Random Adventures in Poland

My trip to Poland is over and this will be the second to last blog post I write about the trip. Overall, it was a wonderful experience and I would definitely go back to visit in the future (though next time I’d want to take some language classes beforehand).

There have been a few random excursions we took that I didn’t deem important enough to deserve their own blog post, but since they were important parts of my trip, I’ll lump them all together here.

First, as we were traveling from Krakow to Zakopane, we stopped in a small town called Rabka to visit the site of a Nazi SS training school from WWII. This school was used to train soldiers in execution methods and many Jews from the surrounding areas were killed at this school. The building is used today to house a school for the blind and there is nothing left in the building of the WWII era training school. After finding nothing left of the facilities of the school, we hiked through forest and bushes to find a small, overgrown Jewish cemetery. The grave markets were completely destroyed during period after the war, but someone has since cemented them all together to keep them standing. It was quite sad to see it all overgrown like that, but nonetheless I’m glad the cemetery is there.IMG_2501IMG_2504

Another excursion we took was to the birthplace of Fryderyk Chopin, the pianist. We went on a beautiful Sunday afternoon and spent the afternoon wandering through the lovely botanical gardens on the grounds of Chopin’s house and listening to a wonderful piano concert of some of Chopin’s pieces. Despite the sprinkle of rain we had to sit through, the day was really lovely and made us all feel a little more sophisticated as we sat and listened to piano concertos and got dressed up.

Another day took us to the Wawel Royal Castle in Krakow. The castle itself was absolutely incredible; our guide, on the other hand, was not. The castle is hundreds and hundreds of years old and full of old artifacts, paintings and furniture that hold so much history. Our guide decided it was absolutely imperative we hear about every ounce of history in every single artifact in the multi-level castle. What should have been an hour long tour took a few hours and by the end of the tour, we were all quite sick of hearing about kings and queens and daggers and paintings.

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The castle did have some beautiful parts and I would have really enjoyed the experience had I not had to listen to such monotone lectures the entire time. I’ve been to a bunch of castles before and one of the things that made this one unique was that it was not completely restored. Many of the castles and palaces I’ve seen in foreign countries have been refurbished to appear as they did in their greatest moments. This one had some of that, but mainly appeared to only have been redone in parts that needed it terribly. It had a cool effect to see how things look now and it really showed how old all the parts of the castle were.

One of our lasts days in Warsaw we went to a vodka distillery. Poland is known for their vodka and while the factory we went to was no longer in full service, it was still cool to see. On the premises there was also a cute little gift shop with somewhat strange Polish items. i even found this magnet that translated means “Make our own sandwich.”

I think that about covers it for my adventures in Poland! I have one more post coming where I’ll reveal the perfect pierogi that I found in Poland and then that will be it! Thanks for reading!

Poland and Anti-Semitism

I don’t want to come right out and say Poland is still anti-Semitic because I don’t think that is the case entirely, but in some aspects I do believe that it is still present at a very basic level.

I wrote a few posts back about the lack of Jews in Poland today (some estimates put the number at around 2,000 total). Because there are so few Jews, I think the idea of anti-Semitism isn’t something that is commonly thought about. Obviously all Poles know about the atrocities committed against the Jews during WWII, but I think most people today believe Poland has come a long way since that time and something like the Holocaust could never happen again in Poland. I don’t think a Holocaust would happen again, just because our world is much more aware of religious, ethnic and cultural differences now. However, I think it’s possible still for Jews to feel isolated and unwelcome in Poland should the population ever begin to increase.

There are a few reasons that lead me to think this is the case. For one, Poland tends to unknowingly poke fun at Jews in everyday life. There is still the extreme stereotype of Jews as this with big noses and lots of money hoarding. In fact, all over the country you can buy little figurines called “Lucky Jews” that depict a short, fat man with curly sideburns and a big nose holding a grosz (a Polish coin similar to our cents). There are also other figurines of these Jews holding a wine glass or candlesticks. At almost all the outdoor street vendors selling their art you can buy a portrait of either an old, Jewish man counting coins or a traditionally dressed Jewish man or woman lighting candles. The coin counting portrait, we were told, signifies good fortune. The candle-lighting portrait signifies good health. People think that by hanging these paintings in their house, good fortune or good health will enter their home.

