Saturday, March 12, 2016

Spring 2016

Every year, the winter rains (if they come) spark new growth in my yard. This spring, a lot of new stuff is blooming.

First, there is the San Clemente Island Bush Mallow (Malacothamnus clementinus).  I've planted a lot of different shrubs along the west wall of the house, but most died after a year.  I planted this a year and a half ago and it's thriving and now in bloom.

It sounds out under ground runners, so it will slowly expand to fill in the whole west side of the house.  Meanwhile, the Indian mallow (Abutilon palmeri) that I grew from seed is doing nicely on the left, as is the Canyon Prince Wild Rye Grass (Leymus condensatus) in the center foreground, and the California Wishbone Bush (Mirabilis) on the right side.

California poppies (Eschscholzia californica) bloom year round, but have their most exuberant showing in the spring.  Other California wildflowers, like the blue Globe Gilias (Gilia capitata) only bloom in the spring for about a month.

Most California poppies are orange, but there are some that are in shades of yellow.  Over time, however, the gene for orange will dominate.

 Most sages have blue flowers, but Hummingbird Sage (Salvia spathacea) has deep red flowers and a wonderful smell.    Like the Bush mallow, it spreads through underground rhizomes, so even though I originally planted this in the planter five and a half years ago, it spread to the area next to the sidewalk.

This Cleveland Sage (Salvia clevelandii) is exuberantly blooming, and I do have to trim it back to keep from overrunning the sidewalk.  It's very drought tolerant.  In the summer, I usually just water it with sink water I collect after washing pots or pans.

The White Sage (Salvia apiana) sends out long flower stalks.  When they bloom, their sticky, musty odor attracts bees.

My favorite smelling plant is the Pitcher Sage (Lepechinia fragrans).  It's not actually a part of the sage family.  This was one of the first California native plants I put in my yard, but its parent plant died this fall.  I was going to plant a new one, but then I saw that only the main trunk had died but there were a few side plants still alive.  I let them be and now they've put out new growth and new racemes of flowers.

I really love California Mountain Lilac (Ceanothus); unfortunately, it doesn't like my yard very much.  The mid-sized shrub versions keep dying, but these low-lying ones are doing ok.  The bloom period only last about a month, but I've got 4-5 of them blooming in the front yard.  The lighter green plant in front of it is a Red Flowering Buckwheat (Eriogonum grande) that should bloom in a month or two.

When I first started landscaping, I put in a whole bunch of Coral Bells (Heuchera) to border the part of the yard closest to the house.  Unfortunately, most succumbed to the drought, but this one survived and is now blooming.

This is the second batch of Coral Bells to survive.  They bloom for about two months (if I dead head them).

The monkeyflowers (Mimulus) in the containers are starting to bloom (that's a Mountain Lilac blooming behind them).

I've wanted to grow Saffron Buckwheat (Eriogonum crocatum) but while I've had very good luck with other types of California Buckwheat, I've had less luck with this variety (though it's from the Santa Monica Mountains).  This one, however, seems to be doing ok and is about to bloom.

I bought this house six years ago, and I think the west side has been the most successful in terms of landscaping.  

Friday, June 26, 2015

Last Day in Krakow

Today was always going to be a very easy day.  We've had a really intense four days since we arrived in Krakow, and we've had a very intense three weeks in Europe. The students (and I) deserve to end on a good note.

With such a light day ahead of us, I managed to sleep until almost 7, which is unheard of given that the sun rises before 5 am here.  I had reserved tickets to see Leonardo da Vinci's Lady With an Ermine, so no waiting for 45 minutes in line.  I still had to find the ticket office, as there are four different ticket offices at Wawel Castle.

A group photo of the students in front of Wawel Cathedral.

It was a short walk to the castle, formerly home to the kings of Poland (and the Nazi governor of the General Gouvernment, Hans Frank).  The students loved the heavy marble floors and stairs and the heavy doorways to the palace.  Up on the second floor above ground we had close up views of the dragon shaped rain spouts.

Lady With an Ermine used to be displayed in the Czytorski Museum, which has been closed for renovations for over 6 years now.  When I saw it there, I was often the only person in the room with it.  It's a little more prominent at Wawel Castle, but we were there early enough that there were only 2 or 3 people present.  It's a great opportunity to be essentially alone with such an amazing painting (particularly when you think of its sister, the Mona Lisa, hanging in the Louvre, surrounded by throngs pushing and flashing at all times.

