Sunday, June 30, 2013


Majdanek is one of the hard days, not just because of the substance, but also because of the logistics.  I had gone to the train station the night before to buy tickets and ended up waiting a half an hour to get to the ticket clerk who didn't speak English.  I typed out what I wanted on my iPhone screen and held it up to the window.  It worked.

Because I have eight students plus myself, they print out two boarding passes for four students each and then one for me.  The hard part is finding seats together, so I try to get adjacent compartments.   When we got to the station, I search to confirm the platform, and at one point I rushed them back up the stairs only to realize we were on the right platform all along.  Finally, we got on the train.

Of course immediately, the students break out the electronic devices.

The train filled up and some people ended up in the hallway.  We had a free seat, so one of the students invited a Pole sitting opposite to join us.  He immediately fell asleep.

I decided that instead of having lunch in town, to grab something quick at or near the Lublin train station and then visit the old city of Lublin later if we had time.  I didn't want a repeat of how rushed I felt at Mauthausen. 

Unfortunately, that was a mistake.  We went to the restaurant closest the train station, but they forgot my meal.  After everyone had been served I called for the bill.  The waiter said they're cooking it now, but I said don't bother.  I ended up getting a waffle with whipped cream and chocolate syrup across the street.  The waffle wasn't even fresh; they had precooked them and they just popped them into the machine to warm them up.  Not happy.

We wasted so much time over lunch, I said let's not worry about when we're getting the train back.  We'll spend as much time at Majdanek as we need.  We caught a bus almost immediately that dropped us off just opposite the camp.

I let the students move at their own pace.  Majdanek began as a POW camp for captured Soviet soldiers, and eventually expanded to include Poles, Jews, and others.  While it was intended to be a very large camp, only a fraction of it was actually built and it remained relatively small.  Although part of the "Aktion Reinhard" extermination camps, the death toll at Majdanek was the smallest:  just 78,000. 

Prisoners arriving in the camp underwent selection.  Those who were chosen for slaves were shaved and then forced to enter showers where the water alternated between freezing, then scalding, then freezing again.

Those selected for death -- the elderly, the weak, and the sick -- were sent to the gas chambers.  At Majdanek they used both carbon monoxide and cyanide gas chambers.  This is the one for cyanide gas, which over time, turned the concrete blue.

Next to the buildings with the showers and gas chambers were the barracks holding the belongings stolen from those who had be murdered.  These are now used as a museum telling the history of the camp.  This is a display of victims, many of whom passed through the camp on their way to places where they were eventually murdered.

The museum also displays receipts for the hair collected from prisoners which was cleaned and then sent back to Germany to make a felt-like fabric.

One thing that has always interested me is the art created by prisoners in the camps.  It was a form of resistance, first by keeping their own spirits up, second by helping the prisoners whose portraits were done by raising their spirits, and finally, but creating an alternative records outside of Nazi control.  Here are two such portraits:

After the main set of exhibits on the camp, they had one of the two barracks holding shoes open to the public (this represents only a fraction of the items held here for shipment to Germany at the time of the camp's liberation in July 1944). They found several hundred thousand pairs of shoes.  This is just one:

The pathway leads into a section of prisoner barracks that have been restored to show what conditions were like with the camp was being used.  Every time I come here, I'm struck by several things:  how close the camp is to Lublin, and the sound of crows cawing incessantly around the camp.

There were a small group of Turkish tourists who were paralleling our group, so I also explained to them about the barracks.

From here, we headed to the later gas chamber and crematorium.  While the concrete structure and the ovens are original, the wooden frame around them and roof have been reconstructed. 

Next to the ovens, the commander of the facility kept a bath tub heated by the ovens, and the ashes of those murdered were used to fertilize the SS garden.

