Auschwitz was actually near the headwaters of the Vistula river: the course of which runs across the Polish plains like a story of Poland, from Auschwitz through Krakow – once the Polish capital – Warsaw and eventually to the Baltic near Gdansk or what was Danzig, the flashpoint that started the Nazi invasion of Poland.
After going through Auschwitz I was hoping things could lighten up with the tour of Krakow. We had the ideal guide for that: a beautiful young Polish lady who was an enthusiastic not to mention voluble guide; to the point of being comical I was to learn. It was the inner city or ‘Krakow Old Town’ we were to see; surrounded by fortifications that were now mostly a ribbon of parkland encircling – in the shape of a bloated tadpole – what was Poland’s capital from 1038 to 1569.
Starting from the ‘head’ on the northern edge. At the round fort of the Krakow Barbican, guarding St. Florians Gate, the main entrance to the city. Then down the ‘Florianska’; a main thoroughfare flanked by ornate architecture and running commentary to the cathedral like St. Mary’s Basilica.
This had two towers at the front but only one had a spire. There was a trumpet signal on every hour from this religious edifice that was cut short. The explanation being that the trumpeter had an arrow in the throat when warning of a Mongol attack: there were 3 Mongol attacks during the 11th century, the 1st virtually destroying the city.
Now for the comedy. Our charming guide showed us how miscreants – in the view of religion – were punished in the middle ages. By a large side door I was invited to kneel so a collar and short chain attached to the wall could be clipped around my neck. Then Jocelyn took a photo of what some might describe as a middle aged male fantasy: me looking as though I was enjoying it – the humour anyway – while our guide kept me in my place with a hand on my shoulder and a radiant beam of achievement for the camera.
Inside St. Mary’s the enthusiasm continued unabated. Amidst the shadowy gloom and reverent splendour it dawned on me that our lady’s lecture on Polish culture was audible enough for most in this cathedral sized church to overhear it. It did occur to me to ask her to soften the volume a bit but somehow it was like thinking ‘I’ll swim against that overwhelming current in just a bit.’ A priest beat me to it, sidling up to her and murmuring in her ear. Profuse apologies to everyone.
Comedy aside it’s worth mentioning the role the Catholic church has played in Poland. What our guide had put around my neck was an example of how repressive this church could be and its intolerance is well known. However: given that Poland didn’t exist as a country for over 100 years and given its domination by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union for half of the 20th century the Catholic church became a source of solace, strength and resistance for this country.
St Mary’s was on a corner of the largest medieval town square in Europe. Big enough to surround the ‘Sukennice’ or Cloth Hall in the centre. Once a centre of international trade, now a market and a centre for museums and restaurants. Museums were also housed in the Town Hall Tower;- an outsize Gothic tower near a corner of the Sukennice. Other attractions included a statue of Adama Mickiwiecza, a famous Polish poet, destroyed by the Nazi’s then rebuilt. Also a flower market where I photographed the girls and a great hollow sculpture of the head of Eros – incongruous in this setting – that kiddies inconguously played around in.
Next was the University quarter. Most memorably the garden sandwiched between buildings housing the oldest University in Poland. It was a cultural garden with statues on plinths of the great and good. Polish culture embraced the extremes of Pope John Paul 2nd and the Astronomer Copernicus who both graduated from this University; also a heavy metal trend – I’ve learned since – called ‘death metal.’ At least one of its bands by the name ‘Vader’ had gone international.
In fact Poles who’d become famous or trailblazed anyway included Marie Curie or Curie-Sklodowska, Aleksander Wolszczan who actually discovered the 1st extrasolar planets, Joseph Conrad no less, or rather Josef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski, Stanislaw Lem, Roman Polanski, Max Factor and Michael Marks. The latter 2 founding business empires, Marks and Spencer in the case of Michael Marks. Then as if that isn’t enough Krystyna Chojnowska-Liskiewicz was the 1st woman to sail round the world single handedly.
Last but not least was the famous composer Frederyk Chopin who had a sculpture in a park beyond the University. Along with other dedications throughout Poland and the airport near Warsaw.
By then we were in the greened over fortified belt. A long walk down that brought us to the end of Krakow Old Town. It was a hill occupied by the massive walled citadel of the Wawel Royal Castle, built by Casimir III the Great who reigned from 1333 to 1370, on the site of a settlement and trade centre that has a history stretching as far back as 50,000 years ago.
It has been called Gothic. However in the early 16th century it became something of an ‘arts centre’ when Italian architects and sculptors, German decorators and others native and foreign were brought in create a Renaissance palace.
After this though the place fell into neglect when the capital was moved to Warsaw and the Swedes invaded Poland in 1655-57 and 1702. Royal insignia were stolen by the Prussian Army in 1794 too.
After 1795 the Austrians recognised its defensive advantages, strenthening its position by adding some of the walls, but not its aesthetic qualities, pulling some of its buildings down. Restoration began after they pulled out in 1905 and after surviving the 20th century it is now a preserved landmark.
It still offered a good view of the Vistula.