They don't let you photograph the original, but you can photograph the duplicate on display in the adjacent room with all the history of the painting. 

From there we started a walking tour of the synagogues in the former Jewish neighborhood of Kazimierz.  Former, because in 1941, the remaining Jews in Krakow were deported across the river to the Krakow ghetto, and those Jews still alive in 1943 were murdered in Auschwitz-Birkenau.

In the Remuh Synagogue, the broken tombstones were collected and became the wall surrounding the repaired and restored grave yard.

The last synagogue we visited with the High Synagogue (called that because it was on the first floor above ground).  The space is now dedicated to an exhibition of Jewish women in Yiddish culture.

This marked the formal end of the class.  I sent the students on their way (until dinner) and I went to the old city for lunch at a rather kitschy restaurant.

I generally order Polish food in Poland so I can try new things.  I've never ordered chinese in all my many visits to the country.  For lunch, I started off with an excellent mushroom soup.

Ever since I first came to Poland in 2006, I've read about bigos, the famous Polish stew, with chicken, beef, sausage, and cabbage.  I finally tried it.  It's okay.

I went next store for dessert and ordered the kremowka, which was absolutely excellent.

After making some souvenir purchases, I went up on the roof of the Sukennice to watch the view, read the paper, and drink a latte machiatto.

After a relaxing three quarters of an hour, I headed back to the hotel.  On the way, I saw that they had set up small stands in the small rynek.  Basically, it was pork heaven (lot's of dead pigs).

Spent the afternoon making arrangements to return to Los Angeles tomorrow.  Then we had our farewell dinner at Szara Kazimierz, which is the same restaurant I've used the last two times.

I ordered my usual:  the plankstek

I also think I ordered the same dessert as last time:  the mille feuille

It's layers of puff pastry and sweetened marscapone with raspberry sauce.

The students all had a great time, and they gave me a present: a bottle of advocaat!  I think the trip went well and perhaps I can finally relax.

Thursday, June 25, 2015


I'm not sure I want to stay in this hotel again.  It has both strong pluses and minuses that make the decision difficult.

On the plus side, I can't beat the location or the price.  We can walk to Kazimierz and we can easily get trams to wherever we want.  We're on a quiet cul-de-sac, and while we can hear trams in the distance there are no loud partiers walking by. 

On the minus side, the wifi is lousy, dropping in and out.  The rooms are clean, but the beds feel like sofas that have been covered with sheets.  The furniture is old and wooden, and while this gives the place some charm, it's not the most comfortable.

Yesterday was our second long day in Auschwitz-Birkenau.  I made the decision after the last trip's disastrously long day to split the trip to the camps in two.  On Wednesday, our schedule as as follows:

8:30 - depart hotel
9:45 - arrive Auschwitz I
10:30 - take English-language tour of the Auschwitz I main exhibition
12:15 - break way from main tour for lunch
1:30 - tour Barracks 6 (prisoner conditions in Auschwitz I)
2:15 - tour Jewish Pavilion
3:15 - tour Roma Pavilion
4:00 - depart Auschwitz I
5:15 - arrive hotel, discuss and process events of the day as a group
6:30 - break for the day

This was our Thusday schedule:

8:30 - depart hotel
9:45 - arrive Birkenau
10:00 - lead the students on a guided tour of the Ramp, Gas Chamber & Crematoria II and III, the "Kanada" section (the warehouses where all the loot taken from victims was stored), the "Sauna" (where new prisoners were shaved, tattooed, washed and registered), the barracks of the women's camp, and the quarantine barracks of the main camp. 
12:30 - lunch in a new cafeteria adjacent to the camp.
1:45 - meeting with Polish college students at the college in Oświęncim
4:30 - guided tour of the "Labyrinth" art installation created by Marian Kołodziej, who arrived in Auschwitz in 1940 on the first transport and was prisoner #432.
5:45 - depart for Krakow
7:05 - arrive at the hotel

Unlike Wednesday, on Thursday our driver would be taking us to three different locations.  Also unlike Wednesday, our driver spoke almost no English.  I brought him inside the hotel and the concierge acted as translator to explain where we were going and in what order.  Still, he got confused and went past the turn to Birkenau until I stopped him and we headed back.

We began our tour on the Ramp.  In spring 1944, prisoners built the spur rail line allowing the Nazis to deport Hungarian Jews directly into the camp (instead of having them march 1.5 kilometers from the station).  Three quarters were gassed on arrival.

