Our last full day in Poland is always a light one.I let the students sleep in, so our departure
this morning wasn’t until 10 am.We
walked over to Kazimierz and explored some of the efforts to create a post-war,
post-communist Jewish identity for this district.We checked out the famous courtyard used by
Spielberg and so many other filmmakers to evoke a “Jewish feel” for the
neighborhood.We also stopped by the
Kupa Synagogue, which has a restored roof and some wall art.
After that we headed over to the Galicia Jewish Museum.Lila, who we met at the JCC, was behind the
counter and she let us in for free as most of the museum was closing in 10
minutes to prepare it for an event this afternoon.Actually, we had close to 20 minutes to look
over their core exhibition of photographs Traces of Memory, looking at
the history of Jewish Galicia.Our final
stop in Kazimierz was the High Synagogue, where we looked at a short exhibition
of photographs from Krakow Jewish families.I would have also liked to visit the Remuh and Isaac Synagogues, but we
had to be at Wawel Castle by no later than 12:20, which didn’t give us a lot of
The castle has stunning
views of the river and even a legend of a dragon (Smok).In 1972, they built a statue of one at the
base of the castle, and every few minutes it breathes fire out its mouth.
The tour of the State
Apartments was nice; I miss seeing Lady with an Ermine, but the Da Vinci
painting was moved last month to the National Gallery a bit aways.Afterwards, we sat in the café on the castle
grounds and had a late lunch.
After that the students
were free until our farewell dinner.I
went off to the Stare Miasto to do some last souvenir shopping, then off to the
train station to buy a newspaper.They
were out of The International New York Times so I got the weekly Guardian
instead.After that, I stopped at a café
for one last kremowka and cappuccino.
It’s been a warm day (84
earlier, 73 now) and a little humid.It’s
been threatening rain all evening and we now have a 50% chance in the next
hour.I showered and changed and met the
students for one last time here in Poland.
We walked the 15 minutes
to Kogel Mogel.They had a table for us
indoors as they thought it might rain.I
have to say that I like this place better than Szara Kazimierz, which is where
we’ve eaten the last few times.I think
they had a wider selection of entrees and first courses.
I started off with the
goose liver pate with roasted cherries and pumpernickel sand.It was excellent; some of the best pate I’ve
ever had and on a par with the duck liver pate crème brulee I had in Berlin.
For my main course, I
went with the goose leg.Kogel Mogel won
an award for best goose in 2012, which is a good sign they know how to cook it
well.The skin was crispy but the meat
wasn’t overcooked and dry, the way it can be.It was covered in a roasted plum sauce.
About half the students
ordered the dry-aged beef tenderloin, mostly cooked medium to medium well.Many of them were only cooked medium rare
(which would have been perfect for me)
I thought about getting
the profiteroles for dessert, but they weren’t filled with ice cream, but egg
nog (advocat).I knew the szarlotka
would be too heavy, so I ordered the home made vanilla and cherry ice cream
on hazelnut sand (the really like “sand” in this restaurant.It was just what I needed.
This was the Szarlotka:
I suggested that after
such a heavy meal we walk back.The temperature
had cooled off and I thought it would be nice to visit the rynek square one
last time.There was a busker singing a
popular Polish song, with all these Poles arm and arm singing along at full
volume.All the buildings were lit up
and the restaurants and cafés full of people, with the horse carts for tourists
clopping by every few minutes.
Back at the hotel I said
my goodbyes to about half the students who are either staying in Europe or on
other flights.Now I’m about 50% packed
and need to finish up.
Today was the last hard day of the trip.We left early at 8 am for the drive to
Birkenau, because the camp is enormous and I needed at least three hours in
it.I warned the students that Birkenau
was far larger than Auschwitz, but you could put Auschwitz I in a small corner
of Birkenau and you might not even notice it.Auschwitz I held about 11,000 prisoners; Birkenau (Auschwitz II) held
about 100,000 slave laborers at any given time. It was the largest slave labor
camp in Europe.
After walking through the main gate, we went
to the ramp and I had the students read an excerpt from Yaffa Eliach’s book Hasidic
Tales of the Holocaust.This was a
story told by Jack Garfein about how at age 13, he and his mother arrived in
Birkenau and stood on the ramp awaiting the selection.His mother shoved him away from her into the
men’s column. The man behind him lies to Dr. Mengele, telling him that Jack was
16 and an apprentice mosaic artist.When
Mengele sends both of them to life, Jack, not understanding what just happens,
turns around to apologize for the lies, but is kicked by a kapo.
