Poland: Milk Bars, Walking Tours, Copernicus, and WWII

“He who saves one life, saves the world entire” – Talmud

(Top: Boundaries of the former Warsaw Ghetto memorialized; Middle: Wawel Castle, Krakow; Bottom: Memorial to the Polish children who acted as couriers, medics, etc, and died alongside the adult soldiers during WWII)

Poland is a revelation. For decades I have read about this country, and as a teenager I and the rest of the world watched the riveting drama of Solidarnosc (Solidarity) as Lech Walesa and his worker’s union lead the charge against communism. But this boots-on-the-ground experience offers me glimpses of real-life in a nation irrevocably shaped and scarred by the cataclysm that was WWII and by the subsequent years under Russian domination. Poland has literally risen from ashes to grapple with its complex past. It is a land of bold scars, where the soil remembers treachery, honour and the march of armies.

(Sigismund’s Column framed by part of Warsaw’s old town – faithfully restored)

On my first morning in Warsaw, a chill wind blows me, jet-lagged and freezing, toward Sigismund’s Column. The monument, located in Royal Square and topped by a statue of a king, caused an uproar in the 17th century because columns only ever exalted religious figures. Everyone calmed down when a cross, held aloft to signify God’s authority over man, was added. Today is Constitution Day and a cordon of soldiers flanks it’s base, scrutinizing the crowd of tourists and flag-waving Varsavians.

I join a group of other travellers for the Orange Umbrella Old Town Walking Tour and we shiver our way through the narrow cobblestone streets, dodging security details and road blocks, and listening intently as our thoughtful young guide attempts to educate us on what it means to be Polish. Here are some salient facts: Over eighty percent of Warsaw was destroyed during WWII. After the war the residents pooled their funds and working together, restored the Old Town, including the Royal Castle. The attention to detail is stunning and the pride obvious. After the tour, two other Canadians and I huddle together, discussing the fact that we have no real frame of reference for the Polish experience. Geography granted our country a pass from the physical devastation and deprivation visited on every citizen here.

(Top: Restored building with detailed paintings in Warsaw Old Town; Bottom: Order window in a Milk Bar)

The cold eventually drives me into a Milk Bar. Developed by the communists as a cheap way to feed the toiling masses, these simple kitchens continue to offer hearty, traditional meals at low prices. Fortunately I’m a big fan of cabbage, soup and potatoes (meat is available for carnivores) and I’m soon warm and full.

The next morning finds me at the Warsaw Rising Museum. Located in a Soviet-era style concrete neighbourhood, the museum offers an in-depth look at the Polish resistance movement and the 63 day battle that raged from August to October, 1944 and left Warsaw a virtual ghost town.

(Picture: Stone monument at the centre of the Warsaw Rising Museum pulsates with a heartbeat to commemorate those who fought and died. The museum opened in 2004 on the 60th anniversary of the Polish Home Army’s attempt to fight off the Nazis and free their capital)

With one tour and one museum under my belt, the history lesson is only beginning. Next is the Jewish Warsaw Walking Tour. Again, our international group tramps the streets examining for traces of a Warsaw where 375,000 Jews (one-third of Warsaw’s total prewar population) once thrived. We see the outlines of the Jewish Ghetto memorialized on sidewalks and everywhere daffodils bloom – symbols of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in April, 1943.

(Top: Engraved stone marks the spot where the commander of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising died with his remaining fighters; Bottom: Plaque remembers Janusz Korczak children’s educator and writer who was murdered together with the children in his orphanage)

My takeaways from the tour are:

1) There was a lot of hatred. The Nazis hated the Jews and the Poles (and many others) and wanted them all dead. Many Poles also hated the Jews.

2) There was a lot of courage. The penalty for assisting a Jew in Poland was execution. Many took this risk

3) Misinformation was used to fan the flames of hatred

4) When you dehumanize someone you can rationalize any atrocity

5) Try as I might, I could find no difference between myself, the guide or any of the other people on that tour. Skin colour doesn’t count – it’s still just skin.

Back at the hostel, it is pieroghi making night, and I welcome the distraction from the sadness of history. Together four of us – all women – from disparate parts of the globe – form and cook the pastries, then sit down to eat and laugh and share stories from our lives.

Over the next few days I travel by train to Lublin and then Krakow. These cities remained largely intact during the war but their Jewish population too, was exterminated. Majdanek camp, framed by green fields and plainly visible to the citizens of Lublin, oversaw the murders of at least 80,000 souls and was the site of the largest single massacre of the war (Operation Harvest Festival). Large groups of Jewish tourists pace the grounds with me. I feel the need to read every word on the notice boards and to acknowledge every picture, as if, in some small way, to atone for these long lost lives.