I printed out a short selection from Yaffa Eliach's book Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust about a 13 year-old boy whose mother pushes him away from her on arrival in Birkenau.  Forced into the men's column, when he reaches the selection point the man behind him lies and tells Mengele that the boy is actually 16, and that they are both the world's greatest mosaic artists.  Before the boy can protest, he's kicked by a kapo and sent to the "Sauna" for induction into the camp.  After he came to realize what the man had done, he searched and searched the camp afterwards to thank him for saving his life.  One day he realized he would never find the man because he was Elijah the Prophet, sent to answer his mother's prayers to save her only child's life.

It's not a story I can read out loud to the students or I will start to cry (I cried just typing the synopsis), so I had each student read just a paragraph while I cried.  Then we walked to gas chamber and crematorium II, which is a ten-minute walk from the ramp.

I explained how the undressing room, the gas chamber, and the crematorium operated, and we saw some of the ponds where ashes were dumped (most were put in a field near the camp, where archaeologists have found layers of ash many meters deep over a very wide area). 

From there we walked about 10 minutes to the "Sauna."  This rarely visited museum explains what happened to those prisoners fortunate to be selected for slave labor.  The average life span of a slave laborer in Birkenau was three months.

The exhibit ends with a memorial to Jewish families sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau and uses family photos found (I believe) in the camp.  In almost all cases, virtually everyone in the family perished, so archivists use what records they can find to piece together the stories of these people.

 I could see we were starting to run late.  Even though the main tour offered by Auschwitz gives only 1 hour in Birkenau, and even though we had already spent 2 hours in the camp, we still hadn't seen the living barracks and I told our driver we would meet him by 12:30.

We hurried back to the women's camp, whose barracks were built more securely out of concrete and brick, and so have survived, while almost all the wooden barracks in the men's camp have disappeared.

In block 16a, we found a barracks where Polish children and their mothers from the Zamosc region and later Warsaw (after the failed uprising in fall 1944) were interned.  The walls still preserved some drawings for them.

From there we went to the quarantine barracks and then left the camp.

Rather than risk trying to find a place to eat in town and then miss our 2 pm meeting, I decided we should eat at the new cafeteria just opposite the entrance to Birkenau.  The food was ok, but I found out later that several students were unable to eat so close to the camp. 

Our second stop was the he Center for Dialogue and Prayer in Oświęcim.  I had arranged for Professor Joachim Diec to bring some of his political science students to meet with my students and have a wide-ranging discussion.  This went very, very well.

While we did discuss the Holocaust somewhat, mostly we talked about American images of Poles and Poland, and Polish images of the United States and Americans.  The discussion was so good we actually went past our scheduled stopping point and I had to end it so we wouldn't miss our tour of the art installation in Harmeze at 4:30.

Several of the students thanked me for arranging this and said how much they enjoyed the chance to talk to Polish students.  I told them that I thought it was very important that we don't just travel through these countries observing people as outsiders but at least get to know a few of the communities we were visiting.

Our final stop was the "Labyrinth" art installation in the basement of St. Maximillian Kolbe Church in Harmeze, just 2 kilometers from Oświęcim.  This installation was prepared by Marian Kołodziej, who has an 18-year old was arrested by the Gestapo for trying to escape Poland to join the Polish army, and was sent to Auschwitz on the first transport of prisoners.  After being interned in the camp for many years, he was death marched to four other camps, until he was finally liberated in 1945 at Ebensee.

Our guide to the exhibit.

Marian was a trained artist and after the war he became a stage designer in Warsaw.  He married (twice) and had children but didn't talk publicly about his experiences during the war. 

His depiction of his 18 year-old self.

In 1992, he suffered as stroke that partially paralyzed him and as part of his therapy they gave him pen and paper.  He began to produce numerous drawings showing his experience in Auschwitz, including with Father Kolbe, with whom he had to stand at roll call.

The walls of the basement of the church are covered in the art he produced, much of which has a surrealistic, almost Hieronymous Bosch like appearance.

 For example, this small detail of a much larger drawing, shows his induction into the camp.  Even though he was tattooed much later (the Nazis only adopted the policy after they experienced enormous difficulties matching emaciated skeleton corpses to the mug shots), here he's shown himself being tattooed, while his head was shaved, and his civilian clothes stripped from him.

Although Marian was Catholic, many of his drawings depict the fate of Jewish victims of the camps.  Here he shows Jewish culture going up in smoke as it emerges from the chimney of the crematorium.

