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Entries in Poland (5)


Polish nuns

The grand total of nuns we saw in Poland? 33. All single or in pairs, and there I was assuming that they only roam around in packs like in the movies.

Having missed the overnight train, we are now catching the morning train to Vilnius in Lithuania.



Painful train to Warsaw, where we found out that the train we wanted to catch to Vilnius is sold out. Change of plans, we are now staying the night in Warsaw and heading over to Vilnius by bus tomorrow.

Sore, tired, and still slightly hungover we walked into the centre of Warsaw. I had a beautiful lunch of mushroom soup. Has been difficult to accommodate my vegetarian diet with Luke's fries/pizza diet (he hasn't got to eat anything else so far on the trip), but this restaurant was a success, the meal was amazing. Just as well, since unlike Krakow, there are no blue pretzel carts (found on every street corner there) for us to have pretzel breakfast/lunch/dinner at. I think I'll miss the pretzels...

Warsaw is such a gorgeous city. Different from Prague and Krakow, very little is old, since WWII wiped out half the population and 85% of all the buildings in the city. However the rebuild tried to recreate the 17th century burgher architecture of the pre-war city, and it looks amazing. The old Town Square is picture-perfect, the most beautiful little building squashed together with tight winding streets. It really is a surreal feeling to walk into history itself.

Oddly enough, there are lots of brightly painted papier-mâché cows in Warsaw, of all different patterns. The one by the old Barbican had wings. I loved it, because all the little kids ran up to play with the cows, running around in circles, climbing on them, pretending to milk them. My paternal instinct knocked up a few notches watching a two year-old Polish girl all wrapped up in her winter jacket stumble around in absolute joy at getting to see a brightly painted cow. It touched my heart.



Yesterday Luke and I went on a bike tour of Krakow. We rode around several neighbourhoods with intense soccer rivalry between the two local teams, Krakovin and Wisla. We saw much graffiti including an interesting one which wrote (in Polish) "Stripes Wisla, Krakovin whores". Whore is the most offensive word in Slavic countries. Supporters for Krakovin painted over whore, turned 'stripes' into 'fools', and drew a Star of David over Wisla, because years ago (when there were Jews in Krakow) Wisla allowed Jews to join and Krakovin didn't. This is still used as an insult against Wisla, which is so offensive.

We rode around the Krakow castle. Krakow was originally terrorised by a dragon (who ate virgins), which the King called knights in to kill. They all died until one day Krak turned up. He was promised the King's daughter's hand in marriage if he could kill the dragon, but he knew he couldn't kill it with a sword. Instead, he killed a sheep, filled it with sulphur and left it outside the lair. The dragon came out and ate it, the fire started in its belly so it ran down to the river to drink. It drank and drank until it exploded, and Krak became the next king, renaming the city after himself.

 We cycled around the Town Square and the Church of St Mary. It has two towers, which are uneven in height, very unusual for a church. It is because the design was given to two brothers who wanted the same woman. They competed by trying to build the highest tower each (of course), until one brother stabbed the other to death, and made his tower higher. Actually, the reason why the towers are of different height is because the Town Council only gave permission for them to build the Church if they could use the tower as a watch tower, which requires a 360 degree view (hence it had to be higher than the other). During the Mongol invasion of Poland, legend has it that the watchman saw the Mongols coming and blew the warning tune on his trumpet, but halfway through the song was struck in the throat by a Mongol arrow, mid-note. Now every hour the city plays the same tune from each of the four windows of the tower, always ending with a break in the tune at the same note where the watchman died. To me it seems odd that they play it four times with the death rattle each time.

The Town Square (the largest medieval town square in Europe at 200m x 200m) was surrounded by gorgeous old buildings. It was so much nicer today in the sun than the day before when it was wet and empty. There were so many people out, and thousands of pigeons, covering everything and landing on everyone. I ate Georgian cheese pie, which was beautiful, and listened to a Polish language cover of Celion Dion, which was not.

We saw where Pope John Paul II was Archbishop, and I found out that he made more saints than every other Pope put together. Pfft.

The Jewish quarter

The bike tour included some important Jewish sites. The Jews were invited to Krakow by one of the early kings of Poland, who wanted to stimulate business. Since Christians were not allowed to charge interest on loans (the sin of usury), a Christian community tended to have very little business investment. Jews were allowed to be money lenders and financiers (in fact they could pretty much only be professionals, since they were blocked from the guilds and from owning land), so they stimulated the economy and became rich in the process, which (combined with having a distinct and insular culture) is what stimulated so much racism towards them. 1000 Jews came to Krakow, which was 10% of the city population at that time, and more came as the city grew, giving a 25% Jewish population. One of the later kings decided to segregate the Jews from the Catholics so he forced them out of the city onto a near island, which was developed as the Jewish quarter. Interestingly the Catholics charged the Jews a fee for "clock usage" since, while out of site, the Jews were close enough to be able to hear the Catholic clock strike the hour, and thus were told the time. Very stingy. We rode around the old Jewish Town Square, and the oldest Synagogue in Europe (now a museum, since Krakow has no Jews).

