We boarded our plane from Liverpool, England to Warsaw, Poland. The Polish Flight Attendant came over and told Julieann that she could not place her coat in the empty seat next to her. The coat had to be either worn or stored in the overhead compartment. I, of course, said “HUH??” Are we afraid of flying coats during takeoff now? Since the overheads were already full, Julieann asked the attendant (and I still don’t know if she was serious) if she could keep the coat on the empty seat next to her if she buckled the coat in with the seatbelt. The attendant said that would be fine so Julieann strapped in the coat for an uneventful takeoff and the coat had a wonderful flight all the way to Poland. (Oh yeah, we be off to a GREAT start, eh?)
Our Limo driver was waiting for us as soon as we cleared Customs and Immigration at the Warsaw (Chopin) Airport. He took us directly to the hotel and the bell folks took care of the bags. We got checked in and found that the rest of the group had already arrived and were about the sit down to dinner. We rushed in and made our usual grand entrance, thanked them all for waiting for us and said “Let’s eat” while everyone stared at us trying to figure out who we were (the Tour Director knew).
After dinner and our initial briefing from the Tour Director we went up to the room, which was very nice, except for the TV – they had a couple of news programs in “English” English (not American English), Spanish shows, Italian shows and of course, Polish shows. Now, we’ve travelled to quite a few countries and are used to dealing with “strange” things happening on the TV. This one took the cake. Where we would normally see Hoss Cartwright (big guy from the Ponderosa) speaking in a squeaky, dubbed over, voice or have that country’s language written on the bottom of the screen while we get to listen to the show as it was intended), these folks have a new “Don’t Make Much Sense” method. They do a dub-over, but use one man’s voice, without inflection or any emotion, for a male, female or child’s voice on the program. Oh yeah, and they don’t turn off the original voices, just turn them down so you can barely make out what is being said. The monotone-no-emotion-voice-over really sucks and they do it for every station that is broadcasting an American show. Oh well, just another adventure in traveling, eh?
We took a tour of Warsaw, the city that got the stuffing kicked out of it by the Nazis. According to our guide, 87% of Warsaw was made into rubble while 95% of “Old Town” was a total loss. The original Warsaw was purportedly a beautiful city that copied French architecture (yeah, they’ve already lost points with me here). All those “beautiful” buildings were destroyed. After the war they tried to re-build using the same architecture, but by then they were under the thumb of the Russians and the Russians don’t like fancy buildings. So after 5 years getting beat up by the Nazis and 50 years of being beat up by the Russians, Warsaw is finally coming into its own. They have a LOT of work to do as the Russians buildings are the ugliest, most boring buildings you can think of and the new “French” buildings just don’t fit anymore. This doesn’t seem to stop the taggers who have no problem in spray painting anything that isn’t moving. The one high point of the city tour was a huge palm tree in the middle of the city’s center traffic circle. After the communists moved out someone decided to make the city look friendlier so they procured a palm tree. But, because Poland’s weather will not support a live palm tree the tree they bought is 100% plastic.
This morning, a tour of Warsaw included both banks of the Vistula River. We visited Lazienki Park to view Chopin's Monument (they have his heart stored in a bottle of cognac somewhere in this city), then we travelled along the Royal Route with its historic monuments and residences toward the Warsaw Ghetto and the Jewish Cemetery.
When the Nazis moved in, they divided the city into German, Polish and Jews. The Warsaw Ghetto was the largest of all Jewish Ghettos in Nazi-occupied Europe during World War II. It was established in the Polish capital between October and November 15, 1940, in the territory of General Government of the German-occupied Poland, with over 400,000 Jews from the vicinity residing in an area of 1.3 square miles. From there, about 254,000 Ghetto residents were sent to Treblinka extermination camp during the three months of summer 1942.
The sheer death-toll among the Jewish inhabitants of the Ghetto would have been difficult to compare even with the liquidation of the Ghetto and after the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. With the inclusion of the Ghetto falling at least 300,000 Polish Jews lost their lives there.
We then walked through the cobbled streets to the Market Square and viewed the Cathedral of St. John and the Royal Castle. We also visited the original residence of Helena Rubinstein (born Chaja Rubinstein, December 25, 1870 – April 1, 1965), a Polish-born Australian-American business magnate. She is the founder and eponym of Helena Rubinstein, Incorporated, which made her one of the world's richest women. When she began producing her “magical skin cream”, she kept the main ingredient a secret. She called it “lanolin”, which was actually a grease secreted from sheep. To disguise this essential component of her product's pungent odor, Rubinstein experimented with lavender, pine bark and water lilies. After two children she divorced her wandering husband after he had an affair with her number one rival, Elizabeth Arden.
We took a bus tour of Warsaw where we saw a lot of the afore-mentioned gray, dull, boring buildings. We also saw where they are adding a North-South Metro Line to their existing East-West Metro Line. Warsaw, BTW, is the only city in Poland that even has a Metro line at all. Julieann had a good time trying to pronounce the words we saw on street and building signs. Nothing seems to be spelled anything like it sounds. We passed by the only remaining synagogue that was still standing after the war. The only reason this one is still standing is because the Nazis used it as a horse stable so it wasn’t destroyed like the other synagogues.