In many of the drawings, he shows both his prisoner self (#432) and his older self.  Here, he shows his paralyzed body (he couldn't stand and he had trouble moving his hand) being guided by his younger self.

The final drawing of the series shows his adult self carrying his prisoner self and the concrete pillar of Auschwitz over the barbed wire and out of the camp.  Note that the concrete is actually composed of human bodies.

As we left the installation, we were handed a piece of paper with the translation of the exit text written by Marian Kołodziej:

"... Finally, before you immerse into everyday things of life - stop - listen once again to what I, number 432, was telling you. I wish to cordially thank you for experiencing Auschwitz together. Your presence here is a tribute to my companions who passed away reduced to ashes. And they always stay with me.

"My drawings that you have seen were tattooed, like number 432, on my arm. They are deeply burnt wounds. Publicly whipped with unimaginable cruelty and bleeding profusely, I crawled along the streets of Auschwitz, carrying my concrete crosses - to my Golgotha. It was my cry of pain and rebellion. My nakedness, my shame, my vain sermons of lines put with great effort. Rock carvings in caves - a testimony of animalization in the 20th century for the future generations, but also attempts at saving humanity.

"The Holocaust. The extermination of millions. The enormity of the tragedy. Selections to the gas chambers. Daily dying in the pigsty of the camp, in constant hunger, filth and rottenness, rushed to work with curses. In despair, hopelessness. The entire five years.

"Now, I scratch on my wall, as then on the wall of my cell of death, questions. Help me to answer.

"What you willed to see is not only about Auschwitz...."

Marian Kolodziej died in 2009.  It was his wish to be cremated and his ashes scattered at Birkenau, but the law did not permit that.  Instead, he is buried in the church as part of the installation.

Many of the students thanked me for taking them here.  They talked about how seeing the buildings earlier had shown them how the process worked, seeing his drawings helped them feel what the prisoners actually experienced.

When we got back we went to dinner.  Most of the students went up the block to a bar selling lots of different types of beer (I think they were still somewhat shell shocked).  I went with another student to find some Polish food to eat.

I finally had some spring borscht soup.  It was very good.

 While the student ordered mutton and potato dumplings, I had the veal in forest mushroom sauce and a carrot and apple salad.  I was too full afterwards to order dessert.

 The rynek at night.

After walking a bit, I decided I could handle some sorbet.  After that it was back to the hotel to check email and news and then go to sleep before our last full day.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015


Yesterday was a very hard day; how could it be otherwise?  I warned the students in advance that our day Auschwitz, followed the next day by our trip to Birkenau would be very difficult.  Thankfully, there were no problems with our logistics.  Our driver showed up on time and where we expected him.

The drive to Auschwitz I Stammlager (primary camp) is just over an hour from Krakow.  When we arrived I handled all the arrangements. I'd hoped we could watch the English-language film, but if we did so we would miss our 10:30 guide.  I wasn't able to arrange a private guide, so we went with a larger group.

With our English-language guide, about to enter the Auschwitz I camp.

Many of the students told me afterwards how spoiled they felt now, having been at other, less-visited monuments, now that they were with a much larger group of tourists, with other large groups everywhere.  Many said they felt rushed.

The second building we visited was called "Material Proof of Nazi Crimes."  The first room we came to had a case of spectacles and a long wall of prosthetic limbs.  It was much worse upstairs as we came to the room of human hair.  This is probably the hardest room in Auschwitz I, as it has two tons of human hair on display (7 tons were recovered when the camp was liberated).  They also have rolls of felt made from human hair on display. 

I can't look at the hair for more than a few seconds before I start to cry.  Several of the students told me they had to keep from throwing up.  Others went to the windows to get more air and said they felt trapped (exacerbated by having to wear headphones to hear the guide's voice).

In a building full of horrifying and disturbing images, perhaps the least horrifying (yet still very awful).  Pots and pans stolen from those who were murdered.

I skipped Block 11, the punishment block, as it makes me very claustrophobic.  I waited outside while the students went in, and chatted with three Israelis waiting for their group.  The father of the older man, it turns out, was from Tomaszow Lubelski, the place we changed buses from Lublin on the way to to Bełżec.  His father would buy grain from local farmers and sell it to the flour mill in Bełżec before the war.  In 1939, they fled east to the Russian zone and then he was deported to Siberia by Stalin, and so survived.

When the students came out, we saw the gallows and then the original gas chamber in Auschwitz.  Once Birkenau's much larger gas chambers came on line in 1943, this was converted into a bomb shelter for the SS.  It has been restored to how it appeared when it was used as a gas chamber.

