Sunday, March 31, 2013

Krakow to Bologna to a day

I left Krakow late Saturday afternoon to head to Bologna, Italy.  Why Bologna?  Simply because it was the cheapest place to fly into in Italy and that is where I wanted to head next.  It didn't really matter to me where I landed, because I'm taking the train all throughout the country. So, I chose what I had thought was the cheapest flight.  It was, actually, the cheapest flight, once again on the no frills Ryan Air.  Here's the rub: Ryan Air charges for every little check a bag, to reserve a seat, to print a boarding pass, etc.  I'm traveling alone, so I don't care about which seat I get on the plane, and in the past I've been able to print out my boarding pass online and not had to pay for it.  But in Krakow, I didn't have access to a printer and couldn't find an internet cafĂ© near the train station before leaving.  So, I knew I would have to pay for my boarding pass when I got to the airport.  I figured, it being Ryan Air, that it might be as much as $10 or even $15.  What I had not been prepared for was to pay $111 for it.  Yep, they charged me $111 bucks for one little piece of paper.  I was furious!  That's almost 3 times more than I paid for the flight itself.  I tried to cancel my flight and get on a later one so I could go back into town and find somewhere to print, but that would have cost me even more.  Live and learn...from now on, printing my pass will be a priority.

I arrived in Bologna after a flight so harrowing the passengers applauded when we finally touched down.  We went through a horrific storm that had the plane pitching left and right, dropping altitude suddenly, etc.  It made me glad I'm staying on the ground for a while.  Trains may bump and sway, but that is definitely preferable to dropping a 1000 feet or so unexpectedly. 

I don't have much to report about Bologna, because it was really just a stop-over point for me on the way to Venice, where I arrived by train this afternoon.  The trip through the Italian countryside was lovely.  I saw fields and farms, little Italian villages, and a couple of times I saw castle ruins on high hilltops. 

I'm staying just outside of Venice in a lovely little neighborhood called Marghera.  This time, instead of having my own apartment or hotel room, I am being hosted in the home of a wonderful woman named Vera Michelotto.  She is a gem!  Already we have become fast friends.  Vera is retired and rents a room in her home to travelers.  She doesn't accept just have to write her and let her know a little about yourself and what you are doing, and she decides who she will host.  I am lucky, lucky, lucky that she accepted me because she is one of the sweetest people I have ever met.  She was waiting for me at the train station when I arrived and fed me a traditional Italian Easter cake as soon as we got to the apartment.  As much as I wanted to get into Venice and look around, it was hard to leave Vera.  I felt immediately at home here and could have just sat in her kitchen  chatting all evening. 

I did pull myself away for a few hours, though, so here are some pictures of beautiful Venice.  I apologize, but I'm not doing commentary for these.  I'm exhausted tonight.  The time changed over here last night, moving an hour ahead.  While I love falling back, I hate springing forward.  And in a completely unfair twist of fate, I've had to do it twice in the past month...once before I left the states and now again in Europe.  You don't need my commentary anyway...the beauty of Venice speaks for itself.


Saturday, March 30, 2013

Another travel day...

I am about to leave to catch the tram, which will take me to a train, which will take me to the Krakow airport.  From there I am off to Bologna, Italy.  Between packing and cleaning before I leave, I don't have much to report.  But I did want to share some pics and info about a cute little restaurant where I had lunch today at the recommendation of Joanna, my kind and knowledgeable host in Krakow. 

The restaurant is in Kazimierz, the old Jewish Quarter.  It's called Dawno Temu na Kazimierzu, which loosely translates as Once Upon a Time in Kazimierz.  It is in a building that once housed Jewish businesses such as a general store, a tailor, and a carpentry shop.  The owner has used the original signs and many of the original items found in the building to decorate the restaurant and promote the heritage of the area. 

Here are a few pictures...

This is the exterior, with the sign from Chajim Kohan's general store.  The wooden shutters are original.
This is the cozy interior, filled with interesting antiques from the original stores that were located here.

This old wood stove, decorated with the Star of David is beautiful.

These jackets are the handiwork of Czymon Kac, a tailor who owned a shop here.

A very old accordion and some tools hang in another corner.

The meal starts with matso crackers and a garlic dip.  The two dips to the left are for my pierogies, a traditional Polish dumpling.

And finally, my meat filled Polish pierogies.  They were delicious!

Friday, March 29, 2013

Loving Poland....

Despite the sadness of yesterday's visit to the concentration camps, I have enjoyed every minute of my time here in Krakow.  Even that, while definitely heart-breaking, is something I'm glad I did.  People should see it.  The horror of it should be remembered, so we can make sure it never happens again.