The guide showed us many statues of “famous” Polish folks that won this battle or that battle, but the guide in Hungary summed it all up very nicely – Poland and Hungary have been friends and allies for over 500 years and have reputations of being “fighters”, but neither country has won a single war in those 500 years. The problem is that Hungary acknowledges this, but Poland still flaunts its heroes that weren’t.
We were let loose in the Market Square where we went out for a little sightseeing on our own. We found a “cute” little Polish restaurant and decided to try a popular food called Pierogi. This is something like an Italian ravioli or Chinese won-ton, basically, a dumpling filled with various choices of meats and vegetables that you can get either boiled or baked. We tried a sampling of the baked with various fillings – pork & pickled paprika; ginger pork with leeks in green sauce; pepperoni & cottage cheese with olive paste; hunter sausage in boletus sauce; ham cottage cheese & paprika with tomatoes; bacon and buckwheat; spinach with blue cheese. Wasn’t bad at all, but the way that they ground everything together, though, it all started tasting the same no matter which one we tried. We then stopped by an Ice Cream stand where Julieann tried a vanilla cone dipped in lemon icing. She said that it tasted good, but I stuck with my old standby, chocolate. I have to admit, I haven’t had anything chocolate anywhere in Europe that didn’t beat the pants off of what we get in the USA.
In preparation for our anniversary, I had already bought Julieann a set of Irish Earrings and a Scottish Necklace and had planned to get her an Amber necklace, famous in Poland and Russia. Unfortunately, she had the same idea and almost messed up my surprise. We ended up in an Amber store where she made a selection of a necklace and matching earrings. Neither of us had said a word about our upcoming anniversary so I thought I would be able to surprise her ---- until she informed me that the Amber purchases could be her anniversary gift. O.K., Fine!
The next morning we left Warsaw heading for Krakow and stopped at Częstochowa, a city in south Poland on the Warta River with 240,027 inhabitants. The town is known for the famous Pauline monastery of Jasna Góra, which is the home of the Black Madonna painting, a shrine to the Virgin Mary and supposedly, a painting that cures people of various ailments (see photos of crutches, etc.) Every year, millions of pilgrims from all over the world come to Częstochowa to see it.
A Black Madonna or Black Virgin is a statue or painting of Mary in which she is depicted with dark or black skin, especially those created in Europe in the medieval period or earlier. In this specialized sense "Black Madonna" does not apply to images of the Virgin Mary portrayed as explicitly black African, which are popular in Africa and areas with large black populations, such as Brazil and the United States. Some statues get their color from the material used, such as ebony or other dark wood, but there is debate about whether this choice of material is significant. Others were originally light-skinned but have become darkened over time, for example by candle soot. The Black Madonnas are generally found in Catholic areas. The statues are mostly wooden but occasionally stone, often painted and generally dating from between the 11th and 15th centuries. Their faces tend to have recognizably European features. There are about 450–500 Black Madonnas in Europe, depending on how they are classified. There are at least 180 Vierges Noires in France, and there are hundreds of non-medieval copies as well. Some are in museums, but most are in churches or shrines and are venerated by devotees. A few are associated with miracles and attract substantial numbers of pilgrims.
Here is a video of the church. They were doing a lot of repairs for Easter festivities and the organist was practicing.
Today is our anniversary. I made major points with the amber necklace and earrings I bought for Julieann yesterday, and then I added the earrings I bought in Ireland and a necklace I bought in Scotland. She “danced” to breakfast wearing her ambers and showing everyone. Yep, the day started out very good, but then the day began going bad. I have no one to blame except myself, I guess. We travel to learn and experience different things, to see things we’ve only read about or have seen on TV. We both knew what to expect for this next visit, but neither of us knew the impact it would have on us.
In the morning we enjoyed a tour of medieval Krakow, including a visit to the 16th century Wawel Royal Castle District. We then visited the Jewish Quarter and viewed Oskar Schindler's factory. We continued to the Old Town and Market Square to view St. Mary's Church and the Renaissance Cloth Hall and then used our two hours of free time to walk around the square for some window shopping.
After lunch I had signed us up for a tour of Auschwitz, something we felt we needed to do. This is something that I wish I had not done, but glad I did and would strongly encourage everyone to make the trip. This statement doesn’t make sense? To explain, watching movies or documentaries or reading about it is not enough. It’s like trying to explain the Grand Canyon. You cannot experience the canyon through photos or movies. You have to be there and “live” it. Just like the Grand Canyon you need to visit Auschwitz for the sights, sounds, and smells that will permeate every facet of your senses and imagination while you listen to the guide describe life in the camp, the tortures and the inhumane treatment to the point of the prisoners begging for death as a welcome relief.
Auschwitz was a network of concentration and extermination camps built and operated by the Third Reich in Polish areas annexed by Nazi Germany during World War II. It was the largest of the German concentration camps, consisting of Auschwitz I (the base camp); Auschwitz II–Birkenau (the extermination camp); Auschwitz III–Monowitz, also known as Buna–Monowitz (a labor camp); and 45 satellite camps.
