Sunday, June 19, 2011


Today was our last substantive day, and I set the morning aside for touring Kazimierz, the former Jewish district of Krakow. In some ways, this was out of order chronologically, since most of the sights here are 16th-18th centuries. But I thought it would be a good way to explore the postwar history of the community through the story of what happened to these buildings under communism.

We toured the various synagogues and walked around the Remuh cemetery. By noon, the students were tired and hungry so we went out to lunch next to the Kupa synagogue. After that, we headed up to Wawel Castle, where we walked around, looked at the view, and had coffee and crepes. Then we walked back to the Stare Miasto. I wanted to find a book on the Roma and Sinti exhibit at Auschwitz (they were sold out in the English language version - I should have just bought the German). The students went off to do souvenir shopping, while I looked for the bookstore. The skies started to look very, very threatening, and about a block from the bookstore, it started pouring. Of course, after carrying around my umbrella for days, including that morning, I had dropped it off back at the hotel before heading to Wawel Castle.

All that effort was for nought as the bookstore didn't have it either. I took my guide to Krakow, opened it up, and put it on my head as a hat. I got a lot of strange looks, but my head stayed dry. Back at the Rynek I found the students who had taken shelter under an awning. Lots of photos of me looking bedraggled. Then we headed off for dinner.

I made reservations at Szara Kazimierz, which the students really loved, for our farewell dinner. I told them that I would pick up the costs of all food, including appetizers, main course, and dessert, but that they would be on their own for drinks. The steak was terrific and we all enjoyed our meal immensely.

Back at the hostel, the students did all my course evaluations and we made our plans on how to get to the airport tomorrow. My next blog entry should be in the U.S., when I can start posting travel photos.

Saturday, June 18, 2011


Yesterday was a free day. My idea behind this was first, to give the students a psychological break after spending a full day at Auschwitz-Birkenau, and second, to hope that the students would use the time to see some of the more beautiful parts of Poland.

One student went to the Wieliczka salt mines, a UNESCO world heritage site near Krakow, where the mines go back centuries, and you can find elaborate rooms carved fully out of salt. The three other students and I went south to Zakopane.

This was the first time I ever tried to do this as a day trip. I asked the students Friday night if they would prefer to leave on the 8:40 or 9:40 am bus. "Why would anyone ever want to take the 8:40 bus?" one student replied. I set 9 am as our departure time from the hotel.

I had forgotten to check the tram schedules, so we missed the tram by 2 minutes. Instead of running every 10 minutes, on Saturday, it's more like every 20 minutes. That meant we didn't get to the station in time for coffee, and the 9:40 bus was full. Instead we caught a slower bus that left at 9:45 am. We got to Zakopane around 12:15. While the students looked for coffee, I went to look for the bus to Lysa Polana, our next leg of the trip. I heard a Polish announcement over a loud speaker, mentioning Morskie Oko and found the bus. I called the students over and we got on. After a 20-minute ride, we reached Lysa Polana.

By now it was getting close to 1 pm, so we stopped for coffee or hot chocolate (apparently this was powdered coffee and the students didn't care for it). Now it was time for the next phase of our trip: the horse-drawn carriages. I was the first on in my row so that meant I was sitting rather close to the horses' back end. We had to wait until the cart filled up and finally we started off.

Clip clop, clip clop, clip clop. This carriage moved far more slowly than the one I took four years ago. Every now and again I could hear the driver talk to the horses "Yo" "Yo" "Andeen" "Yo," etc. A 3-year old little girl on the cart would sometimes happily yell out "Yo!" One of the students turned out be quite allergic to horses and had to cover her nose and mouth. It took us over 1.5 hours to reach the end of the path. From there we had a 20 minute walk to the lake (Morski Oko). We made it by 3pm.

I had checked the weather and it was supposed to be warm and overcast with possible thunderstorms, but it turned out to be quite cold. I was the only one in both shorts and t-shirt. Nonetheless, I'm very cold tolerant (it's heat I can't take). We entered the ski chalet lodge at Morski Oko, and got in line for food. I ordered chicken schnitzel (my safe default), with vegetables and potatoes, along with a cappucino and a slice of szarlotka (apple cake). I also brought some rolls and cheese with me from Krakow.

Food never tastes so good as when you have to hike to it and it's cold outside. We happily ate and sat in the warm room for 30 minutes. Then we went out again to look at the lake, walked down to the shore, looked at the ducks. Around 4pm, we turned around to walk back. Just as we started we saw a large doe near the path grazing. Some dozen photos later, we continued on. The area is so green, with small rills, white, blue and yellow wildflowers, little ponds surrounded by grassy meadows, and then, further on, a stream flowing down out of the mountains. On three sides, tall craggy peaks, faced with sheer cliffs, some still with snow, rise up.

It was cold and late, so we took the horse-cart back down. This time, he moved much faster and we made the entire journey in less than 30 minutes. We quickly caught a bus back to Zakopane and were in town by 5 pm. Instead of rushing back, we walked around the town. I showed them the open air market, full of kitschy highland products. One of the odder sights were the giant, life-sized costumed figures, including a "Hello Kitty" person. Then there were the people selling the tiny toy mechanical dogs, who barked, twitched, and had possessed-looking green glowing eyes.

We went into a dessert place for a snack before the bus, and two of us had some fresh waffles with really fresh and tasty Polish strawberries. Another student got a dessert omelet. The students were also happy to get "decent coffee" for the first time that day.

We caught the 7:15 bus back to Krakow and made it to the city in less than 2 hours. Along the way we passed through Nowy Targ, where my grandmother's family came from. While there are some nice pre-war buildings, a lot of the downtown is made up of communist-era "charm free" structures. As Poland has boomed recently, the newer buildings outside of the center are being put up in the highland style, so the city is a real mix. But unless you were going to the Thursday morning weekly regional market, I would skip it.

Back in Krakow, I found some English-language books for the plane, and then we went looking for dinner. One student requested we return to Wesely, so we did so. She loved the salads and in fact ordered two: one for appetizer, one for main course. I had the green peppercorn steak this time. The steak was well cooked but the sauce seemed to have more capers than peppers. It just tasted odd. The fresh strawberry cocktail for dessert remains the highlight of the meal.

The large tour group in the neighboring room was entertained with musicians and dancers in traditional Polish garb. None of us thought the singers were that good; more kitsch than class.

By the time we headed back to the hotel it was 11:30 and the trams had shut down. Luckily it was only a 15 minute walk. Since Sunday, our last full day, involves just a walking tour of the former Jewish neighborhood of Kazimierz, I told the students they could sleep in until 9:30 am.

I intended to sleep in as well, but the rain this morning woke me. I went back to sleep, but eventually woke up, glanced at the clock and saw it was 6:30, so got up. After I showered, shaved, and dressed, I checked my watch. It was only 6:15 am. I had misread the clock and had gotten up at 5:30 am by mistake (sunrise is at 4:20 am). So my last full day in Poland is going to be a rather long one.

When we're in Kazimierz later this morning, I'm going to try to make a reservation for tonight's farewell dinner back at Szara Kazimierz, since that was the students' favorite place so far. Then, tomorrow, we head back to the States. I'm hoping my tomatoes are still alive.

Friday, June 17, 2011


We had to race out of here to get to the bus station. I hoped to find a closer stop to our hotel, but it wasn't across the street from the one we got off at. We had to walk quickly to the other stop. When the tram let us off at the train station, we had less than 10 minutes to get to the bus. That meant racing through the mall, down to the tunnel, past all the train platforms, up the other end, and then down stairs to the lower level of the bus terminal, where our bus was waiting at the opposite end. By the time we reached it, we were drenched in sweat (as it was already quite warm and humid). Luckily there were still 5 empty seats. I paid for our tickets and the driver closed the door and took off.

The bus (really a short bus or large van), took us through the quiet, rural backroads of Poland. I've always thought the Polish countryside is one of the most beautiful features of Poland. After an hour and a half we reached the Auschwitz museum.

I went in and bought us a guided tour, and then hurried the students into the English language film that had just started. The guided tour of Auschwitz I took two hours. The first barrack block covered the extermination process, the second block had the items plundered from victims, such as tons of human hair, suitcases, clothing, children's shoes, tooth brushes, glasses, etc.

The third block covered the daily life of prisoners selected for extermination through labor. Here there is a stronger emphasis on Poles in Auschwitz, since most Jews arriving in camp were gassed immediately on arrival. The camp was originally created for Polish political prisoners in 1940 and only expanded to include extermination facilities in 1942.