Tonight I want to share some new pictures of Krakow and just some reflections about this wonderful city.  There is something about Poland that makes me feel at home.  I think it's because, in many ways, it's a lot like my home in the American south: the people are courteous and friendly, the food is hearty, and there is a church on every corner.  :-)

I absolutely love the people here.  They are so kind.  They are also the most law-abiding, patient group of people I have run across so far.  The public transportation in both Prague and Krakow work on the honor system.  There's no guard or inspector making sure you have a ticket.  You don't have to scan anything to get through a turnstile or to make the doors open.  You just hop on the tram and then scan your ticket at a little machine in the middle or end of the car.  Other than myself, I only saw a couple of people ever scan anything in Prague.  In Krakow, I've only seen a couple of people ride without scanning.  In fact, they have little machines inside the trams where you can buy a ticket, and I see people use them almost every time I ride.  They're already on the tram and it's moving, there will be no foul consequences for riding free, yet they buy their ticket as required and then take it over and scan it. 

For the most part, people here also don't move at crosswalks until the little pedestrian sign turns green.  Even if there is not a car in sight, they wait patiently in little groups until it's their turn to go.  They don't cross anywhere but the crosswalks.  I saw a guy running to catch a tram at a stop today, and even though he could have easily cut diagonally across the small, empty intersection, he ran across one street and then turned and ran across the other...looking up to make sure his pedestrian light was green, of course.  And the tram driver waited for him, which is something I've also only seen here.  I had one wait on me yesterday when I was running across an intersection trying to get to the stop before he pulled away.  He saw me and smiled, gesturing for me to come on as he opened the doors back up.  In most places, they pull away once the doors are closed...even sometimes with people banging on them to get inside. 

There is no pushing or shoving here.  I haven't heard anyone yell.  I haven't heard a single car horn or music blaring from a vehicle...or from anywhere for that matter.  I did hear some people singing evening prayers in Hebrew tonight as I walked past a synagogue, but that's it.  Younger people offer their seats to older people as trams get full, and I have regularly seen strangers helping those with canes or mothers with strollers up and down steps.  Today it snowed heavily all morning, and despite seeing about 3 dozen city maintenance workers out shoveling sidewalks and creating paths through parks and squares, in some places there were strips of ice on the sidewalks leaving only one pedestrian lane easily passable.  In areas where people needed to pass, there was an unspoken courtesy about taking turns. 

It's so refreshing to be in such a place.  A place where people are considerate of those around them.  A place where decency and courtesy are values to live by.  For as long as I live, I will always hold a special fondness for the people of Poland in my heart.

And now some pictures...

I awoke this morning to lots and lots of snow.  This pic was taken from the balcony of my apartment.

This is the barbican, left over from the days when Krakow was surrounded by a fortified wall and mote for protection.  There are only 3 barbicans left in Europe, and this one is the best preserved.  It sits in front of the gate leading into Stare Miasto, or the old town.

The heavy snow makes this statue look like it's wearing a white cloak.

St. Florian's Gate.  This was the main gate into the town of Krakow and was, at one time, attached to the barbican.  Most of the old city walls are gone, but this section with the main gate has been well preserved.
The flower vendors were out, despite the weather.

This is the clock tower in the Old Town square.

This is smoked, grilled cheese with cranberry sauce from a street vendor.

I've lamented about my confusion with money, so I made this pic today when I was pulling cash out of my pocket.  In Poland the currency is the zloty, abbreviated as both zl and PLN (although they mean exactly the same thing).  The "cents" equivalent is the groszy (abbreviate gr).  The bills are easy enough, but that's 9 different denominations of coins.  From left to right the coins go like this: 5zl, 2zl, 1zl, 50gr, 20gr, 10gr, 5gr, 2gr, 1gr.  Confused?  Welcome to my world.  All of this, bills included, is less than 31 US dollars.

This made me laugh!

Aren't these lovely and delicious looking?  See next pic for the name of the bakery...

That's right...the Pukiernia!  Actually, it's cukiernia, meaning confectionary...but it sure made me chuckle!

These buildings are historic sites in Kazimierz, the Old Jewish Quarter.  They were once part of the Krakow Ghetto, an area where Jews were forced to move and stay during the Nazi occupation of Poland.  The ghetto was eventually emptied, its residents sent to Birkenau for extermination.

Just so you don't think Kazimierz is all gloom and doom, I included this photo of vibrant Jewish restaurants on a beautiful square.  Most of the area is lovely, and all of it is interesting.

Franka Sinatry?  Really?
This is of the most popular street foods in Krakow.  It's sort of like a French bread pizza...but huge...and better! 

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Auschwitz and Birkenau

I can't exactly describe today as a "fun" day on the journey.  In fact, on the long bus ride back to Krakow from the concentration camps, I wondered how I would even begin to describe today's experience in this blog.  I still don't have an answer.  As much as I love words and believe in their power to express every possible emotion, situation, viewpoint, etc...they fail me today.  I considered "powerful," "incomprehensible," "heartbreaking," "painful," "tragic"...and others that are equally lacking to manifest the multitude of feelings that you experience while walking around Auschwitz and Birkenau.  No matter how many movies you've seen, books you've read, or pictures you've viewed regarding the Holocaust, nothing will have prepared you for the heavy cloak of sorrow you will bear in this place. 

