Black in Europe: Why I Will Never Go Back to Poland

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Black in Europe: Why I Will Never Go Back to Poland

Poland is the only country I’ve been to and have no plans to ever go back. You’d think a place that was the victim of so much hate would be able to welcome two foreigners– one black and the other Chinese. Well you’d be completely wrong. I’ve been to more than 80 countries, and none of them have been so unwelcoming as Poland.

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My kindness Was Not Reciprocated

The man wore a dark grey thigh-length coat, a little snug around his waist. The sleeves on his jacket were a too short, exposing the white meat of his wrists. He walked briskly, often turning in my direction. Our eyes met.

As if on autopilot, I smiled. However, my kindness was not reciprocated. His stoic eyes were cold and full of rage. His face was rigid and unkind. He grabbed the collar of his coat tighter. And with a huff hurried his pace down the narrow backstreet. All the while, he never lowered his eyes. He never stopped staring at me. He watched me until he turned the corner and disappeared. I am a Black Woman in Poland. This post is about Poland and why I will never go back there.

My Experience as a Black Woman in Poland

We arrived at the small international airport in Rzeszów, a small city in southern Poland near the border of Ukraine. Like many of my other European adventures, we flew Ryanair, a discount airline that flies into mid-market towns, many of which were unfamiliar to me.

The plan for our 3-day trip was to tour southern Poland. We booked a stay at a wellness center. Hopefully, we’ll get a chance to try an unconventional spa treatment and explore the old city centers of Krakow and Rzeszów. Then end our trip at the notorious former concentration camps at Auschwitz.

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I’m A Black Woman Who Travels– A lot.

For the most part, we accomplished our goal; however, we also learned a few things we didn’t plan for about its people and ourselves.

I consider myself a world traveler and not just a tourist. And as a black woman who travels, I’ve found myself in situations that, planned or otherwise, expanded my comfort zone—sometimes learning more about myself than the place I traveled.

I’ve traveled alone. I’ve traveled to countries I can’t read, speak, or understand the language. And ultimately, I’ve traveled to places where the only black person I’ve seen is the one in the mirror. I was used to the lingering stares, endless questioning, and awkward inquiries to touch my braids.

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Because I’m Black?

and Croatia. I found the people to be inquisitive, yet hospitable and friendly. So without hesitation, and with a good friend in tow, I booked a flight to Poland for the bargain basement fare of 3€.

Before I go any further, it’s important to say that I was never physically or verbally mistreated by anyone during the trip. It’s also important to note that the atmosphere is much more welcoming in significant urban areas and shopping centers due to their exposure to foreigners. But, I must admit that once we left the Pottery trail, we weren’t treated with the warmth I had experienced in other former Soviet bloc countries. I felt unwelcome because I was black.

Where we Stayed Park Hotel & Fitness Club Rzeszów 

The hotel is located in the middle of lush landscaping and surrounded by a park on one side and a large lake with ducks and swans; it was exactly what I’d come to expect from a wellness center in Europe. If we had stayed there and not pushed into the interior, I might not have much more to add. But hotels rarely tell you much more than what you, as a guest, are willing to endure over three days and rarely anything about the culture of the people who work there.

After checking into and touring the lovely facilities, we ate our first meal of perogies. Perogies are a traditional Polish dumplings, boiled, baked, or fried. Most commonly stuffed with potato puree and fried in butter and onions, other variations include meat, cheese, or fruit.

Rzeszow is a city designed to stroll, lined with tall trees and grey and red slate rooftops. Wide and inviting, wide and inviting, the quaint cobbled squares dotted with sidewalk cafes, fountains, and statues. The avenues are dominated by Gothic churches and monuments dedicated to distinguished Poles.

For a small city, it is lit up at night. The promenades are lit from above and below and glow in yellow, orange, and blues hues. It was a long day of lingering stares, bites taken with an entire café in my mouth.

My Experience with the Polish People

Unfortunately, the beautiful surroundings were overshadowed by a few less than pleasant locals. I even had someone refuse to give me directions.

