Impressions of Warsaw

I’m writing to you now from my postage stamp sized room in Krakow and I wanted to sum up my impressions of our first week in Warsaw. Warsaw is a beautiful city, first and foremost and I’m really glad it’s going to be our home base while we’re in Poland. Sure, we’re traveling all around the country, but at the end of the day (or at the end of the week), we return to Warsaw.

I can’t say I spent much time just wandering around the city during that first week we spent there. Our hotel was outside of the city and it took almost an hour each way by public bus to get to the city center. After a long day of classes, sitting on a hot bus for an hour isn’t very appealing.

I wrote all about our trips and travels to Rakowiecka Prison and the Warsaw Uprising Museum so I’m sure you can imagine how tired we all were the next day. It mainly just consisted of class and some well-deserved rest time. On Saturday, we had a afternoon party with some students from Warsaw University. Our hotel has a high ropes course on it’s campus, so us Americans took to the ropes while the Poles were smart and stayed on the ground.

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After what can only be described as a very terrifying, adrenaline pumping 90 minutes we were safety on two feet again and all I had to show was a very bloody finger from an unplanned collision with some obstacles and a lot of pictures that don’t quite capture the feelings that were felt by all.

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We had a nice dinner chatting with the Polish students, comparing college experiences and how college students live in our two countries. Even though we’re halfway around the world, college seems pretty similar.

This brings me now to Sunday – free day! We all decided we definitely wanted to go explore Warsaw since we had nothing to exhaust us that morning and we really did want to explore the city on our own.

Another Jewish girl and I wanted to find the only synagogue left in Warsaw and so we set off on our trek to find it. Even with the address and someone who could ask for help in Polish, the trip was to no avail. People on the streets had no idea what we were asking about when we asked for directions. I don’t think I could point to a specific church in Boston if asked by a tourist on the street, but I do think I could point in the general direction of at least one historic church. You’d think with only one synagogue (and a historic one at that), the people of Warsaw would have an easy time pointing it out, but nope. Nothing. We ended up giving up without finding it, but we will try again next week when we’re back in the city.

We took a nice stroll through the Old Town in Warsaw and ended up at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which is a monument dedicated to soldiers who have lost their lives in battle and is guarded 24/7 by national troops. Behind it is a big park with a beautiful fountain in the middle.

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This was one of the most surprising parts of Warsaw to me – it is a very green city. Not only are there trees, bushes, shrubs and flowers everywhere, but there are large, open spaces that seem out of place with the hustle and bustle of the big city. You can sit by the fountain next to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and forget for a moment you are in a capital city.

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Another thing that struck me about Warsaw was how big of a city it is and the big city vibe it definitely gives off. If you think about it, 70 years the entire city was destroyed during the war and up until about 25 years ago, the city was occupied by the Soviets. And yet, if you didn’t know any of this, it wouldn’t be evident in the slightest as you walked around the city. The buildings all have a fresh coat of paint, the public transportation is very nice, the landscaping is beautiful, modern buildings are constantly being constructed and you don’t see ruins of buildings anywhere.

Warsaw has done a beautiful job rebuilding it’s heritage and recreating the old feel of the city while still adapting to the 21st century. It really is a wonderful city and I can’t wait to get back there again next week!

The Warsaw Uprising

Oops. I know I haven’t even finished describing our day from Thursday and it’s already Saturday so let me get on that stat.

After our trip to the Rakowiecka Prison, it was time for us to explore the Warsaw Uprising Museum. The day before, we had had a lecture from a visiting professor about the history of the Warsaw Uprising and since most of it was new to me, I will summarize some of the main points for you (just in case you are in my pre-lesson shoes).

In 1944, Poland was under occupation from Nazi Germany. The Polish Home Army in Warsaw decided to rebel in order to liberate Warsaw from the Germans. They thought their best chance for liberation would come when the Soviets came into Warsaw.

The uprising started on August 1, 1944 and initially the Poles had control over the city of Warsaw, but the Poles were unable to establish a relationship with the Soviets. This led to them receiving no reinforcements in troops, while the Germans they were fighting against kept receiving more and more help from their country. After four days of fighting, the Poles seemed to be gaining more and more control, but that all came crashing down on August 5 when the Germans began to attack the Poles en mass. Three days later, 100,000 Polish civilians had been killed and the tone for the uprising had been set — Poland was in trouble.