One thing I’d seen now and then and would see again in Warsaw were girls in wedding gowns. They were having their photos taken with their grooms. A charming custom. The sight of a girl in a sensuous white gown amidst normally dressed passers by was ethereal, enigmatic, dreamlike.
Finally the Jewish quarter on the same side of the river but beyond Krakow Old Town. Not much time here but enough to spot the oldest synagogue in Poland and a Jewish memorial for a community the suffered the Holocaust after living there since the 1400’s.
I realise now though that Jocelyn and I were neglecting Polands’ natural attractions. Within the railways of Katowice and Krakow to Warsaw lay not only the ‘Polish Jura’ but a desert! The Polish Jura is an upland that has hills rather than mountains; nevertheless there are caves and rock formations, some surprisingly spectacular. As for the ‘desert’…well it’s more a particularly sparsely vegetated heathland with an unusual amount of sand deposited during the Ice Age. It’s surrounded by forest but is pale enough to show up on satellite imagery and the Germans took the desert definition seriously. The Afrika Korps trained there during the war.
Warsaw with its modern buildings and more being built was in contrast to Krakow. There were also futuristic looking trams. They were a real feature of central Europe; I’d seen them in Krakow and Brno.
Most of Warsaw was a modern city because 90% of it was destroyed in World War 2. The day after Auschwitz and Krakow was a free day to explore but we got off to a shaky start when I fell over on a wide street crossing, luckily with no traffic near. Also – construction being a feature of modern cities – there was that block sized area excavated for a metro line we had to find our way round before we got to the museum for the Warsaw uprising. A former tram power station.
This took place at the beginning of August 1944 when the Russian army was in the eastern suburbs. The Poles soon liberated 3/5ths of Warsaw often isolating the Germans in pockets. Stalin though didn’t want an independent Poland so the Russian army didn’t help the Poles though it was by now so close. Also Soviet airfields were denied to the Western Allies, making supply drops a hazardous business. The result was a slowly losing battle for the Poles as they were forced into smaller pockets and away from the river. An orgy of atrocity and destruction. German forces included a brigade composed of criminals, massive siege guns and flame throwers. At the beginning of October the Poles surrendered.
On the other side of Germany the liberation of Paris was also taking place during August. Hitler had ordered the general commanding the Paris garrison to destroy the city. Had the US army halted outside Paris like the Soviet army and the German general obeyed Hitler’s orders Paris could have suffered the same fate as Warsaw.
The first thing we saw when we entered the museum was a glassed over hole in the floor which appeared to reveal part of a sewer people were walking along. We went looking for that and found a sewer mock up but it wasn’t under reception. Eventually we realised that what we’d seen under reception didn’t exist but was a clever deception highlighting 2 factors of the Warsaw Uprising: sewers and confusion.
The sewers were used to link up areas of the city and suburbs captured by the Poles. Communications, supplies, reinforcements and withdrawals were effected in this way. This added to the confusion of the Germans, initially at least. Also – apart from districts taken over by the Poles – large parts of the city were contested with the outcome in confusion for some time.
Signs through several levels guided one through the course of the Uprising. This museum was stuffed with exhibits and overall had a similar gritty grim realism to the Museum of the Great Patriotic War in Kiev. Brilliantly done, from the sewers, simulated rubble of wrecked buildings, clandestine radio station and printing press to the names of those who took part, weapons, sounds of destruction and the biggest exhibit: a B24 plane used in supply drops.
We were – without realising it – on the edge of the Jewish Ghetto. Scene of another uprising in April 1943. A smaller version of the Warsaw Uprising with a similar result. Ghetto liquidation and rumours of death camps – all too correct! – sparked this Jewish uprising. The survivors were likely to wind up in places like Auschwitz.
On the other side of that was the Saxon Garden; one of the oldest parks anywhere. Inspired by Versailles it was largely wooded but under the trees were formal flowerbeds and walks. Together with a magnificent fountain and The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on the far side. Dedicated to unknown soldiers who fought for Poland in World War 1 apparently. That meant they were doing this before Poland became a nation again. Albeit briefly.
Pilsudski Square – the largest square in Warsaw – was named after the Marshall who achieved this. He also achieved the ‘Miracle on the Vistula’ in 1920. This was a battle similar to the Marne outside Paris: a turning of the tide against an invasion on the point of enveloping a country. It’s a very little known battle in the UK but the Poles split the Red army which retreated from the edge of Warsaw into what Lenin called “an enormous defeat.” It was truly decisive in stopping Communism in early years of success from entering and very likely taking over central Europe.
Then it was the Old Town by the Vistula. Completely reconstructed after the war with another huge square, on the other side of which was The Royal Castle, complete with carriage rides. Past that and an open air restaurant were the narrow streets of the Old Town where a girl blew huge bubbles for the tourists. It was that kind of place. It all appealed to me but not to Jocelyn whose mood didn’t improve when some food we were eating dropped on her. Not mine by the way.
A calming influence was another square in the centre of the Old Town, a walk around the ramparts there and a view of the Vistula. Across the river was a stadium with a balloon nearby. One could just make out the huge flat horizons of the eastern European plain beyond the suburbs.
