Czech Republic to Poland 7/98

Poland

07/01/1998
07/02/1998
Best restaurant in Poland
07/03/1998
Wieliczka Salt Mines
DaVinci’s fabulous “Lady With Ermine.”
07/04/1998
Auschwitz and Birkenau
7/05-06/98
Torun
7/06-07/1998

07/01/1998

We bused to the station and boarded the 7:45 a.m. train for Krakow.  Four hours and four
passport checks later, we changed trains at the border.  This change was a bit confusing and
tense as the train for Krakow was labeled “Warsawa.”  I had rushed to the far end of the track
to gesture with the conductors.  A point and click or two and I knew this was the right train,
but it was going to divide later.  I climbed aboard in the right section, but had to gesture to
Peg.  We both barely managed to get on.

Earlier Peg found about $50 in HUF (Hungarian forints) in her pursed AmEx and many other
places in Prague refused to change them.  Perhaps we will not end up with $50 worth of
souvenirs that, at Hungary’s high inflation rate, would be worth just a few dollars in a couple
of years.  Perhaps we will mail them to our landlord in Budapest if we cannot change them.

After arriving in Krakow, we found a room in a private home not far away.   We paid the
accommodation bureau in advance in zlotys (3.4/$1.00) which we got from the ATM machine
at the rail station.    The cost per night is about $27.00.  You pay the landlord directly after
the first night.

While Peg was off doing something or other, I listened to Polish eurobop while sitting on the
steps in the railroad station.  A woman had set up her radio, hoping the appreciative listeners
would pay her something for her efforts.  I liked the music, surprisingly, and the speakers
were very good.  A young woman sat quietly behind me, her knees almost touching me.  This
worried me at first, for my backpack was behind me and within her reach.  She had a long,
slender, finely chiseled nose and face and was both attractively and modestly dressed.  A
while later when her boyfriend arrived and off they went.

The tram took us to within a few blocks of the house where were to stay.  Our hostess and
her daughter met us at the former’s house.  The daughter is about 50 years old and speaks a
little English.  She is fluent in German, she said.  Both are very pleasant.  So is the room.  It
is big, about 20’x15′.  In the center is a dining room table, and there two single beds, a closet
and a china closet against the various walls.  We share the bathroom across from our door
with grandma.  Grandpa is dead or gone.  The thin curtains will not keep the street lights out
but it should be quiet.

After getting settled, we headed back toward the train station to the center of the old town.
We passed the large main plaza, about 200 yards x 200  yards (about 200 square meters).  It
is dominated by a huge cloth merchant building.

The guide book recommended a cafeteria nearby, but neither the food nor the atmosphere
were appetizing.  We found an Italian place not far away, also in the old town.  The food was
excellent but pricier than in the Czech Republic.  Beer is about a dollar per half liter.  In this
restaurant it cost 4.5 zlotys but in most places it is about 3.5.  On the way home, we stop by
a bakery, still open although it is after 8:00 p.m.  Since we negotiated coffee for the
mornings, we bought some breakfast goodies.

While in the bakery, a couple from the U.S. comes in.  He was born here, she in the U.S.  He
helps us with the transaction, per the request of the bakery owner, and tells us about a couple
of things we should do in Krakow.  We leave with a few new ideas, 200 grams of fruit cake,
two slices of poppy seed cake and 3.57 fewer zlotys.  The clerk carefully and slowly counted
out our change.  Some coins are so small I cannot read them without using my reading
glasses, deeply hidden in my backpack.

As we walked about, everyone seemed well-dressed.  The trams are well cared for and people
seem to use them frequently.  Many people were smiling or laughing as they walked in the
comfortable, 75 degree evening with friends into stores and cafes.

A shop along near our lodging advertises ‘internet’ on the sign.  We asked them about access.
The proprietor says he has very slow connections as his telephone lines are very old.  He
walks outside with us to point out the nearby internet cafe, a block off the main street.

We head for home as the sun slips at glacial speed toward darkness, impressed by the
friendliness and helpfulness of the people we have met thus far.

07/02/1998

Best restaurant in Poland

Street lights and some noise make getting to sleep difficult last night.  Things quieted down
around midnight.  To keep out the street lights and the early sunshine, we rigged up a tent
using a blanket and two chairs and I slept underneath.  This helped.

Our Lady of the Coffee Cup is up early enough.  Two large cups of good coffee later, and we
are at the internet cafe.  We connect at about minus 32,000 bps.

