A Polish American in Krakow

Krakow’s Wawel castle and cathedral shine on a sunny day in March.

In Polish my last name means “flower.” This strikes me as somewhat strange since the Kwiatkoskis I know are rather gruff, unsentimental Poles. But maybe once upon a time we stood in market squares and sold spring blossoms.

Then again, we’re not sure if Kwiatkoski is really even our last name. My family has a somewhat dubious history after arriving in America, and we’ve uncovered a wedding certificate which refers to my great-grandfather under an entirely different — yet equally daunting — Polish surname.

We have often speculated on the reason behind the name-change, but our suspicions are as yet unsubstantiated. All I know for certain is that my Polish ancestors, whatever their names may be, have a very interesting story to tell.

That’s why when I found out I’d be spending a year abroad, I was desperate to plan a trip to the home country. I went with some American friends who, like me, live and work in France.

To my surprise, as soon as we arrived in the Krakow airport I saw a sign bearing one of the handful of Polish words I know: kwiat. It was a rather uninspiring poster, reminding travelers not to bring food, plants, or flowers in their luggage, but I was overcome with a sense of excitement to be in a place where the seemingly random assortment of “k’s” and “w’s” that had followed me for twenty-four years suddenly had meaning and significance.

“These are my people,” I thought, then took a quick look at the indecipherable Polish word for baggage and came crashing back to reality. In fact, I am undeniably American, and cannot speak the language of my “people” or relate to most of their experiences. Yet I can still appreciate the history we share, and what it means for my genes to have come from such a place.

Despite this initial elation, my expectations of Poland were still rather low. My ancestors had fled life as peasant farmers somewhere outside of Warsaw for the marginally better prospect of coal mining in Pennsylvania. So I imagined Poland to be a country that would make you beg for American coal mines. Or I expected at least a place ravaged by the Soviet occupation and still reeling from the blitzkrieg of World War II.

But I found Krakow to be a truly beautiful metropolis. The old city center looks majestically medieval, but it is also undeniably modern. Most people I met spoke fluent English and were interested in international exchange. This came as a surprise to me since outside of the worlds of tourism and business this is generally not the case in France.

It strikes me that Poland is working hard to be open to foreign visitors. This must be a new phenomenon, since I can’t imagine tourists of the past flocking to the Soviet-occupied Eastern Bloc. But now Krakow is full of guests from Germany, France, the UK, and America, among many other countries. People come to experience Krakow and learn its history, visiting the Wieliczka Salt Mines, Wawel Castle, and most of all Auschwitz-Birkenau.

My friends and I spent our first day in Krakow walking around the city, checking out the market square and stepping into a few of the many churches that line the streets. I found countless tributes to Pope John Paul II (in Polish, Jan Pawel II), a Polish hero and icon. He seems to represent the strength of Poland’s Catholicism, and also the people’s pride that their country has made a powerful mark on the world.

The next morning my friends left early to visit Auschwitz. I had mixed feelings about the idea, so I opted not to go. For me, it was an instinctive decision. On the one hand I understand that Auschwitz represents a tragic part of the human experience that we should never be allowed to forget. On the other hand, I’m not entirely sure what the value is in seeing that kind of horror. Why go to a place because something atrocious happened there? (Actually, there is such a thing as “dark tourism,” the idea of visiting locations associated with tragedy and death such as prisons, concentration camps, and sites of nuclear accidents.) While I recognize the importance of examining all parts of our history and even understand the morbid draw of such places, mostly I find the prospect unsettling. So due to my conflicted feelings and the fact that I would only be in Poland for one long weekend, I decided instead to focus my visit on the positive aspects of the country’s history. That being said, my friends found their tour of the concentration camp to be educational and sobering. They are glad to have gone and maintain that it was an extremely valuable experience.

While my friends were away, I went to the Wieliczka Salt Mines. I hesitate to say that this has been my favorite destination, but I will affirm that it is definitely the most unique. The salt mines extend over 1,000 ft. beneath the earth and cover almost 200 miles. They are full of underground lakes and works of art carved entirely from salt. Miners have crafted dozens of underground chapels, and one astounding cathedral with a reproduction of Da Vinci’s The Last Supper etched into the wall. There are also exhibits on the history of salt mining and demonstrations on everyday workplace dangers. (Miners’ daily lives carried the risks of explosions and walls caving in, among other life-threatening concerns.)

A rock salt sculpture of King Casimir the Great in the Wieliczka Salt Mine.

I was happy to see a site that speaks more of human triumph than of degradation. The salt mines are full of intricate sculptures honoring God and Polish history. What could have been a dark and dreary place is instead full of beauty and culture. Wieliczka shows a devotion to faith, and a determination to make the best of any situation. The mix of darkness and light affirms that beauty can be found in unlikely places. That’s why the three hours I spent miles beneath the earth’s surface were actually some of the most enlightening I’ve ever experienced.

Throughout my time in Krakow, most Poles I met immediately engaged with me when they saw my name. I asked if Kwiatkoski is common in Poland, and was delighted to find out that it is, although its correct spelling is actually Kwiatkowski. (Who knows how my surname, a name which may have in fact been invented, ended up misspelled. It could have been a misguided attempt at Americanization, or perhaps there’s an even more interesting mystery behind the missing “w.”)

I like that my name connects me to this culture, and perhaps even gives me a small amount of insight into it. Yet even the small error seems significant. It reminds me that I don’t quite belong, that my Polish roots will always be touched by my indelible American identity.

We left Poland on a 6:30 AM flight. I would like to say that I spent the two hours from Krakow to Paris reflecting on my travels, but in all honesty I fell into a fitful airplane sleep for the entire ride. It was when I got home and had the chance to look through my photographs that I began to process what an impact the trip had had on me. I realized that it’s not only the family connection that draws me to Poland, but also the idea that a country formerly oppressed by Nazis, Soviets, and quite a few other other European powers could manage to maintain its uniqueness and rich cultural history.

To me, Poland represents possibility. More than one hundred years ago my ancestors were driven out by poverty, yet I felt compelled to come back. I traveled to Krakow as a skeptical American tourist (could my great-grandparents ever have imagined that?) only to discover unexpected beauty and get a brief taste of all that my “people” have to offer.

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