand why the country is mono-ethnic: its Jews, once almost 13 percent of the population, had been obliterated by the war, and the “occupied Poland” of the Cold War was not permitted to admit immigrants.
The night before, I had asked Kasia, our city guide, about the Krakow Jewish ghetto, and she had balked. What ghetto? she asked. She explained that the Jews had lived happily in Krakow in a “district” all their own, separate by their own choosing; the only exception, she maintained, was the period of Nazi occupation. There was that phrase again. Indeed, “occupied Poland” became a refrain we would hear almost as frequently as “partitioned Poland” (a reference to the eighteenth-century division of the nation among Prussia, Russia, and the Austro-Hungarian empire), which was really just another way of saying the same thing. According to this narrative, Poland and Poles had no part in the disappearance of the Jews. So would we see any Jews in our visit to the Jewish District? I asked. “No. Now, no more Jews,” Kasia responded. “The Jews are gone.”