I’ve never been anywhere in Europe where World War II seemed as present as it is in Poland. Certainly, visiting a handful of museums about the Holocaust probably gave me a different perspective, but still. People we met had stories, about uncles who mysteriously disappeared during the war, or grandmothers who were executed by the Germans.
If you’re interested in the war and learning about the Holocaust, any of these attractions will immerse you in the history.
1. Schindler’s Factory
Just before my trip, I rewatched Schindler’s List so I’d be refreshed on the story. If you haven’t watched it (do!), Oskar Schindler was an entrepreneur with a factory. Long story short, he saved more than 1,000 Jews by hiring them for his factory, which has been converted into a museum in honor of this story.
The interesting thing: the museum wasn’t built until Steven Spielberg filmed the movie because Poles weren’t excited to have a German hero revered. He was, after all, part of the Nazi party. Still, I think that was a means to an end. Ultimately, he was a good guy.
The museum, located in Krakow, has great exhibits both about the factory’s history itself, as well as the war and Holocaust.
I’ve already written about my experience at Auschwitz-Birkenau, located outside of Krakow, so I won’t elaborate except to explain that while most of the other sites on this list are more museums, Auschwitz is more about you experiencing the concentration camp itself. There are exhibits in each of the bunker houses on the tour, but pay attention to the environment and try to imagine sharing cramped quarters with sick and stinky people, most of whom would die within months.
3. The Warsaw Zoo
There’s a book (which I’m reading now) and a movie called The Zookeeper’s Wife, which tells the story of Jan and Antonina Żabińska, who ran the Warsaw Zoo during the war years. They saved hundreds of Jews by hiding them in abandoned animal cages (the Nazis killed or relocated just about all of the zoo’s animals).
We took a tour of the zookeeper’s home, where we learned about this interesting couple. In the basement was the space that housed dozens of Jews as they were smuggled out of the Jewish Ghetto and out of Poland. The photo above is a tunnel Żabińska created from his basement into one of the bird aviaries.
Note: I believe you have to arrange a tour privately, as it’s not part of the zoo’s admission.
4. Warsaw Rising Museum
Toward the end of the war, the Polish Resistance Home Army got sick of the Germans occupying Warsaw, and in 1944, tens of thousands of them fought to liberate Warsaw from the Germans. Ultimately, about 16,000 members of the Polish resistance died in the Uprising, which was the largest single military effort taken by any European resistance movement during World War II, and the event is honored as one that shows the fortitude and bravery of those who had been nearly destroyed by the Nazis.
The Warsaw Rising Museum tells the story of this uprising.
5. POLIN Museum
We spent so much time learning about the Jews during the Holocaust that we didn’t know much about Jews before or after the war, until we visited POLIN Museum: Museum of the History of Polish Jews. The exhibits here were phenomenal, with cool interactive technology that keeps you engaged through the extensive history of Jews in Poland. We had a tour guide who picked out the highlights (even then, it was 3 hours), but you could easily spend a day here.
World War II is flat only if you learn about it in history books. It takes being on the soil where it happened, talking to people who are descended from those who lived it firsthand, to really get a sense of what it was like.
*I received complimentary admission to all of these attractions as part of a media tour I was on.