Category Archives: Poland

Polish Port of Call

GDAŃSK

Friday-Sunday, April 27-29, 2018

We’d heard this port city offered another lively old town center to stroll in as well as two informative museums to tour, and we did them all in our two-night stay.

Once again we had booked an apartment in a spanking new condo complex. It was so new most of the units remained unsold, which made for a rather ghostly atmosphere until we exited and turned the corner where some cafes had opened.

IMG_2690

But, you couldn’t beat the location being within a two-minute walk of the lively waterfront promenade next to the Old Town,

IMG_2804

the Museum of the Second World War across the street,

and the European Solidarity Center within an easy one-mile walk.

IMG_2701

The first mention of Gdańsk can be found in the records of a Benedictine monk noting the life and death (killed by the pagan Prussians) of a Bohemian missionary and bishop, St. Wojciech or Adalbert, in the late 10th century. Written “urbs Gyddanyzc” its location as a sea port meant a healthy trade, especially in timber and grain during the Polish Golden Age (16th-17th centuries).

During that time the Protestants pushed the city for freedom to practice their religion and actually got it. This tolerance spread to multiple faiths, attracting Dutch Mennonites, Scots, Huguenots and Jews, and Gdańsk became a melting pot and, no doubt, a very viable business center.

The city declined during the 1700 and 1800s. After Poland’s independence in 1918 Gdańsk became the “Free City of Danzig” (a former Prussian/German name for the city), i.e., an independent city state under the authority of an international body (the League of Nations).* This was a compromise based on acknowledging the majority German population without giving Germany access to this important port.

* This wasn’t the first time Gdańsk acquired a free-city status. Polish kings had bestowed special privileges on this prestigious port in the 1400s. In 1807 Napoleon Bonaparte established it as a semi-independent city-state recognizing the Poles help in his defeat of Prussia; but that only lasted until 1814/15 with the Congress of Vienna.

During the interwar years from 1920-1939 Danzig, along with the rest of Poland, struggled to create a healthy economy only to earn the dubious distinction of being the site where WWII erupted. In 1939, Germans posing as Poles blew up a radio tower, causing Germany to ‘retaliate’ by shelling the military post of Westerplatte. Which is the perfect entree to Gdańsk’s Museum II Wojny Swiatowej or, in English, the Museum of the Second World War.

IMG_2827

The state-of-the-art museum opened a little over a year ago after the Prime Minister at the time, Donald Tusk (now president of the European Council), started the project in 2008 with historian Pawel Machcewicz, the museum’s first director, curating,

Descending three floors below ground, the permanent exhibition leads you through 18 segments starting at the beginning of the war and ending with the reshaping of Europe by Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin, the latter keeping Poland in the iron fist of Russia.

IMG_2833

Rooms off a long corridor filled with signage, artifacts, films, photographs, and digital displays focused on civilians across Europe, as well as soldiers throughout Europe caught in the crossfire of WW II.

The displays include an actual suitcase whose simple presence represents the horror of the Holocaust…

IMG_2934

the unquenching thirst for freedom symbolized by various countries’ resistance icons (below are the initials of Norway’s King Haakon VII)…

IMG_2970

maps depicting Germany’s 1939 absorption of Poland, with Russia earning a piece of its eastern territory…

haunting photographs such as this one of two young sisters, which appeared in LIFE magazine’s coverage of Warsaw’s fall…

IMG_2858

and films portraying the unbelievable amount of suffering caused by this war.

IMG_2891

Amidst the more expected displays were those a bit startling to come upon:

This French Lieutenant POW dressed as a woman and would have escaped if he hadn’t dropped his watch, which a guard ran to return to him.

IMG_2881

And, this 1939 propaganda poster (a Soviet solider giving a ‘liberated’ peasant the kiss of peace) appeared in the Soviet Daily PRAVDA, which seems a bit ironic considering Russia’s detestable homophobia.

IMG_2859

There’s no question this museum invites visitors to understand the war in a universal sense. As the historian and former Museum Director Pawel Machcewicz, states: “This is the museum which tells the story of a war in terms of politics, ideology and civil population… We cannot explain Polish history without paying attention to other nations”…”We are not an isolated island.”

But, that lack of not focusing solely on the Polish people is where the ruling Labor and Justice Party has now taken issue. Enough so that the museum’s opening promo included the call-to-action “See it before they close it” (“Poland’s World WarII museum under political bombardment”, by Claudia Ciabonu, 5/15/2017). The government slashed the funding and plans to merge this one with a yet-to-be-built museum covering the first battle of WW II at Westerplatte.

Frightening to me is the Labor and Justice Party’s explanation for doing so:  They felt “the museum should have concentrated more on depicting ‘features characteristic of Poles’ such as ‘loving freedom, Catholicism, patriotism and especially being proud of their history.’ ” Wow. As soon as a country’s government defines its people by a religion, an alarm should start screeching to put any intelligent person an alert.