At noon, after completing several chores, including the daily hand laundry, we sought out a
restaurant recommended by our hostess’ daughter.  Its sign reads, “Best restaurant in Poland.”
Unfortunately I did not write down the name and address of this place.

They are shooting a commercial when we arrive.  The restaurant looks like a log cabin inside.
A waitress told us that there was a table near the front that we could sit at while we are
waiting for an empty table.  It was only occupied by one person.  Turned out he is from the
U.S., about age 50. He says he is happy to share the table, which is large, wooden looking
like a picnic table.

He retired from his veterinary practice after a Japanese man bought his house in Hawaii in the
1980’s.  At that time, the Japanese would pay just about anything for property.  While on
vacation sometime afterwards he saw a man lose his briefcase.  He was unable to flag him
down.  Inside he found a sizable quantity of cocaine, and a business card or address book.
Our friend called the telephone number he thought belonged to the owner and the man hung
up.  Our friend tried again, saying immediately, “Don’t hang up.”  He returned the briefcase
and its contents in its entirety.  The man said, “You pay the first $2,000 and I’ll pay the rest
of the cost of anywhere you want to do.”  Our diner chose Brazil.  There he made some
friends and later bought a ranch.  I think he sold it later and now has a house in New
Zealand.  His family is Czech.  He likes to travel often and does so on the cheap.  Of our
plans to travel with another couple, he said, “One is best, two is difficult, three or more,
impossible.”

“This is the best restaurant in Poland,” he said, “The portions are huge.  Do not order a dinner
each!  Impossible to even eat half of one.”

I believed him, for in front of us were two enormous tubs.  One was butter with garlic, the
other pig fat with bacon.  He told us not to be put off by the pig fat.  I tried it and it was
excellent.  Peg and I decided to stay at his table and ordered stuffed cabbage with wild
mushrooms and meat pierogi.  Some of the best food  we have ever tasted, and we could not
eat all of the single meal we shared. $11 with beer.

We walked about town, enjoying the weather and the general ambience.  I am checking out
the cost of flights back to the U.S., and trying to decide when to return.  Also I need to
decide whether to buy a car or camper or just rely on public transportation.  Peg prefers that
we not go back to the states just yet, but I want to attend the 30th anniversary of my high
school graduation.

Later, Peg attended a Klezmer concert.  I love Klezmer music but the sore back needs some
time off.  She said the concert was lively, the musicians skillful.  (To readers unfamiliar with
it, Klezmer is a style of music that Jews play.  I think it is of Eastern European origin, but it
could be middle eastern.  There are a violin, a clarinet and other instruments, a small band.)

07/03/1998

Wieliczka Salt Mines

The Wieliczka Salt Mines have been in operation for over 700 years.  Peg and I took the train
to get there, about a 45 minute journey from Krakow.  We should have taken the bus.  When
you get off the train, there are no signs to the mine.  We followed other tourists for part of
the way, and asked locals for directions.  You must be accompanied into the labyrinth below
our feet (46z for two, about $15). Tours are in Polish and English.   There are tour guides
you can arrange from Krakow, which would include bus transportation.  But Peg must ride
the train whenever possible.

The mine’s employee guide speaks excellent English, starting with the trip down 300-400
stairs to the main room.   A stock broker and his wife are with us.  They came to Poland to
see the homeland of their grandparents.  They were Jews who lived through the Holocaust.  It
was the husband’s first visit, but the wife was here when she was in college, travelling around
on the cheap.  She said it was one of the best things she had ever done.  She would have
joined us right then, but he preferred the chauffeured Mercedes to the old train we rode on.

The mine’s best production years were 1960-1970.  It is set to close in three years.  There are
144 kilometers of tunnels that are as deep as 1000′.  The tour takes place around 350′ down
(120 meters), of which 200′ was via the stairs.  The passage ways are reinforced with large
lumber beams, which do not need to be preserved as the salt does that job very well. There
are some deep pools of briny water, from which salt is also extracted.  They used to offer the
tours via canoe, but about one hundred years ago, some drunk tourists died when they
capsized their canoe.  They drowned because they were too intoxicated to remove the canoe,
which landed on top of them.  Air trapped underneath eventually was used up and they
asphyxiated.

There is methane in the mines, and thus some risk of explosion.  In the past, some highly
paid and experienced miners had the task of burning off the methane with torches.  They were
called ‘pentinents’ because they did their job on their hands and knees.  Methane is heavier
than air, our guide explained, so you would burn it off more successfully if the flame was
near the floor.