The next part of the tour was the punishment block, block 11. This was a prison (really a torture chamber) for prisoners who violated camp rules. As always I skip this one. The space is very narrow and very crowded. I waited outside until everyone came out and then I rejoined the tour. From there we walked to an appelplatz. While the guide was discussing public executions, a synagogue group next to us started singing "oseh shalom." It felt somewhat odd to hear a carefully arranged choir, with harmonies, singing this there.

The last stop in the camp was what in camp slang was known as "the little white house." This was the original gas chamber and crematorium for Auschwitz I. In December 1944, it wasn't blown up by the SS like the ones in Birkenau, but converted to a bomb shelter. As a result, it survived intact.

Instead of joining the tour to Birkenau, we broke away from the group. It was 12:30 pm, and I wanted us to get lunch first. There is a cafeteria next to the parking lot, but I warned the students not to get their hopes up; no one goes to Auschwitz for the food. I went with my default choice in situations like this: chicken schnitzel with cole slaw. One student has brought a seemingly endless supply of granola bars to sustain her rather than have to eat in dodgy establishments.

After lunch, we went back into Auschwitz I. In addition to the main overview barracks, there are individual "pavillions" created by various nations describing what happened to their citizens in Auschwitz. We started with the Roma pavillion. Right off the bat, the students noted several differences with the Tarnow museum. First off, it doesn't open with photos of gypsy women begging, but of middle class Roma. It also makes it clear how offensive the term "gypsy" is. The pavillion traces out the persecution of Roma and Sinti in Europe, culminating in their ghettoization, deportation to death camps, and their extermination. On the walls in one section, they have all the names of Roma deported to Birkenau to the so-called "gypsy camp." They have a small darkened room for contemplation. An eternal candle burns faintly in a black square on the floor, while images of Roma children are displayed, and a mournful Roma melody is heard.

Next, we went to the Hungarian pavillion. Called "Citizens Betrayed," it chronicles the combined guilt of the Hungarian political elite, Hungarian society, and the Nazis in the murder of the Jews of Hungary. It's really an early version of the Hungarian Holocaust Museum in Budapest. In the late 1990s, the Viktor Orban government proposed changing the pavillion in order to white wash the role of Admiral Horthy, but public outcry blocked it. To see what he intended, you can go to the "House of Terror" museum in Budapest, which engages in Holocaust minimalization. Now that Orban is again leading the Hungarian government, with the neo-Nazi Jobbik party the third largest in Hungary, I wanted the students to see it before he gets a chance to fiddle with it again.

The final pavillion was the Jewish pavillion. Originally opened in 1967, this was a very problematic place. Since the Polish communist government was ideologically anti-Zionist, no Hebrew language texts appeared in the exhibit. After the Six Day War, the pavillion was closed, only to be reopened over a decade later. When I went through in 2006, it was a mess. Yesterday we found that it is now closed while they redo the exhibit. It's about time. The only section open was the final room where you could push a button and hear a song. It was "El maleh rachamim," from the yiskor service. Sung in Ashkenazi accent, with organ and some distortion from the speakers, it was heard to make out all the words, but I translated as best I could. Despite all that I still found it more meaningful and appropriate than the Oseh shalom we heard earlier. The El maleh prayer is more a scream of pain, and reflects the feeling of horror of being in this place, while Oseh shalom feels more synagogue.

We left Auschwitz I and caught the bus to Auschwitz II - Birkenau. I led the students from the Quarantine barracks to the women's camp, telling them different stories I and heard from survivors. One story, about a boy saved on the selection ramp by a prisoner brought me to tears, and I had to pause for a while. We made our way to the ruins of Crematoria II and III and saw how 2-3,000 could be gassed in each in 30 minutes. I told the students about the gassing of the Czech family transport. In 2007, I tried to tell that story to someone and completely broke down. I guess I'm getting a little jaded, as I only had to pause for a bit to collect myself.

The Czech Jews had been in the camp 6 months by that point and were in much better condition than normal prisoners. There was an effort to organize an uprising, but the Nazis took precautions and used extraordinary force to beat them into the undressing room. Many were beaten to death in the undressing room but they refused to undress. Instead they sang the Czech national anthem and Hatikvah. One sonnderkommando who witnessed it, and survived, decided to commit suicide by joining them in the gas chamber. There a group of women told him that his death wouldn't save them, told him he had to live and tell the world of the injustice done to him, and threw him out of the gas chamber. He survived.

We went from there to the so-called "sauna," where new prisoners were inducted into the camp: their heads shaved, washed in either scalding or freezing water, and then they were given camp uniforms.

Our final stop, after seeing some of what they've found in the ruins of the Kanada barracks (where the loot of those murdered was kept) was Crematoria IV and V. There I told the students about the uprising of the sonderkommando in October 1944, who destroyed one of the crematoria, killed a few of the SS guards, and managed to escape from the camp. Unfortunately, all those who escaped were captured and killed.

It was getting late, so we went back to Auschwitz I and then went to catch the bus back to Krakow. There was a large crowd by the bus stop, and only two buses left back to Krakow. When the bus arrived, it was clear it wouldn't be large enough for all of us. Some people cried out that those with pre-paid tickets should go first. We were among the more than a dozen who couldn't get on.

I knew, however, that this bus wasn't our only choice. The private bus we took had left us off outside the camp area, so we walked to that place, where there were far fewer people waiting. To make a long story a little shorter, we all got on that bus (though one person lectured me about line jumping, since I hadn't yielded position to those who had been sitting on the bench). This bus actually got quite crowded later on as the driver continued to pick up passengers in small towns on the way back. I noticed that although the no smoking sign was posted, apparently that was only meant for the passengers since the driver puffed away.

Back in Krakow, I suggested a restaurant near the train station (it was nearly 8pm). U Babci Malina (Chez Grandma Raspberry) turned out to be a cute, kitschy, and not to expensive place. I ended up with the schnitzel again, and it was really good. The Hungarian latkes, covered in gravy, cheese, and sour cream (ordered by two students) looked like a mess, but if you like latkes, it's supposed to be good.

After that, three of the students went to the mall to shop, while I and another student visited an ATM and went back to the hotel. I went to sleep early, slept nearly 9 hours, and am now rested and mostly refreshed for today's trip to Zakopane.

Thursday, June 16, 2011


Wednesday evening, I took the students to Kazimierz to look for restaurants. We walked from the hotel (it's only 15 minutes away), and I showed them one of the more famous courtyards in the area, one that was used in Schindler's List and countless other movies. The market square is zapiekanki central (a strange, french-bread pizza looking thing that usually has ketchup squirted on top in place of tomato sauce).

We walked around several restaurants in Szeroka square and the students settled on Szara Kazimierz. As it happens, this is a Michelin guide recommended restaurant and a branch of the more famous location on the Rynek Glowny. We ate in the outside garden in the back, and it reminded me, a little, of the garden space at Cafe Einstein Stammhaus in Berlin.

I tried the mint tatanka to start (like a regular tatanka, but with mint liquer and mint leaves), it was delicious. Most everyone else had some raspberry-based drinks. We skipped the first course and went right to the main. I had the special: veal stew with roasted small potatoes (yummy), while the others got turnadoes of beef, roast ostrich, and the plank steak. It turns out the plank steak is what they are most famous for. For dessert, most of us got the strawberry tiramisu. Everyone enjoyed the meal immensely and declared it was the best of the trip. I'm going to take the students back here on Sunday evening for our final dinner.

When we got back to the hotel, a very large group (30) of graduating high school seniors from Estonia were trying to check in. I found out later that part of the problem was that the teachers were "shocked" to discover that they had to actually pay for the rooms. I went off to the bus station to scout out information on buses to Auschwitz and Zakopane, and when I came back three of the students were down in the pool room chatting with some of the Estonians.

When I came down for breakfast the next day, the kitchen tables were a collection of beer, vodka, rum, and coke bottles. Some of the Estonians had been out clubbing and never went to bed. One turned out to be the son of the chief justice of Estonia. Unlike my university, Estonian high schools do not seem to have rules on drinking on school trips. Most of them were still pretty shloshed. We swapped stories about drinking regulations and they concluded that America was far too rigid. They decided that unlike their teachers, I was a "cool guy," which was probably clouded by the alcohol.

One of my students told me that earlier they had found one Estonian student passed out, and he told them about the American tradition of drawing on passed-out students, so they (the Estonians) decided to paint a Hitler mustache on him. One can only imagine how that will go over when they visited Auschwitz later in the day.

The teachers came down and told the students to get ready to leave, but the son of the chief justice didn't want to leave all the rum behind. There was still a quarter of a bottle left, so he carefully poured some of the left over coca cola into it and the shook it up to mix. With his teacher standing behind him, he took a couple swigs. I told him I had to get a picture of that. Then they left for Auschwitz and then to Slovakia. This is a one-week graduation trip.