We saw the old Jewish cemetery, which is now abandoned and overgrown, because of the 60 000 Jews in Krakow in the 40s, all but 1500 died in the holocaust, and all survivors left the country afterwards. There are now no decedents of the people buried there, except for a few overseas, so it stands neglected. It is hugely crowded, with graves up to 14 layers deep, as befits a tiny graveyard that served a quarter of the population of the city.

History repeated itself for the Jews, but at a far worse level. When the Nazis took over Krakow they wanted to segregate the Jews further. They still hadn't decided what to do with them, to kill or steralise them? Either way, they needed to control them first, and the Jewish quarter (Kazimierz) was too open. So they forced the Jews to pack up once again, and crossed them over the bridge into a satellite town (Podgorze) of Krakow that could easily be walled off (in Schlinder's List the Jews crossed the bridge in the wrong direction because Speilberg could not get permission to set up cameras on the correct side of the bridge).

Things were not looking good for the Jewish Ghetto. The Nazis made the Ghetto wall in the shape of orthodox Jewish gravestones (a round top), as a not-so-subtle hint to those within of their future fate. The German's had to travel through the Ghetto to get to Krakow, so holes were made in either side of the Ghetto, but SS soldiers rode the tram each time and closed off the windows to block normal German business men from seeing what was occurring in the Ghetto, or from using the trip to feed supplies to the Jews. Within the Ghetto the Jews starved, with supplies periodically thrown over the wall, and the only exit was for slave labour workers, who were rewarded with 650 calories per day of cabbage soup and stale bread.

In Krakow at the start of the war, there were 60 000 Jews. They were stuffed into the Ghetto in numbers that gave about 20 people per room. New Jews were carted in from around the country, to concentrate them. When they arrived they were asked one simple question "What do you do?". Those that were tradesmen or skilled labour where sent into the Ghetto, while those who were professionals were sent to Auschwitz. In total 260 000 Jews entered the Ghetto, but due to the death rate it only housed ~40 000 at a time.

On January 20, 1942, Heydrich presented the "Final solution" in the Wansee conference. The entire plan for Ghetto slave labour, transport across Europe, and ultimately eradication of the Jewish population was structured down to the last detail. On Saturday, March the 14th, 1943, it was time for the Krakow Ghetto to be "liquidated". The soldiers moved in and told the Jews they were being relocated once again, marched them into cattle cars and sent them to the eradication camp in Treblinka (not Aschwitz for some reason). The Jewish doctors in the intensive care hospital in the quarter (there were three hospitals so the Nazis could tell the Red Cross the Jews were being looked after, but they had no supplies) knew their patients would be killed rather than transported, so they poisoned them all with cyanide infusions. 4000 Jews didn't believe the relocation, and hid in the Ghetto. They hid in every possible spot, in holes in the walls, floors, ceilings, in pianos or in the furniture. The Nazis waited for 16 hours, then came in with sniffer dogs and stethoscopes and shot every Jew they found.

Today the Ghetto is the worst area in Krakow. It is dangerous to go in at night, and sometimes the bike tour gets rocks thrown at it. Much of it was redeveloped during the Communist era, and few historic buildings are left. Only 10m of the wall remains, and there are no monuments to the tragedy that occurred.

Oscar Schlinder

The highlight of the trip for me was seeing Schlinder's flat and factory (neither are protected as museums, you wouldn't know the historic value they have without being told). Oscar Schlinder was a German Nazi party member who wanted to make money. Lots of money. The war was his ticket to fortune. He had the connections and the style, so he turned up in Krakow, wined and dined the Gestapo officers, and was given a choice of any Jewish house he wanted. He picked one right in the centre of the town, the owners of which were shipped out. He then bought from the State a Jewish factory stolen from the owners, and started to produce mess kits for the army. He hired Jewish slaves from the SS because they were cheaper than Polish workers, and he made lots of money and was very happy. One thing that soured his happiness was when the Jews started to turn up late. They were being forced to shovel snow in the Jewish ghetto as a punishment. Less hours of labour meant less money for Schlinder, so he threw elaborate parties with alcohol and women for the SS officers, to charm them into giving his workers exemption from this degrading punishment. For profit only, but this kindness made Jewish workers beg to work for him. Schlinder continued being the disgusting person he was until one day he had an epiphany, and decided that what he was doing was immoral. He tried to help his workers in little ways, bribing the SS to allow him to hire the eldery or sick, knowing that these workers would be killed otherwise. When the war turned against the Germans, mess kits became irrelevant as opposed to ammunition, so the SS forced Schlinder to swap production. They wanted him to move out, they would "liquidate" his Jews and give him new ones in the new factory. He had to bribe the SS with a bag of diamonds to be allowed to give a list of "essential" Jewish workers that he could take with him. He had one night, so he stayed up writing a list of all the Jews he knew, with his Jewish accountant, Stern. 1098 names were written on Schlinders list, 1098 Jews to be killed where allowed to go to his new factory. Then one day the war was over. The SS gave orders for all remaining Jews to be killed. Schlinder went to the SS guards in his factory (16 year old boys with machine guns) and said "I know what your orders are. You can obey them, and go home to your family as murderers, or you can ignore them, and return as men". They allowed the Jews to surive until liberation by the Red Army. Schlinder was arrested as a Nazi and slave camp owner, but after 4 months his previous slaves interceded on his behalf, telling the Americans what he had done for them. Schlinder moved to Argintina and tried to start a farm for capybura which went bankrupt. He moved back to West Germany and started numerous companies which all failed, he died broken and poor in 1974. There are now 7000 "Schlinder's Jews" descended from those he saved.

