The educational opportunities. At Poland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Barbara Szymanowska, director of the Department of Asia and Pacific, is seeing interest from Filipino students who want to study in Poland. “Our universities are providing a really good level of studies, and people can choose to study in English,” she says. “There are some faculty, especially in medicine, that teach in English and (our schools) and cost of living are cheaper than other countries in Europe.”
Colleges like the Gdynia Maritime University are eager to partner with local schools that train seafarers, while the Warsaw University of Technology, which awarded Maria Sklodowska, aka Marie Curie, a doctor honoris causa, already has 35 Pinoy students enrolled.
Forever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity, where the Nazis murdered about one and a half million men, women and children, mainly Jews from various countries of Europe” it says on the Holocaust memorial.
The Auschwitz-Birkenau Holocaust Museum. With the rise of autocratic leaders around the world, it’s more important than ever that we learn from history, and Auschwitz is one of the grimmest reminders of what happens when one man is allowed to pursue his mad visions unchecked.
About an hour-and-a-half’s drive from Krakow, Auschwitz-Birkenau is a complex of over 40 concentration and death camps, with 90 percent of its 1.1 million prisoners murdered in Birkenau’s six gas chambers. Past a gate that says “Arbeit macht frei” (“Work sets you free” in German), Jews were brought in by train, underwent a selection process, and those that didn’t pass were led directly to “showers” where they met brutal deaths via the pesticide Zyklon B.
It’s heartbreaking to see the mountains of shoes, suitcases, personal effects and photos of Jews exterminated in the camps. In Room 5, picture taking is forbidden because it contains two tons of human hair shaved from Jewish heads, which were woven into items like socks and blankets. When I saw a woman’s blond braid that looked as if it had been scalped, I just couldn’t stop tears from welling up.
And yet there are stories of hope, too, like that of Maximilian Kolbe, the Franciscan monk who gave his life for another prisoner, who ended up surviving the camp and the war. Now Kolbe is venerated as a saint.
Though the Nazis tried to destroy the evidence of their atrocities, Auschwitz-Birkenau stands as a perennial caution: “Forever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity, where the Nazis murdered about one and a half million men, women and children, mainly Jews from various countries of Europe” it says on the Holocaust memorial.
It’s the birthplace of legendary composer Fryderyk Chopin. When I first went to Warsaw with my family 15 years ago, we watched a Chopin concert at the Palace on the Island in Royal Lazienki Park, a beautiful evening I remember to this day. In fact, while the Polish composer is buried at Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris, he literally left his heart in Warsaw. At the Church of the Holy Cross, an urn with Chopin’s heart is enclosed in a pillar of the church nave.
Other Chopin landmarks are the Fryderyk Chopin Museum, his monument in Lazienki Park, and the Chopin musical benches placed at 15 key sites associated with the virtuoso pianist in Warsaw.
Currently there’s an open-air Chopin concert at the mansion of his birthplace in Zelazowa Wola, about an hour away from Warsaw — a must-see for any fan.
The delicious food. Polish food incorporates influences from all over the world, from Italian to French to Chinese, which is where their pierogi — dumplings filled with savory or sweet ingredients —probably originated. Zurek is a sourdough soup sometimes served in a bread bowl with egg and smoked sausage.
The Poles also love their pork: golonka or pork knuckle is best when cooked in beer and washed down with ice-cold Polish vodka (don’t miss Gdansk vodka); roasted pork ribs and breaded pork cutlets are also common in restaurants, often served with potatoes. This staple is also turned into potato pancakes with cream, a must-try. Other dishes of note are steak tatar or raw, minced beef served as an appetizer; and thick bean soup with kielbasa sausage and bacon, which goes great with Polish beer. Poles also make delicious fruit liqueurs under brands like Soplica.
For dessert or pasalubong, try gingerbread, which is so famous they even have a museum dedicated to it in Torun.
Visit the Family Home of John Paul II in Wadowice. This small town was the birthplace and family home of Karol Jozef Wojtyla, who was elected Pope John Paul II in 1978 and canonized after his death. Though we didn’t have time to go as we opted to go to the border instead, it is described as a multimedia exhibition that takes you through the different stages of the Holy Father’s life: how this athletic young man who loved skiing and the theater was so affected by his father’s death that he entered a Krakow seminary in 1942, was ordained as a priest four years later, elected pope in 1978, and visited 135 countries, connecting with millions of young people who loved him via his World Youth Day.
Fond of travel, John Paul was quoted as saying, “I firmly hope that tourism will always be an occasion for fruitful encounters: the encounter with God, the encounter with oneself, and the encounter with others.”
To that I can only say a fervent “Amen.”
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