Even though the Polish resistance was able to free a ghetto in Warsaw, the two sides reached a stalemate and even more fighting ensued. The Poles surrendered the Old Town by the end of the month. Most communication had been cut off and members of the resistance used the sewers throughout the city to avoid the German occupied parts of Warsaw. Food was short and many other countries ignored Poland’s plea for help.

Once the Germans realized the Soviets were not going to take a side, they began to disarm the Polish Home Army, as it appeared to be the only solution for them. They began to destroy the city, killing even more civilians and forcing the rest out of the city. After 63 days of fighting, Warsaw was destroyed and the Poles were out of luck.

The Warsaw Uprising is a very important, yet sad part of Poland’s history. Every August 1, it is remembered around the country. It is so impressive to see that the city has been completely rebuilt since it’s complete destruction less than 100 years ago. The city is beautiful now, but it is interesting to see how it has changed from the pre-war period.

The Warsaw Uprising Museum is a special dedication to the events that occurred within those 63 days. The museum does a great job at both showing and telling visitors what life was like inside Warsaw during the Uprising.

We saw replicas of the posters posted throughout different districts in Warsaw that listed the names of those who had been killed or those who were sent to be executed. I even found a Buika on the list (not a relative since our name was spelled Bujko when in Poland, but still cool).

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There were displays of the armbands worn by the Polish Home Army. They are only red and white bands since whole uniforms were too expensive. I was so impressed that the museum even knew the names of the soldiers who wore each armband they had displayed. When so many people were killed and so much of the city was destroyed, how do they know who wore which band?

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There was a whole section with documents identifying remains that had been found after the occupation. It was so sad to see how many were unable to be identified. Each document described the age of the remains as well as what they were wearing and the type of injuries sustained.

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The entire museum was so well done and it documents such an important part of Polish history. I’m really glad we got to see the museum, especially after our lecture on the Uprising.

After our museum tour, it was off to the train station to get our bus and train passes! In an excursion that should have taken about two minutes each, we spent over an hour trying to get our monthly passes in a completely shut down train station. After a whole day on our feet, this was not what we wanted to be doing with our evening. It was dinnertime and we were all hungry and tired. And we had to deal with our bus passes. And then get on the bus for the 45 minute ride back to our hotel. It made me miss Boston and the crazy T and T stations so much!

Just a few fun pictures from the museum:

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Hanging out in the replica sewers

 

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A Day in Prison – Rakowiecka

Sorry for not writing anything yesterday! Nothing much happened except class and I didn’t want to bore you all with the details of my not-so-interesting day (to sum it up: learned about the Warsaw Uprising, ate way too much food, took a nap and got sunburned while doing homework outside).

So on to today – what did we do during this absolutely jam-packed day? In order to save you from having to read the blog post that never ends, I’m going to cut today in half and post the first stop of the day in this post and the afternoon stop sometime tomorrow.

Our day started off at the Rakowiecka Prison in Warsaw. This is a currently active prison, servicing some 900 prisoners at any given time. However, what makes this prison special is that it was built during the time of the Polish Partitions (basically when Poland was not a state and its territory had been partitioned out to Russia, Prussia and Austria) and was used as a KGB prison during Communist times. Many political prisoners were kept here and between 1945 and 1956, over 1,000 prisoners were executed by the Soviets, many of whom still remain unidentified.

When we were first told that we would be touring a prison, I immediately thought how cool it would be. I’ve never toured a prison or jail in the United States before, but I’ve done a lot of research on the criminal justice system and I thought it would be interesting to compare the two. However, the more I thought about it and the more I learned about this particular prison, known for it’s torture during Soviet control, the more worried I became. We were told to dress accordingly because there was a chance for contact with current inmates. We weren’t allowed to bring in any cell phones, cameras or bags. And finally, we were granted last-minute access to the area of the prison where the most dangerous criminals were kept, those serving life sentences and never allowed outside.

But you know what? Here I am in Poland, I’m going to go see as much of this prison as they’ll let me see. Because of the no camera rule, the only pictures I have of the prison are from the outside. We did see a van for the prison guards pull up and drive into the prison while we were waiting to go in.

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Once inside, we sat in a very fancy room with wood floors, a small stage and portraits of who I would assume were famous generals or leaders in Poland as we got an introduction from the prison director. He explained to us the history of the prison, including it’s period of torture and Soviet control. He detailed how the room we were sitting in used to be the Communist prison courtroom and directly below us was where they would execute people. The thought of that alone makes you a little queasy, let alone actually setting foot on the mark where the executions took place, but we’ll get to that later.