After the Estonians left, the clerk came over and told us about the difficulties they had with the Estonian teachers not wanting to pay their bill, when in wandered one of the students. We called him "boxer boy," since he had carefully drooped his pants so that most of his boxer shorts were visible. One of my students told me that during the early morning he had plopped down at the kitchen table to join the discussion while only wearing the boxers, but by the time I came down, he had put his pants on. Boxer boy was very drunk, and quite lost. It seems that while he had gone out with the others to get on the bus, somehow he was too drunk to do so, and the teachers hadn't noticed he was missing and the bus had left without him.

He was asking the desk clerk for directions to the castle, as he thought his group was going there first, but he kept leaving without the map. He was clearly dazed. He left dragging his suitcase and headed off in the direction of Wawel castle. Just as one of my students wished him good luck, his suitcase hit the curb and one of the wheels popped off and flew off. He continued to drag the suitcase down the street, the axel now scrapping the sidewalk. He kept looking around trying to figure out why his bag was so hard to pull. We never heard from him again.

Once my students were dressed and down, we headed off to Tarnow. This is a medium-sized Polish town about an 1.5 hours by local train from Krakow. We had one of the older, slower, and less comfortable trains, and it was rather warm and sticky on board (the weather is still awful). We stopped off at a bakery a little ways from the train station, and the snacks were so good, I went back for seconds. One student bought a huge piece of strawberry cake and shared it with the class. He still had over a third of left by the time we got back.

The primary purpose of our visit was the Ethnographic museum on the Roma. This is the first museum in the world dedicated to the history of what are commonly called Gypsies. Unfortunately, while the organizer of the museum is trained as an anthropologist, a good historian would have done a better job of covering the material. They had a Roma blacksmith out back teaching a class of school kids how to beat iron. I think in some ways, this is more of a political statement than pedagogic place, one meant to show that Roma are worthy of being studied.

From there we walked to the main square and then to Jews' Street to see a few memorials and ruins. It was about to rain so we darted into a pizza place and waited. And waited and waited and waited. I finally went in, managed to communicate through sign gestures that we wanted menus and food, and eventually a waitress appeared and took our order. The pizzas weren't bad, and then we continued on our way after the rain had passed.

The humidity was still near 100% as we got to the monument to the first Poles sent to Auschwitz. When the camp was opened in 1940, the Nazis seized 728 people from Tarnow, who were the first prisoners sent there. I had hoped to find the Jewish cemetery, but I got lost, it wasn't on any maps, and the directional signs disappeared. I asked several people, but none of them could understand my request. With the sky getting ominously dark, I suggested we hurry back to the train station.

While the students wanted to visit the bakery again, it was clear a bad storm was coming. By the time we reached it, rain was beginning to fall. Only two of us brought umbrellas, so we hurried on to the train station. The main hall was full of munchkins (Polish high school students) with backpacks and suitcases for an end-of-term school trip. We eventually found seats on a much nicer, state-of-the art train back to Krakow, with much needed air conditioning.

I don't think I would take students back to Tarnow. The Roma pavillion at Auschwitz is far more informative, and the one in Tarnow is just not worth the 3 hours round trip to get to it. I'm thinking that when I do this trip again, I'll split Auschwitz into two days, doing Auschwitz I (the Stammlager) on the first day, and Auschwitz II (Birkenau) and the second.

After helping students run errands when we got back to Krakow I scouted out some restaurants for dinner. We ended up at Wesele just off the Rynek Glowny, another Michelin guide recommended place. We started off with salads (though one student tried and very much enjoyed the sour rye soup), as many of us are still trying to recover from vegetable withdrawal after Germany. Even though there haven't been any E-coli cases here, I wasn't going to try the alfafa sprouts on my salad caprese.

For a main course, I had the goose breast with dwarf apples and cranberry sauce. Two students had the steak, and one was unhappy that hers wasn't cooked medium, but rare. I ended up finishing hers (it was delicious). My goose tasted dry, but the sauce was yummy. For dessert almost all of us went with the strawberry cocktain, which tasted like a fresh strawberry smoothie with a scoop of vanilla ice cream on top. Very good. After that, it was back to the hotel.

Today, we head off in a little bit for Auschwitz-Birkenau. Tomorrow will be a free day and I'm hoping for better weather when I head south to Zakopane. Supposedly a cold front is approaching, one we desperately need. This has been the hottest June in parts of Europe for many years. People are comparing it to the summer of 2003 when more than 10,000 people died from the heat. Last year, the weather was cool for almost the entire trip. This year has been the reverse, with high heat and humidity. Blech.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011


After we put in our laundry and got settled in our hotel, we headed out to meet a Polish professor (Zygmunt Mazur) and his students. They are masters students in American literature, and we're having their last class of the year. We met at a rather nice restaurant near to Jagellonian University. Every now and then, Dr. Mazur asked a student to accompany him to another room to discuss their work, while the rest of us sat and talked.

After introductions, two of my students sat on one end and chatted with Dr. Mazur and half the students, while the other two students and I sat on the other end and chatted with the other half of the class. The students we spoke with were an eclectic bunch: Marek is planning on teaching English as a foreign language, possibly in China. He spoke English with a British accent, in part because he modeled his speech on the BBC. Theresa was rather quiet, so I'm not sure what she is doing, while Natalia is doing her masters on the Polish underground in Auschwitz (she, herself, in from Oswiencim). Barbara is doing her dissertation on James Fenimore Cooper as is an ex-pat American.

The American students in my section were somewhat shy about talking, so one suggested an ice breaker: one would ask a question (e.g., what sort of bagel would you be) and the rest had to answer. Several of Polish students weren't familiar with bagels, so I suggested peirogi. They all chose "Russkie"(which is the American students' favorite type - potato and cheese). Eventually, they began to talk and really hit it off. Barbara, Dr. Mazur, and I had a long talk about essence and social construct in identity. Barbara is a returning student, and thus somewhat older than the others (as someone who also went back to school later in life, we had a lot in common). She is of native American heritage and strongly believes in the idea that certain responses to natural stimuli can be biologically inherited.

It was a little too warm for a hot meal, so I had a salad nicoise and a lemonade; the students chose to get the alcoholic lemonades and mojitos. We talked until nearly 10 pm when it was time for the restaurant to close. I think several of the students shared facebook info so now they befriending each other (which is great! I really wanted them to get to know Poles as people and not just as "others"). If the timing works, we may meet Dr Mazur for breakfast on Sunday. Barbara lives just around the corner for our hostel, so she walked us back past the Jagellonian University.

I took the students down stairs to where the rec room, pool table, and bar is in the hostel. They are in separate buildings, which keeps the sleeping areas quiet. I ordered a Tatanka, which is half zubrowka vodka and half apple juice. It was delicious but strong. After I finished it, I said goodnight to the students and went upstairs.

The key to my room is beyond tempremental, but it opened quickly last night (not so this morning, where I struggled and cursed for five minutes). The bed is rather soft for my tastes, and the weather was cool but still somewhat damp. The drapes were better than the ones in Warsaw, but still too sheer (in Warsaw, I woke up at 3:50 am thinking it was dawn -- it was!). I forgot how little sunlight Polish curtains block. I managed to stay in bed until 6:30 am.

I'm not thrilled with the shower in the room (it drains slowly so after 5 minutes I needed to turn it off to prevent flooding the bathroom), and the sink looks as if it's about to fall off (it's listing badly, like the Titanic an hour after it hit the iceberg). Nonetheless, I had no problems and went downstairs after 7 am and picked up my laundry. I'm now set for the rest of the trip.

Breakfasts are continental: bread, margarine, jam, tea, and coffee. There are some characters staying here. One guy yesterday kept talking loudly to everyone in the kitchen about his legal difficulties in Ukraine and at the Polish border, and his girlfriend's unreasonable demands ("you know how women are" I heard him say). After he left, the Polish guy at the front desk came over to me and said, "that guy's crazy." At breakfast, I had a retired English teacher from Scotland sit at my table and start to talk, but he turned out to be rather hard of hearing and somewhat "off." He also had been in Ukraine. "How long," I asked? "Three months... no six months... no nine months... wait, I think it was twelve," he said.

Today we went to the Schindler factory. They asked me to arrive 20 minutes before 10, but the door was locked and didn't open until 10. Still, it worked out as we got in before two very large Polish high school tours. We briefly met a survivor who had been in Theresienstadt, but had no time to really talk to her.

