Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Poland, May, 2019

I must say that we spent a nice 8 (wet) days in Poland in May, 2019.  

We landed in Krakow with a flight from Rome via Munich.  I had already been there many years ago as with some friends from Udine we drove to the old Polish capital to then go to Auschwitz-Birkenau which is only 70 kms away.

This time we spent a few days in Krakow, indeed a very nice and clean town.  Our hotel was in the old ghetto and very quiet, so quiet that we were right next to the old Jewish cemetery.  The historic center, which I believe is a UNESCO world heritage site, is very nice as is the town’s castle.

We also made it to Oskar Schindler’s factory-museum, the very same one used by Spielberg in 1993 when he shot “Schindler’s List” there.   We also tried to see the concentration camp nearby which was re-built for the movie but not much is left of it.

The factory-museum is very touching and very well laid-out.  From there we took a tram back to the center of the town.  A real treat for the Leonardo da Vinci aficionado that I am as we got to see his only work of art in Poland: the “Lady With An Ermine”!   A pity you’re not allowed to take pics of the magnificent  ainting but with a good zoom lens with my Canon bridge camera you can almost get away with murder!

From there we took a rented car to A-B.  We got there at about 9.30 am and thought that we could get in for free, which you can, but we didn’t so we instead we had to pay and we got stuck (in a nice way) with an English-speaking tour guide who turned out to be very nice and thorough in her explanation of the site of the worst mass massacre in the history of the world (more people, 1.1 million, died in A-B than the combined number of deaths of British and American soldiers during World War II).

The “welcome” sign over the main gate of A always hits you like a ton of bricks, “Arbeit Macht Frei”, which had actually been imported from the first concentration camp under the Nazis, the one at Dachau, only 18 km from Munich (been to that one twice).  It also hangs at the Buchenwald camp near Weimar (been to that one too). 

The first time I went to A-B we spent 4 hours in A and 3 in B, with a lunch break in between (but luckily NOT right in front of A’s entrance as I don’t think it’s terribly fitting to eat and drink at a place where people were made to starve to death in tiny cells).  This time we only spent 2 hours in A and 1 in B, a pity as it’s the second time I go to B and I can’t seem to visit the entire camp which is simply HUGE, like an average small Italian town (B contained 300 barracks for the prisoners)!

Even though it was the second time for me it was still a moving experience, especially to see the infamous room full of the prisoners’ luggage (all your entire life had to be crammed into just one piece of luggage, or 25 kg worth of stuff) and of their shoes too.  Moving to see the outfits of young Jewish children as well as their small shoes.  Our guide Agata turned to us and asked, “And so what did you pack in just one piece of luggage”?

Some of the cells in the various blocks could hold several prisoners who were purposely starved to death and tried surviving without a drop of water.  When you see these cells, including the one where Father Maximilian Kolbe was kept along with 3 other prisoners (he sacrificed his life for another prisoner), you always ask yourself whether euthanasia, which actually began under the Nazis with their very own euthanasia program, a program intended to eliminate the weak and the mentally insane from German society, is right or wrong when it’s left up to others to decide the fate of a person, as what happened in these camps more than 75 years ago (in the case of the extermination camp at Treblinka, located just 100 km north of Warsaw where 900,000 people perished, you were dead within 2 hours that you had stepped off of the trains as you went directly into the gas chambers).

Poetic justice: as we walked around A we were shown the villa that had belonged to the commandant of the two camps, Rudolf Hoss (not to be confused with Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s right-hand man).  Hoss had worked for 6 years at Dachau and was there on a murder charge.  He had been handpicked by concentration camp boss supremo Heinrich Himmler to run A-B.  His villa is located right on the outskirts of A, just over the barbed-wire fence.

Just after the war Hoss went into hiding.  He was eventually caught by the British army (he was working on a farm), tried and sentenced to death.  And so where did he die at the hands of the hangman?  At the gallows pole (which is still there) right between his villa and A’s crematorium.   “And justice for all” (as Al Pacino would have said)!

We hitched a ride on the camp’s bus after our visit in A to nearby Birkenau, about 6 km away.    We were again accompanied by our guide Agata.   The only train wagon that is still there held up to 100 people who would be travelling to B for up to 7 days and quite often without water.

As you got off the trains there was the SS and in particular the “Angel Of Death”, Dr. Josef Mengele (who eventually escaped after the war to South America) the very same man who used to perform his grotesque experiments on twins and kids, directing traffic: with the sway of a hand, and just like an orchestra leader, he’d order prisoners to the left or to the right.  If you were lucky enough to go to the left you went to work in the camp.  If you weren’t so lucky you’d go to the right,  you’d walk about 400 meters along a path, the very same one we took that day, which led you directly to the gas chambers and then to the crematoria.

The crematoria at B?  Not much is left of them except the rubble.  As the Soviet Red Army was advancing from the east the Nazis were re-treating and along the way burned important camp documents and also blew up the gas chambers and the crematoria (but not the one in A).

You still though get an idea of the horrendous pain and suffering that went on there until the Soviets arrived to liberate the camp on January 27th, 1945.

One thing of comfort for the prisoners, especially the women, was the “Canada House”, a special barrack where the women would go to work dividing up the prisoners’ clothes and checking for their valuables (which ended up getting pilfered by the corrupt SS soldiers there).  The name was chosen because prisoners thought that Canada was a land of plenty and gave them some hope that indeed a better world existed out there.

And the barracks?  The bunk beds (if one can call them “beds”) could contain up to 12 prisoners per bunk bed, or 4 prisoners to each level.  The ones on the ground level were the worst off.   During my first visit to B we also saw some of the barrack washrooms.  The word “washroom” is a mighty big word as they were simply disgusting!

