Poland: Salt Mines, The Holocaust & Phoenix Rising From Ashes

A Short Trip To Kraków, Auschwitz & Warsaw

Tan Wee Cheng, Singapore/London


The plains of Mazovia St Mary's & Statue of Adam Mickiewicz, Kraków Kraków's Market Square (Rynek Glówny)

Kraków, Poland.  The trumpeter’s melody was soft but distinct.  At the 36th note, it suddenly stopped leaving everybody hanging.  The hejnał is a poignant tune played from the towers of St Mary’s Church, every hour on the hour, a tradition that began as far back as 1392.  Legends tell of a watchman who spied invading Mongol Tatars marching on the city, and played the trumpet to warn his fellow citizens.  His warning was stopped halfway when a Tatar arrow killed him, hence the sudden stop to the tune.  The warning alerted the city and saved it from destruction.  Since then, a trumpeter from the city’s fire service has been playing the melody every hour, and Polish radio plays it at noon everyday on national radio.

Poland, Land of the Brave.  This is a nation of 38 million people historically straddled between the two great powers of Europe, Germany and Russia.  Their fateful location in the crossroads of empires has shaped much of the glories as well as miseries of this nation.  First founded a thousand years ago through the unity of tribes living in the plains around the Vistula River, the Polish nation united with Lithuania in 1386 when Queen Jadwiga married Grand Duke Jagiełło of the Lithuanians (See my Lithuanian travelogue at http://weecheng.com/europe/bbs/) to form what was mediaeval Europe’s largest state, whose warriors wash their feet in both the Baltic and the Black Seas and laid siege to the Kremlin of Moscow.  Good times did not last.  The politics of dynastic politics led to a fragmented nation governed by foreign kings elected by a large, quarrelsome nobility (10% of the population) more interested in preserving their ancient privileges.  Poland soon saw its territories crumbled into the hands of powerful neighbours, and by 1795, the last of the Polish kings was deposed.  Even so, the Poles never lost heart.  They rebelled again and again against their powerful enemies.  For indeed, the Polish national anthem sang “Poland has not perished yet – As long as we still live – That which foreign forces have seized – We at swordpoint shall retrieve.”

Independence came in 1918 in the form of the Polish Republic and national fortunes was revived by Marshal Józef Piłsudski.  Disaster befell the nation in 1939 when Hitler invaded, sparking off the Second World War. Stalin came in from the east, and divided Poland with Hitler.  Hitler backstabbed his Soviet friends in 1941 by attacking them.  In the ensuring war, Poland was overrun by Soviets who set up their own satellite regime.  Tragic Poland lost a quarter of its population and almost its entire Jewish population in these years of war. The Polish nation rebuilt their nation and began their four-decade struggle against Soviet domination – as Stalin said, turning the Poles communist is like fitting a saddle on a cow.  Victory came in 1989 when the independent trade union Solidarity defeated the Communists in the first-ever free elections, thus sparking off democratic revolutions across Eastern Europe, eventually leading to the toppling of the Soviet Union itself.

Since then, Poland has undergone an economic transformation towards capitalism and is among the forerunners to a new enlarged European Union.  At last, Poland, the country that gave the world Chopin, Mrs Curie (Maria Sklodowska-Curie) and Copernicus, is back to the heart of Central Europe (– these days they get offended if you describe them as Eastern Europe).  With almost equal voting rights as Germany (27 vs Germany’s 29) in the Council of Ministers of Europe, Poland is soon to emerge as a new European power.  History, it seems, has come a full circle. 

I arrived in Warsaw on Friday night.  Loud bright neon lights glowed the skies of the city now crowded with shiny new office towers and massive shopping malls.  Pepsi, Sanyo, Citibank, Pierre Cardin, McDonalds and so on – am I in an American city ?  Only the massive 30 hectare square (& 3288 rooms), 231 meter-tall Soviet-built Palace of Culture and Science built in the what could be described as Soviet Baroque style birthday cake size XXX reminds one that this was once a Central European junction behind the Iron Curtain.  These days, banners proclaiming the glories of Newsweek and a local supermarket chain hung from what used to be the citadel of communism where slogans devoted to the Working Class once hung.  Stalin would turn in his grave. 

Hotel Warszawa, a hotel built in the old Soviet days, was my port of call.  Whereas many new international chain hotels with flashy glass panels have appeared in Warsaw, Hotel Warszawa with its neo-classical columns and faded colours seemed to be an underinvested remnant of the past, the only difference were that the front desk basbushkas (yes, still bashbushkas) speak fairly good English (OK, in fact, it seems that many people below the age of 40 speak fairly good English in this country!).  A dusty red carpet sprawled across the corridor and a worn-out chandelier reminds one of better times past.  Five flyers on a drawing table with glossy print of half-dressed ladies greeted me as I stepped out of the lift.  “Beautiful Ladies for You – Many Handsome Men Too – Guarantee Arrival Within 10 Minutes of Order.”  OK, to be fair, there are more of such sleazy flyers floating around everywhere in London, but still, that is new capitalism for you!  