The Schindler museum is a professionally done museum chronicalling the imprisonment and murder of the Jews of Krakow and the conquest and enslavement of the city. When I was here in 2007, they were still working on it. Like many new museums, this has all sorts of artifices to concretize the experience: floors and walls that recreate bombed neighborhoods, ghetto streets, or the Plaszow slave labor camp. I have mixed feelings about these sorts of recreations, as they veer too close to a Disneyland-like theme park. There was a moving memorial at the end called the "room of choices"in which there were brief quotes in various languages describing life and death decisions people made.

We found a restaurant opposite the main ghetto square for lunch. I ordered the daily special: dill soup, stuffed cabbage, and "kompot"-- a kind of fruit drink made from soaking strawberries in water. I also got the mizeria -- sliced cucumbers in sour cream. Two of the students liked my stuffed cabbage so much they ordered it after finishing their main courses. Afterwards, we walked to a coffee house for coffee and cake. I asked for a cafe au lait, but got a large cup of coffee with maybe an inch of steamed milk on top. I added four tablespoons of sugar to make it drinkable.

The sky was getting threatening and it was hot and humid, so we went across the square to the pharmacy that stood in the ghetto. The owner was the only non-Jew in the ghetto and did everything he could to help the Jews. Afterwards, we took the tram to Plaszow. The entire camp was torn down, but we saw where Amon Göth's house stood. He was the camp commandant, and he used to shoot at prisoners randomly for target practice. People live in it still and there's a sign up that it's for sale. At one point the humidity spiked and it started to drizzle, but the main rain fell mainly north of us. We went up to see the central memorials and then made our way back to Krakow.

We stopped off at a grocery store around the corner from the hostel. I picked up some butter and juice for the morning, along with a fresh banana and some joghurt. The students are all showering and then we're meeting for dinner at 6 pm. I'm going to take them to the former Jewish quarter where there are lots of cafes. Tomorrow, we're off to Tarnow.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Treblinka and Krakow

Yesterday was our guided tour of Treblinka.

Our guide, Kristof, picked us up at 9am. The journey takes about 2 hours (slightly normal than usual due to the construction on the road near Malkinia, which made us take a detour). As we got closer, we started to see nests with white storks. They are considered good luck, the guide told us, and farmers build nest hoping storks will choose their farm as a home.

We reached Treblinka and started the tour. The original camp was completely decommissioned following the revolt in 1943, so there are no original structures remaining. The outlines of the camp fence, the railroad tracks, the ramp, the road to the gas chambers, the gas chambers themselves, and the pits where the bodies were burned are entirely suggested by sculptures.

The whole area is ringed with trees and is quiet. There's no sound but the chirping of birds and the buzzing of large bee-like insects. Instead of graves or gravestones, there is a field of stones, some bearing the names of Jewish communities who were murdered in Treblinka. Until spring 1944, this was the most lethal death camp: nearly 900,000 people were murdered here in just one year. Auschwitz-Birkenau only surpassed it with the murder of the Jews of Hungary.

I tried to emphasize how this was murder by schedule. They couldn't just randomly pick up Jews and send them to Treblinka. They had to send only the number that could be gassed and burned in the necessary time. They had to schedule the death train so that it would depart and arrive at specific times. The train was booked by German state travel office (by the same people planning group excursions for government officials).

They've opened a new museum at Treblinka, with models and photographs of how the death camp operated (there are photos of the steam shovels digging the pits for where the ashes of those murdered and burned were buried). All the text is in Polish.

On the drive back, our guide told us a little about growing up and the end of communism. He was only 6 in 1989, so he said that the biggest impact of the fall of communism was that suddenly the tv got more channels.

Back in Warsaw, I took the students to the monument to the heroes of the ghetto uprising (though I got lost and took them through Krasinich Park first). From there were went to Mila 18, the mound under which the leaders of the ghetto resistance force died and are buried. Our last stop was the Umschlagplatz. There are still some buildings used by the SS on the street that are still standing.

We then changed hotels to one closer to the train station. This one was more of a communist-era hotel. The rooms were a bit more spartan, but the hotel did provide a decent breakfast this morning. I asked the students if they wanted me to guide them anywhere in Warsaw. One student wanted to see the Korczak orphanage. This stood on the fringes of what became the smaller ghetto. It wasn't hard to get to. There was a bust and name in front and some plaques, including one commemorating the ORT teachers and students who died in the Warsaw ghetto. We tried to enter, but the guard got really huffy, glared at us, barred our way, and then carefully watched us leave, just to make sure we didn't try to sneak back in.

Back at the train station, I bought our tickets to Krakow while the student did some shopping at the mall. Then we crossed the street to go to Stalin's "Gift to the Polish people" - the tallest building in Poland, partly based on the Empire State Building, but far more brutal in its harsh architecture. A classic example of Socialist Realism (or what is also known as "wedding cake" style). It was a quick ride to the 30th floor to the observation deck. They have an elevator attendant. Her sole job is to push the buttons for the top and bottom floors. The views were great; we snapped some shots and then went back to the hotel.

On the way, I noticed a restaurant that had a "strawberry menu"and I had been looking for one all trip. We went back there for dinner and were some of the only people in the restaurant. I noticed that when it's clear that the waiter or waitress speak virtually no english, the students simply persist in speaking English, certain in the knowledge they will get what they want. The irony is that the waitress remembered all of their orders, but had to come back to find out what I had ordered in Polish, as she had forgotten.

I started off with strawberry perogies. The students all had pasta at first and then she brought me a plate of what, I swear to God, looked like pancreas floating in white and red sauce. Then I realized they were the strawberry perogies in sour cream with strawberry sauce drizzled over them. They were fantastic (if more than a little ugly). The pasta I ordered was ok. I had a strawberry lemonade that was so thick the pulp clogged the straw. It was great. I then tried one of the strawberry mojitos the students were praising, and it was good too. The only problem with the place is that they played the same Green Day album over and over and over through out the meal.

Today we got the high speed train (such as they are in Poland) to Krakow. No problem checking in, though they want the entire bill in cash up front. I found a bank in the Old City to cash my traveler's cheques. My door lock is rather touchy, but I'm hoping I don't have too much trouble with it. I like this place, but two of the students are complaining that their bathroom smells like something died in it. Just now, one came in to tell me that they just found a spray in the communal bathroom to take away the smell.

We walked around the old town and had a snack by the Barbican. I ordered the "Cherry"sunday (that's what they called it). It had cherry and vanilla ice cream, whipped cream, fresh whole cherries, and vodka. Lots of vodka. That came as a shock. The ice cream was refreshing, but it was as if they tucked in a shot among it. Sort of like a vodka cherry milk shake. Then we walked back to the hotel. We're meeting a group of Polish college students for dinner an about an hour. I need to change, since I dripped chocolate sauce and cherries on my pants. Luckily, the hotel has a laundry service.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Free Day in Warsaw

Today was the first of the two "free days." The students asked that I walk them around Old Town, and one really wanted to see the castle. I suggested we meet at 10am in the lobby. One student said "I'll see you at 11 am." "10 am," I replied. "So that's 11 am," he said. "No, 10 am." "11," he replied. I reminded him it was a free day and that he didn't have to meet us at 10, if he didn't want to. He smiled and went back to his laptop.

We left around 10 am (with the student), and went first to the Old City. On the way we stopped for coffee, but the waitress didn't speak English. I kept asking for 5 minutes. She pointed at various menu items. Eventually, we managed to order. In the end, I think they provided us the wrong bill (it was cheaper than it should be), but I had no way to tell them so.

A little further on, we entered the Old City. It's hard to believe that it was all rubble just 55 years ago. They rebuilt it based on the paintings of Canneletto. We made our way to the castle and since it was Sunday, there was no charge for tickets. We rented head phones and made our way through the main rooms. After the Nazis dynamited it in 1944, it was slowly rebuilt, from donations from Poles around the world. While the walls are new, the furnishings are mostly original, salvaged from the damaged building during the war.

When we were done we went to lunch. We ended up at Gessler Restaurant, a very upscale place in Nowy Swiat (it's in the Michelin guide). We ate downstairs in the labyrinth-like warren of white tiled rooms, interspersed with rooms containing the restaurant's pantries and kitchen. I had a mix of pierogi and Chlodnik soup (very similar to borscht). I loved both. One student got the beef roulade and loved it. The rest seemed happy. Afterwords, I took them to Cafe Blickle for dessert. Some got coffee eclairs or strawberry eclairs and were happier (I think). I got a panczek (jelly donut).

