A penny for your thoughts

This week, I accidentally tipped my handbag over and a coin fell out. On closer inspection I realised it was my Polish złoty. It’s been in my bag for about 3 years now and has travelled with me everywhere I go. Why? I’m really not sure – call me sentimental. I like having reminders of special people, places and moments and if at all possible I carry them with me wherever I go. If you looked in my bag now, you’d find amongst other things dried lavender from Croatia, a shell from the Scilly Isles in the UK, an acorn from the Netherlands, a very special handkerchief and my Polish złoty. Each of them in their own way very special to me, in a very personal way.

The importance of keepsakes

I keep other, less practical items in my study at home. There is a painted Easter egg from Slovakia, a shell from the beaches in Ile de Re in France and a small crushed plastic bottle – a left-over from a wonderful stay in a youth hostel in Budapest. None of them of any value to anybody but me. There is something very tactile about each of them. If I pick them up, without fail I remember where and how I got them and I am transported to another place.

Poland (685).jpgSo what is so special about my Polish złoty? Well, lots of things. For starters, I have always had a fascination for Poland. As a 16-year old I read every book I could find about Poland, including the book by the same name by James A Michener, which I read cover to cover. The more I read, the more I wanted to know. I badly wanted to visit Poland, but the Cold War made it difficult to visit, never mind allow me freedom of movement once there. However, as the Berlin Wall opened up, so did my opportunities. Several work visits finally led to our family undertaking a 5-week backpacking holiday around the Baltic States and Poland in 2008. As it happened, Poland was all I had ever dreamed it would be and more. To this day it remains one of my favourite countries and its 1000-year long history is simply awe-inspiring.

Krakow, November 2009.JPG

Auschwitz-Birkenau

During our 2008 trip I was fortunate to be able to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau in the company of two Holocaust experts.  During our private five-hour tour of the grounds and museum I was able to see with my own eyes – and attempt to imagine with my heart and my head – the horrors of the atrocities that took place there. It was a visit that shaped my conscience and it lives on inside me with a passion.

A visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau is like nothing else and nobody can truly prepare you for the experience. People often say that they don’t think they can face visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau, but for me the visit opened my eyes to many unexpected things. The countless stories of individual courage, bravery, selflessness and self-sacrifice are in many ways uplifting amidst the sheer horror of the place. They are a poignant reminder of the fact that it is the choices we make in life that make us who we are.

The power of photographs

Krakow, November 2009 210.JPGWalking around Birkenau we came across the sanitation area, where during the war women and children were showered and shaved before entering the gas chamber.  It is now a quiet room; a glass floor protects the stones and concrete floor below it, across which so many were forced to run towards their death.  Prisoners forced to clear the discarded clothing were instructed to destroy any photographs they found. Well, the room next to the sanitation area is the living proof of the courage of many. Fully aware of the personal risks they were taking, prisoners kept as many photographs as possible behind and hid them where they could – eager to conserve as much evidence as possible. Their unbelievable bravery led to several suitcases full of photographs being found after the camp was liberated. These photographs are now on permanent display and are a moving tribute to their courage and that of the families portrayed.

Krakow, November 2009 231.JPGOver the decades curators at the museum worked tirelessly to try and identify people in the photographs and despite the obvious difficulty were able to put many families back together as best as they could – in photographs at least.  The exhibition is truly moving. In many cases the photographs chronicle whole family groups – sometimes as many as 20-30 photographs per family.  Where possible, names have been added to identify those in the photographs. They represent the very best of family life and include images of happy days, celebrations of births, weddings, birthdays, holidays and other social gatherings.  They paint beautiful pictures of the families that once were, somehow no longer a statistic, no longer invisible victims, but instead proud families reunited.  It is a powerful, emotional and wholly unforgettable exhibition.

Holocaust Memorial Day

Did I bring something back from Auschwitz-Birkenau? Of course I did! At a moment of deep reflection I picked up a little stone that looked and felt smooth. It was cool to the touch. For a while I stood there turning it over and over with my fingers – and then it slipped somehow into my pocket, where it stayed for months before eventually finding its way into my handbag. And the złoty? Well, this turned up in my purse weeks after my most recent trip to Poland. “I’m sorry madam, this isn’t a 5 penny piece” said the sales woman politely. I apologised and gave her the correct money. I remember looking at the złoty for a moment – then it too found its way into my bag and it’s been living there quite happily, waiting for me to visit Poland again – for another visit there will be!

Today is the UK’s national Holocaust Memorial Day – the day when we remember all those who died during the Holocaust and in armed conflict around the world since then. I wonder what you are thinking of today. I’d give a penny for your thoughts – or should that be a złoty?

Annemieke Waite is a freelance travel writer who specialises in writing for families and young people about EU travel destinations. And sometimes she likes to write more serious stuff…. 🙂

 

 

 

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3 Comments

  1. Aleida Brinkman
    Posted January 28, 2013 at 12:48 am | Permalink

    A very moving account of what happend in Poland at that time.
    Lets not forget that not only Jewish people suffered at the hand of Hitler and consort!
    On day’s like today I remember them all !

  2. Brian Staines
    Posted January 28, 2013 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

    I have a small white round pepple picked up on a totally deserted beach in Scotland, on a clear moonlight night.
    It makes me think of peace, quiet, emptiness, and with the sound of the sea in my mind perhaps how small we really are in this huge universe

  3. Annemieke Waite
    Posted January 28, 2013 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

    You see! I knew I couldn’t be the only one who does things like this. Now I owe you a penny – you realise that don’t you! 🙂

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