Clinton and I were able to take a trip when we first meet (and after saving up all our money working on the cruise ship) we were able to work together and plan a trip that combined the historical places I wanted to visit with the beautiful scenery Clinton wanted to see. This is one of the reasons that we make a good travel team! While in Poland I wanted to see a few sights from World War II that I had studied – mainly, the Warsaw Ghetto and Auschwitz. While I won’t go into our journey to Auschwitz (I personally feel that individually that is a personal journey – I went to see the place I had studied in college in my many Holocaust studies classes) and if you aren’t ready to see a concentration death camp (extremely emotional but absolutely worth the trip) consider going to Warsaw and the Warsaw Ghetto.
Auschwitz was difficult to get to but you can with a tour or by following public transportation. We didn’t rent a vehicle and we were part of a two week tour at the beginning of our Europe trip so we actually followed a specific company into the gates and had a tour from a tour guide. We had a similar situation when we went to the Warsaw Ghetto, except that since Warsaw is a major city getting to this particular part is not difficult. While there, we learned a lot from our tour guide. After September 1939 and the German invasion of Poland, more than 400,000 Jewish residence were forced to move into a confined part of the city no more than 1 square mile. By November 1940 the ghetto was sealed off by brick walls and barbed wire, with armed guards patrolling the “border” with orders to shot on sight if any Jewish residents attempted to leave. Disease and starvation soon became an epidemic. In July 1942 the “Final Solution”, or the extermination of all the Jewish population (along with homosexuals, gypsies, and other deemed “undesirables” by the Nazi ruling party) was implemented. Heinrich Himmler, the head of the Shutzstaffel (SS) ordered that these undesirables be resettled to extermination camps – in particular the Jewish residents. By September 1942 over 260,000 Jews had been deported to Treblinka extermination camp, with an additional 20,000 sent to forced-labor camps. Many of those were killed during the deportation process. In January 1943 when the Nazis prepared to move the remaining 55,000 Jews living in the Warsaw Ghetto, the population fought back. A small group of underground self-defense units managed to smuggle in a limited supply of weapons. The Jewish Combat Organization, or ZOB, ambushed the Nazis who entered the Ghetto and fought them for several days before the Nazis retreated. Deportations were suspended for some time after this struggle, and the uprising is viewed today as the largest single uprising during World War II.
While in Warsaw we also had the chance to eat at an interesting restaurant recommended by one of the hotel staff when we asked for a “local spot”. The restaurant was amazing – the staff were wearing what looked like old soviet style uniforms but very short for the ladies, with red accents and dark lights throughout. The menu included “Stalin’s favorite dessert” and “Castro’s favorite sandwich”. When visiting a foreign country don’t rely on McDonald’s and the normal food you eat when in the US – get outside the box and have something interesting! When in Poland we usually got perogies and different types of beef stews, and drank lots of different versions of schnapps. Yum!!
Krakow was different than Warsaw in many different ways. For starters, the period of history we learned about was a complete 180 from the solemn and historically significant Warsaw Ghetto uprisings and visiting Auschwitz. The Wawel Royal Castle is a castle residency in central Krakow and is the largest in Poland, representing nearly all European architectural styles including medieval, renaissance, and baroque periods. Today it is the country’s premier art museums, but for centuries it was the residence of the kings of Poland. It is magnificent to visit and truly worth the extra time and money. The kings and queens of western Europe seem to pale in comparison to me when I view the beauty of castles and jewels from eastern Europe but maybe I’m a little biased. 🙂 The Wawel Royal Castle was built at the behest of King Casimir III the Great and is actually a large Italian styled courtyard surrounded by many other structures. My favorite part of the tour was gazing out from the courtyard into the city. What a view!
Part of our time in Poland also included small visits to little cities along our path (we were still part of a two week bus tour at this time, and our Eurorail tickets did NOT include Poland so bus was really the only way we traveled in the country) and a trip to see the Black Madonna. I am not really the biggest fan of art – I’ve studied it, I kinda appreciate some artists, but overall I’m not planning a specific trip to an art museum. I find a historical museum more fascinating. However, art is a huge part of European history no matter which direction you face so I usually soak up the art appreciation during my Europe visits. This was no different. Entering a very dark, very sacred feeling church, dripping with images and artwork, just to visit a painting that residence of the small town were bowing to because they considered it Mother Mary was a bit much for me. I’m more mentioning this so that visitors who travel to these places realize that you need to set aside how uncomfortable you may feel and realize this is the common culture and beliefs of the locals and surrounding population. This is living history. During a stop at Jasna Gora Monastery in Czestochowa, Poland to visit the Blessed Virgin Mary icon included a winding walk through the monastery, which was fascinating, in order to get close to the Black Madonna. The Monastery is known as a pilgrimage destination for hundreds of years and the Black Madonna herself has been credited with many miracles, among those saving the Monastery during the Siege of Jasna Gora. In September 1717 Pope Clement XI issued a Canonical Coronation to the painting as a venerated icon of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
The food in Poland is amazing – perogies, stew, sausage…basically hearty, warm food with the possible dash of sour cream. Don’t let being a vegetarian stop you from traveling. I was a vegetarian during this trip and had fried cheese as a substitute for meat. YUM – don’t knock it till you try it! We ate well while visiting the area, and most of our food choices came with the aperitif and digestif option of plum brandy or some type of equivalent. When we stopped in a small city along the way we always stepped out to explore, and didn’t hesitate to try something new if we had time or the stomach! When visiting Poland keep an open mind as well – the weather may not always be super sunny but the history and views can still be incredible. We stopped at least one more time to walk and those stops along the way make the trip even more exciting. Seeing a snapshot of an old, historic town with a modern flare was almost a daily experience no matter which city in Europe we visited. Definitely add Poland to your list of places to visit in Eastern Europe!