There is a chapel called St. Kinga’s Chapel.  It is sixty meters long. Kinga is the patron saint
of miners.  There are five chandeliers carved in salt that illuminate a carved salt altar; and a
salt carved version of DaVinci’s ‘Last Supper’.  Another chamber, the Staszic Chamber, is 44
meters high.  The Germans used slave labor to manufacture airplane parts during WWII.  The
Warsawa Chamber has a bar and sports facilities.  There is a salt carved statue of a gnome.
Kiss him and you will be married within a year.

Our friendly guide joked often.  In a more serious vein, he told us that the Poles are not fond
of the Russians since they were subservient for so many years.  He said nothing about the
Germans.  Poland sits right between these two countries and is a ready target for both.

Good tour, well worth the effort.

On our way back to Krakow, a small restaurant beckoned.  Great blueberry pierogies and the
ubiquitous wurst and beer.  Peggy loved the place, a blue collar hole in the wall, and
grandma’s home cooking.  Afterwards, we walked a good distance trying to find the bus stop.
People said we were going in the right direction to my plaintive, “Krakow, Krakow?”  After
about two miles we found the stop, hopped on board the minivan (1.5z per person, 13
kilometers to Krakow), and looked over the scenery on the way back into Krakow.  They had
managed to stuff fifteen seats into the van, and it was packed with quiet people.  There is
only one exit from the van.  What a trap!

DaVinci’s fabulous “Lady With Ermine.”

Off to the National Museum, where we saw DaVinci’s fabulous “Lady With Ermine.”  So
delicately and finely painted that I cannot understand why it gets so little attention compared
to the Mona Lisa.  The Italian medieval religious pieces look like they were painted a week
ago, so deftly done that the faces of these long dead models seem about to speak.   There is
also Egyptian pottery and jewelry dating from 16th-14th century B.C.  Great condition and
beautiful.  I have not seen anything man-made that is this old and yet this beautiful.

07/04/1998

Auschwitz and Birkenau

A gray, dreary, rainy day is a fitting one for visits to Auschwitz and Birkenau.  About 1.5
million died here, most of them in Birkenau.  The Auschwitz facility served as the
administrative center and housed political prisoners, while Birkenau was the site of the killing
machine; there stand the barracks for most of the condemned for their period of enslavement.
Monowitz, a chemical plant run by slave labor, was the third part of the complex commonly
called Auschwitz, itself just a short bus ride from Krakow.

The Auschwitz facility contains barracks with displays about the treatment of the prisoners
who lived and died there.  To get into the barracks you walk through a gate marked “Work
Brings Freedom.”  This cynical slogan greeted prisoners, and was part of the deception of
prisoners.  In one of the barracks, the Nazis first used Zyklon-B, the gas ultimately chosen to
exterminate prisoners.  The victims were 250 Russian prisoners of war.  The museum has
exhibits for French, Italian, Polish, Russian, Jewish and other prisoners.  I do not recall if
there was one for Gypsies, nor if they were imprisoned and murdered here.  Gypsies do not
have a voice that expresses their suffering.

The most extensive displays are in the Jewish section.  Panels with photographs:

Two concentration camp prisoners dragging corpses using large tongs.

People stripping outside the death chambers, and in the next photograph, some of the
same people laying naked and dead on the ground outside the chambers.  Photographs
taken and smuggled out by prisoners.

Written information (in several languages):

“Our aim is the total ‘cleansing’ (emphasis not mine) of the eastern countries of Jews.”
Reihard Heydrich.

10,000 Jews deported to Auschwitz in 1942 were persuaded that they were there to do
useful work and then wrote to relatives of the good treatment they had received.  Soon
they were all dead.

The National Resistance Institute in Jerusalem has awarded many hundreds of medals
to Poles who helped Jews.  I know that many more Poles either refused to help, turned
Jews in or killed them themselves.  There was no mention of this that I saw.

On October 7, 1944, three hundred Sonderkamando workers revolted and burnt down a
crematorium.  All were destined to be killed by the Nazis in the chambers.  They all
died fighting.

After they were done killing all the Jews, the Nazis next planned to wipe out the
Slavs.

Several journals written by prisoners found buried in the soil.

Two excellent videos.

There is an unforgettable movie in the visitor’s center.  It contains footage recorded by
Russians when they liberated the camps.

Then I went to Birkenau by bus.  Row upon row of barracks meet the eye.  Housing for
100,000 tightly packed, enslaved prisoners.  Tall barbed-wire fences.