After over two hours in the camp, we returned to the road and to the train station.  After a very complicated process, I got our tickets back to Warsaw, but we had nearly a two-hour wait.  With nothing good to eat nearby, I ordered a "toasty" in the station cafe and tried to surf the internet with the astoundingly weak wifi connection.  By 10:20 pm, we made it back to Warszawa Centralna station.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Arriving in Warsaw (Updated With Photos)

One of the students' compartments on the train to Warsaw:

I took a sleeping pill in order to sleep on the train and it worked.  I managed over six hours despite the noise, the motion, the heat from the electrical outlet on the wall near my pillow that came on and off during the night, etc.  Since I was right next to the student compartments, I was easily able to give them plenty of notice of our arrival in Warszawa Centralna station.  No one in their socks on the platform this time.  Still a little confusion on my part on arrival, since I couldn't buy metro passes with my credit card and that meant I needed to get a lot of cash quick.  It took a while to find a bank with an ATM.

Eventually, though, I got the money, the tickets, and found the tram to the hotel.  Our rooms were ready, so I checked everyone in and we all got breakfast and showered (or the other way around).  Around 10 am, we headed off on the tour.

We started with my searching, successfully (after a while) for the two remaining fragments of the Warsaw Ghetto wall.

Then we walked to ul. Prozna where there is an old tenement building from the ghetto that is slowly falling to pieces.  Two years ago there were two buildings here; the one on the right was torn down.

After that it was the Nozyk synagogue

And then the Jewish Historical Institute.  Their main exhibit on the Warsaw Ghetto, including one of the milk cannisters used to hide the archives, is now at the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, so we could only see the film and an exhibit on how Polish artists have confronted the Holocaust.

This one is called "There's No Such Thing as an Innocent Eye" and consists of photographs of former synagogues being used for other purposes:

It was after 12, so I took the students through the Old City to a very traditional "milk bar" (kind of communist-era diner) near the barbican.  I had the barley soup and the blueberry perogie in sour cream.

The way it works is you order and pay at the register and then hand your slip to a woman behind this window, who then brings you your food:

We walked from there to the Umshlagplatz, passing some interesting wall art that seemed to be devoted to the Warsaw 'Rising of 1944.

By the hotel I used last time we saw a memorial to the many Poles deported to prison camps by the Soviets between 1939 and 1955.

This area, which includes the northern part of the ghetto, was where the command bunkers of the Jewish underground were located, so there are many memorials here.  In addition the Museum to the History of Polish Jews has finally, though only partially opened.

The permanent exhibit isn't open yet.  All you can see so far is the roof of the reconstructed wooden synagogue, but they have temporary exhibit on Jewish home movies of the 1930s with background music by the Klezmatics.

The whole area around the museum is ringed with monuments, though I'm not sure this guy talking on his cell phone really matches the heroism of the Polish Home Army liaison officer, Jan Karski, who smuggled himself into the Warsaw Ghetto and later met with FDR.

After all that walking we really needed a coffee break, so I found a wonderful little bookstore/coffeeshop a block away called "Paradox."  It's dedicated to all things science fiction and fantasy, and sure enough, "Hellboy" was on the front door:

And "Game of Thrones" over the bar:

It turns out that several students are manga fans, particularly of one my niece's favorite series:  Black Butler, and they love the character of Sebastian.  Another loves the series Full Metal Alchemist

I had hoped to go to the Museum of the Warsaw 'Rising, but there was no way to tour it sufficiently before it closed at 6 pm.  Besides, I still hoped to get the students to Beit Warszawa for Friday night prayers and dinner, and one student whose ATM card was eaten by a machine, hoped to get it back.

Given the logistical hurdles, there was no way the student who had to go to the bank could join us for dinner, so I took the six students who wanted to go (one wanted to rest up) and we got on the bus for the ride down to the Wilanow neighborhood.  We got there in time and the students all sat in the back.  One student who works with Orthodox Jews told me later that she loved to be able to participate by sitting with everyone.  The sermon was in Polish, but they provided an English-language translation.  Almost all the prayers were in Hebrew, and only one or two was said in Polish (not that the students could understand Hebrew any better, but it made it much easier for me).

