Remember when Katrina Shawver came by for an interview and told us about her historical nonfiction book, Henry, coming soon? Well, I am so intrigued! I asked her to do a guest post to tell us a bit about the research she’s been doing. And she brought me far more awesome (as in amazing, not as in cool) research than I expected. I am so excited to share it with you today. It is a haunting look into our past, one that some people like to pretend didn’t happen. But it did, and here’s what she learned.
In October 2013, I combined a research trip and vacation to visit Poland and Weimar, Germany. In order to finish my debut book Henry: A Polish Swimmer’s True Story of Friendship from Auschwitz to America, I needed to retrace the steps of Henry Zguda, my main character, and see for myself what he had described so well. We spent a week in historic Kraków (pronounced KRAK-uff,) four days in Warsaw, and then three days in Germany.
I found Poland to be a prosperous and beautiful country. Polish currency is zlotys rather than Euro. Consequently, Poland was far less expensive to visit than Germany. All tour guides speak both English and Polish fluently, must pass a rigorous test, and are licensed by the government, so they are incredibly knowledgeable. For many reasons, Kraków is a major, worldwide tourist attraction. During World War II, the invading Germans admired the city so much, they claimed it as their capital. Governor Hans Frank took up residence in the famous Wawel Castle, while the best of Polish art and cultural symbols were shipped back to Berlin (think of the movie Monuments Men.) Few people went unscathed during the war, but unlike Warsaw, that was eighty-five percent destroyed, they never bombed their capital of Kraków. Thus, the city remains one of the few cities in Europe whose buildings still date back to the 1300s, including the gorgeous St. Mary’s Church that anchors the main square. Nearby the Wieliczka Salt Mine contains huge underground rooms painstakingly and intricately carved by salt miners dating back to the 1700s. It is must-see destination in Poland.
Visitors flock to the city for another key reason: Auschwitz is a one-hour drive away.
The German concentration camp remains one of the largest of all the thousands of concentration camps and is a UNESCO world heritage site. In 2015, more than 1.72 million people visited Auschwitz, guided by educators in almost twenty languages. As the best-known concentration camp, and largest German death camp, it has become hugely symbolic of the entire Holocaust. When I visited Auschwitz, there was little that shocked me. Unlike most visitors, I had pored through photos and texts for years, and I came with stories from a survivor. My mission was to see with my own eyes what I’d heard of, grasp a sense of space and distance, and verify facts. At the end of the cold, dark, day, my husband and I stood with our private tour guide as the only people at the entrance to hell, known as Birkenau. What I hadn’t expected was the ghosts of nearly a million murdered souls who called to me “Do not forget us.”
After a short, train ride northeast of Kraków we arrived in the capital city of Warsaw. When we stepped out of the train station two sights immediately greeted us – one a symbol of Russian communism, and another of modern capitalism. The Palace of Culture and Science, constructed in 1955 of cement and square lines, was a ‘gift’ from Russia, meant to appease the Polish population. It is still the tallest building in Poland, and one of the tallest in Europe. Around the corner, stood the biggest McDonald’s I have ever been to. The two-story, glass-walled structure held a huge crowd as my husband and I maneuvered into line. Here the food was listed in Polish, but who can’t order a Quarter Pounder with Cheese and fries in any language?
After a few days, we flew to Berlin and found the train station where we would take a train south to Weimar. I could not resist the smell of good German pastry as we passed a bakery in the three-story mall-with-a-train-station-attached. We visited Weimar for one reason: it’s home to Buchenwald concentration camp, where Henry spent nearly two years. The next day, we toured the camp in a cold rain, and later visited the archives. My thoughts and impressions of two concentration camps would fill a chapter, however what struck me most was how much smaller, unknown, and hidden the Buchenwald is, hidden in the middle of a thick, lush forest. It represents a different kind of evil than Auschwitz. No spoilers – you will have to read my book.
Of the two countries, Poland was my favorite. Throughout our time there, the history geek in me kept making mental and written notes so I could incorporate the sights, sounds, and reality of these places into my story. The tourist in me still has a long list of other Polish cities to visit: Gdansk, Wroclaw, Zakopane in the Tatra Mountains, and more. I now know why anyone with a Polish heritage will always be Pole at heart, regardless of where they live.
All Photos courtesy of Katrina Shawver. Enjoy some additional images from her trip:
Katrina Shawver holds a B.A. from the University of Arizona in English/Political Science and has excelled at the School of Trial and Error. In addition to variety of previous careers as a journalist, software support, the paralegal profession, tax preparation, and answering phones for a forensic psychiatrist, she has presented at the community college level on Poland Under Hitler and Stalin. She lives in Phoenix, Arizona with her husband and still wishes sweet potato fries counted as a vegetable. Her debut novel, Henry: A Polish Swimmer’s True Story of Friendship from Auschwitz to America is available for pre-order and releases November 1st Learn more at katrinashawver.com
Until Next Time,