The prison director gave us some background on how the Polish prison system works. The Polish system, like the American system, is overcrowded, so even though presently the Rakowiecka prison is meant to only hold men pre-trial, because of it’s nice facilities and large number of beds, many prisoners stay there to serve out their sentence after trial as well. On site there is classes the inmates can take, therapy sessions (especially for alcohol abuse and addiction) and a hospital. Inmates are also allowed to leave the facility to attend classes at a local university should the judge rule that it is okay. Rehabilitation is a big thing in the Polish system. The facilitators at the prison all believe that after they serve their sentence, the men will be able to fully function in society.

I found that pretty interesting since while it is always the goal for prisoners to be released and be able to integrated into society, in America that is hardly ever the case. Prisoners get very little extra services, like higher level education, while serving time and society treats them so poorly once released. In the United States the level of recidivism is quite high. In Poland, probably due to the services provided in prison, that level is lower.

After hearing about the history of the prison, it was time for a tour. We got to see an actual cell, one where five men all lived. It was about the size of my single-bed dorm room at Northeastern. These men, even though they had small, uncomfortable looking beds, were also allowed to have a computer, playstation, potted plants, a rug and pictures everywhere. It was way more homey looking than I expected.

We were led down a staircase into a hallway with a very low ceiling. The temperature immediately got about 15-20 degrees warmer and you could feel the air all around you. The floors were still the original concrete (the rest of the prison was tiled) with cracks and chunks missing every few steps. Where were we? Then it became clear. This is where the torture used to occur. No windows, a few doors leading into smaller, more claustrophobic rooms. You could almost hear the screams as the type of methods used were described.

We were led through this hallway even farther still until we got to three small steps leading into a very small, very smelly sunken down room. Directly in front of us was a concrete wall. To our left, a small alcove with a hole in the floor, a faucet and a window under which were two wreaths with Polish inscriptions on them. Only now do I understand that these inscriptions must be some sort of memorial to those who passed through this place. This was the executioner’s room.

The queasy feeling we all felt earlier when we sat in the courtroom doubled now that we were all sweating, breathing in foul smelling air and standing in the exact spot hundreds, if not thousands, of people had been shot dead and then dragged into the alcove and out the window to dispense of their bodies. The prisoners knew they were receiving the death penalty, but were never told the exact day on which they were to be killed. One day a guard came to transport them and as they walked down those very steps, the guard would pull out his gun and shoot them. As you looked down at the cracks in the floor in front of those stairs, the feeling to get out was intense. Finally breathing fresh air once outside again was such a relief.

Our next stop was the building kept specially for the extremely dangerous criminals. These are men who have committed such terrible crimes they have been sentenced to 25 years to life. There is no longer a death penalty in Poland.

Normally, this is not a stop on the tour. But somehow, due to string pulling and puppy dog eyes, we would up walking through the security inside this high level security facility. On the monitors at the front security desk, we could see the prisoners pacing around inside their cells. What were these men up to? Why were they here? Were they really that dangerous? So many questions, no answers.

The level of security in this building was vastly different than the security in the rest of the prison. What had been a simple knock or buzz to open a door was now a buzz, knock, ring, two locks and the guard at a desk somewhere still had to electronically unlock a door for us to go through. The front and back doors to one room were never allowed to be open at the same time. The doors to the cells had two levels to them, in order to maximize security.

After feeling somewhat unsafe the entire time we were in that section, we moved to the section where regular security level prisoners receive therapy. We met with one of the psychologists who explained to us how their 12-week program works. It was all very interesting, but the entire time he was talking I was replaying in my head the scene that had just took place before we entered this classroom.

Let me explain — due to privacy rights, foreigners are allowed no contact with prisoners. We were supposed to see no real prisoners up close. However, in order to get to the therapy classroom, we had to walk through the row of cells where some of the inmates live. They were all out and about as we did this. While they all looked nice (or as nice as you can imagine a prisoner looking) and there was never a time any of them tried to come too close to us, the fact that we were a group of mostly young women walking through rows and rows of male inmates with only a few guards present was a bit unsettling, to say the least. By the time we were all done being called out to and had successfully made it to the classroom, therapy sessions were the last thing from my mind.

That was the last stop on our prison tour and we exited just as easily as we had entered. All of a sudden we were back on the streets of Warsaw without a single picture to prove the experiences we just had. I hope you’ll all believe I spent the morning in prison,, if not, hope you enjoyed the story!