Obviously, neither of these thoughts are negative. Jews bringing someone good health or fortune is, in fact, quite a positive view of the Jewish people. It’s more the way that the Jewish people are depicted in this paintings that just wouldn’t quite be okay in the United States. The complete stereotype and it’s presence everywhere was something I was definitely not used to or expecting.

Another, slightly more negative, thing I noticed came as we went driving from Krakow to Auschwitz. It’s about a one hour drive through majority countryside and farmlands. There are still bus stops on these main roads and as we were driving by, I noticed that a bunch of them had yellow Star-of-David’s (or Jewish stars) spray painted onto the sides of the bus stop with a X crossing them out. It was extremely off putting to me as this was the first outright sign of anti-Semitism I saw in Poland. Especially being so close to the camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau I couldn’t really believe my eyes. I don’t know if those marks were meant to be serious or if they were just a carefree act of vandalism or meant to be a joke, understood by the people who lived in these towns. In the United States something like that would be taken as an extreme insult and there would be severe punishments for those involved. However, I don’t think the case would be quite the same in Poland.

This memory of the bus stops was brought up again as my class watched the Polish film “Poklosie.” This film was entirely in Polish with English subtitles. The premise was this: A middle aged Polish man comes back to his hometown in Poland after living for 20 years in America. He returns to find his brother completely changed from the boy he used to know and in a great deal of trouble with the rest of the town. There are no Jews living presently in this town, but the brother collects Jewish gravestones that were destroyed or knocked down during the war and has recreated a sort of graveyard to remember these people. In a search for what happened to the Jews in this small town, many secrets are revealed including the fact that all the main families in the town live on land that was previously owned by the Jews who lived in this town. As the brothers look into the past of their own farm, they discover that their father was one of the main perpetrators in the deaths of the Jewish population of the town. The Jews had all been forced into the father’s barn and burned alive while the whole town watched on in silence. This fact destroys the brothers and their relationship with the other residents. The younger brother ends up being crucified by members of the town who would have preferred the secrets of the town remain a secret. The older brother returns to America, but does return to his hometown in Poland one last time to find the Jewish graveyard his brother recreated being visited by a group of traveling Jewish people who are incredibly grateful for the preservation of memory in this country town.

This film was created in the early 2000s as is meant to represent the battling viewpoints of many small towns in Poland that are grappling with their pasts. I don’t know for certain if this movie was based in a specific instance, but I would imagine similar circumstances appear all over the countryside.

It’s easy to pretend like the past never happened, but it is important to realize that it did and figure out a way to deal with it without ostracizing the people you live with.

Gdansk: Home of the Solidarity Movement

Our next departure from Warsaw led us to the Baltic Sea, to a historical town known as Gdansk. This was the home of the Solidarity Movement in the 1980s and as we headed out to Gdansk, I was very excited to see a part of Polish history (and one that I am interested in normally) that we hadn’t studied much so far (the majority of our class and visits have been focused on WWII).

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My first impression when we got to Gdansk was complete awe. The Old Town, where we were staying, was breathtaking. The buildings were very old and absolutely incredible. The architecture and building facades were beautiful. I could have stayed there forever. As we walked down the cobblestone streets, it almost felt like we were on a movie set. The buildings are all so normal looking, but attached to their front are these incredible facades that only look to be a few feet thick and appear to just be stick on to the regular buildings.Old Town

Our entire trip we have been seeing amber jewelry for sale just about everywhere. Poland is one of the largest suppliers of amber and Gdansk itself is the best place to get it. I think everyone on my trip was waiting for our time in Gdansk to go crazy and buy lots of amber souvenirs.  We got lucky and during our time in Gdansk the St. Dominic’s Fair was also going on. This fair is a craft fair that has been occurring for one week a year for hundreds of years. There are hundreds of booths selling their homemade crafts (art, jewelry, food, candles, etc) and many more selling the tourist knick-knacks we have seen everywhere.

