for fellow travellers

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Kazimierz and The Oskar Schindler factory

Once outside the Wawel castle, it was 2:45pm, we wanted to go the Oskar Schindler factory. We were wondering how to reach it. We were approached by two girls in an electric car ( golf buggy) who offered to drop us to there and included a tour of the Jewish area for 160zl (1 polish zloty= Rs.20). We bargained with them and they agreed for 100zl.
They had a recorded audio on their iPhone giving a description of the places we reached, which one of them would connect to the speakers. As we wanted to reach the Schindler factory by 4pm, we thought it would be a good opportunity to see the Jewish area also.
Poland is a place where Polish Jews and Polish Catholics lived together side by side for generations. The Jews had been present in Poland and Kraków since the very beginning. Their population grew rapidly over time, thanks to the religious tolerance and social autonomy they were granted here. The Jews, who had been expelled from countries all around Europe, found their home in Poland.
We went to a couple of churches along the route.
Then to a few synagogues.
 Kazimierz – the district south of the Old Town between the Wisła River(Vistula river)
and ul. Dietla (where a tributary of the Wisła once flowed) was the centre of Jewish life in Kraków for over 500 years, before it was systematically destroyed during World War II. Rediscovered in the 1990s, thanks to the fall of the regime and worldwide exposure through the lens of Steven Spielberg, traces of Kazimierz’s Jewish history have not only survived, but literally abound in the form of the district’s numerous synagogues and Jewish cemeteries. In fact, no other place in Europe conveys a sense of pre-war Jewish culture on the continent better than Kazimierz. Peeling façades and obscure courtyards hide dozens of bars and cafes, many affecting an air of pre-war timelessness.
I was excited as this was the first synagogue we were going to see. The synagogue is not only a religious place but also a meeting point for the jewish community. The genders pray separately inside. The Temple Synagogue had very grand interiors. 
Temple Synagogue

The Old Synagogue
The old Synagogue also had an exhibition regarding the customs and lifestyle of the Jews. 
In 1796 Kraków came under Austrian control, and four years later Kazimierz was incorporated into its neighbouring city. This brought about the area's rebirth as the Austrians worked hard to redevelop the city: the streets were cobbled, the crumbling defensive walls were torn down, the first gas lamps were illuminated in 1857, and the suburb had a power station by 1905. The governing Austrians also ordered all of Kraków’s Jews to resettle in Kazimierz, and a rich cultural life arose around them; by 1910 the Jewish population stood at 32,000, a figure that was to nearly double during the inter-war years. This came to a dramatic end with the Nazi occupation of Kraków and Hitler’s systematic extermination of the Jews of Europe. Herded across the river to a ghetto in Podgórze, Kraków’s Jews met their end there, in Płaszów, or Bełżec (primarily). A mere 3-5,000 survived the Holocaust, a large proportion of them saved by Oskar Schindler. 
Although 5,000 Jews were registered as living in Kraków in 1950 any hopes of rekindling the past soon vanished. The anti-Zionist policies of the post-war communist authorities sparked waves of emigration to Israel, and by the 1970s signs of Jewish life had all but disappeared and the area had become a bandit suburb. The fall of communism in 1989 sparked new hope, however; investment began trickling in, 1988 saw the first Jewish Festival take place, and five years later the Judaica Foundation was opened. That was also the year Spielberg arrived to film Schindler’s List, a film that would put Kazimierz on the world map and irrevocably change its fortunes. Today a visit to Kazimierz ranks just as high on itineraries as a trip to Wawel, illustrating the historical importance and public regard the area possesses.
Then they dropped us to the Oskar Schindler factory around 4pm.
The exhibition at the factory was very good and was also about Poland during the world war II and not just about the Jews or just about Oskar Schindler(28 April 1908 – 9 October 1974) was an ethnic German industrialist, German spy, and member of the Nazi partywho is credited with saving the lives of 1,200 Jews during the Holocaust by employing them in his enamelware and ammunitionsfactories, which were located in what is now Poland and the Czech Republic respectively. He is the subject of the 1982 novelSchindler's Ark, and the subsequent 1993 film Schindler's List, which reflected his life as an opportunist initially motivated by profit who came to show extraordinary initiative, tenacity, and dedication in order to save the lives of his Jewish employees. 

Just before leaving for Europe, Shaleen and I watched the movie Schindler's List again. After watching it, I was seriously wondering if I had done the correct thing to plan a trip to Krakow. We were stunned to think that we would soon be standing on the same soil where all this had taken place. Poland has spent centuries at the pointy end of history, grappling with war and invasion, and, the point has most often, than not, been Krakow. The exhibition at The Oskar Schindler factory was par excellence. It required more than the the two hours we devoted it.