He soon learned how the man behind him, who
he described as a gentle Talmud scholar, had saved his life.For weeks, he searched for the man to thank
him, but one day he realizes that he’ll never find as he was the Prophet
Elijah, sent by his mother’s prayers to save her only child.
From there we walked the path of those
selected for death; it takes about 5-10 minutes to walk from the ramp to gas
chamber and Crematorium II.Historians estimate that around 500,000 people
were murdered in this one gas chamber.With Soviet forces approaching, the SS evacuated some 60,000 prisoners
on January 17 and 18, 1945.Prisoners
were forced to march in heavy snow and bitterly cold temperatures (all while
wearing only pajamas and wooden clogs) between 30 and 35 miles to the nearest
rail station.About a quarter of the
prisoners collapsed or were murdered on these death marches.On the 20th, they blew up the
crematoria in an effort to conceal what happened in the camp. Soviet forces
liberated the remaining 7,000 prisoners scattered among the camps on January 27th.
After walking all around the physical space,
we sat nearby in the shade and read excerpts of Filip Müller’s interview in
Claude Lanzmann’s film Shoah.Müller
was Czechoslovakian Jew who was forced to become a Sonderkommando [a
prisoner who carried bodies from the gas chamber] in 1942.He was one of only a handful of Sonderkommando
to survive, as he managed to live through five liquidations, including the
revolt of the Sonderkommando that took place in Crematorium IV on 7
October 1944.In the chaos of the
evacuation of the camp, the SS forgot to shoot the Sonderkommando, and Müller
was death marched to Mauthausen.A week
or two after they arrived there, the SS asked all Sonderkommando from
Auschwitz-Birkenau to step forward and identify themselves (in order to kill
them).None did.He was liberated by American forces on 5 May
Müller describes in graphic detail how the
killing operation worked.While I think
everyone understands that being murdered in a gas chamber was bad, other than
historians, very few people realize how horrible and painful it was.As soon as the victims were inside, the doors
were sealed, the lights turned off, and the particles of Zyklon B dropped in
from the ceiling.Zyklon B was a solid,
gravel-like compound which then sublimated into a gas in the warm, damp gas
chambers.As the gas began to rise from
the ground up (it was heavier than air), terrible panic would break out in the
gas chamber as people fought in the pitch-black darkness.Since so many attempted to break through the
door (which was impossible), their bodies were piled up against it, and would
fall out in an avalanche when the Sonderkommando opened it 30 minutes
Our second reading from Müller involved the
murder of the first Czech family transport in March 1944.The Sonderkommando warned the
transport that they were about to be gassed and offered to rise up in revolt
with them.The issue here was that this
transport was in relatively good physical shape (only 25% had died after six
months) and couldn’t be tricked into the gas chambers.In fact, though, the violence used against
the Czechs was extraordinary and physical revolt was simply impossible.The most they could do was to refuse the
order to undress.Instead, they sang the
Czech national anthem and Hatikvah.
Müller, watching all this in the undressing
room, decided to commit suicide by walking into the gas chamber with them,
which he did. Standing there, a group of women approached him and urged to
leave and bear witness to their suffering. Although he didn’t say it in the
interview, in his autobiography, Müller says one of the women shoved him into
an SS guard, who recognized Müller has a Sonderkommando and then threw
him out of the gas chamber screaming “we decide when you die!”
I have the students read all these excerpts
because, well first, because I need to save my voice, and second, because I
start to break down and cry if I read them myself.The students’ faces were ashen and shell
shocked as we walked to the so-called Sauna, where prisoners selected
for slave labor were inducted into the camp.
After walking through the undressing room,
the hair cutting room, the showers (which were either boiling or freezing), and
the room where they received their prisoner uniforms, there is a photography
exhibition of family photos of Jews from one Polish town (Bȩdzin).Looking at the various pictures, some
students found images of children that matched their nieces and nephews.
It’s a rather long walk back to the front of
the camp to the quarantine barracks.The
area around the gas chambers is wooded and swampy.The woods existed back then as a sort of camouflage,
and the ponds were where some of the ashes of those murdered were dumped.We went into some of the open wooden barracks
to see the conditions of the prisoners.