Beit Warszawa is a liberal synagogue, so there's no mechitzah and the rabbi uses musical instruments (a guitar).  A fair number of Debbie Friedman melodies and I was struck by the use of Israeli Hebrew pronunciation, rather than the traditional Polish accents.  I asked the rabbi afterwards, and he said that they follow the Reform movement's approach of using Israeli pronunciation.  I suggested that with the rupture of the Holocaust and then communism, perhaps the accents they were using derived from the Jews who came back to Poland to teach people.  If the Orthodox use an Ashkenazi accent, perhaps it's because their teachers from the U.S. had such an accent.

I chatted with an American library science professor from Oregon State University, so by the time I got into the dinner room, most of my students were seated at their own table.  I ordered as many of them as I could to get up and sit at a table with Polish Jews who also spoke English.  I wanted them to learn and interact, not just sit with each other.  Three moved to the other table and I could hear them sharing stories and hearing about Jewish life in Europe.  I stayed with the three students who remained and kept them company.  Later, I tried to get them to join the three other students by pulling their chairs around and most did.

The students all seemed to enjoy the evening.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Adventures in Budapest (Updated with Photos)

This will be updated later when I get a chance to post photos.

The plan for Wednesday was to get up relatively late and meet our guide, Janos, at the Dohany Synagogue at 10 am.  I got a little turned around getting off the metro, but had no trouble finding him.

I first met Janos six years ago when he was my guide in the Jewish ghetto.  The way it worked was I went into the Dohany synagogue and museum myself and then we all met him afterwards for a 2 to 2.5 hour tour of the Jewish quarter.  I sort of expected he would do the same thing this time, but he didn’t.

Instead, he took us into the Dohany and spent about an hour giving us a history of the Jews in Hungary. 

Unfortunately, his accent made it difficult for some of my students to follow and one started to fall asleep.  Then he talked about the synagogue for half an hour.  

After that, he guided us through the small museum for half an hour and the sites in the synagogue complex for about fifteen minutes.  

[A Jewish vision of hell, courtesy of a burial society book]:


 In other words, we didn’t start the tour of the former ghetto until well after 12:00 pm. Here's the decaying interior of the Rumbach synagogue:

I had not intended to spend an entire day on the Jewish quarter tour.  I had originally hoped to do the Holocaust Museum in the afternoon, but one of my students had lost his bag with his passport, metro pass, and camera in it.  He was pretty sure he had left it at Bagolyvar, but they were still closed when we left for the tour.  So I changed plans and thought to give the students some free time before our late afternoon meeting with the Roma NGO, during which time, the student and I could track down his missing passport.

So as the clock ticked closer to 1:00 pm, I told Janos that we need to finish the tour by 2 at the absolute latest and explained about the passport. As we walked through the neighborhood, he pointed out historic buildings and talked about Jewish community politics, but the students followed almost none of it.  Afterwards, they parodied him “just one more thing,” and “I think your students will find this really interesting.”

A little after 2:00 pm we reached Klauzel ter, where I intended to have lunch.  He still wanted to show us one last place, but I said we didn’t have the time.  He helpfully got us settled in the restaurant and I gave him a generous tip, considering we had used four hours of his time.

After lunch we returned to the hotel where we learned that yes, Bagolyvar had his bag.  The student and I went up and they made him go through the entire bag and sign that nothing was missing.  Finally, we returned to the hotel.

For some reason, I thought our afternoon meeting with the Roma group was from 5-6 pm, but in reality, it turned out to be 4 to 5 pm.  We didn’t get back from getting his passport until 4:10, so I emailed them and told them we would be late.

The organization is Romedia and they are an NGO dedicated to raising awareness about the situation of the Roma as well as the Roma Holocaust.  They talked to the students about a commemoration event they organized in conjunction with the unveiling of the Roma memorial in Berlin and also showed some interviews with Roma survivors.  They also talked about contemporary persecution.  It was exactly the sort of thing I was looking for.