And, if that isn’t scary enough, the Polish courts decided in favor of the Labor and Justice party. Michcewicz was ousted as Director but hasn’t given up. He sued the government for copyright violations regarding the exhibit. And, he’s not alone in his outrage as reported in this December 2017 article by Julia Michalska. Seems to me they need to change the name to: Poland’s Museum of Poland’s People During World War II as seen through the eyes of Poland’s Heroic Labor and Justice Party.

The other museum we toured covers an event most people of our generation remember: the Solidarity Movement led by Lech Wałesa. Another impressive museum, both in its architecture and content.

A towering 1980 monument greeted us as we approached the museum.

IMG_2695

A plaque in five different languages defiantly proclaims “Memorial of the Fallen Shipyard Workers 1970.  A token of everlasting remembrance of the slaughter victims. A warning to rulers that no social conflict in our country can be resolved by force.  A sign of hope for fellow-citizens that evil need not prevail.” A powerful introduction to the exhibit inside.

IMG_2698

The museum audio tour begins with earlier rebellions throughout the communist bloc, then soon focuses on Poland and the 18-day strike in 1980.

Under the leadership of Lech Wałesa (b. 1843), an electrician at the Gdańsk Lenin Shipyard, workers and members of other unions won their 21 grievances (the original sign listing them is on display)

and the historic founding of the trade union Solidarnośc (Solidarity), the only one independent of the communist party.  Ten million workers eventually joined Solidarity, almost the entire Polish workforce.

IMG_2705

Yet, I didn’t realize the official acceptance of this non-communist union was short-lived. Ever since Solidarity’s victory in 1980 the powers-that-be were conspiring to shut it down. In December 13, 1981 they acted. Poland’s Prime Minister and leader of the Communist Party, General Wojciech Jaruzelski, introduced martial law and outlawed Solidarity.

IMG_2763

Martial law remained in effect until July 1983. It wasn’t until late 1988 after a wave of strikes that talks in Warsaw began to re-legalize Solidarity, among other demands.

The museum highlights the church’s critical role in Solidarity’s success, especially with Pope John Paul II’s third visit to his homeland in 1987. During that visit he encouraged Poles to band together in support of one another. A round-table meeting in Warsaw led to the reinstatement of Solidarity’s legitimacy in April 1989.

IMG_2780

The museum positions this civic organization as the proverbial straw that broke the communists’ back.

This museum opened in 2014. Unlike the Museum of WW II there doesn’t seem to be any controversy surrounding this one, at least nothing blatant.  If anything, the exhibit provokes nationalism in the extreme, especially with the rousing film from the 1980 signing:  Film Clip 1980

Time for the outdoors.

Similar to Warsaw’s WW II destruction, bombing destroyed almost all of Gdańsk’s historical buildings. And, like Warsaw’s medieval heritage, this city recreated lovely streets for spring strolling.

IMG_2806

IMG_2812

Walking along the river we saw a peculiar tower. Come to find out it was a 15th-century crane.

IMG_2795

Looking up we saw one of the two wheels used for lifting loads for shipping.

IMG_2796

Men actually walked the treads inside the wheels to operate it! I’d call it the human-hamster wheel. I wonder if it has the obligatory squeak with every rotation?

On the outskirts of the old town green spaces and warm sun drew locals and tourists alike.

IMG_2793

And, something that always attracts me–a fountain. Even better, a kid-friendly one :)

Screen Shot 2018-05-14 at 10.05.09 AM

One last site was St. Mary’s Church, promoted as Europe’s largest brick Gothic church. Initially the Grand Master of the Teutonic Knights (from the neighboring Malbork Castle) built a small brick temple in the mid-1300s. By the 1500s the church had ballooned to its current size and, yes, it was HUGE.

IMG_2995

But, also surprisingly airy once inside.

IMG_3009

And, a popular tourist attraction, especially for group tours, which we saw puddled around a medieval painting and astronomical clock.

IMG_3005

With that we ended our city tours of Warsaw and Gdańsk and turned our car back towards Germany and JUANONA.

We hope to return for future explorations and, if we do, we know we still won’t be able to pronounce these multiple-consonanted words.

IMG_3022

Yet, at least we can say a word we always try to learn when traveling, dziekuje (jen-koo-ye)–thank you.

So, dziekuje to Poland. Our time here provided more than entertaining site-seeing excursions. It’s also a reminder of just what bullies can do once in power.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

No Heathens Need Apply

MALBORK CASTLE

Friday, April 27, 2018

More online searching for interesting spots resulted in another must-see site–Malbork Castle.

But, first we had to exit Warsaw, which gave us the interesting adventure of mistaking a bike path for a car road. After a carefully negotiated u-turn and red faces we ever-so-slowly made our way back up the said bike path.

IMG_3020

With mouthed ‘sorrys’ to the two-legged perambulators and two-wheel mechanical vehicles we happily got back on an actual road and aimed for the castle.

But, must have been our day for traffic incidents. On entering the town where the castle is located, we pissed off a driver who stopped his car (in the middle of the road), got out of his car, and proceeded to yell something at us. Fortunately (?), it was in Polish so we just shrugged and then made sure to keep our distance as he zoomed off. I don’t know. Perhaps we made him late for his sword practice or chainmail fitting. Gratefully we did reach Malbork without further mishaps and proceeded to the mighty castle.