The western bank of the Vistula was higher than the eastern suburbs. That meant a pattern was building up because the same thing existed with 2 other cities in this overall geographical region: where the northern European plain broadened into eastern Europe west of the Urals. Kiev on the Dneipr was also sited on the higher western bank. Same thing with what was Stalingrad on the Volga. 3 cities sited on the western banks of 3 major rivers where the western bank was higher. Why? I wonder if there’s a geological reason?
From our viewpoint there was also a panorama of the city centre to the south. Another day, another part of Warsaw to the south of that.
The Old Town was still a central part of Warsaw. The science fiction convention we were to attend south on the other side of the city centre in the University quarter wasn’t far to walk. Just as well. The registration process had been even worse than the Kiev Eurocon. To the point where it still had to be sorted out in fact, for despite all efforts there was no communication from the Polish contact.
At least the convention was in progress judging by the queue outside the ‘Politechnika Warsawska’ or Warsaw Polytechnic. In effect the University of Warsaw. Fortunately an Irish fan friend of ours was well known here so a bit of name dropping ensured we got in.
Once inside though it wasn’t long before we found there was no English program and Jocelyn was disappointed. I was just relieved to get in and felt it was fair enough to lose the gamble on English being available here. After all it can’t be spoken everywhere and this was the Polish National SF convention in the middle of Warsaw so one couldn’t get much more Polish than that! ‘Cept Krakow which might have a certain edge perhaps, what with our guide there.
The convention was to me another aspect of young Poland growing out of old Poland. Most of the people there were young with a large fancy dress contingent, some gathering on the lawn under the trees outside the main convention building: a modern tech college affair. A short walk to another part of the convention led us to a new building with lecture theatres and a glass wall offering a view of older or reconstructed Warsaw University.
To me there seemed an air of youthful enthusiasm in Poland. Not only in promoting the talents of its culture but getting on with the business of embracing change and progressing; economically and otherwise. I felt that some would call the enthusiasm naïve. Well frankly I don’t like that word. It’s a patronising put down word used by those who assume too much in the way of intellectual superiority.
No. Given that much of Poland is finally free to go its own way after a history bad enough for the Catholic church to become a liberating force I say jolly good luck to them! From the middle of the 17th century there have been invasions and the country ceased to exist from 1795 to 1918. The Poles had only just gained their independence when they had to fight and win an epic battle against the odds to save their capital and the country. Only to be crushed less than 20 years later by a genocidal regime. The regime that got rid of that was still notoriously repressive, shifted the whole country westwards away from Belorus as far as the Oder near Berlin and stayed for the next 44 years.
We wandered around just looking most of the time. We found someone who spoke English in a hall used for games though. She was promoting ‘Westerplatte:’ a game dealing with a battle fought at Danzig on the outbreak of World War 2. It was an inspirational battle for the Poles for a garrison of a few hundred held 3,400 Germans at bay for a week. History repeated itself as the British – Jocelyn and I – attempted without success to help the Poles. The rules were intiguing but by the 2nd game we had a better idea and I really thought we were going to win. Except we didn’t.
In the evening we tried to find an ethnic meal out and found a place that left us at an outside table without serving us but the menu didn’t appeal to me anyway. After sneaking out of there we found what we wanted in the University quarter restaurant set in a cellar.
Near the end of our stay in Warsaw Jocelyn revealed – probably over a beer – that she was disillusioned with Auschwitz. ‘Disillusioned’ was probably not the right word but it was something similar for I didn’t question why so much as understood. If you see a lot of something on documentaries, news or whatever, the reality is rarely quite what one expects. Besides which it had been turned over to the tourists now. She wasn’t sorry about going though so it wasn’t a wasted trip.
At the airport the weather was clearing like a brighter future for Poland.
We were encouraged by the air hostess to have enough wine on the flight home.
Which might have helped my idiot abroad comes home act when the alarm clock went off in my luggage on the carousel at Heathrow. “Shut up!” and a frantic grapple to open the bag to the amusement of passengers. I was afraid security might think it was a bomb.
A coach ride home while I sat at the front, the road unfurling through the night in front of me.
Down in Southampton teenagers and 20 somethings were still up clubbing, some playing chicken with the coach.
At Fareham I got off and left Jocelyn to travel solo the last few miles in the early hours. So what if I was hiking home with backpack and heavy camera through the night for 3 miles when I was 63? It was a chance to exercise and a one off hike to a comfortable place I could call my own where I could lie in tomorrow instead of walking further twice a day to and from crushing workloads and filthy conditions, starving all the time. So much for Auschwitz; what about Polish history transposed here? There wouldn’t have been an England from the Napoleonic wars to World War 1. The Battle of Britain would have been fought just after that. The Nazi’s would still have conquered us in 1939, set up something like Auschwitz in southern England probably near Fareham and 90% of London would have been destroyed. We would have gained Ireland and lost East Anglia and the North East under the Russians who would have let us go our own way a mere 25 years ago.
Shouldn’t be walking 3 miles home at my age at this time of night? C’mon get real it’s a piece of cake when I think of where I’ve just been. We don’t know how lucky we are. © D Angus 03 14