By now we had been in Birkenau for over two
and a half hours.Our last stop was the
women’s barracks, Camp Bia. This is the
earliest part of Birkenau, and many of these barracks were built from brick and
concrete.The later parts of the camp,
BII(a-e), were built from wood, and all that remains of almost all of them is
the brick heating channel in each barrack (if prisoners could find or steal
some wood, they could burn it in winter to warm the barracks).
Most of the barracks are closed for
restoration or preservation.We entered
a few.Block 16a, where 600 Polish
children deported to Birkenau from Warsaw or Zamosc, were kept here.Some of the prisoners had painted images for
the children on the walls of the barracks, so these horrible, dark places were
slightly less terrible.
Most of the other barracks contained up to
1000 Jewish or Roma women, forced to sleep 6 to a single bunk of a three-tiered
bunk bed (18 per bed).I told them how
Kitty Felix, brought to Birkenau with her mother when she was only 16, survived
the camp, and how her mother was able to survive as well, working on the
After spending over three hours in the camp,
we headed across the street to the parking lot, where I bought the students
lunch at the bus stop café (café is too generous a term for it).We rested for about an hour, and then we
headed to our last stop of the day, the Labyrinth art installation by Marian
Kołodziej at the Franciscan monastery in Harmȩze.
This is the third time I’ve taken students here
and we had Renata, the same wonderful guide we had two years ago. Kołodziej’s
art powerfully conveys the horrors of the camp and addresses the experiences of
prisoners (he was on the first transport to Auschwitz in 1940) through
religious imagery.Through his art, he
calls on us not only to witness his and the other prisoners’ suffering, but to
make better choices in our lives.
I knew better than to try to talk about this on
the long drive back on the bus.It’s
just not conducive to having a discussion.Because of road construction, the last two days we were forced to take a
detour through a small town.I noticed
the first day a large mural labeled “White Power” on the wall of a garage, and
the students had seen a sign saying “Anty-Jew” with a Jewish Star in a circle
with a line through it.I had my camera
ready and I managed to photograph some of it, but not all.
in Krakow, we gathered in the breakfast room and talked about the day for about
45 minutes.Students were reluctant to
speak, but that’s not unusual.Most said
a few words, but there was also plenty of silence.I think it’s important to give them an
opportunity to think about and process what we’ve seen.
really ended the substantive part of the class.Today is our last full day in Poland and it will be very light:some synagogues in Kazimierz this morning,
Wawel Castle at 12:30, and a farewell dinner tonight.
took all the students who wanted out to dinner last night at a somewhat kitschy
Polish restaurant in the Stare Miasto.I
had the top sirloin, but it was cooked medium to medium well, and I wasn’t all
that happy with it. Another student had ordered it and hers was medium rare.
Since she preferred medium well, we switched about two thirds of the way
through and both of us were happy.
of the students ran out to join a pub crawl and the rest of us went looking for
a place for dessert.
was a big festival in Krakow yesterday; something to do with the summer
solstice.We saw a lot of women with
flowers in their hair so I asked a woman of a certain age waiting at the tram
stop with us if she spoke English.She
was from Belgium.I asked if she knew
why the women had flowers and she said that it was just a Polish custom.I knew that wasn’t right, but I wasn’t going
to argue with her about it.We talked
about Belgium for a little bit.She and
her friend were from Ostend.I told her
my favorite chocolate was Neuhaus, but she preferred Côte d'Or.
I asked what she was doing in Krakow and her
voiced dropped to nearly a whisper as she told me that her father had been in
the Belgian resistance during the war, and that he and his friends had been
sent to Auschwitz.They had been at the
camp earlier that day. She then added in a whisper that ISIS was becoming just
as bad as the Nazis.
When we got of the tram I could see a stage set
up on a small side street, and there was a concert, so I grabbed the students
and walked over to see what it was.This
street houses the French, American, and German consulates, and they sponsored a
street fair for the holiday.Here I
finally learned why so many of the women were wearing flower wreaths.In the old days, a maiden would toss her
wreath into the river and whichever boy recovered it would win a date with
her.At the German booth, they were
giving away CDs of music composed in Leipzig (mostly Bach) so I picked one up.