The powerful Teutonic Knights built this 13th-century brick fortress, considered the largest in the world when you include its land (52 acres). Whether the largest or not, this castle is astonishing in both scope–it contains three separate castles, a High, Middle, and Lower–and information–you easily can spend an entire day wandering around. Stopping here en route to Gdańsk was a no-brainer.

IMG_2667

The High castle served as the primary fortress and was the first to be built. When the Grand Master, leader of the Teutonic Knights, made this his headquarters in 1309, more building took place, resulting in a lot more impressive red brick and the layout you can tour today.

My photos don’t really capture the magnificent size of this site but hopefully provides a sense of what we saw.

IMG_2668

IMG_2395

IMG_2402

IMG_2387

 

IMG_2385

The Teutonic Knights were commissioned by, whom else, the Roman Catholic Church, in 1190, and, if you’re like me, you’re asking yourself how did they differ from Dan Brown’s Knights Templar? Which only leads to yet another, to-be-noted band of warrior monks (nice oxymoron), the Knights Hospitaliers. So, a quick rundown of who’s who:

Knights Templar, aka the Poor Knights of Christ and the Temple,

Screen Shot 2018-05-09 at 8.21.07 AM

were founded around 1110 to protect and aid the Christian pilgrims paying homage to the dude Jesus in the Holy Land. Thanks to donations and interest on loans made to the pilgrims (and later other borrowers), the Templars grew into an extremely wealthy organization. Eventually their finances got the best of them when French King Philip IV needed to get out of paying his loan. What to do? Why, get your buddy Pope Clement V to kick them out of the church, which he did in 1312.  And, if anyone’s been to Chinon, the French castle where Jean d’Arc correctly id’ed the Dauphin, then you’ve walked where several of the Templar leaders were held prior to being burned at the stake in Gay Paree. El Fin de Templars.

No problem, for we have the Knights Hospitalizers, aka Order of the Knights of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem (catchy name).

Screen Shot 2018-05-09 at 8.24.28 AM

This gang of brethren came to life around the same time (early 12th century) by the Benedictine nursing order before morphing into yet another protective (and medical) force for those trekking pilgrims. In spite of losing battles and having to island hop to Cyprus (until 1291), then Rhodes (until 1522), then Malta (until 1798)*, they landed in Rome (1834) and became the Sovereign Military Order of Malta. Oh, and, they lucked out by getting a lot of the Templar property when that order went poof.

Finally, there’s the Teutonic Knights, aka the Order of the Teutonic Knights of St. Mary’s Hospital in Jerusalem (another name that just rolls off one’s tongue).

Screen Shot 2018-05-09 at 8.26.41 AM

These guys began as German crusaders in 1190 to, what else, help those beleaguered Christian pilgrims in the Holy Land. Moving to Venice after the fall of Acre, then to Prussia in 1309 (now Poland territory),  these armed monks found better rewards by fighting not only Muslims on what now is Germany’s eastern border, but also fellow Christians. So much for brotherhood. However, like the Hospitalizers they also managed to limp along even after a major defeat in 1410 at the hands of the Polish-Lithuanian army (Battle of Grunwald). They lost all of their secular holdings in 1809 thanks to Napoleon and now exist as a charitable organization.

*Curiously, for a time the Roman Catholic pope allowed them to call an Orthodox emperor, the Russian Czar Paul, their Grand Master (1798-1802).

But, the easiest way to distinguish these dudes from one another comes down to colors:  Templars have the red cross on white background; Hospitalizers, the white cross on black background; and, the Teutonics, black cross on white background as seen on this medieval shield.

IMG_2538

Back to the castle…

Originally known as Marienburg (“Mary’s Castle”) the castle housed up to 3,000 knights in its heyday.

Their coffers grew, as did a town outside its walls (which became one of the German Hanseatic Cities), from toll collection of passing ships and a monopoly on the amber trade (the castle included an amber exhibit where you could peep at items caught in Mother Nature’s super glue).

IMG_2531

Through the centuries Malbork Castle changed hands many times, beginning in 1456.  The popularity of the Teutonic knights was waning, forcing the Grand Master to hire non-knights as a replacement force. But, due to being low on funds the Grand Master ‘paid’ his Bohemian Mercenaries by giving them the castle. They, in turn, sold it to Casimir IV Jagiellon, king of Poland and grand duke of Lithuania (1427-1492).

220px-Casimir_IV_Jagiellon

Later holders included Swedes, then Prussians again, and finally Poles, with the latter interrupted by the Nazi occupation, as documented by Hitler’s visit.

IMG_2523

Now the Castle is a UNESCO site, in large part due to the extensive medieval art and craft techniques used to reconstruct this landmark after years of neglect and WWII bombs. Photographs on display attest to the extent of work required to put the castle back together again. Below is a ‘before’

IMG_2660

and ‘after’ of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church in the High Castle.

IMG_2620

IMG_2621

On the exterior of this church a Virgin stands 8 meters tall (just over 26 feet) showing just how big the building is.