Saturday is day of cobbled streets and salt mines. Woke up early to take the train to Kraków.  (Oh yes, only one flyer remained on the drawing table by morning, indicating the takeup rate of the lustrous offer the night before).  Within minutes, the Tatry Express sped across the flat fertile plains of Mazovia, the region in Central Poland where Warsaw reigns.  I was reminded of those brave Polish cavalrymen with their lancers who charged fearlessly, perhaps foolishly, across these plains at the invading German tanks in the opening days of the war.  Their Air Force counterparts later displayed numerous feats of courage and ace in the Battle of Britain.  And other Polish forces in Monte Cassino, Tobruk, Normandy and so on. Such battles have long characterised the Polish desire for freedom and the willingness to die for the national cause. 

Before long, the plains gave way to small green fields occasionally punctuated by little wooded hills somewhat resembling the well-proportioned breasts of a young woman. Now brightened by orange fall foliage, the region, known as Małopolska, or Little Poland, rises gradually to the Carpathian Mountains on the southern borders with Slovakia.  If Poland once began in Wielkopolska (or Great Poland) just west of Warsaw, it was in Małopolska that it matured and blossomed.  This is the very spiritual heart of Poland, where the kings reigned, where the future Pope John Paul II once lived, and where great composers wrote songs for the world.  Krakow, the capital of Poland for half a millennia until 1569, is at the heart of Małopolska, and the very epic-centre of the Polish conscience and culture.   

Kazimierz Tolerance!

Two and half hours to reach Kraków, and I dumped my stuff at Jordan Guesthouse, a brand new setup with IKEA-type furniture and a rather cool glass lift.  Then I headed for the Market Square in the old town.  Cobbled paved streets, forbidden-looking towers with huge venerable bells, cathedrals with bright yellow stars in royal blue ceilings, ancient merchant houses turned fashionable bars, cyber-stations in mediaeval courtyards, and cafes al fresco where one sit for hours watching beautiful people walking past.  This is Kraków, the new Prague, minus the tourist crowds.  It’s not easy not to fall in love with beautiful and hip Kraków.  

 I wondered around the streets and then popped by Wawel, a walled city within the Old City.  Here within its confines are the Royal Palace and the Wawel Cathedral.  I explored the latter’s crypts and its royal tombs – this is the Polish equivalent of the Westminster Cathedral, where anyone who was anybody in Polish history was buried.  I climbed the tower of the Cathedral with a crowd of cheerful Russian bashbuskas, helping a few to snap some shots from the tall Sigismund Tower, just above a cross commemorating the Khatyn Massacre of 1940, when Soviet forces executed 15,000 Polish officers in the forests of Belarus.   

Just east of Wawel was the Kazimierz district, the old Jewish quarter of Kraków.  Jews used to account for 22% of the population of Krakow.  Hitler’s Final Solution destroyed the 800 years of Jewish heritage in Kraków, although Oscar Schindler, the famous Nazi businessman, did rescued some of Kraków Jews by putting them on his payroll.  I decided to skip his factory a few kilometres to the east – now part of the newly commercialised Schindler’s List trail.  Instead I explored Kazimierz and its neglected, dilapidated streets.  A few synagogues remained, but they were all closed on Sabbath.  A quick examination of a flashy restaurant cum bookshop (strange combination ?) loudly proclaiming “Jewish Cuisine, Live Jewish Music” (OK, these were open), and then hopped onto a taxi to the bus station.

I made my way to the Royal Salt Mines of Wieliczka, which like the old town of Kraków, is an UNESCO listed World Heritage Site.  Here, over a few hundred years, miners have created an underground museum of art – whole halls and chapels carved from rock and salt, complete with chandeliers and statues large and small.  Amazing feat of art, however, apart from those chapels and halls, there are also quite a few scattered sculptures of dwarfs and legends which somewhat turned this complex into an over-glorified underground theme park.   

Sunday is the day of death.  I walked in soft, gentle rain to the Church of the Reformed Franciscans, where the unusual combination of underground air and minerals has preserved the bodies of 18th century monks.  I have been hesitating about coming here but the irresistible temptation of viewing the macabre has prevailed.  The crypt would not open till later in the day, said the young handsome Franciscan monk whom I approached, and that solved my dilemma.  In any case, I have had enough of mummies – have visited too many Capuchin and Franciscan crypts full of mummified monks – I often wonder why natural mummification seem to happen more frequently to members of these orders.  Divine protection or curse ? 