Gdansk is also a port city so it is right on a set of canals that links it to a shipyard (where the Solidarity Movement began). On one of our days in Gdansk we all piled onto a ship that looked straight out of a set from Pirates of the Caribbean and headed off to the peninsula of Westerplatte. During the war, soldiers attacked Westerplatte and a small battle was fought there. On the peninsula there are many memorials to the defenders of Westerplatte including a very modern looking tall statue that we all enjoyed taking pictures on, even despite the rain that hit us the moment we stepped off the ship.IMG_2795At the memorialIMG_2710IMG_2703

 

Gdansk is also the home of the soon-to-be-open national WWII museum of Poland. We met with the museum director, who gave us an incredible walk through of what the museum will look like once it is open. He also gave us a behind the scenes tour of their war collections of what they will put on display in the museum. We saw old war uniforms different countries and ranks, different weapons (hand grenades, bombs, guns, swords, etc), an Enigma machine, an old wheelchair from a mental hospital and a few children’s toys that survived the destruction of the war along with other objects. It was so nice of the director to take us into their archives, let alone show us everything they have collected.

The Solidarity Movement of the 1980s was born in the Gdansk shipyard. The Solidarity Movement brought about the first non-communist trade union in Poland, fighting worker’s rights and social change. Through acts of civil resistance like protests and strikes that fought the repression caused by martial law in Poland, Solidarity ended up as an independent trade union that still exists today. We visited a Solidarity Museum that visualized Poland in the 1980s under the Communist regime. Our professor’s wife is originally from Poland and she described what it was like raising her young daughter during this time in Warsaw. It’s hard to believe there was this much repression that occurred just 25-30 years ago in Poland.

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We also visited the shipyard where Solidarity began. There is a big memorial there to the fallen shipyard workers as well as plaques standing with Solidarity from all over the world. We saw another museum that showed photographs and different objects from the movement itself, which was incredible to see. It really brings the time frame into focus when all the photos are in color.

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Our last main adventure in Gdansk was a trip to the Baltic Sea! We got on the train to Sopot and headed off to the beach. The town of Sopot is right on the water and looks like a high-class tourist destination, similar to what you see in LA or Santa Monica. Still pretty, but the vibe was a little different than good ol’ Santa Cruz, CA. The beach was totally crowded, but we weaved our way through the crowds to stick our toes in the Baltic Sea. IMG_2905

Gdansk was an incredibly beautiful town and I wish we could have stayed longer than our three and a half days. On our way back to Warsaw, we stopped at Wolf’s Lair where Hitler was almost assassinated during WWII. The location of the compound was very far off the beaten path and after winding around unpaved one-lane roads for a few hours in our big bus, we were all feeling a little carsick. Wolf’s Lair itself is a strange place. A lot of the bunkers are still intact (and are huge), but the rest of the compound is treated as a very tourist destination. You can ride around the compound on a replica WWII tank with a driver dressed as an SS officer while the driver throws out little explosives that make a big bang when they hit the ground. It’s an odd thing to have tourists recreate and I’m not quite sure if I feel okay with it all. Wolf’s Lair is one place that I really didn’t need to go to on this trip and definitely the one place I do not ever want to go back to.

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The Polish Highlands – Zakopane

Since I’m extremely behind in writing on this blog and my time in Poland is drawing to an end, there will be an onslaught of posts in the next few days. This post – the Polish highlands.

After our very demanding touring schedule while we were in Krakow, we were given a nice little break in the Polish highlands in a town called Zakopane! Zakopane is an incredibly beautiful town located high up in the Tatra Mountains that form a natural border between Poland and Slovakia. Driving into the mountains took us through a lot of countryside and what, in my mind before we came, I had deemed Poland. Beautifully green fields with idyllic cottages scattered about. The entire drive was breathtaking.