IMG_2399

WW II destroyed the original, created in 1340. A reconstructed version is what we see now. Mighty big headed woman, I’d say.

IMG_2663

One of the reasons for such amazing reconstructive work is the original fortress itself incorporated construction features unique for its day. The medieval builders managed to create a structure that influenced other Gothic building throughout northeastern Europe; thus, it’s not surprising part of the UNESCO designation comes from the amazing amount of effort it took so we serfs could see it as the Teutonic Knights must have.

We walked down a long hallway to reach one of the construction rarities:  the Danksker or latrine tower, aptly noted by a cross-legged demon.

IMG_2591

IMG_2592

Here we saw the pooping stations for the majority of the castle dwellers, which emptied directly below (so much for swimming in the moat).

IMG_2600

The entire castle has been reconstructed with some rooms showcasing historical artifacts with explanatory signage. One such display appropriately located in the Grand Master’s office covered the art of writing and quill making.

IMG_2509

You could visit 35 rooms, and we must have walked through all of them. I confess some of the ‘walking’ became fast trots, case in point, the weaponry exhibit. There are just so many sharp and pointy things I can see. Plus, I got a pretty good idea of what I missed by looking at this poster.

IMG_2540

In other areas we found ourselves loitering, waiting for a group to leave so we could experience the space ourselves. Being early in the season, dodging crowds became pretty easy. Check out the awesome rooms below…

The Grand Refectory Middle Castle

IMG_2462IMG_2467

and its heating ducts, a utility we saw in many of the rooms.

IMG_2464

The ginormous Kitchen hearth Middle Castle

IMG_2458

The Grand Master’s bedroom and commode–he had one of the only two private heads, the other being the chef  Grand Master’s Palace

IMG_2489

IMG_2456

The Summer and Winter (with heat ducts) Refectories Grand Master’s Palace.

IMG_2500

IMG_2506

The courtyard with the pelican atop the well (have learned in my travels that the pelican symbolizes Jesus. Legend has it the mother pelican wounded herself in order to feed her blood to her starving baby pelicans. Nice.)

IMG_2589

And, the only original door out of the over 700 in the complex High Castle.

IMG_2613

Lovely grounds provided a respite from the imposing red brick fortress and a chance to soak up some warmth from the sun.

It was difficult to grasp the overall layout of Malbork Castle as we wound our way through the rooms. However, the audio guide provided an excellent narration as we zipped around the grounds.

As we walked across the bridge to the car park we took one last glance at this magnificent Castle.

IMG_2683

Most definitely an amazing testament to the wealth of those warrior monks and to those whose funds, knowledge and artistry restored it to its former glory. Those guys with the black crosses sure knew how to build. Would have been something to spend a night or two there. Yet, frankly, I like hangin’ with the heathens, as a friend of ours says.

Next, another type of warrior whose castle was a shipyard…

Marie Skłowdoska’s Home Town

WARSAW

Tuesday-Friday, April 24-27

We arrived Sunday in Stralsund, Germany, rented a car Monday, and got on the road early Tuesday heading east. Destination:  Warsaw, Poland.

As mentioned in the earlier post we experienced Krakow in 2002, with our initial impressions of Poland one of cold leaden skies and communist undertones.

Fast forward 16 years later to a glorious spring day and you’d find us on a sleek highway with artistic overpasses,

billboards,

IMG_1946

and the compass pointing southeast for 460+ miles.

With good intentions we prepared to eat ‘healthy’ road-trip sustenance

IMG_1940

that lasted about the first hour or so… we soon switched to gas station-cafe fare as we drove the seven hours to Warsaw, Poland’s capital and its largest city.

IMG_1949

In spite of now being a member of the European Union, Poland’s prices still seem less than other EU countries’. That combined with a better budget meant we could afford to stay in hotels offering a full apartment, for what would cost us an average room in the states.

Not only did we have an apartment where we could make our breakfasts and dinners,

but, also–and, here I’m now belting out (in my head): a TUUUUUB!!

IMG_1952

Trust me, other cruising friends, such as Anne, understand the luxury of having one of these to lie in. Matter-of-fact, I sent her the photo as soon as I walked into the head.

Originally having booked two nights, we soon expanded our stay to three nights and two full days. Our researched had identified two main museums of interest  – Warsaw Uprising Museum and Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews-  and several walking tours.

First impressions? Warsaw offers walkability (we easily covered most of our destinations via our feet),

IMG_2164

a mix of old (albeit, reconstructed ‘old’)

IMG_1985

and new  (a lot of construction),

IMG_2088

loads of green spaces (lovely parks and landscaping),

IMG_2205

plenty of restaurants and shops (Vietnamese and sushi for dinner take-outs), cleanliness (we rarely ever saw any piece of litter during our entire trip in Poland), and plenty of history, beginning with our free guided tour Wednesday morning.

Arriving early we wandered around Castle Square, the center of Warsaw’s Old Town.

IMG_2001

Established in the 13th century it was mind-boggling to realize over 85% of this had been blown to smithereens during WW II, then rebuilt exactly as it had been. It now resides on UNESCO’s (United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization) World Heritage List.