We took a taxi back to the town square from there. We sat at the Harris piano jazz bar, at the square. Our target was to pick our luggage from our hotel and leave by 8pm for the station.
      At the Harris Piano Jazz bar
Europe's largest medieval town square"Rynek Glowny" once more
   Entrance to our apart hotel. We took a taxi to the station. The fare was around 20zl.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Wawel castle

The Wawel Royal Castle and the Wawel Hill constitute the most historically and culturally important site in Poland. For centuries the residence of the kings of Poland and the symbol of Polish statehood, the Castle is now one of the country’s premier art museums.
A column fragment of Wawel Castle has been incorporated in Chicago's landmark Tribune Tower. Located in its own niche over the upper-left corner of the main entrance, it is a visual tribute to Chicago's large Polish populace, the largest such presence outside of the Republic of Poland.
We had decided to go to Wawel castle in the morning and the Oskar Schindler factory after that. Breakfast was at the hotel, assembled ourselves, we had wai wai, mathri and tea in the kitchenette, in the apartment. We checked out of the hotel, and put our luggage in the room next to the reception. There was a water dispenser in that room also, from where we filled up for our drinking water. Drinking water was an additional expense in Krakow, as we were not sure if tap water was safe for drinking.
The receptionist told us it was best to walk down to the Wawel castle, or rather upto the castle, as it was an uphill walk.
Just outside the hotel
on the way to the castle, we bought a pretzel from a street vendor.

The ticket which we bought was for circuit A, the family ticket cost us 222zl,
The lady at the counter guided us, she told us to do the Lost wavel first at 11:30am, then the Armour and Treasury, next the State Apartments, then the guided English tour of the Royal Apartments at 2pm.
We took two student audo guides. The audio guides were modified iPods.

 We had to store our backpack in the locker room before entering the state apartments
We took a break after the State apartments as we had an hour left for the guided tour of the Royal Apartments.
There was a lovely cafe in the grounds with a great view.
A panoramic shot from the cafe.
We had blueberry and strawberry tarts. Coffee and sandwiches (open sandwiches on flat bread).
The Wawel castle is a historic residence museum. We got familiar with the history of Poland.The palace was not opulent as it has been plundered several times. The striking part of the apartments in Wawel castle, were the stoves, which were there in most rooms. They were to keep the room warm. Servants would put keep putting the wood from the outside and would ensure that it would keep their masters warm. Along with the stove there was the fireplace also. Another thing was the 'small beds' only 5feet in the apartments, the kings used to sleep half sitting up, as lying down was a posture of the dead. 
I thought John III Sobieski was the most impressive of the Polish kings, he was married to Maria Kazimiera. The Royal couple became famous for their love letters, most of which were written from 1665 to 1683, when they were parted either due to John III Sobieski's military engagements or her travels to Paris. The letters give insight not only into the authentic feelings of the loving couple, but also their reflections on contemporary issues and difficulties, as well as down-to-earth matters concerning the royal household and little day-to-day decisions made by the monarch, who often consulted his wife about them. Published long after the death of both of them. After that we started the return journey by returning the audio guides, going out through the Dragon's den.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Wieliczka salt mine

We started from Birkenau at about 12noon for the Wieliczka salt mine. We reached there around 1pm. Philip our driver parked the car in the parking and we walked up to the ticket office to buy our ticket for the English tour which started at 2pm. Its not possible to tour the salt mine unguided. The family ticket for the tour cost us 222zl (1 polish zloty =Rs.20/-).

Our driver suggested that we buy the tour tickets before having lunch, which was a good suggestion. He showed us a cozy place to have lunch in, Karczma Halit Restaurant
We had goulash soup, Herring fish with cream and cheese. Chicken breast with cranberry sauce. As rice was separately available as a side dish, we ordered for two plates and shocked the waitresses by having soup with rice.
10 minutes before 2pm Philip came to remind us that we should proceed for the tour. We reached the place from where the tour was to start. We were all given receivers with earphones and we tuned to channel 44. 
We went down 53flights of 6-7 wooden steps each. It was a long way down.
The salt mine tour was interesting with a lot of exhibits, multimedia presentations, we visited three chapels inside the mines. We walked around 2 km inside the mines. And our guide told us that there were around 200km of walking trail in the mines. Several rooms of which we visited only a few. The miners had carved a lot of statues from the salt, and since the place got air conditioned they were now preserved in good condition. The humidity was detrimental to the statues. 
Everything is made of salt. The floor, ceiling, walls, carving, chandeliers.

This huge Unesco heritàge site has almost 6000 to 7000 visitors everyday. There were many school groups. The exit is the most time taking part in the tour. The exit is through two narrow lifts.
It took us an hour to reach Krakow. 
Mercedes Benz vito with Philip. We had a comfortable journey.