The town of Zakopane itself is a tourist attraction. On the main street that runs from one end of the small town to the other, you can find shops selling postcards and souvenirs for tourists (most consist on some sort of sheep or wool as that is what the region is known for), ice cream and cotton candy, a strange cheese that is apparently a delicacy in Poland, but one that you could not pay me a million dollars to eat (the thought of its taste even now makes me sick to my stomach), and bunches of other knick-knacks. There are also people dressed up as cartoon characters ranging from Winnie the Pooh to Hello Kitty for kids to stop and take their picture with. On side streets and in parks, there are amusement park rides and games for the whole family to enjoy.

The area is apparently very popular in the wintertime for it’s skiing and ski jumping. You can still see the ski jumps during the summer (but of course, no snow) and you can even slide down them on some sort of device that is safe (maybe, maybe not?) during the summer months.

Another popular thing during the summer is hiking through the Tatra Mountains, which boast beautiful views of Zakopane if you make it up to the top. A few of us decided to take the hike to the top of one of the smaller mountains. After almost four hours of straight uphill rocks and trees (but beautiful views of the valleys anytime we reached a clearing), we made it to the top. It was so worth the trek!

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Zakopane is a town full of wood. Not only are there trees everywhere (which there are), but everything is made out of wood. The houses, the steps, the silverware, the plates and anything else you can think of. We visited a small, rural town just outside Zakopane and went to the workshop of a wood carver. This man’s work was absolutely amazing! Such intricate details in all his pieces and all out of wood! He explained to us the style of house in the mountain region. Roofs are extremely slanted because of all the snow that falls during the winter months here in Poland. With these slanted roofs, the weight of the snow doesn’t get as heavy and it protects the house and people inside. IMG_2522

Another thing I noticed was how new and clean all the wood houses look. They don’t appear weathered at all, yet, according to our guide, these houses are hundreds of years old. So why does the wood look so fresh? A tradition in these parts of the highlands has the women of the household scrub the wooden sides of the house once a year until the house is perfectly clean. If one has a clean house in the highlands, they say one has a good, strong woman.

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As we said goodbye to Zakopane and the mountains, we took one last trip through the beautiful landscape. We all piled onto two rafts on the Dunajec River (which forms the border between Poland ad Slovakia) and floated down the river as our Polish guides steered us down the river and entertained us with stories and jokes (ones that sometimes didn’t quite translate in English).

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It was so wonderful to see a different part of Poland. All of the country so far has been absolutely beautiful and green! I love it!
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Auschwitz-Birkenau

I’ve been delaying this blog post for a very long time. The visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau was so emotionally difficult for me and I’ve been worried that writing a post about it would bring back those memories for me.

While we were in Krakow, we took a day-long side trip to the concentration camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Sub-consciously I think I knew that it would be hard for me to be there, given my religious roots, but I had no idea the magnitude that it would hit me.

The moment we set foot on the grounds at Auschwitz, I couldn’t breathe. That familiar tightness in my throat that I feel whenever I want to cry hit me immediately. Standing in the main courtyard, surrounded by the fence and buildings that I knew had housed thousands of Jews during the war, was heartbreaking. I wanted to leave, but I had to stay – for myself, for my family and for my people.

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Being Jewish is incredibly important to me. I wouldn’t trade it for anything else and even though all of my direct family members can to America before the war, many of their villages (mostly all Jewish) were completely destroyed by Nazis during WWII. I’m sure there are distant cousins and friends of my family that didn’t survive. I feel lucky my family came to America when they did or else I might not be here today, but at the same time, my heart breaks for those who weren’t as fortunate. I feel for all those Jewish families who lost people they loved. My heart aches for the entire Jewish community and seeing where my people came from is so important to me.

As we walked through the barracks at Auschwitz, I couldn’t help but go up to the windows and look outside. I wanted to know what it must have been like to look out those windows day after day, knowing your situation wasn’t going to get any better. The stone-cold concrete floors and walls released the same feelings today as they did during the Holocaust – cold, unfeeling, harsh.