At the column of Sigismnd III Vasa

IMG_1974

we spotted the tell-tale guide sign of a bright umbrella under which a young man stood.

IMG_2008

He approached us and off we went with two women from Lebanon, a young Italian man, and a Micronesian with his Polish friend.

Eric (Anglicized for the non-Polish ducklings) sprinkled anecdotes and tidbits throughout his walk-and-talk tour. This fast-talking guide flooded us with the history of the Old Town and New Town, “New” being a bit of a misnomer considering it was founded in the 14th century.

We learned Sigismund III Vasa (the Swedish-Polish monarch) moved the capital from Kraków in 1596 to the Royal Castle. Completely destroyed in WWII (the Germans bombed historical symbols to demoralize the residents), the Communist government began to fundraise, appealing to Poles both in and outside the country. Within seven years individuals had contributed enough zlotys (their currency then and now) to undertake this costly endeavor.

IMG_1990

Onto the Market Square, a location our young guide said was never frequented by locals (too touristy and bad food). Yet, this plaza boasted a famous Warsaw symbol: Syrenka, the fighting mermaid. Several legends explained why this female amphibian became the pride of the city, one involving a love-sick guy and another a greedy fisherman. You can see a peek of her behind the guide.

IMG_2029

Eric pointed out original structures, indicated by bullet holes…

IMG_2027

and plaques commemorating those murdered by the Nazis in specific sites. Note the symbol bottom right corner:  an anchor formed by marrying a “P” with a “W”–Polska Walczyac or ‘Fighting Poland”.  A resistance force started using it in 1942 and by 1944 the symbol became synonymous with Poland’s fight for independence.

IMG_2032

After two hours we gave Eric a healthy tip for the friendly expertise he shared with us.

A two-mile stroll brought us to the first of four museums we’d tour on this road trip. The first would encompass a part of history with which I was totally unfamiliar:  the 1944 Warsaw Uprising, a battle between Polish insurgents with a home-grown army of ‘soldiers’ and civilians woefully under-armed fighting the German occupiers with their superior military weaponry.

The Battle lasted 63 days, from August 1 to October 2. Initially the Home Army and other underground units managed to liberate parts of Warsaw, causing joyful celebration among insurgents and civilians alike. But, as the battle waged on, the Germans demolished the rebels strongholds, resulting in the surrender of the rebels.

Opened in 2004 this museum offered English translations of Polish descriptions as well as an audio guide. Eric had mentioned that Warsaw tourism had only recently blossomed in the past ten years; and, noting all the English descriptors alongside their Polish counterparts, we felt fortunate to be taking advantage of this recent phenomenon.

Having anticipated a fact-filled tour following our audio instructions, we felt totally overwhelmed. Plus, we must have taken some wrong turns. Instead of walking though it chronologically we stumbled our way through room after room picking up legal-size sheets of paper with even more explanation of what we were seeing.

IMG_3102

Although we definitely learned about the “who” and “why” of this uprising, we got lost in the “where” and “when” specific fights took place as first the Poles re-took certain neighborhoods only to lose them bit by bit to the Germans.

Of course, it didn’t help that this was exam week for some of the schools, which meant those classes/grades not involved in tests had to leave the school. So, Max and I were viewing this museum amidst a sea of excitable clumps of puberty.

Yet, any visitor to this museum can’t help but be moved by these Davids battling their Goliath. Displays of actual artifacts such as armbands, some with blood stains…

IMG_2106

smuggled letters…

IMG_2107

photos…

IMG_2115

an actual printing press used for promoting the insurgency

IMG_2104

and a Polish flag that flew during the insurrection…

All provide a sense of the brave individuals who gave their lives for freedom.

This museum is a definite site to see, but, be forewarned:  prepare yourself by reading about the battle before entering; and, if you’re so inclined, briefly map out your own timeline to use when following the exhibits using the museum’s road map.

Then, immerse yourself in the emotions of those who fought such a heroic battle only to lose in the end.

To further cement the feel of the heroism, visit the Uprising Monument erected in 1989. It’s near the solemn Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which was flying the Australian and New Zealand flags to commemorate Anzac Day (April 25).

IMG_1969

[an interesting side note, when checking the iPhone for directions our online access was blocked. Not knowing why we looked around and saw we were standing next to the Chinese Embassy.]

IMG_2168We reached the Uprising Monument with its overwhelming size. Note the scale by checking out Max standing next to the largest grouping.

IMG_2193

It was here we found a concise description of the Uprising, one we wish we had read before touring the Uprising Museum.

IMG_2201

IMG_2202

While we definitely would not have missed the Uprising Museum, the layout and audio guide of the Polin (Hebrew name for ‘Poland’ as well as ‘Rest Here’) Museum of the History of Polish Jews, made it a heck of lot easier to follow and absorb the contents.

IMG_2210

Having just opened in 2015, the founders obviously took advantage of the latest and greatest technology.

IMG_2233

Beginning with the Middle Ages and continuing through the Holocaust, the museum beautifully presents the history of Jews in Poland. The audio guide offered excellent descriptors without being overwhelming as we strolled from one room to the next.

