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.

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