Auschwitz the Nazi death camp was next.  "Arbeit Macht Frei", or Work Makes Free.  The cynical sign across the entrance of the camp reads.  Here between 1941 and 1945, 1.7 million people perished, 70% of them Jews, the rest being Poles, Russians, Yugoslavs, Gypsies, homosexuals and any other group that the Nazis considered disagreeable.  Electrified barb wire (which became suicide aids for many camp detainees), watch-towers and signposts with skull and crossbones.  This was a grim place on a grim day.  The skies were grey and the winds were howling, not to mention the intermittent rain.  A fitting atmosphere for a visit to a place where terrible things had happened.  I had been to Dachau Concentration Camp, Germany, before but that was certainly small fry compared to Auschwitz.  Nothing needs to be explained when you see an enormous glass case half the size of a large room full of hair from women killed in the death chambers.  These were removed from the victims’ heads to be mixed with linen to manufacture cloth.  Or the thousands of toothbrushes displayed in a similar glass case – personal belongings of the dead to be harvested and reused elsewhere in the Reich.  Or the luggage bags with the name and addresses of the dead scribbled on them – the victims had been told they would be resettled in the East and had therefore made sure that the luggage were carefully labelled.  Or the thousands of artificial limbs – even these were deemed harvestable from the victims.  Then the tales of the courageous – the Polish lady who passed the food to the detainees and sent to the death camps as well ; Father Kolbe who was later canonised – he offered to take the place of a man who was selected to be executed due to the escape of some detainees.   

Warsaw: A main street named after the Solidarity Movement Warsaw: Palace of Culture & Science

Three kilometres away was Birkenau Camp, also known as Auschwitz II.  The gas chambers were tested and perfected in Auschwitz I but it was at Birkenau where they built a full factory production line of death.  Huge gas chambers located just next to the railway station.  Doctors of death had casual visual examinations of the newly arrived and then divided them into those who could work and those who couldn’t.  The former were made to work till their death, whilst the latter were simply dispatched into the gas chambers immediately, told to undress so that they could bath.  In reality, cyanide were filtered into the chambers…  At its peak, 60,000 people a day were “processed” in this camp.   

As I left the town of Oświęcim, i.e., the actual Polish name of the town which the Nazis Germanised as Auschwitz, I am reminded of that famous quotation, “If we do not remember history, we are condemned to repeat it.”  Winds howled as storms beat the fading, run-down houses of Oświęcim.  As a side-note, I pity the people of this town, their name forever associated with these infamous factories of death.  It must be difficult for town officials to encourage any form of investment there.  I can’t see businesses wanting to see that name on their addresses.  Fortunately, the Polish name does sound somewhat different from the German one, but even then it must be difficult to see Oświęcim been an auspicious place.   

Back to Kraków where I had coffee and cakes at a classical turn-of-the-19th C. artists’ café called Jama Michalika, surrounded by stylist décor and old paintings, with prices no higher than a normal London café.  As rain poured outside on the cobbled streets of Kraków, I dreamed about old times past while looking at beautiful young things enjoyed the last hours of Sunday.

The Mermaid of Warsaw: Old Town of Warsaw Monument to the Ghetto Heroes

Monday is the day of phoenix rising from ashes.  Left beautiful Kraków on train back to Warsaw.  Capital of Poland since the union with Lithuania, Warsaw is a city of 1.7 million people and many palaces – not just of kings but also of the many members of nobility that once dominated the country.  After all this was once a royal republic, where kings were elected, thus allowing foreign powers the opportunity to interfere in its domestic politics by supporting their preferred candidates and manipulating the votes.  As a result, foreigners were often elected kings rather than Poles.  What was worse was that atrociously democratic system called liberum veto through which members of the parliament (Sejm) have the right to veto any bill, to dissolve the Sejm and even to annul previous decisions.  This was applied very often in the 17th and 18th centuries, thus paralysing governance of the country, leading to its decline and then partition of Poland by neighbouring powers.

The Palace of Culture and Science aside, buildings of monumental proportions, statues and sculptures are seen everywhere.  These masked the fact that more than 90% of Warsaw was destroyed during the Second World War.  When the westward marching Soviet Army reached the east bank of the Vistula River, Warsaw rose up in revolt against the Germans.  The Soviets, apprehensive about the non-communist insurgents controlling Warsaw, refused to assist in the rising, thus allowing the Germans to crush the uprising with all their might.  The city was bombed, shelled and blown to bits even after the surrender of the insurgents.  Moving memorials of the brave insurgents abound the city.  In many street corners where civilians were massacred, one finds memorials to the dead.  In the heart of the old city was a particularly poignant one – that of the Little Insurgent - bronze sculpture of a child carrying a rifle.   I walked around the old town and its pretty merchant houses, marvelled at the extent to which the Poles have rebuilt their capital wholesale after the War, so much so that the Old Town has been declared an UNESCO World Heritage site. 

I explored the Warsaw Ghetto just north of the Old Town, where half a million Jews were holed up here by the Germans during the War, many later deported to the death camps, and the remaining were slaughtered during the Uprising.  An Israeli group complete with the Star-of-David flag congregated at the site of the last bunker of the Jewish Resistance Army (which fought alongside the Polish Home Army against the Nazis), holding prayers for the dead.  Gentle rain dropped as they prayed while I wondered if it’s the Palestinians who are now paying the price of Hitler’s atrocities.  An injured Afghan boy grinned straight from the frontpage of local newspapers.  Perhaps Heaven was weeping for the atrocities mankind have caused on each other, not just the last World War and subsequent conflicts, but also of the terrible things that all sides in conflicts have done to civilians who often have nothing to do with decisions taken by politicians and yet bearing the brunt of it all. 



October 2001


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