One of the student is keeping a quote book, where she writes down what she calls my "smart-butt sayings." "Like what?" I asked. She mentioned a comment I made the night before at dinner. One student wanted a strawberry margarita, but they were out. After mentioning four of five times that he really wanted one, I said that I really wanted world peace, but I don't think either of us are going to get our wishes tonight. That went in her quote book.

I try to keep the students amused on long train rides and they told me they like it when I'm not so serious (kind of hard, though, with this subject). The same student said that they like it when I act "Dr. Silly Pants." I told them that I try to be professional, but they want me to loose up more.

One of the students wanted to go shopping at the mall by the train station, but it was closed for Sunday (the store, not the mall). After that, some of them went home, while two went with me to the National Theater. I got one of the last tickets for "The Rite of Spring." Then we went back to the hotel where they went on the internet while I changed.

I was a little confused at first about the performance, but I realized, at the first intermission, that it was in fact three performances of Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring," but with three different choreographers.

The first was a reproduction of Nijinsky's original staging, that led to a riot in the theater. It was followed by a radically different interpretation by an Israeli choreographer (Emanuel Gat), and then a less radical one by Maurice Bejart.

I really enjoyed the Nijinsky version; it was a real treat to see what had caused such controversy 100 years ago. The audience seemed more tepid and gave it their lightest applause.

Gat's staging was radically different. In place of the primeval Slavic landscape, there was a black stage, with only a dark square of carpet and either red or white lights. There were only five dancers: two men and three women, who danced it as a samba. Each choreographer has to teach the audience how to read his language of dance, and this took a while for me. It was a challenging work, particularly in light of the strong impact of Nijinsky.

Much of the dancing involved either two women competing for one man or two men competing for one woman. Sometimes all five danced together. Given the images of the sacrifice that lingered from the early choreography, I felt a great deal of tension wondering how these dancing struggles would end and who would be left out. In the end, though, the four paired off in two couples, leaving the one woman remaining as the sacrifice.

Bejart's piece was far more accessible, but I found it duller. From the program notes, I could read that he meant to strip the specific from Stravinksky's work to make it universal. Act I involved men awakening, while Act II began with the women awakening. In both cases, the choreography reminded me of yoga moves. "Is that what the Downard Facing Dog position looks like?" I wondered. In any case, much of the choreography for the men and women seemed to reflect cliched conceptions of masculinity and femininity. I found it far more predictable, but the audience went crazy for it, giving it their most prolonged applause. Just goes to show how little I know about modern dance.

Now to go upstairs and pack. Tomorrow we change hotels in Warsaw (I couldn't get rooms for tomorrow night here) and then head to Treblinka. On Tuesday, we're off for Krakow.

Saturday, June 11, 2011


I always knew this would be a difficult day.

We did the same breakfast routine as yesterday. I encouraged the students to get downstairs a little earlier if they wanted to pick up coffee next door, but Coffeeheaven turned out be closed and cordoned off with police tape, so no coffee. But since I had bought the train tickets the day before, we had time at the main station for them to buy their morning coffee.

More problems dealing with the construction in the main station, and the fact that the 9am train turned out to be at 9:21. Finally, we got on. Not enough seats for all of us in one compartment, so one student ended up a few doors down. One person in that cabin wanted all the doors and windows closed so he roasted; the rest of us were very comfortable.

We reached Lublin by noon, and I suggested we eat first, since I didn't think we'd be hungry afterwards. We went into the old town and admired the medieval and renaissance buildings. Then we stopped off at a crepe place for lunch. It was called "Zadora" (as in Pia). The crepes were all made with buckwheat flour and were really good. I had the mushroom one with mushroom sauce. Afterwards we walked down to the lower gate that divided the upper, Christian city, from the lower, Jewish ghetto.

We then made our way to Majdanek. I had been here in 2006 and it had strongly affected me. I was worried how I would react this time. They've updated the signs since I was last here, though the main exhibits are still the same. I found the signage far more understandable now. I did very little talking as we walked through the exhibits. It was overcast and there was a light wind. The green grass that covers most of the camp was full of crows. The only sound, besides the wind, was the incessant cawing of the crows. For 2.5 hours we walked silently through the camp, making our way to the crematorium. When I had seen this place in 2006, I completely broke down. Now I was impassive. Perhaps because I anticipated my reaction; perhaps because I was self conscious in front of the students. I could tell that many of them were strongly affected.

We quietly left the camp and returned to the train station. 1 hour and 40 minute wait for the train back to Warsaw. We sat in the cafe, had lattes and cappucinos and talked. I bought a slice of chocolate cream cake that was so dry, the cream filling flaked. We got back to Warsaw aroudn 9:30 pm, and then I joined three of the students for dinner at a pierogi place they found one or two nights ago and really liked. They were good, but by 11 pm I crashed and so we skipped dessert.

Tomorrow is our first "mental health day:" a free day with no assignments. I had originally intended to go to Kazimierz Dolny, but I told the students I can't face 5 more hours on the train. Instead, I will walk with them through the Old City. Several want to see the castle. If it's open, we'll try to go to the palace at Wilanow in the afternoon.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Lodz, again

I had told the students to meet me at 8 am and we would go get coffee this morning, but I realized we didn't have enough time. Instead, we went across the street to the bakery, where I picked up juice, some croissants and a donut, and they got bread and other stuff. Then it was off to the Warszawa Centralny to buy our tickets to Lodz.

It's always stressful to buy tickets in Poland. I end up saying something like "To Lodz...five tickets?" Then I get back "Blah, blah, blah, 2nd class, blah, blah." So I respond, hoping I understood, "yes." "Blah, blah, five tickets, blah?" "Yes," I say, as a leap of faith, as I watch the total grow and grow as she prints out tickets. "Blah, blah, credit card, blah, blah, blah." I hand her my card and she swipes it. Eventually, I sign, get the card, and then the tickets. Thank God, they're alright.

Except we have five minutes to get to the train platform before the train leaves. I grab the students and we hurry, find an empty compartment and settle in.

The Polish countryside is always beatiful. Today, however, it is also cold. It's actually 13 C outside, for the first time in the entire trip. I had decided against bringing a jacket, but now I was having second thoughts. Too late now.

I didn't tell the students much about Lodz in advance, in terms of how I experienced it before; I didn't want to shade their own feelings about it. We came in at Lodz Fabryczna station and this time there were maps, though the station really does have a scuzzy feel to it. Lots of small stands; not at all like Warsaw. We walked to the main north/south street and saw many of the same, formerly beatiful beaux arts buildings I had seen last time, though some had now been restored. I wanted to find the students coffee, but I had entered the street just above where most of the cafes were, it turned out, so we ended up walking several blocks.

We finally found a rather nice one, sat down, ordered our drinks, and two of the students also got nice looking desserts. After we rested and refreshed we started our walking tour of the remains of the Litzmannstadt Ghetto. We began with the church where the belongings of those murdered in Chelmno were brought back to be sorted through by ghetto residents before being sent to Germany. It looks like they painted the original ghetto border on the sidewalk a few years ago, but that now it's fading. I showed the students pictures of what the ghetto bridges were like and we continued.

When we passed a bakery, I stopped in and picked up some rolls for lunch. Then it was off to the ghetto hospital. This building was mostly in ruins in 2006 (an arson attack badly damaged it), but it's now being renovated. I read the students the description of how the hospital was liquidated on September 1, 1942, and the patients deported to Chelmno. This was followed by the seizure and deportation of all children under 10 and the elderly over 65 a few days later.

After we walked through some streets that were particularly well preserved from the ghetto period, we headed off to Radogoszcz station. The sky looked threatening, and I thought it would rain on us. That was a very long walk, made even more difficult by the fact that my guide book to the Litzmannstadt Ghetto does not contain a complete map of the ghetto, but only shows small, little sections of it. When we finally reached the station, I was horrified to see that the museum was closed on Fridays. We rested for a while, and then I polled the students to see if they wanted to go on to the cemetery. They said yes, so off we walked. Not so far this time, though.

The outcome was the same, however. We got there at 3:25 only to find that on Fridays, it closes at 3pm. A Polish couple from Warsaw came up and pounded on the gate. Eventually the guard came. They spoke with him, but he gruffly responded and closed the door as I kept asking if we could just use the toilets. The Polish couple told me that they had offered him money to let us all in, but that he had refused.

We had no choice now but to return. This time we took the bus and as it was after 4 pm and we really hadn't had a full lunch, I told the students I would treat them to an early dinner at Anatewka, a Jewish-style restaurant in Lodz. I had really liked it the last time, but not so much this time. The goose didn't taste the way I thought it should (more like brisket this time). Very salty. The raspberry panna cotta for dessert was rather bland. It was still better than the cheesecake one student ordered, that was truly bizarre. At least the Zubrowka vodka was as good as it should be. The waitress gave us some little rabbi figurines, each clutching a gold grosz. I'm not sure if it's anti-Semitic (though I highly doubt it was intended as such).