I didn’t think about the museum’s name until I came upon the article “We Remain:  Polin, Museum of the History of Polish Jews” by Lisa Bitel (March 31, 2015). The author remarks on how the museum’s title identifies Jews as ‘neighbors’ versus fully integrated citizens. If the latter, the Museum would be about the history of ‘Jewish Poles’.

In THE ATLANTIC another news item not only addresses the power of words but also the insidious rule of the current Polish government:  a recent law making it a crime punishable by up to three years imprisonment (!) “publicly and untruthfully assigns responsibility or co-responsibility to the Polish Nation or the Polish State for Nazi crimes” (“The Truth About Poland’s Role in the Holocaust” by Edna Friedburg, February 6, 2018). In short, you can not call any WW II concentration camps in Poland  “Polish death camps.” Whoa. I understand sensitivity to terms but a law such as this seems like hitting a gnat with a sledgehammer.

I’m sorry we didn’t spend a full day here. If so, I would have used the morning learning about the early history, such as a law stipulating “that the peace be kept between people of different faith and liturgy” (1573 Act of the Warsaw Confederation) and would have stood longer in rooms soaking up the ambiance created by reconstructed buildings, such as this 18th-century Gwoździec synagogue.

IMG_2247IMG_2248

Splurge on lunch at the cafe followed by an afternoon wandering slowly through more history, including information on some of the accomplished women, such as Mania Wilburszewicz-Shochat (2nd from the right) who fought for social justice in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

IMG_2262

For anyone wanting more information on this museum, click on this link. If anyone is planning on visiting Warsaw, this was top of the list for us; and, I strongly recommend one full day devoted to this museum.

But, we didn’t spend all our time inside museums. The Tourist Information office stocked pocket-size brochures with self-guided walking tours. We didn’t take advantage of The Royal Route (a lot had been covered in our Old and New Towns tour) or the Communist Warsaw walking tour but did touch on two famous Warsawians:  saw the house of Marie Sklodowska Curie (1867-1934) and spotted benches engraved with the Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849) route and buttons to push for actual audio clips of his music.

IMG_2182

and walked to his stature in Łazienki Park where free concerts are played from mid-March to September.

IMG_2365

Another of the touring routes led you through the history of Warsaw Jews. We focused on the time of WW II when another tragic, yet inspiring, rebellion occurred, the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Anyone who’s read Leon Uris’ MILA 18 knows the story of how Jewish fighters battled the German forces from April 19 to May 16 as the Nazis began liquidating the ghetto.

Significant sites throughout the city displayed a plaque with information about the spot where we were standing.

IMG_2053

We walked to memorials, such as a sewer hatch where where some of the Jewish fighters, including one of the leaders, Marek Edelman, managed to escape…

IMG_2093

the 1806 Jewish Cemetery with over 100,000 graves with the above Marek Edelman’s being one of them…

the location of the footbridge constructed in 1942 when the ghetto was split into ‘large’ and ‘small’ sections–the reason for the split was the street, Chłodna Street–served as an importing communication link for the Germans…

Warsaw_Ghetto_footbridge_05

the Noźyk Synagogue, the only remaining pre-war synagogue, one used by the Germans as a stable….

IMG_2071

an outline of the ghetto wall…

IMG_2056

remnants of the ghetto….

IMG_2077

the Miła 18 bunker, now the grave of those who died there…

IMG_2220

culminating at the Polin Museum where the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes was unveiled in 1948 (using, by the way, Swedish stone Germans had planned to use to celebrate Hitler’s Victory over the Allies). We had just missed the 75th anniversary of the Ghetto Uprising, which is why all the flowers.

IMG_2211

Max noted that one of the differences between the 1943 and the 1944 uprisings was the ghetto fighters had no real chance of winning; they just wanted to make it as hard as possible for the Germans, and to protest the Allies for ignoring their plight. The 1944 rebels expected help from the Soviet Army massed right across the river; but Stalin didn’t want any threat of insurgency to his planned domination of Poland. Thus, he let the Germans do the dirty work before his troops moved into Warsaw.

Two uprisings; one an inspiration for the other. A perfect entree to our next port of call:  Gdańsk.

Road Trip!

To Poland

Friday-Sunday, April 20-22

Leaving Laboe, Germany we headed towards Straslund, one of the Hanseatic cities on Germany’s northeast coast. The shortest path to this port city involved a triangular route, which took us to an anchorage outside the main harbor of Helgenhafen, Germany, then north to Gedsner, Denmark, and back south.

Route to Stralsund

Favorable winds and weather meant our making one-nighter stops in the above two towns, arriving in Stralsund on Sunday. Here, we planned to stay for a bit in order to tour some places further east by car.