When we were done, they asked if some of the students would be willing to be interviewed for social media websites and five agreed.  They were asked questions like what they knew about the Roma before today, what they learned from this visit, etc.  I think the students really liked it.

Afterwards I treated the students to dinner.  I had saved a lot of the tickets to Warsaw so I have a small surplus.   After finding the memorial to the Jews shot into the Danube, we went to a street not far where there were a variety of restaurants.  

Some students had said they like hummus, so I took them to Hummus Bar, while five us went to a nicer restaurant at the end of the same block.  At first, they didn’t want to split up, but I think it worked out for the best.

I ordered the gulasz soup and the duck breast, but the duck tasted dry and slightly over cooked.

We walked down the pedestrian mall and I suggested heading back to the Danube to see all the bridges and downtown lit up.

Thursday morning, we had to check out of the hotel before we headed off for the day.  They stored our luggage and then we headed out to the Holocaust Memorial Museum. The students were really impressed by it, though not all liked the aesthetic choices of music and sound effects.  

At Romedia, they had told us about a Roma monument to the Holocaust by the Danube.  We walked down and found it, though it looks as if it has been vandalized.  One edge of the black triangle has been split open an the interior of it has been partially filled by empty toilet paper rolls.

We had lunch at the Great Central Market.  I gave the students a brief tour and then let them loose.  At first they were somewhat timid, but they ended up with better food then me (or at least they liked it more).  I had the stuffed cabbage and sauerkraut, but the students who had the goose leg or the gulash liked it more.

For the afternoon, we split into two groups.  Six went to Gerbeaud for coffee and pastries, while took three to the Szechenyi Spa for an afternoon in the various hot pools.

I love this place and spent nearly three hours there.

The students liked it too.

Afterwards, we met up at the hotel and headed to the train station.  All the students are safely stowed in their couchettes,

but at first I had to share with two other people.  One woman, however, apparently did not want to share with two men and got the conductor who placed her in a different compartment.  You have no idea how happy I was to hear that as otherwise I would end up on an upper bunk (I have claustrophobia).  Now I’m sharing with only a Polish man, who appears to be in his late 40s.

It's now morning and we're in the hotel in Warsaw.  Slept so-so on the train.  More details in next post.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Chapter XXIV: In Which the Hero Loses His Temper and Screams at a Senior Citizen

I'm not sure how today's entry will affect your opinion of me, but you need to know before hand that the bitch deserved it.

Our train didn't leave until 9:48, so we all had a leisurely breakfast this morning.

Then, packed and ready, we braved the light drizzle for the Westbahnhof.  I couldn't get all our seats together, so we are in two separate compartments.  Five of us were in the front of the train in wagon 21, four were in the back of the train in wagon 24 (which is also next to the restaurant car and near 1st class).  After we had been on the train for 15 minutes, one of the students from wagon 24 came up to me in wagon 21 to tell me there was a problem with people in their seats.  All she told me was that they were old and wouldn't move and she didn't want to make trouble.  I said that I would make trouble.

Already furious, I stormed back four wagons.  The English couple had already agreed to move but the two Austrian ladies in their late 60s or early 70s refused.  One had a little white dog on her lap.  I told them that I had reserved and paid for these seats.  "Where does it say that?" one of the women officiously asked.  I went and grabbed the seat reservation card from the student who had it and showed it to her.  "Well, where am I supposed to sit?" she replied.  "I can't stand all the way to Györ."  I told her that wasn't my problem and that she had to move.  She announced that they were going to wait for the conductor.

He arrived a few minutes later and I angrily explained the problem.  He asked me to step aside while he dealt with it.

From what I could see, the woman with the dog hadn't brought the appropriate ticket.  She claimed, I think, senior citizen status, but she didn't have the card or something.  She handed some kind of ticket to the conductor and he ripped it in two.  I'm not sure what she's going to have to pay.