On the stage of main rynek there was a huge crowd
watching a Polish woman sing hard rock songs.On the way back after dinner, the crowd was even louder, listening to
Polish rap.Like salmons swimming upstream,
we made our way through the throngs heading to the main square and found a
place for tiramisu and ice cream.
When we left, we discovered the concert had
ended and seemingly everyone was now walking our way.After we got back to the hotel we found out
why.I was just starting to type up this
post when I heard loud explosions.My
first thought was terrorism, but when I saw the reflections of light on the
building opposite, I went to the window near the elevator facing the river and
saw a massive fireworks display based around the river and Wawel Castle. The
explosions were remarkably loud and seemed to shake the building.As I was only on the second floor above
ground, I couldn’t see the lowest explosions, but what I could see was pretty
It lasted a good 15-20
minutes.It was a nice way to end the
Of all the places we visit in this course, the one that all
the students have heard of in advance is Auschwitz.It sort of exists as an amorphous concept in
their imagination.In literary theory,
we would talk about their “horizon of expectations.”That is, what images do they have of the
place before they actually read about it or visit it?
For many of the students, there’s a profound disconnect
between their expectations of a place and its reality.Auschwitz I (aka the Stammlager or
base camp) was created out of a Polish military base.The barracks are two stories, made of brick,
have normal windows, floors, and stairs.As we walk the halls, we don’t feel the ever-present fear, smell the
stench of excrement, hear the beatings and prisoners dying, see the emaciated
prisoners, or taste their hunger.The
rooms are clean, sterile, and out of the elements.We come expecting hell, but other than the
double rows of electrified barbed wire, we see very little of it.
Some of it can come from the historical displays in the various
barracks; the mug shot photos of prisoners, the two tons of women’s hair on
display (out of seven tons recovered at liberation), the collection of shoes,
the models of the gas chambers and crematoria.Yet, the sterile surroundings war with our expectations.
For that, we will need to go to Birkenau tomorrow
morning.Today, however, we stayed only
I had timed tour tickets for 1:30 pm, but I wanted to visit
two “pavilions” not on the main tour:the Jewish and Roma Exhibits.We
got there around 10 am and I negotiated with the guard to let us in.The entry procedure has changed somewhat from
last time.Now, you must go through
metal detectors and only through a single turnstile.The guard wasn’t going to let us in, but the
staff prevailed upon her.
When the Polish communist government prepared the camp
museum, the various special exhibits were all based on nationality.Since Jews were not a nation (the government
was strongly anti-Zionist and anti-Israel), a special pavilion for Jews only
opened in 1967.Shortly after the Six
Day War, the government closed it and it remained closed for over a
decade.I saw it when I came here in 2006
and it was truly awful.
Since then it’s been revised and is very good.It’s goal is not to provide a detailed
history of the entire holocaust, but rather hit certain major themes. The first
room, really a corridor, is faith.They
simply have the song, Ani Ma’amim (I believe) playing on a loop.That enters on to a large room dedicated to
showing Jewish life in Europe in all its diversity before the war, with a
montage of film clips and photos from Jewish communities across the length and
breadth of Europe.
From there we are introduced to Nazi ideology, with a series
of powerful and devastating quotes from Nazi leaders laying out their
anti-Semitism and its critical role in Nazi ideology.That naturally transitions into a summary of
the various ways the Nazis killed the Jews of Europe:ghettoization, death camps, concentration and
labor camps, mass shootings, and death marches.The next room focuses on the Jewish responses to the Holocaust, mixing
writings from the boys of the Theresienstadt Group Home #1, with interviews
with various survivors, and letters of those who were murdered.
There is a very powerful room focusing on children, which
consists only of reproductions of children’s drawings on the walls around the
Finally, we come to a room with a
giant book of the four million known names of Jewish holocaust victims.As I did last time, I found my great
grandmother’s name (though she is listed as “Gusta Steinlauf” rather than “Gussie”
or “Gittlel,” which is how I’ve heard her named).
The next pavilion we went to is the Roma exhibition.This needs to do a lot of “memory work.”Very few people know anything about the Porrajmos
(literally, “the devouring”), and few nations in Europe commemorate the
persecution of the Roma.This exhibit is
a careful, chronological overview of the persecution and murder of the Roma and
Sinti of Europe, very different in approach from the Jewish pavilion.