I have to admit that Auschwitz has done a remarkable keeping the stories of the Holocaust alive. Inside the barracks there are display cases that tel the stories of the Jewish people (and other) sent to the camps and their fates. Inside one of the rooms is a giant urn filled with ashes from the crematorium. Another one is filled with belongings of those who never left Auschwitz – cases filled with suitcases with names and ages of their owners still readable, pots and pans, shoes. The case that hit me the absolute hardest though, was the one filled floor to ceiling with human hair. Hair that had been forcibly removed from the Jewish men, women and children sent to die in the gas chambers. That was the first moment I cried at Auschwitz, after seeing such a integral part of the human existence all cased up like that.

Other displays around the camp showed models of the gas chambers and “shower” system. The case containing empty cans of Cyclon B, the gas that killed so many people, made me sick to my stomach.

The very end of our tour through the camp took us to the gas chamber and crematorium itself. Unlike the one at Birkenau, which no longer stands today, this one we were able to walk through. Walking through the gas chambers, you could almost feel the history that was soaked into the concrete walls. These walls too were harsh and cold and the air was stale as if it knew it held a terrible past. Seeing the crematorium ovens was too much to handle. The entire experience was, as a whole, but this moment was probably the worst of it. To see an oven, modeled almost exactly like one you would see at a pizzeria, that was used to burn human bodies, is unbearable. It’s a past no one wants to think about, but at the same time, one you want to remember every day in order to make sure it never happens again.

After such an emotionally draining morning, the absolute last thing you want to do is to have a do-over of the experience at another camp. On the ride over to Birkenau I tried to prepare myself emotionally for what we were about to see. There is so much we learn about of the camps in school and in books and films, but nothing can fully prepare you for the experience of actually being at the camps.

Birkenau was much more spread out than Auschwitz, mainly due to the railroad line that went down the center of the camp. Still on the railroad is a cattle car that was used to transport Jewish families to the camp. On the steps of the car and on it’s wheels are hundreds, if not thousands, of stones. It is Jewish tradition to honor the dead with a stone on their gravestone to show them remembrance. It was heartwarming to see so many of stones in honor of the lost on that car.

Much of Birkenau was destroyed right before liberation, so there is a lot less to actually walk through at the camp. There is a memorial put up by the government and commemorated in many different languages, including Yiddish and Hebrew. The memorial is right next to the ruins of the gas chambers, which are just as hard to see as the standing ones at Auschwitz.

The last stop on our tour was a still-standing barrack with the wooden planks coming out of the walls, two or three levels high. These were the beds of many prisoners and are universally recognizable. So many pictures shown in books about the Holocaust were taken in these barracks. Seeing the empty bunks, you can almost picture the faces peering over the edges, like in the pictures.

The trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau was incredibly hard, but in my opinion one that everyone needs to see at least once in their life. For Jews, it’s a part of our past and it cannot be forgotten or ignored. For the rest of the world, it is something that needs to be seen so that everyone understands fully what happened and why it can never happen again. IMG_2414

The Jewish Quarters – Kazimierez (Krakow) and the Warsaw Ghetto

One of the things that has surprised me the most about Poland is the lack of Jews. I guess I was naive to think that there would still be a large Jewish population here, especially after World War II. But in all reality, there are no Jews here. At all.

So many of my friends back home who are Jewish have Polish roots, as do I. Poland had the largest Jewish population in eastern Europe before the war and now it almost doesn’t exist. A few posts ago I wrote about how we searched and searched in vain for the only synagogue left in Warsaw. We didn’t find it and it was very surprising to me that no one could even point us in the direction it might be. It really goes to show how no one knows anyone who is a part of the Jewish population in Warsaw, probably because it doesn’t really exist anymore.

In Krakow however, it is a slightly (very slightly) different story. There has always been a Jewish Quarter here, known as Kazimierez. Since Krakow was not destroyed as Warsaw was during and after the war, the Jewish Quarter still stands today. With this designated historical section of the city, one would think you would also find a thriving Jewish population in the city. But alas, it doesn’t exist here as well.