(Top: Lublin’s Old Town seen through the Krakow Gate which marked the start of the ancient road from Lublin to Krakow; Bottom: Majdanek ditches where tens of thousands were murdered, while dance music played, in Operation Harvest Festival – Nov. 3, 1943)

To get to Auschwitz and Auschwitz-Birkenau, I join a self-guided day tour. Pickup is in Kazimierz, Krakow’s Old Jewish Quarter and we drive 1.5 hrs into the countryside to join the crowds queuing just outside the infamous gates announcing “Arbeit Macht Frei” (work sets you free). Admission is free (except if you hire a guide) – the state, I assume, not wishing to profit from so perverse an attraction.

(Top: The gate of Auschwitz camp; Middle: shadows on a wall at Auschwitz representing the disappeared; Bottom: Railroad tracks and gate at Auschwitz-Birkenau where over one million people were delivered to their murderers)

I wander first Auschwitz and then the vast expanse of Auschwitz-Birkenau in a sort of trance. It is difficult, on this tranquil, sun- splashed day sprinkled with birdsong and blessed by freedom, to understand the horrors – the despair, the screams, the stench, the starvation and brutality – of this place. I stand on the railroad tracks and try to imagine disembarking to whips and dogs – my children ripped from my arms – stripping naked in the cold, and filing into those showers. I can only partially grasp it, but enough to pray, desperately, that we have the wisdom never to let it happen again. It is a relief to exit the gate. For the drive home, our group is silent.

(Images of Krakow: Jewish cemetery behind Remah Synagogue; Hebrew graffiti on wall behind the Old Synagogue; sign points the way to Oskar Schindler’s factory, now a museum; Saints Peter and Paul Church; Jagiellonian University)

At the homestay in Krakow, my roommates include an older Polish woman who appears (based on accumulated items) to live there, a young and friendly Polish girl who has come to the big city in search of a job, and a fellow Canadian who is working at a nearby hostel for the summer. On my first evening I’m invited to share a bottle of wine with the family. The man of the house, I learn, drives for Uber and is blissfully unaware of any problems facing that company. I choose not to enlighten him.

Krakow is a city that demands to be walked. Around seemingly every corner are sights – graffiti, a hidden garden dedicated to the sport of fencing, a storefront display of The Little Prince, a farmer’s market – that surprise and delight. Planty Park encircles the Old Town, replacing the ancient defensive walls with a peaceful, but busy, green oasis. At the parks south perimeter, on Wawel hill overlooking the Vistula River, atop a cave where legend dictates that Prince Krak slew a dragon, sit Wawel Castle and Wawel Cathedral. A fresh-faced new priest named Karol Wajtyla (Pope John Paul II) celebrated his first mass here in 1943. (It also contains a crypt to the curiously named King Wladislaw the Elbow -High). The old centre of Krakow is larger and grander than that of Warsaw. Horse carriages queue up by the old Cloth Hall in the main square to provide rides to tourists.

(Top: Wawel Castle; Mid: Cloth Hall and main square, Krakow; Mid: Solidarnosc sign bringing back memories; Bottom: Framed photo of earth taken on Apollo 11 by Neil Armstrong and presented to Jagiellonian University on the 500th anniversary of Copernicus’ birth)

I am a nerd, so perhaps my happiest two hours in Krakow are spent at Jagiellonian University, alma mater of one Nicholas Copernicus. I browse such treasures as a rotating book holder the size of a small elephant, a musical clock with rotating professor figures, a photo of earth taken by Neil Armstrong on Apollo 11, and a facsimile of Copernicus’ theology-shattering De Revolutionibus Orbium Celestum which revealed the sun, not the earth, as the centre of our universe.

My final stop is Oskar Schindler’s Enamel Factory Museum – within whose walls hundreds of Jewish lives were saved by the the humanity of a single man. Sometimes it really does just take one.

(Photos from Oskar Schindler’s Enamel Factory Museum where hundreds of Jewish lives were saved)

My mind flickers back to the Jewish Warsaw Tour and a private conversation I had with the young guide. “I look at our current political situation,” she said, “and I think that we haven’t learned anything from history. I think we will repeat the past.”

We live in a beautiful world. I hope that she is wrong.

(The horizon from the plane window – Oh so beautiful)

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