We managed to avoid a few drunks on the street and make our way back to the train station and from there back to Warsaw. We got in around 9pm, and I went back to the cashier to buy our tickets for Lublin. Another round of: "To Lublin. Tomorrow. 9 hour. Five tickets?" I had dropped the students off at a coffee shop first so they could have something nice while waiting and I joined them there. The mall near the train station is clean and has some nice food shops. If only the current construction didn't make it so difficult to get to.

We got back a little while ago. The free computer was taken, as usual, but I bought some time on the pay machine next to it. Now, to try to update some of the earlier entries.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

In Warsaw - Updated

I will try to update the Lidice entry later.

We arrived safe and sound in Warsaw yesterday. The students shared a single room with four couchettes, basically bunk beds, while I had a room with a triple bunk bed in the next door wagon. The room was so small and the bunks so close together that I had to sit on the floor to read. I had debated whether I should have gotten a room with six couchettes and thus make sure we were all together, but I realized later that would have meant that none of us could have sat upright for the 10 hour journey.

We spent an hour at the Bohumin station (from 2-3am) as they decoupled and recoupled the cars. The lights came on, which woke us all up. I thought they would come on to stamp our passports, but they never did. After we got to Poland the rails became much smoother and I slept til morning.

A little excitement getting off the train as not all the students were ready. The conductor gave them a 20 minute notice, and I came by 10 minutes later and told them to get ready, but as we pulled into the station, only two were ready to get off the train. One student had to get off the train in his socks and finish getting dressed on the platform.

We were all hot and sticky from the humidity, and the main train station is under reconstruction, but I finally found the metro, bought us passes, and got to the hotel. Our rooms weren't ready at 9 am (as I knew they wouldn't be), so we headed off to the Museum of the Warsaw 'Rising.

As before, I find this a difficult museum to navigate. On one level, it's marketed to students: the sound effects and Disney-style decor, designed to mimic the terrain of Warsaw during the uprising, lacks a certain decorum. The museum really isn't organized in chronological order, which can make it difficult to follow the events. One wrong turn and you miss key events or read about the consequences before the causes.

Afterwards we headed back to the hotel. I gave the students (and myself) an hour to wash off the sweat and grime of two days and then meet at 1 pm to continue. We went down to see the remnants of the ghetto wall, and then walked from there to a small street of tenements that almost unique in the city, had survived both the ghetto uprising of 1943, and then the city's uprising of 1944. I tried to get to the Nozyk synagogue, but most of it is shielded by fences from construction, and even after we found it, we couldn't get in.

I gave up at that point and we went to the Jewish Historical Institute. I arranged for the students to see the documentary on the ghetto in English, and then we toured the museum. The students seemed strongly affected by it. We all were too tired to do anything else, so I took them back to the hotel and spent the evening making arrangments for tomorrow.

I went to dinner back to the Nu Jazz Bistro where I had eaten years ago, but wasn't pleased. The cold cucumber soup was delicious and the tricolor panini (tomato, mozzarella, avocado) was yummy, but it seems to have declined a bit. Also I found the service slow.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011


The free connection shut down a few minutes into my update of this blog. I'm hoping this time works better. I have 14 minutes to type all of the following.

I have very mixed feelings about our hotel in Prague. On the one hand, it's very conveniently located: just 4 minutes walk from the Charles Bridge and the Old Town Square. It has air conditioning in a city where you really need it (and we certainly did). And the breakfast buffet was very nice. On the other hand, I fear it has bed bugs.

The morning after we arrived I noticed a large red welt on my lower shin. It was much larger than a mosquito bite, though thankfully did not itch. I wore socks the next night, but I still found my ankles and lower shins covered in small red spots (which thankfully also did not itch). I asked the students if they were experiencing anything similar and all said yes. I don't think I'll stay here again.

We checked out of the hotel but left our luggage in storage. Our train didn't leave until 8pm that night. We took the subway to the end of the line and then I searched for the bus to Lidice. I went to the bus ticket office, standing a meter behind a man in front of me who smelled as if he and bath water were no longer on speaking terms. The clerk was happy to sell me tickets for the bus, but couldn't explain where to find it. I went stop by stop until I finally found the right one. Unfortunately, they wouldn't accept the tickets I purchased, so I had to buy them again.

Lidice is/was a small town about 30 minutes by bus from Prague. When Reinhard Heydrich, the Nazi Protector of Bohemia and Moravia, was assassinated by Czechs in 1942, the Nazis retaliated by imposing "collective punishment" on Lidice. All the men and boys over 15 were separated from their families and shot. The women were sent to Ravensbruck concentration camp. Of the nearly 100 children in the town, less than a dozen of the youngest were sent to an orphanage. The rest were sent to the Lodz ghetto. There they were allowed to write letters to surviving relatives begging for clothes and food before they were again put on a transport, this time to the extermination camp at Chelmno, where they were all gassed on arrival. The town's church was then dynamited and the rest of the town was burned to the ground.

On the hill overlooking the town's site there is now a museum. We watched a short film on the history of the town before the war and then entered the exhibit on the town's destruction. The letters by the children before they were murdered were particularly heart breaking. The exhibit ends with a long video testimony of surviving children and mothers. Many of the children were adopted by German families and could no longer speak Czech at the end of the war.

From there we walked down to the memorial. The area is amazingly green and quiet. The overall impression is a quiet, tree-lined contemplative space, with many song birds. The first memorial is that of the children who were murdered. Each child has been individually rendered, modeled on a child who was murdered. That also brought several of us to tears. From there, we walked a short distance to the site where the men of the town were shot and buried in a mass grave.

After that we walked up to the top of the hill to catch the bus back to Prague. One of the students bought a kinder egg in the shop and spent the time waiting for the bus by assembling the toy inside. Unfortunately, she didn't care for the toy but no one was willing to take it from her. Eventually, the bus came and we headed back to Prague. The students were free for the rest of the day. One went up to the Castle and the rest just hung around the old town. I went across to Malastrana and ate a late lunch (it was nearly 2 pm when we got back) at Cukrakavalimonada. I really like this cafe. I had the elderflower lemonade and then the pasta primavera (I'm trying to get over my vegetable withdrawal after not eating any in Germany). For dessert, I had a slice of strawberry cheesecake and a large, thick hot chocolate.

I spent the rest of the afternoon just walking about and checking on our travel plans. I met some of the students in the late afternoon and took them to an ice cream parlor for a late snack. Then it was back to the hotel, grab our luggage and then head to the station for our sleeper train to Warsaw. I bought a sandwich for the train (no dining car), and then we boarded. I was in a car with beds, while the students were in the neighboring car in couchettes. For the rest of the train trip, see the next blog entry.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011


Well, the cool weather was short lived. We went to sleep with the sound of distant thunder and drumming rain, and awoke to blue skies and warm and humid air. After we went outside, though; the rooms were quite cool from the A/C. Too cool, in fact, as I had it set on 17 with a high fan and was too cold.

Breakfast was good and we got an early start for Terezin. No problem at all to get there. After the bus dropped us off we met an elderly Brazilian woman who needed directions. We helped her to the museum. After that we started the tour. I reserved us spaces for both films, so we had to break off to head down to the theater for them. The first was a half hour documentary on Terezin that I bought a few years ago. It's ok, though oddly put together. I found myself falling asleep during the screening (which the students also admitted). The second film, was a short 12 minute piece from 1965 on the Nazi propaganda film shot in the ghetto in 1944. This ended with an El Maleh Rachmamim prayer for victims of the Holocaust that came out of nowhere and brought me to tears.

We went back up and continued the tour silently. Then it was down to the museum cafe for a quick lunch. I thought it safest to get a sandwich but one student decided to be brave and order a hot dog. Once I saw how thick the casing was, I knew I hadn't made a mistake avoiding it. "Why do you think they put so much ketchup on it?" the student asked after the third (to my eyes, at least) loathsome bite. "To make it edible," I answered.

We all decided to endulge in the Magnum ice cream bars to make up for the paucity of lunch. I tried the one labeled "Gold!?" as if it wasn't sure. I wasn't sure what flavor it was but one student figured out that it was caramel.

From the museum we walked to the Madgeburg barracks, where they recreate the way the people were forced to live, cramed six to a three-tiered bunk bed. Most of the exhibits are on art created in the ghetto, and they played excerpts from the children's opera "Brundibar" for us. After that, we walked out of the town to the mortuary and from there to the ghetto cemetery and crematorium. The guard was out so we were able to snap a few pictures and then sit silently in the graveyard.