We went on a walking tour of Kazimierez one day last week and our guide explained to us how there used to be as many as 600,000 Jews living in Kazimierez before the war. The current population is about 140-400 Jews. However, even with this tiny Jewish population, they still have three rabbis (pretty cool!).

We got to see four synagogues in all during our time in Kazimierez. The first was (below) was one of the older synagogues in the area. No longer an active congregation, it serves as a museum to the Jewish people in Kazimierez today. The white part of the building was added later on to accommodate the women in the Orthodox congregation (since traditionally men and women sit separately).IMG_2452

The next synagogue we went to is still active, though it is in great need of some renovating. On the grounds with the Jewish Cemetery in Krakow, the sanctuary is very small and many of the decorative paintings inside were destroyed during the war and haven’t really been redone. The bimah is intact though and still looks beautiful.IMG_2460

The Jewish Cemetery is something entirely of its own right. Very well kept up, it’s age is very apparent. The headstones are deteriorating and many of them have support slabs behind them to keep them up and others have metal little “roofs” over them so that the snow during the winter does not destroy the stone. Many of the headstones have a rounded top and the walls surrounding the Warsaw Ghetto had this pattern to them as a sort of mocking to the Jews and to remind them of what was in store for them, namely death. The walls surrounding the cemetery are created using headstones that were destroyed during the war by the Nazis. They are all broken up, but many are still readable. They have been put together in a sort of mosaic to remember those graves that are no longer visible. I think it’s a great gesture of remembrance.

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The third synagogue on our trip was the current Chabad congregation in Krakow. This really amused me as I left home with a Chabad House down the street from my house and here in Poland was the same exact thing. This sanctuary was kept in much better condition and many of the paintings and art on the walls was completely restored. Since this was an active synagogue, there was a little store out front that sold kosher snacks and food from Israel as well as a gift shop that sold mezuzahs, menorahs and little trinkets from Israel. Since the Jewish population in Krakow right now is so small, I wonder how many people they actually have come into their store or if it is just for tourists like us coming through.

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The last stop on our tour of Kazimierez was the facade of the oldest synagogue in Krakow. This building was no longer used actively by a congregation, but it used to house the Hebrew School and Yeshiva for the area. Now I believe it is a museum, although since we did not go inside I do not know for certain.

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I was very surprised by the Jewish presence (and non-presence) in Krakow. I thought there would be more Jews, but even though the community as very small, there were obvious signs all around Kazimierez. This was where parts of the movie “Schindler’s List” were filmed (and we also got to tour Schindler’s factory, which is now a wonderful museum about the war and the Jewish ghetto in Krakow as well as how Schindler saved thousands of Jews with his lists).

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This brings us to back to Warsaw, where we were able to tour the ghetto at the end of our third week in Poland. I use the phrase “tour the ghetto” very loosely. What was the Warsaw Ghetto has been completely destroyed and there is really nothing left of it. If you were just walking around the parts of the city that used to be incorporated into the ghetto, you would never know. The city of Warsaw has put up markers around the area though, marking the boundaries of the ghetto and where the walls used to be.IMG_2631

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Being inside the ghetto area had the least effect on me compared to any of the other Jewish sites so far. It is hard to remember you are standing inside the ghetto walls as you walk around because it has all been redone and there are hardly any markers, save a few plaques here and there. The Jewish theatre, where Jews enclosed in the ghetto were able to perform theatre and musical concerts is now a movie theatre with one plaque describing what happened previously in that building.

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There is also a grave site and memorial for the fighters in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. It is significantly less grand than other memorials around the city. Others have statues and guarded tombs – this one had a few stone steps and a grassy mound with one marker on the top. There is a statue commemorating the uprising and it is located at the new museum of Jewish history.