A rail line starkly penetrates the camp.  A large photograph shows that rail line with several
thousand disembarked soon-to-be prisoners lined up.  Some were sent into the barracks, others
had to walk a half mile or so into the “showers.”  Sophie’s choice would have taken place
here.  A single SS, looking relaxed, is standing at the head of the line.  Towers are a short
distance away, manned by machine gunners.  People are still carrying luggage.

From the railroad disembarkation point, I enter the barracks.  They  are stark.  Bare wooden
beds.  Row upon row of them.  Dirt floors.

Next the ovens.   Hear and feel the now dead voices crying.  Smell the burning hair and the
sickly sweet smell of cooked human flesh.

Later in the war, the rail lines were extended to the death chambers.  About 4000 people at a
time were stripped and herded inside.  When the Russians were close by, the Germans
exploded the chambers, but there is plenty left to see.  You cannot go inside, however.

In nearby pits are bone fragments of a million or so people.  There I put my foot.

7/05-06/98 Sunday and Monday

Torun

To Torun via Warsaw (Warsawa), changing trains in the capital.  Not far from the station is
the former headquarters of the Communist Party.  That building is now used for the stock
exchange.  A group of twenty or so people demonstrate in the large lobby.  They lay in or on
sleeping bags.  At their information desk there is a picture of the pope.  Nearby a group sings
Silent Night in English.

We arrive in the near darkness at the tiny station in Torun.  A cab ride to the Hotel Polonia
costs just a few dollars.  The room is about $18 (60z).  It is large, with two double beds, a
sink, table and chairs.  Facilities are down the hall, the lobby is on the first level up, not the
ground level.   There is a television in the lobby, with five or six people watching the Polish
language offering.  The old town (Stare Misto) is moments away.

For breakfast Monday morning the twenty-four-hour store a few meters away sold us pats of
butter, yogurt, cheese and excellent sausage.  Some excellent, seedy breads came from the
bakery a door or two from the grocery store.  No coffee to be found except at the
McDonald’s!

The City Hall clock is fourteen meters high.  The hall is a large brick structure.  Many of the
city’s other buildings are brick, like ones we have seen elsewhere in Central/Eastern Europe,
dating from and built by the Germans (Teutons) who ruled here in the middle ages.   Poles
arose and ejected the Germans after 200 years.  Brick defensive walls are still visible in many
spots around town.  There are several large, brick churches.  Across from the City Hall there
is a fine brick structure with a multi-colored roof.

The old city walls built by the Knights are on the south side of town.  The castle was ruined
during the war of expulsion.  We only have the foundations.

I learned that movies shown in the theaters are subtitled in Polish, or sometimes the Polish
dubbing allows you to hear the original language.

The Wista River is about 1/4 mile (about .5 km) wide here.  People  fish off the bank using
long poles.  You can cross by bus for 1.2 z (taxi was 10z last night) but there is nothing to do
except look back across the river at the medieval turrets and spires of Torun.  Torun was part
of the Hanseatic League, no doubt in large part due to the navigability of the river.  There is
a 75′ tour boat that plies the river from Torun.  We find it too cold and rainy to take the ride.

As in Krakow, people here are quiet in public; all of the ground floors of buildings are
dedicated to shops; the buildings are not in as good condition as in Praha.  There is no
internet cafe in town.  Pizzerias are everywhere.   Copernicus (Kopernik), the medieval
astronomer who postulated the then controversial notion that the earth moves around the sun,
was born here.

7/06-07/1998

My back responds to ointment and aspirin at 3 a.m. so at last I sleep.  At 6, we are on the
bus going to the train station.  We are controlled by two young men in blue jeans, the first
time we have seen any such effort in Poland.  Notably, they did so on the bus going to the
train station, a perfect place to find people who have not bought tickets for their baggage.
We have the necessary tickets.

How to get accurate information about the trains

Gdansk is our destination.  Yesterday we bought our train tickets at the station.  I used a
piece of paper with Gdansk written on it, along with the following: 1 class ___________ z?
and 2 class _________z?   This worked.  The clerk wrote the prices for both first and second
class, and the departure times.  Having her write it down saved everyone time, toil and
trouble.  First class cost on 10z more so we bought them, 33z each in total

The train we think we should be on does not say “Gdansk.”  Since it is the only train leaving
at the time specified and it is on the proper quay, we conclude that it is our’s.   The conductor
pointed to a specific car when I asked, “Gdansk.”  A man in our compartment nodded yes to
my inquiry, but followed with a long explanation.  We guessed that he was telling us that the
train was going to split.  This is exactly what happened, an hour later.

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