On our return, we headed out to the small fortress, noting the many graves of Jews who died from the typhus epidemic that broke out just before liberation. Over a 1000 died after Soviet troops arrived. Inside, one of the staff offered to give us a guided tour of the prison, so we walked from cell to cell. We saw the cell the Gavrilo Princip (the 17 year-old who started WWI by shooting Prince Franz Ferdinand) was in for 2 years. We also saw the fake washroom the Nazis created to fool the Red Cross. The water lines were never connected.

There's a 500 m passageway through the walls to the place of execution. I led the students there and it was pleasantly cool out of the sun. The guide met us at the end and showed where people were shot. As before, I saw the concrete outline of three crosses on the ground and said that I thought it was meant to evoke the crucifixion at Golgotha. The guide corrected me and explained that there were originally four crosses and they date from before the Nazi period. They were used to position the men's arms during target practice. The fourth was torn down to allow tourists to pass by. I thanked her for disabusing me of an erroneous idea before I embarrassed myself by making the argument to colleagues.

When we got back to the bus stop, we met a couple heading back to Prague. They said they were from Newfoundland, and I asked if they knew one of my colleagues, who was from Newfoundland. Turns out she was my colleague's French teacher. We explained to the students all about "Jewish geography."

On the ride back, I talked with some of the students about the theological problems raised by the Holocaust, and in no time at all we were back in Prague. The Canadian couple were heading off to the Alt-Neu Shul for second day Shavuot services, so I wished them a hag sameach, while we went off to get our train tickets to Warsaw. The four students will share a room with four couchettes, while I will have a room with three beds. I'm still not sure if I have the room to myself. The good news is that I've saved $50 off my budget so I can treat the students to at least one dinner in Warsaw.

I wanted to show the students one of my favorite bizarre statues in Prague: the one of King Wenceslas riding a dead, upside down horse. By then it was nearing 7 pm, so I asked them if they wanted any advice on where to go for dinner. In the end, we walked to the Municipal House cafe, one of the most beautiful ones in Prague. The guide book describes it as "an art nouveau orgy." The outdoor tables were all filled so we ate indoors. The only problem is all the beautiful ornate lamps and chandeliers can make the room heat up. We found a large table by the window.

I've made fun of Czech food as "beige," but two of the students really wanted to try it. They had the goulasch with bread dumplings, while I and another student had the spinach strudel. To be honest, it was much more like spanakopita than strudel, but it was good and filling. I ordered the beef broth starter and it looked and tasted like Campbell's. The place does shine with its desserts and the Forest Fruit Torte was yummy, with lots of red and black currants, raspberries, and even a blueberry or two.

I told the students about some of my experiences with roommates, including my very first roommate who was the head of the "salt of the earth club" at UCLA. When I described the "Wanted" poster for Jesus that greeted my parents and I when I moved in, first one then two students doubled over with laughter. Turns out he thought I meant a "Wanted: Dead or Alive' poster.

Tomorrow we have to check out in the morning before we head to Lidice. The students have the afternoon free (I think they're going to Prague castle) and then we come back to pick up our luggage before our train. I like the hotel, but my only problem is that it turns out there's a nightclub in the back. We don't hear any noise from them, but it's still disconcerting to turn into the hallway leading to our hotel and see giant neon signs advertising lap dances.

Monday, June 06, 2011

The Humidity Broke

Despite the humidity, I slept all the way through the night, I was so tired. This morning, we packed up and went to Zoo Station, but I was soaked before I arrived. The train to Prague was warm and humid. No a/c, just a little breeze from the fan.

The hotel turned out to be nicer than I expected. We have A/C in the rooms, and the furnishings look nice (I'll let you know how comfortable the bed is in the morning). We had no time to eat lunch though, as I needed to get the students to the Jewish Museum well before sunset. We started off at the Pinkas synagogue, and as we walked through the old Jewish cemetery, it started to thunder and then large rain drops began. We went into the Jewish burial society building and I pointed out the cycle of paintings depicting the society's work as the rain fell harder and harder. By the time we left for the Klausen (thankfully only 3 yards away), it was pouring. I used the opportunity to go through the various artifacts in the room.

By the time we were done, the rain had stopped, so it was off to the Alt-Neu Shul and then the Spanish Synagogue. We ended, almost three hours after we started, at the Maisels Synagogue. Our feet were hurting and tired, so I led the students to a coffee shop in the Ungelt behind the Church of Tyn. The iced chocolate was yummy. After we rested I took the students on an orientation tour of Old Town Prague with a little glimpse of Wenceslas Square. After that I decided to treat them for dinner in Malastrana.

They really enjoyed the Charles Bridge, and the rain really dried the air out (as well as cooled it off). They are all taking lots of photos, two of the students have very expensive and complicated cameras. I've asked for copies. When we went to my favorite restaurant it was locked shut. We went instead to Cukrakavalimonade, but it was 7 pm and they were just closing. I let the students take a quick peek at a local garden park in Malastrana, and a few talked about moving here.

Alchemyst's Garden, a middle eastern place was closed due to the weather, so we went to Cafe des Paris. Two of the students ordered soup only, while the other three of us tucked into our first salads in a week, followed by the entrecote steak. I don't remember the bernaise sauce last year having so much tarragon (perhaps I didn't order the sauce). After dinner, several of students ordered nice desserts (not me). I did order the elderflower lemonade, but the one had at Cukrakavalimonade was better. The cafe didn't take credit cards, so it basically wiped out all the kronas I had (I also paid for 15 one-day passes in cash earlier). I looked at my receipt from the exchange I used at the train station and was shocked to see the 17% service fee. I was definitely ripped off. Serves me right for doing it at the train station.

Got back to the hotel at 10 pm, turned on the A/C, and then came down to enter this blog. Tomorrow a treat: hotel breakfast! Then it's off to catch the bus to Terezin.

Saturday, June 04, 2011


I´ve been so busy on this trip; I rarely have any time to myself to relax.

In addition to shepherding the students from place to place, making sure that everyone has what they need, and seeing that they learn the material, even when I tell them we´re done for the day, they are reluctant to go off on their own.

Yesterday, we went to Sachsenhausen concentration camp in the morning. That took much longer than I expected. When I went there in 2007, I was staying in East Berlin, which was closer. Now, we had much further to travel. We got the audio guides and that certainly helped, but even spending three hours in the camp felt rushed. Since I was here last, they built a new information center, with a very helpful film about the history of the camp.

We got back to the Oranieburg S bahn station by 2 pm, and I joined the students to help them find a chocolate shop that one had heard about in her German class. Called Fassbender & Rausch, it´s near the Gendarmenmarkt. We eventually found it and went up to the cafe. Most of them had ice coffees and cakes, I had just the iced hot chocolate. That was our lunch. The food was wonderful and they all loved their cakes. The iced chocolate was really a chocolate milk shake, with vanilla ice cream, whipped cream, and chocolate syrup. It was really good.

One of the students really likes this drink called "boba", so I said I would help her find it. We headed back to West Berlin and found her the boba shop she had heard about. Boba is basically a kind of pearl tapioca that´s put at the bottom of a large glass of something cold, clear, and sweet. Virtually everyone in line was under 22, and overwhelmingly female.

From there, it was a short walk to KaDeWe. I wasn´t sure they would let us in if one of us was holding a drink, but the student offered to put it in her camera bag. "Won´t it spill?" I asked. "No, I do this all the time," she answered. "Won´t it melt?" "Boba don´t melt" she quickly answered, a line that the other students quickly picked up.

We headed to the food court and cafeteria and walked around some very expensive dining places. The fruits and vegetables looked wonderful, but forlorn, as almost every was avoiding them like the plague (well, not like the plague, actually the plague). In the toy section, I picked up a large stuffed owl and, to my shock, discovered its curriculum vitae. I will quote from the picture I took of it on my camera:

"His word carries weight. As it should. Doc Nightmare has not only been around the block a few times, he´s also an extremely intelligent owl with a solid academic background. In the early 90s he made a name for himself as a psychoanalyst for traumatized stuffed animals. Having grown tired of all the sad stories he embarked on a new path and became an actor on a ghost train and now travels from village fair to village fair to give kids and grownups a scare --which he finds very amusing! He just missing one thing: YOU!"

The saddest thing though was the nearby bear that dropped out of highschool cost nearly twice as much as the owl with the Ph.D. I don´t think children´s toys need to be so accurate.

I picked up some of my favorite chocolate, and gave a few pieces to the students so they could taste why I think it´s the best in the world.

