The aim of this blog was to contrast Warsaw and Krakow, and use a catchy title like ‘Poles Apart’. Instead I’ve called it ‘Poles United’. I hope you understand why.
Warsaw, Capital of both Poland and Restoration. Warsaw is like a film set, a reconstruction of former days. And I’m pleased.
During WWII eighty five percent of Warsaw, including its historic centre was flattened by constant bombardment by German forces. Since the war a comprehensive restoration programme has restored the great palaces and churches of the city. The squares now cater for those seeking refreshment and in the main plazas and boulevards, street entertainers are plentiful as visitors stroll searching out their evening repast. Out of the old town the streets are wide, airy, and clean.
However, many reminders of the horrors that befell Warsaw remain. The letters PW spray painted on to walls are deemed acceptable graffiti as this is recognition of the partisans’ struggle against the advancing aggressors. The Jewish Museum and the Uprising Museum recount horrific struggles against oppression. But there lies a mild contradiction in all of this. The Poles have, in the main, forgiven Germany for wartime atrocities as the aggressors have shown contrition and paid reparation. On the other hand, Russia has never made any attempts of contrition for their acts of brutality carried out both during and after the war. Polish partisans who had fought with honour and distinction against the Germans were killed by Russians. The rational for this appeared to be if a partisan would rise up against one oppressor; they will do so against the next.
But now Warsaw is a happy city. As we travel south and coincidentally farther from Russia, the stern expressions on peoples’ faces are softening. And any city that affords it’s commuting cyclists, travelling in packs of one hundred or more, a police motorcycle escort through stop signs and rush hour traffic has to be liked.
Then came the train ride from Warsaw to Krakow. A fast intercity train with comfortable seats, panoramic windows, and complimentary refreshments. And then a feeling of melancholy. Seventy years earlier these same rail tracks carried mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, brothers, sisters et al in sealed cattle trucks, crammed in like the design of said trucks had intended; airless, windowless, much slower; on a journey to an unforeseen impending death. Sometimes you can’t help yourself from thinking…
Krakow. To call it Warsaw’s ugly sister is harsh; though it does lack some of the beauty of it’s bigger relation. However, this needs to be put into context. Warsaw is a new city themed on the older model. Krakow has not needed the cosmetic surgery. The castle, cathedral, and ramparts are stunning; sitting overlooking the old town. The old town itself has narrow roads leading to the central square or Rynek Glowny which on first appearance looks a little like Plazza San Marco in Venice. This is not surprising as much of the architecture of the era was copied from the Renaissance period. The plaza also has that alluring quality of European squares that draws people in, particularly at night.
Outside Krakow is the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Wieliczka Salt Mines. Travelling up to 135metres below ground, the mine displays three different types of salt. You can lick the walls, though this is something I admittedly declined. The centre piece is the underground cathedral made entirely of salt, including the chandeliers. Carved by three miners over 65 years in their own time, it is a triumph of sculpture over endurance.
Just as Tallinn saw me there during the celebrations of the Baltic Way, my visit to Krakow coincides with a major date in Poland’s calendar. Although WWII officially commenced on 3 September 1939, the Germans actually invaded two days earlier on the 1st. Now, 75 years on, I am here to commemorate that date. Therefore, a day of remembrance was in store.
The morning was spent at Oscar Schindler’s factory that now houses a museum dedicated to Poland and WWII. The beginning of the tour concentrates in the triumphant occupation by the Nazis. Food on shelves, smiling faces, military parades, etc. are displayed in a way that I had not expected. Surely this couldn’t be the museum’s intent to place a positive spin on the occupation. But then the tour turned more distressing as it looked at life in the Getto, or Jewish Quarter. The images of people being led away from their homes to what was for them an uncertain future. The final room in the museum is dedicated to quotes from people who survived the Getto and the camps.
At lunchtime I observed a small but moving ceremony involving dignitaries; and military personnel and civilian groups old and new. Language is never a barrier when studying the emotion of such an event.
In the afternoon, a guided tour of Auschwitz-Birkenau camps. Auschwitz-Birkenau is what it is; the saddest place I am ever likely to visit. Although not an expert on the camps; I felt I was well informed of the gruesome events that took place there. As we toured my abiding reaction was one of shock when I learned of the actually brutality that took place in the camp prior to it’s liberation by the Russians. My emotions, my opinions, my words cannot inform any reader of this blog of their potential reaction to the horrors that took place. To explore your own reaction, you have to visit.