Within two days we had rented a vehicle and left for Poland, specifically Warsaw and Gdańsk. We had wanted to see these two cities ever since we traveled here (via bus) in 2002. Back then we had planned land excursions when wintering aboard JUANONA in Rota, Spain. Imagining ourselves zipping through scenes of vineyards, alpine valleys, and landing in a major city, we soon realized that ain’t gonna happen. After calculating where our budget of $35/night could take us, we opted for Eastern Europe via buses. Billed as seats you can sleep in, some rides became our motorized hotel room for the night. Let me just state I respectfully disagree about the promoted sleep-ability of those seats, especially after our trek from stepping into the bus in Madrid at 19:30 only to exit the same bus the next day at 14:30 in Paris.

In 2002 our first destination once we crossed into non-EU countries was Kraków. Under damp, chilly November skies we toured this old city with its 10th-century town square, communist-bloc apartment buildings, and remnants of the WWII ghetto. Every day coal smell and smog accompanied us, adding a pervasive feeling of grayness to our touring. We left with an appreciation for this city’s history, a better understanding of the horrors of war, and a yearning for blue skies and brilliant color.

What a difference those 16 years have made. The obvious prosperity from, dare I say it, capitalism, has created bustling metropolitan areas. Construction cranes and newly built apartment buildings dot sky- and landscapes.

IMG_2087

Familiar retail meccas and fast food chains offer items found in the US and Western Europe. And, tourism–one of the bellwethers of a locale’s growing popularity–seems to be thriving. Yup, 2018 definitely engenders a different feel and vibe from 2002. Plus, the luscious spring weather made walking a breeze compared to the freezing mix of early winter 16 years earlier.

Of course, the reason for the newness came from the extensive bombings of both these cities during WW II. In the historical areas this lent a rather Disney-esque atmosphere to our tours. You stand in a square immersed in medieval times

IMG_1973

only to realize you’re actually gazing at homes, shops, even a castle built within the past 50 years. A bit disorienting but also stunning to think of how much effort went into such projects. And, how rewarding for both Warsaw and Gdańsk to receive recognition of their historical sites by being placed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.

One aspect that didn’t seem to change from our travels 16 years earlier was the smell of coal wafting in the air on colder days. No surprise considering Poland’s cities have earned the dubious title of some of the most polluted in Europe from using this fossil fuel for heat. The NEW YORK TIMES recently covered this topic with a curious mention that Poland’s coal burning served as a patriotic rebuttal to relying on Russia’s natural gas. (April 22, 2018).

Some local areas are taking steps to combat this dangerous pollutant. Kraków plans to ban all coal and wood burning by 2019, and an activist in Zakopane, a mountain town, has received an EU grant to continue her war against air pollution. Unfortunately, the Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki of the Law and Justice Party champions this ‘black gold’. But, pressure from possible EU fines and the health risks to children caused the national government to pledge fighting smog with over $8 billion in the next ten years. Will be interesting to see if that actually occurs.

Let me provide a quick history of this country that we’ve gleaned from online research, tourist brochures, and one city’s walking tour…

Poland as a country came into being when the leader of several Western Slavic tribes, Duke Mieszko (930-992 C.E.),

portrait-mieszko-i-polish-zloty-very-sharp-macro-picture-51365143

took the Bohemian princess Dyoubravak as his wife. In 966 C.E. he consented to being baptized in the Christian faith to maintain independence from the Holy Roman Empire and to gain the protection of the papacy.*  His son Bolesław I (966/67-1025) continued the expansion becoming the first official king of Poland in 1024.

boleslaw-i-brave-portrait-old-two-thousand-zloty-polish-money-79775782

* This had a lasting affect on the country’s religion as over 90% of the 38 million residents identify themselves as Catholic; however, a precipitous drop has occurred over the last ten or so years in those who actually observe the Catholic rites. And, non-believers has risen, especially among the 18- to 24 year-olds.

The Mieskzo dynasty lasted until the end of the 14th century when the royal line petered out. No problem. Intermarriages among noble houses, specifically that of Poland and Hungary, led eventually to one of Poland’s most popular monarchs (a female, no less):  Jadwiga (1373/74-1399) who at age nine was declared queen of Poland. At the ripe old age of 12 she married  Jogaila the Lithuanian Grand Duke (1351-1434) aka Władysław II Jagełło in 1386.

stamp-king-jagiello-jadwiga-14196907

In 2002 we toured Jadwiga’s castle, an impressive fortress rising above Poland’s second capital, Kraków (the first being Gniezno, an important pagan center in 940 C.E. and later a Christian one developed by Bolesław. Only after Gniezno’s destruction and plundering by Bohemia in 1038 did Kraków become the capital.)

I’ll mention the switch to the Poland’s third capital, Warsaw in 1596 because it provides yet another example of the complexity of who’s ruling whom among all the monarchies of Europe. So, we’ve seen the ties between Hungary, Lithuania and Poland, right? A fast recap:  Jadwiga was the daughter of Louis I, King of Hungary and Poland, and Elizabeth of Bosnia; Jogaila, Jadwiga’s husband, was the son of Algirdas, grand duke of Lithuania, and Yuliana, daughter of the prince of Tver (a Russian principality).

Now, add in Sweden with Sigismund III Vasa (1566-1632), son of Grand Duke John of Finland, later King of Sweden, and Catherine Jagielloxn, daughter of Polish King Sigismund I.