At this point, the tour went on to Birkenau, but we broke off from the group here.  We're going to Birkenau today (Thursday) and I wanted to make sure we had lunch and then go back into Auschwitz I to see stuff not on the main tour.

The cafeteria next to the camp is pretty bad, but I suppose no one goes to Auschwitz for the food.  A girl in a hurry behind us jumped the line, but when her friend tried to do the same, I was at the register and I angrily told her to go back.  "But my friend," she started to say, and I cut her off and told her that I didn't care.  I suspect I was just venting some of my anger at the stuff we had witnessed.

When we went back into the camp (via the metal detectors, which are new), I took the students to Block 6, which has a display on the daily life of prisoners within the camp.  The main tour groups skip this so it was much quieter inside.  We could go from room to room and I could talk and the students ask questions.

When we were in the back room with drawings by former prisoners depicting the daily cruelties and beatings a student rushed in that there was a Holocaust survivor speaking.  We rushed over and heard the end of the talk by Eva Mozes Kor.

Eva Mozes Kor, points to a photo of herself and her twin sister, taken by Soviet photographers at the liberation of Auschwitz.

Eva and her sister were twins, used by Mengele in his pseudo-scientific experiments.  When we arrived, she was talking about her efforts after the war to organize reunions of medical experimentation survivors.   She also spoke about forgiving the Nazi doctors (which I know I could never do).

Some of the students recognized her story as one we had read at the Budapest Holocaust Museum.  Both she and her sister survived, but her sister's health never fully recovered and she died young, even after Eva donated her one of her kidneys.  After the major crowd left, I strongly encouraged the students to go up and speak with her.

From there we went to the Jewish exhibition.  This was originally opened in 1967, but then almost immediately closed following the Six Day War.  A version was reopened over a decade later.  I saw it in 2006 and it was terrible, reflecting the values of the Polish communist party.  Two years ago they unveiled a brand new exhibition, prepared by the State of Israel and Yad Vashem.  Many students said it was the best memorial they had seen, certainly at Auschwitz and perhaps on the whole trip.

The first room consisted of home movies from Jewish communities around Europe and North Africa.  Several students later said how calming they felt this room was, how full of life, and how they didn't want to leave it.  Unfortunately, the story gets dark very quickly.  We first watched Nazi anti-Semitic speeches, followed by a room of survivor testimony.  Interestingly, in the room of Nazi speeches, there's no place comfortable sit, while in the room of survivor testimony, they provide benches.

There's a moving art display using images created by children during the Holocaust. The last main room is the list from Yad Vashem of all known Jewish victims of the Holocaust.  I found the listing for my great grandmother:

The listing of my great-grandmother (here named Gusta Steinlauf, aka Gitel, aka Gussie), from Yad Vashem's list of those murdered in the Holocaust.  Born in Nowy Targ, Poland, murdered at Bełżec Death Camp

Our last stop was the Roma Exhibition.  This has a lengthy display on the diversity of Roma life and the intensity of the persecutions by the Nazis.  Some students talked about how these images differed so greatly from their preexisting conceptions of how Roma are and looked.

In the Roma Exhibition.

By this point, though, the students were pretty shell shocked.   I let those who wanted to go to the bookstore go early, and we met our driver at 4 pm for our trip back to Krakow.

Students passed out on the bus back to Krakow.

There was no way to have a discussion on the bus, given how overwhelmed the students were by what they had seen.  When we got off at the hotel, I asked them to come into the breakfast room, just so we could process the day.

I figured that we would talk for 10-15 minutes, but the discussion lasted for an hour.  The students talked about their different experiences during the day, and their reactions to various memorials. It was very cathartic.

After a break, I took a group of students back to Bombonierka.  I was thinking of making this the place for our final farewell dinner, but I think it's probably too small for us.

The amuse buche at Bombonierka:  pate with cranberry-horseradish sauce and a small puff pastry.

Mushroom sop in a bread box.

Goose breast in orange sauce.

"The most unusual szarlotka in the world" turned out to be a szarlotka with meringue on top, caramel sauce on the side, and a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

Today we're back on the bus, this time to Birkenau.  In the afternoon, we're visiting the Center for Dialogue Among the Nations for a meeting with Polish college students.  Then at 4 pm, we visit St. Maximillian Kolbe Church in Harmeze to see the Labyrinth art installation.