It was almost 12:00 when we finished, so we headed to the
cafeteria to eat a small lunch before our main tour.This is also somewhat shorter than the tour
we did in the past, as it skipped the barracks showing the everyday life of
prisoners in the camp.
We finished our
tour of Auschwitz I in just under one and a half hours.After a short break, they went on to
Birkenau, but we will go there tomorrow.
Back in town, I got the very good news that the hotel is
refunding the very large amount the university had overpaid, and better yet,
the returned it to me in cash.That
meant I could buy the students dinner (and lunch tomorrow and dinner tomorrow
night).I had already scoped out where
the food trucks were, but the students decided they prefer a sit-down place, so
we went to Mama off Plac Nowy.I had the
red dumplings, filled with duck and red currants.
Afterwards, I promised the students ice cream and they
wanted to try what they called “roll up ice cream” but the Poles call “Thai ice
cream.”The liquid to be frozen along
with any mix ins is poured on an anti-griddle and flash frozen.The mix ins are chopped in and they the whole
thing is scraped into a dish. I got peach and I didn’t care for it.The only flavor in it came from the peach and
it didn’t have the mouthfeel of ice cream.Rather it tasted like unsweetened low fat ice milk.I’m not sorry I tried it but I won’t have it
I left off two adventures before dinner.The first was when I tripped and fell on the
sidewalk.My glasses went flying and my
jeans were slightly ripped, but the good news is that my knee came through
fine.No blood.I was a little shaken, so I went across the
street and sat in a café and drank a cappuccino to steady myself.
The other adventure was far more pleasant.On our way, we walked by the Krakow JCC,
which was having a party.
This was the
culmination of the 2017 Ride for the Living.At 8 am, the cyclists left Auschwitz and biked the 55 miles back to
Krakow.We happened to walk up just as
they arrived.I ran into Yakub, who
filled me in on the story.We chatted
with a few of the riders, and the students got some beer with the JCC event
logo on it, and we headed off for dinner.
I asked how they were going to chill it, but they said that they would
drink it warm later.>
Today was a much better today.Let me pick up where I left off last
night.The discussion at the JCC went as
well as could be expected.I’ve noticed
on the trips that I’ve led that American students tend to be shy talking to
strangers.They don’t know what to ask
or how to ask it.I did have some brave
students who posed questions, but most sat silently.Still, we had a good discussion.
One interesting question was on stereotypes of Americans,
which they mostly avoided answering (open, friendly, and naïve).When their answer transitioned to Israelis
they became much more animated.Israelis
tend to be rude and direct.There were
some funny imitations of Israeli accented statements.“You are Jewish?Why you do not make Aliyah?”Hebrew doesn’t have a subjunctive, so whereas
in English or Polish you might say “could I have a water please?” becomes in
Hebrew “give me a water” (the “please” is optional). They also complained that
Israelis seem to be impervious to nuance.
Afterwards, I walked the students down to Szeroka St to see
what they JCC folks called “Jewrassic Park” or Krakow’s Jewish Disneyland, with
the faux Jewish storefronts and Jewish-themed restaurants.Then they all went their separate ways, and I
headed off to the train station to buy today’s paper and figure out what’s
happening to the trams.
I photographed the new tram maps and saw what had
happened.All the stops around the train
station are closed (a new one, I later discovered, was opened under the train
station).This meant that all the lines
I normally take are discontinued.This
started just last Saturday, which is why I had no idea it was going to happen.
I grabbed dinner off the square and then headed back to the
hotel. There I was starting to write up last night’s entry when I heard a geshrei
that could only have come from a student.I walked down the hall to where the noise was coming from and I could
hear them talking and laughing.I was
debating whether to knock when the door opened, and a student saw me and
screamed (though not as loudly).This
caused the rest of them to keel over in hysterics.
It seems that several of the students are freaked out by the
artwork on display in the hotel.Admittedly, it is a little creepy and the overall effect can be
unnerving.Still, they were working
themselves into hysterics.
This morning, some were still upset about the art.I found a creepy doll on one of the sideboards
and put it on their table.I suppose I
was feeling a bit passive/aggressive.