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Coming up: Warsaw Uprising Museum and adventures in a shut down train station with zero Polish skills.

First Pierogi and a Day in Warsaw!

Guess what everyone? I got to try my first real Polish pierogi today! Since that’s obviously the most important part of today, I’ll get to that at the end of the post (but there will be a picture too, I promise!)

Today was our first day actually out and about in Poland. We started off taking a shuttle bus from our hotel to Warsaw University, our host university for our stay here in Poland. After driving through a part of town very reminiscent of Newbury Street in Boston (think cute shops, places to get coffee, fun restaurants and cafes), we arrived at the university. It is gorgeous, absolutely gorgeous. All the buildings, even if they are not actually old, have been made to match the old, classical architecture of the Old Town in Warsaw. Much better than the regular old square buildings at Northeastern.

We met up with our host professor, a very nice man, but please don’t ask me his name as the answer will result in a lot of stuttering and slurring of strange consonants rolling off my tongue and by the end you still won’t know this man’s name. Really, just better off that we move on. He specializes in Ottoman history, but has made an exception for us and is teaching us about the history of Poland, starting all the way back in the 10th century. We took a quick tour of the history building and ended up in a very hot, very crowded seminar room for our lecture of the day entitled “Glimpses into Polish History.”

This brings us to today’s list – Five Things I Learned About Polish History. here we go:

1.¬† At the end of the 19th century, there were no Poles registered at Eliis Island. I know what you’re thinking. “Wait a minute, that can’t be true. My Polish relatives came through Ellis Island in the 1800’s, I have proof!” Believe me, I was just as shocked as you. But here’s the deal. At this time in history there was no Polish state. All Polish territory had been partitioned up and was governed by Prussia or Austria. When people from these partitions came through Ellis Island, they were categorized as Austrian or Prussian, not Polish. For many of them, it wasn’t until they met other immigrants like themselves in the United States that they even learned of their Polish background!

2. The only reason Warsaw is the capital of the country is that is was in-between Krakow, the former capital of Poland, and the capital of Lithuania. In the 16th century, a union, both politically and through marriage, was created between the two countries and there needed to be a central place for the governments to meet and Warsaw just so happened to be that place. And the rest, as they say, is history.

3. Much of our American Constitution is based on what was going on in Poland at the time. We basically turned our Constitution into a “let’s not become like Poland” list. We took ideas like having our President be born in our country and the idea of a veto from the Poles.

4. Universities in Poland pre-WWII and during the war kept lists of all Jewish students and made them sit segregated from the rest of the students in class. All separate facilities for these students.

5. Polish people really like maps. Our host professor used about ten maps in the course of 90 minutes to demonstrate his points. And there were more he could have used. So many maps!!

After our lesson, we took a tour of the university’s campus. We saw the Regent’s Palace (hey President Aoun, your house on Beacon Street is looking a little shabby now) as well as the school library. They have a living garden on top of the library. What?! It was absolutely beautiful. Leaves and trees and ivy growing everywhere, taking over everything. I felt like I had just walked into a fairy tale. And you could see so much of the city from atop the roof – church steeples, the river, rooftops. I would love studying up there every day if I went to Warsaw University.

Then we took a nice hike over to the Old Town in Warsaw. All rectangular buildings painted in warm colors and of course, absolutely pristine. Even though much of it had to be rebuilt after the war, it feels as though you are walking back in time over the cobblestones alongside the horse and carriage riding along next to you.

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We saw the President’s Palace, which is a giant white house (sound familiar?) with guards and statuettes all in front. Unlike the US, you can walk up super close to the building with no visible security in sight. We were let free for lunch in one of the market areas with artists selling their pieces right there in the center square. I’d like to say this is when the pierogis appeared in my day, but alas, not quite yet.

After lunch we walked more around the Old Town and into the New Town, which has also been redone since the war and looks almost the same as the Old Town. Here I learned that there are almost no Jewish temples left in Warsaw, there were all destroyed in the war and have not yet been rebuilt. This was very strange to me as I assumed by today there would be a few that rebuilt and were functioning again.

A few more stops along our tour — the Polish Supreme Court and the memorial to the Warsaw Uprising. Then it was an hour on the public bus back to our hotel and I’m lucky I didn’t pass out or fall our the door of the bus (the driver would barely stop the bus to let people off, more like a slow down and hop off). We survived and it was time for dinner and you’ve got it, my pierogis!