Our visit concluded in B and back on the bus for A.  From there we took the highway for Warsaw, about 350 km north of Oswiecim (Auschwitz’s name in Polish).   We only went through one toll booth so the highway travel cost-wise was rather minimal.  But not the time it took to get to Poland’s capital as we had come across a very scary line-up of cars and trucks along the way.  Somewhere on the highway, which we couldn’t see, there had been quite the accident so we were detoured along Poland’s country roads. 

The detour was about 90 minutes long and we were literally moving at one point at a snail’s pace.  For me at least that type of driving is quite nerve-wracking!

Once we managed to get back to the main highway it was rather an easy cruise into Warsaw.  We got there at about 9 pm and eventually made it to our central hotel which had a staff that was somewhat reminiscent of concentration camp staff members from days of old (let us just say that they weren’t very “user friendly”).  But the room was very spacious and had stuff to make morning coffee (we opted to not have breakfast as it oddly cost a wee bit too much).  We’d stock up the night before on cookies and croissants so our in-the-hotel-room-breakfast was just fine.

In all honesty I wasn’t excepting such a dynamic capital, in many ways similar to an average North American city with several tall skyscrapers.  The town was very clean, just like Krakow, and with a total absence (again, just like in Krakow) of Chinese shops nor Bengali street hawkers, both which are very common in Rome and in other Italian cities.  At this point I thought that either the Poles are somewhat racist and don’t want immigrants (half of Poles want LESS immigration in their country, according to a recent Economist issue) or they’re more serious than Italy when it comes to handling immigration-related issues.

The rather amazing thing about Warsaw’s dynamism is that 95% of the town had been totally destroyed in 1944 and eventually re-built from scratch.  In fact, in the center there’s a UNESCO plaque as the city is a world heritage patrimony site.

Very touching the presidential palace in the center of the town.  There’s a large cement plaque commemorating the tragic death of Poland’s former president, Lech Kaczynski (he had a twin brother), and his entire government in an air crash in 2010 in Smolensk.   Up to 96 people, including the air crew, perished in that crash as Kaczynski were going (or coming back from) from a commemoration of the Katyn massacre aboard a Russian-made aircraft (the Soviets always denied that massacre by blaming the Nazis).  Conspiracy theory aficionados suspect that it was the hand of Putin’s people behind that tragedy. Some also suspect that the crash was due to bad weather and/or because of the bad weather the plane had to land elsewhere, thus irritating the president on board who didn’t want to have the flight plan changed.   We also saw his tomb in the cathedral in Krakow’s castle.  He’s buried there along with his wife. 

We spent the Sunday morning at Warsaw’s zoo, something that I personally haven’t done for years.  The reason why I chose to go there was based on a 2017 movie, a true story, on that very same zoo and the Warsaw ghetto uprising. An SS officer in that movie is the same actor who played Niki Lauda in Ron Howard’s movie “Rush”.   It was interesting to see the tigers, elephants, baboons, rhinos, etc. but unfortunately the king of the forest himself, the lion, refused to make his appearance!

The food: no major problems with Polish cuisine.  I must say we ate rather well and it wasn’t terribly expensive either (Poland may be in the EU but it’s not in the Euro as it uses its own currency, the zloty).   Great beer too!

And the people? It may be that when I open my mouth many in the “Old Europe” (as Donald Rumsfeld once called us) take me for an American so I seem to have a wee bit more respect, or at least better service, than someone who doesn’t know English very well (like the average Italian, from what I’ve seen in my many travels around Europe).  When I’m in a country like Germany and I instead tell the locals that I’m Canadian-born I get even more respect, and even MORE in jolly old England as I’m a loyal subject of the Commonwealth.

I was looking at my cell phone and a web site on Warsaw.  Someone said that it was a “boring” city.  Au contraire!  From what I gathered it seems like a rather fun town in which to live, especially if you’re a student, with a very good transportation system and without the “claustrophobic” feeling that you get living in Rome (albeit Warsaw has only 1.7 million people compared to Rome’s 3.5 million, more or less).  Cars in Rome seem to be everywhere!

And the return flight to Rome via Frankfurt?   A small nightmare as we left with a two-hour delay from Warsaw’s Chopin airport (so what else could Warsaw’s main airport be called?).  We arrived in Frankfurt and up to 160 flights had been cancelled due to a massive thunderstorm (due to climate change?).  In fact, as we were landing we actually saw a lightning bolt outside the plane’s window with a large cracking sound.  This brought to mind AC/DC’s great song, “Thunderstruck”, as lead guitarist Angus Young had actually been on a plane when it once got hit by a lightning bolt.   Nice that our pilot reassured us by saying that “We will land in Frankfurt”!

This was Monday evening.  We lost the connection but Lufthansa instead put us on a flight for Munich that same evening.  We caught that one but got into the Bavarian capital somewhat late and so we missed the connecting flight to Rome.  This was around 11.45 pm.  We found out that the following morning we had a flight for Rome at 6.30 am.  What to do, go to a hotel (all expenses paid by Lufthansa), sleep for like not even 4 hours, or rough it out in the airport terminal à-la-Tom Hanks in the Spielberg movie, “Terminal“?  Seeing that we were also joined by a Roman woman and her son (who didn’t know a word of English) we opted for the terminal stay. 

And so did I sleep that evening/morning?  I didn’t catch a bloody wink, but it wasn’t a problem as I went with the flow and I thought that it was after all rather cool to be sitting/lying around in a completely deserted air terminal (and Munich’s airport is pretty large too!).  I passed the time talking to some other passengers, in particular an elderly German fellow, on WWII and how Germans themselves saw what had happened in their concentration camps (the fellow I spoke with said that he was VERY happy that Germany had lost the war).    Luckily, the return flight to Rome left on time and so it was that we were once again back in the Eternal City.