We were in our aparthotel Stare Miasto, at about 5pm.
After a shower and tea and some snacks, from home, in our apartment which had a functioning kitchen also. We had some Maggi (also got from India, because it tastes different in different countries). Then we just walked down to the main market square, Rynek Glowny.

The square was huge, much bigger than that of Prague. And not so crowded also.

We sat under the umbrella of The Vintage. Few musicians came over and played. 
A couple got up and started dancing. We sat till late in the night.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Auschwitz - Birkenau

We reached Auschwitz 15mins before opening time which was 8am. The place was deserted, I had expected it to be very crowded. I guess with some help from the train schedule we had managed to 'beat the crowd' here. There were two more groups other than ours, which were mainly student groups. The entry to both Auschwitz and Birkenau is without any fees and there is a free shuttle from one camp to another, every 15mins. The English tours start at 9:30am, which are paid. We had purchased a guide book from there, to see the camp ourselves as there was no tour available at that time. There was no audio guide tour either. But as we started to go about we realized that we would miss half the things without guidance. Shaleen had read on the website that they arranged for guides for private tours, so he went to find out if we could get one. The lady at the desk had to ring up a few people to see if any one was available, and to our luck we did find one. We found a guide by the name of Sussana. Arranging for a private tour put us back by 25minutes.
Above the main gate at Auschwitz, ironically written in German "Arbeit macht frei" (work brings freedom), while the work was designed to kill in the concentration camps.
For five long years the name of Auschwitz aroused fear among the Nazi -occupied territories. After the defeat of the September Campaign of 1939, the Polish town of Oswiecim and the surrounding areas were incorporated within the Third Reich. At the same time it's name was changed to Auschwitz. 
Auschwitz was a sombre place and most of the exhibits were quite shocking, the brutality with which the concentration camps had functioned was unbelievable. In the initial phase it functioned as a concentration camp where in, not only Jews, but many Polish politicians, intelligentsia, academicians etc were rounded up and made to do hard labour here. Many times summarily executed also, for frivolous crimes such as 'listening to BBC' or 'possessing a radio'. The life expectancy in the camp was 3-6 months from the time of entry for the inmates. 
In the second phase, since 1942 it became the biggest centre for the mass extermination of European Jews. Majority of the Jews deported there were led to the gas chambers as soon as they arrived, and those who escaped initially met there death due to starvation, unhygienic conditions, cold and hard labour. We were so shocked on seeing the exhibits that we even forgot to take snaps, or maybe we did not, out of respect for those killed so mercilessly. There were individual rooms filled with human hair, (which had been shaved off before herding them into gas chambers), a room full of spectacles, another one with shoes, then one with household utensils.  The worst were exhibits such as a cigarette case made of human skin, cloth made of human hair. The Jews had been told that they were going to be relocated and hence were asked to gather their most valuable stuff and board the train, instead of relocation they met with death. There was a crematorium and gas chamber also, which had been preserved, parts of it were also reconstructed. 
Around 10am we had finished the tour of Auschwitz. The parking was full of buses, when we left. Around six to seven thousand tourists visit this place every day during the summers.
We took some sandwiches from the cafe in the parking and proceeded in our car to Birkenau. Our guide came in the shuttle bus and met us at the gate.
Inhuman conditions of living, designed to kill. The inmates got only one piece of bread a day, other than a bowl of soup, despite doing rigorous labour. Just a set of blue striped shirt and pajamas, no other cloth, even in winters. No bathing facilities and no toilet facilities.
As the number of inmates increased in Auschwitz, the area covered by the camp also grew, until it was transformed into a gigantic and horrific factory of death. The monstrosity in Oswiecim - KL Auschwitz I - became the parent to a whole new generation of camps. In 1941 the construction of a second camp, later called Auschwitz II - Birkenau, was commenced 3 km away. 
Birkenau was a much bigger place and is the place where there were four huge gas chambers in the past, whose remnants can still be seen, they had been destroyed by the fleeing Germans.This camp was built by inmates from Auschwitz. The buildings were built on the design of horse stables. The gas chambers and crematoria have all been destroyed here, but we saw the one in Auschwitz. 
Birkenau was the concentration camp where the train entered through the central gate and sealed rail goods wagons full of Jews were offloaded here, already half dead from the journey. Here they were cursorily sorted out and their fate decided at the whims and fancies of the Nazis in charge there.
The parking in Birkenau was a little way away, we had to walk to and fro to it, and quite a bit of walking in the camp, we must have walked around 3-4 km during the full tour.
While we were planning this trip. I tried to prepare the children for a visit to this camp. We watched the movie 'Life is beautiful' (trailer) together, that's the only movie I could think of, to introduce my younger one to this gory past in human history.


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