I had just about had enough when we crossed the street towards our hotel. An old lady dressed head to toe in multiple layers of black was traveling in the other direction.

Performing an uneasy balancing act, she managed to the crevices of the cobblestone street under her unsteady feet. She had more wrinkles than teeth, leading with her head so far forward that I was shocked she didn’t fall flat on her face.

I politely nodded, neither smiling on the inside nor out.

Then to my surprise, her face lit up; she smiled and blew me a kiss as we passed one another, then turned in the direction she was traveling and continued on her way. I couldn’t move for what seemed like an eternity but couldn’t have been more than a few seconds. Stunned, I knew at that moment this would be the experience I would remember more than any other.

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Auschwitz

On the road by 8 am the following day, we made our way to the concentration camps at Auschwitz. Camps 2 and 3 are located less than 3 miles away and were the main death camp and housing for laborers, respectively. The Museum is located on the outskirts of the city of Oświęcim. Entrance is accessible to the public, and guided and audio guides require a nominal fee. Most exhibits are marked with descriptions in English, Hebrew, and Polish.

We arrived just as it began to rain. The eerie starkness of the camp is the very first thing you notice. That… and the sign with a dozen rules to be observed while on the grounds. Constantine wire still tops the double rings of the once electrified fences surrounding the 16 buildings. Each step brings you closer to the watchful eye of the watchtowers above. Walking through the gates is a surreal experience. I stood under the iron Arbeit Macht Frei sign, and I tried to harness what I was feeling into words. Besides anger, the horror … I felt was an overwhelming sense of sadness.

A Country Seeking a National Identity

More than 1.1 million Jews, Soviet prisoners of war, and gypsies were murdered in Auschwitz before being liberated by the Russians in 1945. I lingered under the sign for a few moments, the rain disguising my tears.

We walked the grounds in near silence, entering each building, trying to imagine the hopelessness the occupants must have felt. I poked my fingers into the bullet-laden killing wall, stood in respectful quiet in the small crematorium, and was in complete shock at the horrifying collection of shoes. Afterward, we debated whether we needed to see Camps 2 and 3. In the end, we decided we had experienced enough. Pressing on seemed more like a punishment that neither one of us deserved.

We left the museum and drove to the city of Krakow, an hour away. Krakow was the country’s capital for more than 500 years. It survived WWII virtually unscathed. We walked across Rynek Glówny, the city’s main square and the largest medieval town square in Europe. The entire yard is surrounded by old brick palaces from every era.

Built in 1257, it spans more than 10 acres. It is a beautiful testament to time—dominated by a maze of café tables and surrounded by the Gothic Church of St. Mary, the Renaissance elegance of Cloth Hall, and the masterful Baroque cupola of the City Hall Tower. We hired a horse-drawn carriage that made a big loop through the square, past Schindlers Factory; now a museum, and up to Wawel Hill Castle and back. It’s a beautiful 30-minute trip without commentary from the driver, so don’t forget your tour guide.

A Country in Crisis

Poland is a country of multiple contrasts, reconciling its past with its future. It’s a country in the midst of forging a common identity where Poles, Jews, and Germans now live together after centuries of forced rule by just about everybody.

The contrasts can still be seen in the architecture of the city. Neoclassical palaces coexist side by side with red brick factories and old tenement houses. And upscale shops sell the latest runway fashions, although little old ladies still prefer head-to-toe black. Furthermore, WIFI is readily available. But the culture is deeply rooted in its colorful traditions. And life still thrives around the town square and markets. And finally, where prejudice persists on some level. However, over time, there is hope. When more black girls decide to venture off the pottery trail, they will be welcomed with kindness.

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Comments

  1. Bob

    You’re not the first that’s shared that experience about Poland, I’m sorry to hear that. Those sentiments are coming to the surface in other areas of eastern and central Europe. There are political leaders who are proudly proclaiming that certain groups of people aren’t welcome. It’s worrying, and getting uglier.

    1. duffelbagspouse

      I know. It is a worrying trend even closer to home. You almost hope for something non deadly of course that reminds us all of our common humanity. Its sad and takes away from the good we all have to contribute.

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