Our itinerary today was a little bit heavier than yesterday,
in that we visited the Schindler Factory in the morning. Like the Museum of the
Warsaw ‘Rising, this place can be very crowded, but it is far easier to
navigate.Everyone moved through at his
or her own pace and by 11:30 we all were done.Despite being called the Schindler Factory, Schindler doesn’t feature
very prominently within it.It’s
primarily dedicated to the history of Krakow under the Nazis (though they have
recreated Schindler’s office).Schindler
was, of course, a war profiteer, who came to Krakow to make money off Polish
labor.He eventually became a rescuer, but
his behavior before that raises lots of questions.
We at lunch at “milk bar” style restaurant just off the ghetto
square.80 years old (though only in
this location for a decade or so), the food is cheap and edible.For 15 zloty I had ok schnitzel with mushy cabbage
and a bottle of mineral water.At $4, I
paid nearly twice as much as some of the students.
Nearby is the Pharmacy Under the Eagle, which is a small but
nicely organized museum dedicated to the Polish pharmacist who refused to
abandon the ghetto, and who used his pharmacy to aid those imprisoned in the
ghetto.After the war, the Polish
communists turned his pharmacy into a bar (you can see it in the background
when he’s being interviewed), but it does a good job of conveying what the
ghetto was like.
When they saw the two remaining fragments of the Krakow
ghetto wall (shaped like tombstones in a bitter Nazi joke).At the second, we saw a sign on the gate
saying “warning!” and we could smell fresh paint, but some students sat on the
bench only to discover that it had just been painted too.
Our final stop was the site of the former Płaszow slave
labor camp.Built on top of the Jewish
cemetery, almost all the original tombstones were destroyed, though I found one
had recently been restored.Sara Schenirer
died in 1935, and had founded the Beis Ya’akov school for girls, which revolutionized
Jewish education for Orthodox girls.
A short walk further was the camp commandant Amon Göth’s
house.When he ran Płaszow, he sometimes
used the prisoners for target practice from the porch in the back overlooking
the camp.For years, every time we’ve
come there’s been a for sale sign.I
read a few months ago that it had finally been sold and it’s now being
It was a rather hot day, so I decided to skip heading up to
the memorials and we returned to the hotel.There I learned that 1) my request to our charter bus company to delay
our departure for Auschwitz until 8:30 has been accepted; and 2) that the hotel
now agrees that I’ve more than paid for my rooms.I asked if they would refund the excess to me
in cash (per the suggestion of Accounts Payable) and they told me that they would
get back to me about that.They also
agree to print out my tickets to our tour at Auschwitz tomorrow.
With these major worries finally resolved, I headed up to
the train station to figure out how the new system works.I had everything worked out, but the tram I
was to transfer to didn’t show.Nor did
the next one.I was getting ready to abandon
my attempt, when I saw one show up on the board.When it came it was jam packed.I’m not sure how long it had been delayed,
but it was filled with at least three trams worth of people.It’s not pleasant to be jammed up with
people, not all of whom have recently (in the last three days) showered.
With my newspaper, I decided to treat myself to a dessert
and coffee in the air conditioned mall.The dessert was a sernik szarlotka – a cheesecake with apple pie
topping.I wanted to get a café au lait,
but what I ended up ordering in my broken Polish was a regular coffee with a
small side of milk.Thankfully, I had
also asked for sugar and used all three cubes.
I checked out different restaurant options for our farewell
dinner and chose Kogel Mogel.http://kogel-mogel.pl/en/In the past, we’ve eaten at Szara Kazimierz,
but I’ve gotten a little bit tired of that place and I think its options are a little
limited, so I’ve decided to try here.Hopefully,
we won’t be disappointed.
As I was walking through the old city, I heard some
drumming.I saw there was a stage set up
by the town hall tower.It turns out
that on the first Thursday every year (for many hundreds of years), Krakow has
a procession by the Lajkonik.This involves
the myth of how the Tatars were defeated by some rafters and they staged a mock
invasion of the city using the Tatars clothing.Lots of great drumming and pageantry.The Lajkonik comes in dressed as a Tatar and riding a hobbyhorse.He blesses people by tapping them with his
mace.It culminates in a street battle,
which ends when the children pelt them with nerf balls.
Just for old times, I went back to Szara Kazimierz for
dinner and ordered the duck with roast apples and grilled veggies.It was well cooked.
Afterwards, I wandered through the
neighborhood and found the food trucks, where I might take some of the students