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The most moving area in the ghetto came at the end of the tour. There is a memorial to those who were forced to live within the ghetto walls and who then lost their lives at the hands of the Nazis when they were transferred to the concentration camps. Written in Polish, Hebrew and English, there are a few large walls of memorial to these Jews (some 300,000). Inscribed on one wall are common Yiddish names to memorialize those who lost their lives. Even though these names are just generalizations, it really hit home with me as I read the wall and saw the first names or Hebrew names of almost all of my relatives. Listed were Leopold, Rachel, Zawel, Mordecai, Anastasia, Ludwik, David, Deborah (the Hebrew name or first names of myself, my father, grandfather, sister, great-uncle, uncle and aunt) among others. This was the first time that day that it really hit me that this ghetto was my past, even if I had no immediate family who were forced to live in it. These names very easily, in another life, could have been me.IMG_2655

 

Keeping all that in mind this trip has been hard for me. I don’t want to think about all the tragedies the Jewish people went through just 70 years or so ago, yet everywhere you look here in Poland there is a reminder of what happened. We can’t forget. It is our duty to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

PS. We finally found the Warsaw synagogue!

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Wieliczka Salt Mine and First Glimpses of Krakow

I know it’s been a while since my last post! Sorry sorry sorry! I’ll try and be a little better about keeping this blog updated.

My last post left off after the end of our first week in Warsaw. After week one, we all loaded up into our fancy party bus and started the long drive down to Krakow. It really was a long drive too, almost six hours, through lots and lots of Polish countryside. Don’t get me wrong, it was a beautiful drive, but six hours straight on a bus is enough to drive anyone a little crazy.

We finally made it to Krakow and went almost directly to a restaurant to eat dinner. This dinner stands out in my mind especially well since it was when I ate the best pierogis of my life so far. They were perfectly fried and stuffed with potatoes and a hint of cheese. Yum!

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The next day found us in a little village called Wieliczka where one of the most famous salt mines in Poland is. A salt mine might not sound very fun or interesting, but this one was very cool!

After walking down 54 flights of stairs to get into the mine, we were still only on level one, with at least two more levels to go. As we walked around the mine, gong chamber to chamber, not only was it just completely made of salt, but you could taste the salt in the air. Our guide showed us how the floor was made out of salt and how we could even lick the salt walls if we wanted (don’t worry, I did not lick the Polish salt wall).

The mine used to be extremely famous because salt was a commodity as precious as gold in times like the 16th and 17th centuries. This was because salt was the only method of preserving food in times without refrigeration so the salt miners were considered upper class citizens. Now salt isn’t quite as valuable a commodity nor is Wieliczka an active mine. Today it is only used as a tourist site.

The mine itself was like a small town in and of itself. There was a ballroom, multiple chapels, statues of important figures like Copernicus and Casmir the Great, lakes, horses and other necessary life staples. Keep in mind, everything was made of salt. Some of the salt statues were absolutely incredible and it was so easy to forget that we were really looking at table salt!

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The entire town of Wieliczka was so, so cute, much like many of the towns throughout the countryside in Poland. Every time we drove though one little town, it was so quaint. Little houses with red roofs and trees and green grass everywhere. I love it.IMG_2361

Krakow itself is a bit of a different story. Very different from the new, old-style architecture of Warsaw, everything in Krakow is actually old. And you can tell. Aside from the Old Town Market Square where the buildings are kept to look very nice, most of the buildings are run down. What used to be beautiful architecture is now falling apart, with bricks and paint falling off constantly.

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There is graffiti everywhere here in this city. These pictures are from Warsaw, but scenes like this are all over Krakow as well.

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In the Old Part of Krakow, there is a big market square. Inside the square are churches, restaurants and a big indoor market where you can buy all sorts of fun souvenirs. One of the funniest things you can buy are Lucky Jews. There are hardly any Jews left in Krakow, but these “Lucky Jew” statuettes and pictures are everywhere. People hang pictures of a Jewish man counting money on their walls at home here for good luck and fortune. It’s really quite a funny sight.

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I’ll post more about our trip to the Jewish Quarter of Krakow as well as our tour of Auschwitz-Birkenau tomorrow. Thanks for reading!