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A visit to the notorious Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau is emotional and sobering

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Poland has evolved from a long tragic and complicated history to a modern, vibrant and progressive democracy.

I last visited Poland in 1989 just before "Solidarity" succeeded Communism, and returned recently to observe the transformation that has taken place since then.

On a trip sponsored by Grand Circle Travel, which specializes in senior travel, I ventured to Warsaw and Krakow, its two largest cities, with stops at the Auschwitz concentration camp and the shrine at Czestochowa. The changes from 1089 were overwhelming, with skyscrapers taking the place of drab and gray Soviet-style buildings and rebuilt historic centers arising from behind scaffolding.

First stop was at Krakow, Poland's former capital, and one of the best-preserved ancient cities in Europe. It included a visit to the Wawel Royal Castle and Cathedral, situated above the city and the former Royal residence. Pope John Paul II had been the city's Bishop and preached in the Cathedral. One reflectively walks by the residence in which he lived as Bishop. The Krakow famous Jewish Ghetto remains much as it existed before the terror of WWII.

Krakow's nucleus is an immense medieval market square, the largest in Europe and dating from 1257. At its center is a huge cloth market hall, known as the world's first shopping mall – and which has sold handicrafts and goods there since the 14th Century. I purchased items there for the second time.

Also in Krakow was Oskar Schindler's factory, made famous by the Steven Spielberg Oscar award winning film, "Schindler's List." It is now an interesting private museum of life in Krakow during the Nazi occupation, and includes his former office.

Next was a very emotional and sobering visit to the nearby notorious Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau. We saw the barracks in which inmates were crowded behind barbed wire and watchtowers; piles of human hair destined for German mattress factories; personal items gathered from the inmates such as shoes, luggage, hairbrushes, utensils, and many other such items.

We observed the crowded and inhumane conditions in which they lived. We also observed evidence of the so-called "bath houses" in which they were exterminated - and the crematorium. No one can see such a scene of horrors and terror without reflection and deep sadness. It is difficult to visit a place that represents the core of evil.

On our way to Warsaw we stopped in Czestochowa to see the 14th Century Jasna Gora Monastery, home of the famous Black Madonna religious shine, the most visited and significant religious site in Poland.

Warsaw, the largest city and capital of Poland, was 95% destroyed in WWII, yet has risen to be designated by UNESCO for the authenticity of its post-war reconstruction. I visited here in 1989 when there was little to no food or goods on store shelfs and its buildings and its buildings were dirty, drab and gray. Long lines covered blocks waiting for essential items.

Today huge high rises occupy Warsaw's streets, parks adorn its landscape, and its renowned historic center has been totally rebuilt. Warsaw's old town is now lined with rebuilt burgher's houses dating from the 15th Century, and its nearby Castle Square features its reconstructed Royal Castle - established in the 13'th Century. We also saw the area of the Jewish Ghetto, famous for its uprising during the Nazi occupation, and stopped at the Warsaw Ghetto Memorial to its victims.

While Polish-Americans will return to their native country, too few American tourists are aware of the many attractions that warrant visits and the vast cultural experiences available here too. A fresh look at the attributes make a visit to this country very worthwhile.

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