Then he came to me and told me that the two students whose seats were occupied by the women could sit in first class for the time being.  The two boys happily went off to continue drinking.  As I passed the two bitches (perhaps three?), I told them I thought their behavior was "not so nice" (I couldn't think of anything harsher in German at the moment).  Then I returned to my wagon where I gave some Mozart Kugels bought to all the students with me.

About 45 minutes later, I walked back to the other students to give them their kugels and see how they were doing.  One of the women had left, but her friend and I exchanged glares and evil looks.

I did, however, have a very pleasant surprise.  Overnight, they repaired the tracks so we did not have to change trains to a bus after all.  We could see the part that had been damaged, where the Danube had flooded over the embankment and damaged the rails.

Eventually we reached Budapest and I gathered all the students together to make sure everyone from each of the three wagons made it.  As we waited, the remaining Austrian woman passed us with her dog.  She paused by us, and as I suspected, the dog attempted to pee on one student's suitcase.  Luckily, the dog really was a bitch and almost none of it got on.  I was furious and I followed the woman to where she was reading some sign.  I went up to her and yelled (in English):  "YOU ARE A GOD DAMNED BITCH!"  She looked quite startled (as were the students, though not unpleasantly) and I walked away.

The whole area around the train station is a vast construction site, so it wasn't easy getting out.  Eventually we checked in to the hotel, which is very nice.  I'm quite pleased with it (I've stayed here before, but not since 2007).  After that, we went back to the station to change money, visit the ATMs, and get some lunch.  The hard part was finding the entrance to the metro.  I walked two blocks trying to find a metro entrance not closed by construction only to find that it was on the other side of the train station.

I bought the 72 hour passes and we got on the metro for downtown Pest.  I took them first to Gerbeaud, but they've remodeled their display counter.  Gone are the wonderful curved glass display cases with the various forms of cakes and pastries; instead, they put in ugly square things showing off chocolates.

We then walked to Gresham's Palace where I asked about pharmacies (one student has been rather congested), and they told me to go to tram stops (we later found one two doors down!)  From there we headed to the Chain Bridge over the Danube.

There's a funicular up to the Buda Castle that we took and it gave wonderful views of the Pest side and the Danube.

I talked with the students, giving them a brief overview of Hungary's complicity in the Holocaust as a Nazi ally.  From there we headed to Ruszwurm, the oldest sweetshop in Hungary (1827).  They only had two small tables, but we expanded them from 4 seats to 7 (two of the students decided they just wanted to walk around).

I ordered the cream cake, which is two very thin layers of flaky dough filled with a large mass of intensely vanilla-flavored whipped cream.  One student got the Dobostorte, with its layers of hazelnut meringue cake sandwiched between chocolate butter cream with a top piece covered in caramel.  Another student got the Ruszwurm cake (mostly chocolate), though she felt it was rather dry.

It's a short walk from Ruszwurm to the Fisherman's Bastion, a highly romanticized outcropping that really was Disney before Disney.  There are wonderful views of the Danube, and I took a nice shot of all the students on the trip.

We went back down the funicular, and then I took them on a tour of Andrassy ut, Pest's main commercial street.  Our first stop:  the Hungarian State Opera.

Tomorrow night they're premiering Jean-Philippe Rameau's Hippolyte et Aricie.  I may try to get tickets tomorrow.

For dinner, we went to Bagolyvar, a rather inexpensive restaurant owned by Gundel and sharing a kitchen.  I started off with the sour cherry soup.

For the main course, I went with the chicken paprikash and home-made noodles.  It was quite yummy and the paprika wasn't overwhelming.

The dessert that came with the menu was the Gundel crepe, which is filled with ground walnuts and covered in dark chocolate sauce, but I've never been the biggest fan.  I think it's the walnuts; they're my least favorite of the nut-based desserts, as I prefer either almond or hazelnut.

Tomorrow will be a full day of Holocaust and prejudice.  I'm going to try to buy our train tickets to Poland in the morning.