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It’s been a long day here in Warsaw and I’m not completely adjusted to the time yet. More class tomorrow. If there’s anything interesting, I’ll let you know! Thanks for reading!

Poland: First Impressions

Well, what do you know? I’m finally in Poland. Land of kielbasa, pierogis, potatoes and oh yeah, a lot of my family. It’s so strange to think that I’m writing this post from a small European country that I never would have imagined myself in this time last year. What am I doing here? Why choose Poland for my summer vacation? Shouldn’t I have chosen someplace warmer, say Spain?

I’ll start from the beginning. At Northeastern University, where I just finished my first year of college, they offer programs for students to take classes abroad, but in a way where they don’t have to give up an entire semester on campus. It’s a great way to study abroad without the actual “study abroad semester.” A year ago I would have told you I wanted to study abroad for 6 months or a year, but life changes sometimes (at that time I was also a biology major and we all know how that one turned out). Since I want to focus so much now on the day to day politics of my own country, it would be difficult to just leave for so long. So this Dialogue thing seemed pretty cool when the opportunity arose in the fall.

I applied to the Poland trip on a whim. My family is originally mostly from Poland and I’ve always had an interest in family history. I had also declared a history minor and the class for the Dialogue would help me complete that. I’d get to knock out two birds with one stone, what a great plan. Honestly I sort of forgot I had even applied for the trip until I got an email from the professor saying I was accepted and just like that, I was going to Poland.

Actually getting here is an entirely different story and I won’t bore you with the details, but it involves a lot of packing, re-packing, airplanes, buses and being really tired.

We left Boston Sunday afternoon and after a quick stop in Frankfurt, Germany (even got a passport stamp to prove it!), we made it to Poland. The day took on an entirely different meaning for me as I found out that our departure day was also the yahrtzeit of my Great-Grandfather Irving Yaverbaum, who emigrated to the United States from Poland in 1912. Just over a hundred years later, there I was, back again.

There are 15 students on the trip, along with our professor and his wife (who takes such good care of us that I’m pretty sure I’ll be calling her mom by the end of the week). We loaded our fancy bus from the airport and drive through Warsaw to our hotel, located just outside the city.

I have to be honest here and say that I really didn’t do a ton of research about Poland before I came, so I didn’t know what to expect. I can tell you, however, my first impressions of Warsaw and Poland are very different that anything I ever imagined.

Here are my top ten first impressions:

1. People actually speak Polish here. I’d always heard that most places in Europe now use English, especially in cities (and they are people who speak English), but the majority of the people we’ve encountered really only speak Polish. It makes things harder, but at the same time, it’s going to make things memorable. Sure, ordering foods involves a lot of pointing now, but I can just make up what I think every billboard in town says.

2. Even in the city, the architecture is both more complex and simple than anywhere else I’ve ever been. The majority of the buildings are just basic rectangular buildings that aren’t even that tall. But then you’ll see the skyscraper that is purposely leaning at an angle and/or looks like something crashed into it. But it’s meant to look like that.

3. It must rain a lot here. There is so much greenery on the side of the roads and in Warsaw itself. Grass, trees, bushes. All very green.

4. Driving out of Warsaw to our hotel, I felt as if I was back in Mexico, driving down the highway there. Flat as far as the eye can see and little farms plopped down on the side of the road with no particular order to them. All the properties have a one or two story, relatively nice house in the middle with somewhat unfinished structures¬† all around. And a big fence encircling it all to separate form the property next door. If there hadn’t been Polish signs everywhere, I could have easily forgot I was in Poland for a moment.

5. Polish people are still coming to terms with what happened in World War II. Our host professor, from the University of Warsaw, mentioned that he named his first son a Jewish name even though his family wasn’t Jewish and he came from two Communist parents. I’m interested to see other aspects of Poland-Jewish relations.

6. There is a LOT of food here. I don’t know if it’s just the hotel we’re staying at or the country in general, but I’ve never eaten this much food in one day ever before in my life.

7. Poland has perfect weather. No humidity.

8. Everything is red and orange. Trains, buses, taxis, signs. And I don’t know why.

9. I wish I spoke Polish. It sounds cool. It looks cool.

10. Even though I’ve never been here before, it already feels familiar. Maybe it’s the family history here, who knows?

Tomorrow we’ll be venturing off to the Old Town in Warsaw. I’ll post pictures soon!