Interestingly, after Spielberg heard about this story he wanted to film it, but Hollywood would not support the project, calling it a "European arthouse picture". In the end Universal offered Spielberg a deal - they would support "Schlinder's list" on the condition that he also directed "Jurassic Park.

It is interesting that it was not only the Jews that were persecuted, the Nazis were also terrible to the Poles. The intent was to create a slave labour nation, so they banned education for Poles, and for six years no Poles went to school or university.

A cheerful end to an intense few days

For our last night in Krakow, Luke and I went to an Irish pub (with a sign on the door saying "No Kebabs") that was having a trivia night. The first round was Polish entertainment. We came last. Then geography, we thought we would do well, but no, it was all about various counties of Ireland. Then sport. By the time the final round came 'round we were chatting to Emma and Steff (two English teachers from Liverpool) and missed the Science round, but I'm sure we deserved our last place. We stayed out chatting and drinking with Emma and Steff until 4am, when we finally collapsed.

Up at 8 this morning to train to Warsaw.

Second ever hangover.



The wrong bus that Luke and I hopped on ended up in Oscwiecim, which was quite fortunate as it was a place that we both had down as an essential for a trip to Europe. Better known by its German name, Auschwitz. Auschwitz is made up of three camps, of which we saw the main two, Auschwitz and Birkenau.

Seeing the massive military camp, semi-destroyed by the departing Nazis, was extremely intense. We wandered through the gates inscribed with the lie "Work brings freedom", and around the camp, looking at the corridors of electrified barbed wire through which the prisoners had to walk from their slave dorms to their work place. The group toilet with a long concrete slap with 100 bowls in it, each prisoner only given 2 minutes twice per day at a set time, no privacy and no water. For those who went to the toilet at any other time than that allowed - the punishment prison, a prison within a prison, a hellhole within a hellhole. There was the suffocation room where 35 prisoners were shoved inside and the door was sealed until they all asphyxiated. The standing room, where four prisoners were forced to stand in a 1m x 1m cubicle all night without sleeping, only to work again the next day (four days of this killed any prisoner). The starvation chambers.

Auschwitz was mostly a concentration camp, where the prisoners were worked to death. But it was also an eradication camp for a few years, until the high-throughput Birkenau camp was completed. Cattle trains of prisoners (first Polish political prisoners, then Jews, Roma, anti-social elements, Communists, etc) would turn up at the camp, where the Death Doctors decided which went to the concentration camp, and which to the eradication camp. The elderly, children and sick were mostly sent to the eradication camp, except for those to be experimented on (such as all twins). At the eradication camp the prisoners were stripped, shaved and gassed, before being cremated in industry-style furnaces. In both the eradication and concentration camps, over 1.5 million people were murdered, 90% of whom were Jews.

The most intense experience for me was the Canada warehouses (so called because in Nazi Germany Canada was an icon of wealth), where all the goods stolen from the prisoners were stored before being redistributed to Germans. The piles of baby clothes. A two tonne pile of women's hair, shaved from them before gassing (it was turned into textiles by German industry). I felt physically ill at this point.


For ever let this place be
a cry of despair
and a warning to humanity
where the Nazis murdered
about one and a half

men, women, and children
mainly jews
from various countries
of Europe



The sleep train wasn't. Packed into a little cabin. Uncomfortable chairs. Can't sleep. 10 hours on the train. 2am, police come in to check passports. Get bored halfway through and don't look at mine. Will I be able to leave Poland without it? Off train at 5am. Need to go to toilet. It costs 2 zlotny. Takes half an hour to exchange enough money to go to toilet. Raining outside. Tired. Wet. Follow Lonely Planet instructions to catch bus to Wieliczk. Instructions rendered invalid by new construction site. Lost. Tired. Wet. Finally catch bus to 'Weiliczk'. Wrong bus. Saw 19 nuns.