Zygmunt_III_Waza_1

Some historians say Sigismund III moved the capital to Warsaw due to its being closer to Lithuania (and Sweden). Whatever the reason, Warsaw has remained Poland’s capital to this day.

Now, if you’re not screaming yet, I’ll continue on. Actually, even if you are going bonkers with this historical minutia, I’ll still keep at it…

Just some interesting facts leading up to Sigismund III’s reign, one being the Polish Golden Age (the 16th century to early 17th century). Timber and grain trading increased the wealth of the aristocracy. During this time Poland established a democratic monarchy, partly due to nobles representing 10% of the population compared to 1% in other European countries. Poland also legislated protection of minorities’ rights making it a tolerant melting pot. Ironic considering its later history.

This freedom of worship affected more than to whom you could bend your knees or look adoringly at an icon of. It also fostered scientific advancement. Poland is the home of Copernicus (1473-1543) who stated the earth orbited the sun, a teaching Galileo tried to promote in Italy only to be punished by the pope and the Catholic Inquisition.

Sigismund I (1467-1548) and Sigismund II (1520-1572) ruled during this time, relying on the support of the powerful aristocracy. Sigismund I’s Italian wife influenced a Polish cultural renaissance, as well as introducing lettuce, leeks and cabbage to the diet. (To this day you can purchase a bunched group of them called włosczczyzna (the ‘Italian’). In 1569 Sigismund II created the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth resulting in Poland being a powerhouse in 17th-century Europe.

Then, along comes Sigismund III who tried to be king of both protestant Sweden–didn’t work–and catholic Poland–worked, but not without setting the stage for a lot of dynastic wars. Yet, a startling footnote for this king is he is the only leader who has captured Moscow, which occurred in 1610.

A column erected by his son and heir, Władysław IV Vasa (1595-1648) stands in Warsaw’s Castle Square. Note the cross (and forget the diving pigeon on the left).

IMG_2007

At that time the church only allowed statues on columns to commemorate religious figures. Władysław managed to obtain the church’s approval by ensuring the highest point would be a cross. This memorial is a fitting homage to a king who was also recognized as a supporter of the Counter-Reformation.

As neighboring countries’ powers grew, Poland’s began to shrink. Feuding of nobles, funding of constant warfare, and loss of population combined to weaken what was once a force to be reckoned with.

Which lands us in the 1700s and the three partitions of Poland resulting in the end of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Let’s just say the cause for taking over some of Poland’s territories was due to threatened monarchs and peeved nobles. In 1772 Russia, Prussia and Austria laid claim to some Polish territories. In 1793, following Poland’s drafting in 1792 of what some say was Europe’s first constitution, Russia and Prussia carved away more of what was left of Poland; and, in 1795 they completely removed Poland from the map (image from emersonkent.com)

Poland Partitions 1700s

after crushing a heroic revolt by Tadeusz Kosciuszko in 1794. †

IMG_2051
† One of Koscluszko’s models for the constitution came from America’s recent struggle for independence. He actually served in the American Revolution as an engineer colonel and fought under General Horatio Gates in Ft. Ticonderoga and General Nathanael Green in North Carolina. Due to his contribution the United States awarded Kosluszko U.S. citizenship and the rank of a brigadier general in the U.S. Army.

Russia, Prussia and Austria managed to not only to carve up Poland but also cause this country to disappear for the next 123 years. The disappearance of an entire country is pretty strange to contemplate.

Maybe ‘gone’ but definitely not forgotten as the Polish people kept their culture alive. After several unsuccessful uprisings in the mid-1800s, the Poles wisely changed tactics, turning to education (teaching their native language and history), advocating social reform and pleading their case to their occupiers’ enemies. But, it wasn’t until November 11, 1918 when Poland’s name once again appeared on a map. Which is symbolized by the photo of a crowned eagle (Poland’s symbol since Boleslaw I) breaking its chains at the start of this post.

Between the two world wars Poland struggled to grow its economy and unite its citizens who had been under the rule of three different countries. Being in such a perilous condition it’s not shocking Hitler managed to invade and conquer Poland within a month. Then, the three powers that be gave Poland to Stalin, leading to another period of repression and authoritarianism until the Solidarity Movement in 1980 and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 finally gave Poland its freedom.

For awhile Poland served as the ‘how-to’ manual for peacefully switching from communistic to democratic governance. But, no more. With the election of the Law and Justice Party (PiS) in 2015 and its faces, Prime Minister Beata Szydlo

Beata Szydlo

President Andrzej Duda

Polish-President-Andrzej-Duda

and the puppeteer behind the scenes, PiS party leader, Jaroslav Kaczynski,

Jaroslaw Kacxynski

this country now provides lessons on how an authoritarian group can use the cloak of democracy to dismantle an independent judicial system, a free media, and an electoral process. Pretty frightening, right? Public outcry can limit some of PiS’s work (such as its recent vote to not reward its ministers with major bonuses), but can it be enough?

As a tourist you wouldn’t think this would affect you, but one site, in particular, had PiS’s fingerprints all over it.

So, stay tuned as we visit first Warsaw, then Gdańsk…