Afterwards, we headed to Zoo station, where one student went to get her cell phone fixed, while the rest of us hung out in Hugenubel. It´s a large chain bookstore, but we just mostly enjoyed saying the name.

By the time the others got back it was getting late, so we headed across the street to Mövenpick. It´s an expensive, Swiss chain, but it´s also good. Four of us ordered the fresh asparagus soup, and the fifth went with the wild garlic soup. Everyone loved their selections. I got the veal slices in cream sauce for the main course and it was excellent. I wasn´t thrilled when the roast potatoes turned out to be a cross between hash browns and a latke, but it was far better than either (that or when covered in sauce it became edible). All of us are going through vegetable withdrawal.

The weather has been hot, leaning towards humid. Last night was not very pleasant, temp wise.

We got up this morning and headed to Wannsee. I was surprised how quickly we went through the house: in and out in 1.5 hours. The students seemed to get a lot of out of it. Rather than try to rush to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, I gave them a break. We took the bus back to Wannsee, which was now overrunn with bicyclists. We stopped at a turkish imbiss for lunch. I ordered the turkish pizza, but it wasn´t nearly as good as what I had in Kreuzberg. This tasted like the poured out all the different condiments and then rolled it up. I abandoned it for a börek, but didn´t feel all that hungry any more.

I asked someone why there were so many bicyclists, and it turned to be a big event, where cyclists from all over were planning to converge on Brandenburger Tor. One student cried out in shock when she realized that one group of cyclists was naked. As we quickly walked away, I explained how nudism became quite popular in the communist East Germany. Some people theorize it was a way for people to assert their individuality. The police had arrived and I heard them welcome the riders but then admonish those who were cycling nude. "Das is nicht erwünscht," (I´ve probably mispelled that) I heard them say. That is "this is not desirable." A groan and boos came from the crowd.

We headed back to the city center and three students came with me to the Pergamon, while the fourth (who had arrived early and already gone) went to the DDR museum. We just did the highlights of the museum, but it was still pretty warm, so we all ended up out at the cafe. We met the fourth student at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe and then went down in to see the information center. I´ve been here several times and we discussed the victim-centered approach the museum takes.

After that we walked across the street to the see the memorial to gay men killed or persecuted by the Nazis. It started to rain (one student surprised us all by packing an umbrella). In a lull, they ran over and looked at it. The exterior evokes the Jewish memorial, but the window only shows a video of two men kissing. We discussed the decisions and ideas behind such a memorial conception, but the rain really began to come down. We ran into a nearby cafe to take shelter. After a nice slice of raspberry cheese torte, I decided to leave the students on their own and try to make the Komische Oper showing of "La Perichole." I bought a ticket and then an apple cider and listened to the tail end of the preshow talk.

I had a lot of problems getting the subtitles to show up on the chair in front of me (I had to bend over in my seat to see them). With the heat and humidity in the theater, I suddenly felt very tired, and began to doze off. I decided to leave at the intermission. Good idea as I was so tired I had a panic attack on the metro when I thought I had lost my back pack. It was still on my back.

I headed to the Hauptbahnhof and bought our train tickets to Prague for tomorrow. By bumping up our numbers to six, I qualified for a group discount (even with the extra unneeded ticket, it was still cheaper). I´m heading back now to pack for tomorrow. We leave the hotel at 8am.

Warm and Sunny

We have had very good weather here in Berlin. The days have been warm and sunny.

I don`t have much time, other to say we went to Sachsenhausen in the morning and stayed til nearly 2. After that we headed for the Gendarmenmarkt to visit a chocolate shop one of the students had heard a lot about. We all enjoyed it very much.

Afterwards, we browsed the food courts at KaDeWe and ended up having a very enjoyable dinner at Mövenpick. Four of us got the Spargelsuppe and loved it; the fifth got the Bärlauchsuppe and loved it.

Tomorrow, we´re off to Wannsee.

Friday, June 03, 2011

Getting an Overview

When I realized the curtains in my room were sheer, I went out and bought an eye mask at the pharmacy at Zoo Station, near the hotel. It takes a bit of getting used to, but I slept ok. The area around the hotel is a little noisy, but my ear plugs filtered most of it out. Some of the students were not as lucky and told me about partiers they heard on the street. I did hear the beer bottle break around 7:30, though.

Feeling rested after a good 8.5 hours of sleep, I made breakfast (scrambled eggs, yoghurt, rolls with butter, tea with milk and sugar, and black currant juice), I went downstairs at 9:30 am to meet the students. I figured that they would definitely benefit from sleeping in.

Our first stop was the Topography of Terror museum. This is one of the places I`ve not been before. The last time I was there, it was just a series of open-air display cases, but the new museum opened a year ago. They do a good job of explaining how the SS worked in the complicated bureaucracy that was Nazi Germany. After about two hours we left, so the fragment of the Berlin Wall just north of the museum, and then headed over to Kreuzberg for lunch. I suggested the Turkish pizza place I went to last year.

I seem to have taught my students a "bad habit;" they now are photographing all their meals. Three of us got the turkish garlic sausage pizza, while the other two got the vegetarian ones. One student tried a date soda; I stuck to Cola light. Outside we got a kick of how the cafe billed itself as both "koscher" and "halal." How do you have kosher sausage pizza???

From there it was a short walk to the Jewish Museum. This is really an exploded museum turned inside out. It was important for my memorial students to see it as it was really path breaking in its architectural approach. For the Holocaust student it gave them a good overview of Jewish culture in Germany. In the garden of exile, we ran into an Israel tour group, and I enjoyed chatting with them in Hebrew (which is really much better than my German).

This was our last "work outing" for the day. It was nearly 4, so we headed over to the Cafe Einstein Stammhaus (the original location) and sat in the garden. The students all ordered versions of ice coffee (with ice cream) or ice cappuccino (without). I stuck with cafe au lait. It came with separate pitchers of hot milk and hot coffee, so I could mix them to the strength I preferred. I thought about getting the raspberry mini torte, but ended up getting the strawberry torte (though I forgot to get the whip cream). We sat out there for over an hour and half, getting our strength back after all the walking.

We headed back towards Zoo Station, so one student could find a replacement lens for her camera. That turned out to be more complicated than we thought and we didn't get back to the hotel until after 7:30. Only one student was interested in going with me to dinner, so we headed to Vapiano. Mistake! I had eaten there 5 years ago and thought it was fine. Basically you order your pasta dish, drinks, they enter it on your card, and you pay at the register after you've eaten on your way out. We got there a little after 8, but the line moved VERY slowly. So slowly that we were still standing in it waiting for our food after 45 minutes. No meal is worth standing 45 minutes in line for.

We walked about five blocks down the Ku'damm and found a half-priced internet cafe, where I typed this up. I'm getting ready to crash. Tomorrow morning, I'm getting them up a little earlier and we're heading up to Sachsenhausen. I'm going to try to find a bus, rather than walk the 20 minutes from the station, but I don't think there is one.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Safe and Sound in Berlin

Well, it's been a very long day, but I'm safe and sound in Berlin.

I met up with three of the students at LAX and it turned out that none of them had had a full night's sleep. I don't think any of them slept for more than an hour on the red eye flight to Berlin. I took Ambien the night before the flight so I got 6 hours sleep. I took another on the plane and slept for nearly 4, so I was feeling pretty good today.

The hotel is in West Berlin and we were able to check into our rooms early. After a quick shower and change we started on our walk. After a so-so lunch at Cafe Hardenberg, opposite the university, we headed off to East Berlin.

Our first stop was the Oranieburgerstraße synagogue, and from there to the Koppenplatz memorial. This is a very moving one that consists of just a slightly oversized table with two chairs, one of which has been knocked over.

We then made our way to Alexanderplatz and started our long walk. I'm really too tired to go into details. We did stop for a nice coffee and cake at Cafe Einstein on Unter den Linden. One of the students is looking for a telephone card, but it turned out today was a Lutheran holiday (Ascention Day -- who knew? Not me) and all the stores were closed. As it happens I found one this evening after I went out for dinner, so I will tell her about it tomorrow.

We walked all the way down Unter den Linden to the Brandenburg Gate, then south to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. I wanted the students to experience it without any prior readings or study. We will go back on Sunday afternoon and I want to see if there impressions of it change.

We made it back to the hotel around 6, after stopping off at the grocery store for breakfast supplies (our rooms have a small kitchenette and fridge). I figured after spending nearly 48 hours with me, the students needed a break, so I´m eating alone tonight. I´m also letting them sleep in; we don´t meet until 9:30 am tomorrow morning. Except I need to do a walk-up knock at 8 am for one room that doesn´t have an alarm clock.