You arrive at Auschwitz and after going through a museum-like building, you are free to walk around the grounds.  Some buildings are closed, some have been turned into mini-museums with exhibits behind glass exploring the lives of those who were imprisoned there, and in some you are allowed to walk around freely.  Auschwitz started as just a labor camp to hold Russian POWs and German dissidents, but it became very much more in Hitler's plan.  Cell block 11, known as the "prison within the prison" is where those who tried to escape, or were suspected of any number of crimes, were held.  Many of these prisoners (thousands) were taken into the adjacent courtyard and shot at what was known as the death wall.  Some were hung at an outdoor gallows, their bodies left on display as a warning.  Others were sent to the basement, which contained 3 kinds of cells: starvation cells that people were thrown into and left without food and water until they died, standing cells which were too small to do anything but stand in (these prisoners were taken out daily for hard labor and then put back in), and dark cells which contained a solid door and in which prisoners would suffocate gradually as they used up all the oxygen in the cell.  It was in this basement that the first experiments using zyclon B to kill people in mass quantities were conducted.  When the gas method proved effective on 850 prisoners hauled into the basement as guinea pigs, a bunker on the Auschwitz property was converted into a gas chamber and crematorium for the purpose of mass killing.  It still stands today.

When Auschwitz became too small, Birkenau (known as Auschwitz II) was built.  A free shuttle runs between the two camps.  I was unprepared for the sheer size of Birkenau.  Many of the prisoner barracks have fallen into decay and been removed, but the chimneys of the two small stoves used to heat each large barracks building still remain.  The field of chimneys, each representing a barracks holding hundreds, goes on for acres and acres and acres, as far as the eye can see.  The buildings that still stand are a horrific testament to what life here was like.  There is nothing behind glass at Birkenau, and you are free to walk through almost every part of it. The entirety of the camp is considered a cemetery, as the ashes of the dead were scattered each day between the barracks.  Even today, some 70 years later, the ground remains gray underneath the grass.

Birkenau was built from the start as a death camp to fulfill Hitler's "final solution" for exterminating all Jews and any other group he considered unfit.  There were five crematoriums at Birkenau where 20,000 people a day could be gassed and incinerated.  It was here that Jewish families were brought on train cars and then underwent a cursory fitness test by an SS doctor.  If he pointed you to the right, you had been deemed fit to work as a slave laborer.  If he pointed you to the left, you were herded directly to the gas chambers.  This was the fate of children, the elderly, the sick, and most women.  It is estimated that about 3/4 of all arrivals were sent to the left.  Over 1.5 million people died at Birkenau, more than at any other concentration camp...or any other place and time in history. 

At the end of the war, as allied troops were approaching, the SS destroyed the crematoriums to cover up evidence of what they had done.  At one far end of the camp, between the rubble of crematoria II and III, a memorial has been built.  It contains a series of engraved plagues, one in each of about 25 different languages, that reads in part "Forever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity..."


The entry gates at Auschwitz.  Ironically, the words translate as "labor makes you free."

Rows of prison barracks at Auschwitz.

Inside the barracks
This is a starvation cell.  This one is now a shrine to Father Maximilian Kolbe, who died here in 1941.  Father Kolbe was a Catholic priest imprisoned for hiding 3000 Polish refugees, most of whom were Jewish, in his friary.  The SS had a rule that if any man escaped, ten men from his barracks would be send to block 11 to starve.  When this punishment was enacted on ten men in Father Kolbe's barracks, one of them, a man named Franciszek Gajowniczec, cried out in despair that he would never again see his wife and children.  Father Kolbe stepped forward and asked to take his place in the starvation cell.  His request was granted. Two weeks later when Kolbe was the last prisoner who remained alive, he was executed by lethal injection inside the cell.  According to Polish workers in the cell block, his last words were a prayer of forgiveness for his executor.  Father Kolbe was canonized as a saint by Pope John Paul II in 1981.  The man he saved, Mr. Gajowniczec, was reunited with his wife, but both of his children died in the camps.  He lived to be 95 years old, but every single year for the next 50 years after he was liberated from the camp, he returned on August 14, the day of Father Kolbe's death, to pay homage to the man who saved him. 

These are standing cells.  Four men at a time were put into each cell.  It's hard to tell in the photo, but each cell is about 3'x3'.

This is the death wall beside block 11 where thousands of prisoners were executed.

This is the exterior of the gas chamber/crematorium at Auschwitz.

Inside the gas chamber

The crematorium

The main gate into Birkenau where the trains carrying prisoners came in on the tracks.

This is what is left of the vast field of former barracks.
This single car, used to transport Jews from all over Poland to Birkenau, still stands on the tracks.
Inside barracks at Birkenau

These were the latrines at Birkenau

The remains of a gas chamber/crematorium at Birkenau

The steps used to lead prisoners into the underground tunnel of crematorium II, where they thought they were being taken for a shower. 

This is the English language plaque at the memorial.