Auschwitz II–Birkenau was designated by the Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler, Germany's Minister of the Interior, as the place of the "final solution of the Jewish question in Europe". From early 1942 until late 1944, transport trains delivered Jews to the camp's gas chambers from all over Nazi-occupied Europe. The camp's first commandant, Rudolf Höss, testified after the war at the Nuremberg Trials that up to three million people had died there (2.5 million gassed, and 500,000 from disease and starvation), a figure since revised to 1.3 million, around 90 percent of them Jews. Others deported to Auschwitz included 150,000 Poles, 23,000 “Gypsies”, 15,000 Soviet prisoners of war, some 400 Jehovah's Witnesses and tens of thousands of people of diverse nationalities and backgrounds. Those not killed in the gas chambers died of starvation, forced labor, infectious disease, individual executions, and medical experiments. Nationality or religion was not the driving force as we all think. Yes, Jews were the main target of the Final Solution, but if you were gay or deformed or handicapped you were automatically thrown into the pot. For some reason I still don’t understand, the Nazi hated the Russians more than anyone or anything else and treated them worse than animals. Of the 15,000 Russian POWs that were sent to Auschwitz, only 96 survived.
On January 27, 1945, Auschwitz was liberated by Soviet troops, a day commemorated around the world as International Holocaust Remembrance Day. In 1947, Poland founded a museum on the site of Auschwitz I and II, which by 2010 had seen 29 million visitors—1,300,000 annually—pass through the iron gates crowned with the infamous motto, Arbeit macht frei ("work makes free"), which, of course, was a big lie. Only death made you free in this place.
Our guide was extremely professional; maintaining a constant, monotone voice giving us a string of facts, without any emotion. She didn’t need to emphasize anything. The tour of the prisoners’ barracks, execution wall, the “showers” (gas chambers) and the ovens, along with the photos, letters, personal items and other artifacts that once belonged to someone alive told the story loud enough. Half way through tour I was beginning to feel sick to my stomach. As I started walking towards the back of the room to find some fresh air there was Julieann, hovered in a corner, tears running down her face. I’m not sure what finally got to her. Maybe it was the prison cells of two feet by two feet where the Nazis would cram FOUR standing prisoners until they finally ran out of air and died. Or the “starvation cells” where the guards would just watch the prisoner slowly die, or the furnaces that could only dispose of 380 bodies a day while the gas chamber was killing 800 every hour. Maybe it was the 19,000 pairs of shoes on display that were taken from the dead prisoners or their piles of clothes or the gold from their teeth or thousands of eye glasses or the two TONS of hair that once belonged to around 143,000 living souls or maybe it was the children’s clothes and toys or seeing what “Doctor” Josef Rudolf Mengele, also known as the Angel of Death, who killed over 1,500 pairs of twin children while running crazy experiments, did to all those children in the name of “science”. Whatever it was she looked at me through her tear filled eyes and asked, “How could anyone do that to another person?”
We left that place for another place that was worse, Auschwitz II, five times bigger than the first camp with four ovens instead of just the one. I did a quick walk around of the camp while Julieann waited on the bus. I got to see the barracks whose design was based on a horse stable that could house 52 hours, but was now used to house over 400 prisoners – no heat, no water. The “toilet” was a trough that would eventually fill up and the prisoners would have to use buckets to empty it again.
We didn’t say much on the hour-plus ride back to the hotel and that was good; I had nothing of value to say that would ease her pain. By the time we arrived at the hotel she was feeling a little better and was even hungry, especially since she had missed lunch. That night we celebrated our anniversary with a Polish dinner at a restaurant near our hotel that was very good. We returned to the hotel, packed for tomorrow’s departure and went to bed early. That was three hours ago…. And now I’m sitting in the dark, writing this. I laid there, wide awake, rehashing the day’s events and wondering what I could have said to help Julieann. Luckily, she’s a lot closer to our creator that I am so I’m sure He will do something to help her. In the meantime, I guess I’ll try a sleeping pill.
DAY 6, Saturday - Today we drove through the scenic Tatra Mountains and the wooded countryside of Slovakia before reaching the Danube Valley and the twin cities of Buda and Pest. We did get to see the Poland countryside and country homes on the way, which were a lot better looking and “cheerier” than what we had seen in the city and got us in a better mood than we had when we left Auschwitz. We also stopped off at a 300 year old church that was busy blessing Easter baskets brought in by some of the church’s congregation. Julieann got to eat some blessed Easter Cake and to touch some snow so that made her happy.
Not getting much sleep the night before, Julieann and I both took a two hour nap on the bus before it stopped at a ski resort in the mountains of Slovakia. This was a very beautiful and peaceful place. It was cold enough so there was still some snow on the hills and some folks were taking advantage of it, but the sun was also out and felt warm so we relaxed for about an hour before moving on. We continued on to the city of Budapest where we were housed in a five star hotel, The Corinthian. The hotel even had a display of live baby rabbits as part of their Easter decorations which, of course, made Julieann’s day.
Next update --- Budapest, Hungary