Oct 17th, 2021, 08:09 PM

Eating Pierogis Isn't Enough: Why Informed Tourism is Important

By Erin Flanagan
Krakow's Old Town (Image credit: Erin Flanagan)
On a recent cultural trip to Poland, I was reminded why it's vital to learn about the current and historical context of the place you're visiting.

As someone who grew up in Boston, I will readily admit knowing very little about Polish history. With the last name Flanagan, I’m all over Irish history, but my hometown didn’t have a large Polish population like Chicago or New York. So Polish history? Not my area of expertise.

I could have told you that the country is sandwiched between Germany and Russia, which is, historically, not an easy place to be. Maybe I could have summoned up bits and pieces about Poland’s role in World War II from books I’ve read, but nothing beyond the absolute basics.

So on a recent trip to Poland, I found myself easily enchanted by Krakow’s sprawling main square, hearty meals, and medieval architecture. It would have been simple to be taken in by this beautiful, cosmopolitan city without going beyond the surface.

Courtyard in Krakow, Poland. Image credit: Erin Flanagan

Yet, amidst beautiful autumnal color and pierogis as far as the eye can see, two very different events bookended the trip revealing Poland’s complicated relationship to its past and the uncertainty around its future. The first happened just days before I arrived with 24 other students from the American University of Paris. On October 7, someone vandalized several buildings with anti-Semitic language at Auschwitz-Birkenau, the notorious Nazi concentration camp where nearly 1 million Jewish people perished. Located only 60 kilometers away from Krakow, about 90 percent of the city’s prewar Jewish population was exterminated at the camp. The graffiti, written in both English and German, appeared amidst a resurgence in anti-Semitism and xenophobia, especially as the country is grappling with a growing immigration crisis on its border with Belarus.

As a tourist, it can be easy to get swept up by the beauty of a place and ignore the larger context. Still, when traveling it's essential to make a concerted effort to understand the history of the place, and in Poland history is never far from the surface. Furthermore, knowing the history and current situation of the country or region you're traveling in is more rewarding because you're able to contextualize news, conversations, and information from guided tours.

For example, only three years ago the ruling nationalist United Right coalition led by the Law and Justice party (PiS) passed a law criminalizing anyone who accuses Poland of actively collaborating with Nazi Germany. Referring to the concentration camps as “Polish concentration camps” could result in three years in prison. The law has since decriminalized that behavior, making it a civil offense subject to fines, but the intent behind the law is still active, as seen in the language used by some of our tour guides.

Barbed wire fencing at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Image credit: Erin Flanagan

For example, during our tour of Auschwitz-Birkenau, our tour guide, Natalia, made a concerted effort to highlight the presence of Polish prisoners in the camps. She wanted us to know that Poles were victims of their circumstances, saying it "wasn't their fault" that the Nazis decided to build a camp there. 

Another tour guide, Jimmy, told us that graffiti with the Star of David marked with an X wasn’t anti-Semitic because it was part of the rivalry between two soccer teams. He explained that one team calls the supporters of the other “dogs,” and in return, those supporters refer to the other team as “Jews.” The Star of David crossed out was, he said, simply a reference to that rivalry. So somehow he didn’t consider this anti-Semitic. Yes, I’m a tourist, and I'm hearing this story through the lens of my own culture and experience, but hearing someone say that equating dogs with Jews is acceptable, particularly in a city that saw the near-destruction of its Jewish population, seems deeply problematic. Instead, he used it as proof that anti-Semitism is a thing of the past because it was just a silly sports rivalry.

Knowing more about the history of Poland helped me put these conversations into a larger context. Of course, these are only two anecdotal incidents. Still, they seem to speak to a larger sense of grievance and frustration that Poland is blamed for atrocities committed by another country.  

In contrast, the second event happened on the day we left, demonstrating the uncertainty of Poland's future. On October 10, more than 100,00 Poles protested in support of European Union membership amid fears of a “Polexit,” a play on Britain’s recent exit from the EU. In addition, the Polish Law and Justice party has clashed with the international community on media freedom, LGBTQ rights and has been accused of opening "the floodgates of xenophobia.” More recently, they ruled that the Polish constitution in some cases supersedes the highest court in the European Union.

Photo on Unsplash by Dawid Malecki

Despite a government bent on pushing against the EU, many Polish citizens favor remaining within the bloc. According to Donald Tusk, the leader of Poland’s main opposition party, many fear that leaving the EU would mean giving their government the green light to “violate democratic rules with impunity.” So you have a Poland split between its government's strong, nationalist rhetoric and the majority's desire to remain within the EU as a democratic country. 

When asked about Poland's current relationship with Russia, Natalia replied, "there are only two things I fear in this world: climate change and Russians."  As an informed tourist, this statement helped me contextualize the country's current xenophobic, right-wing government and the fervent wish to stay within the EU. Poland, at its base, has a pervasive fear of occupation, considering they only emerged as a member of the Soviet communist bloc in 1989.

Without researching and reading about the history of Poland, we could have simply enjoyed the beautiful weather, soaring Wawel Cathedral, and guided tours at face value. Instead, as informed tourists, we were able to engage with the complicated legacy of a country in flux which was infinitely more rewarding. Though I have to say, the pierogis were pretty darn good as well.