by Helen Eleasari
[I imagine by now, dedicated ROTters know who Helen Eleasari is and how I know her. I’ve published many of her reviews of theater in Israel, written for the Jerusalem Post, and other posts she’s written expressly for ROT. I’ve also run some of her reports and journal entries on her travels, and now she’s sent me a description of the short trip she and her daughter Rava took to Warsaw and Krakow, Poland. I’m delighted that Helen’s permitted me to share her account with readers of ROT, and I hope it sparks interest in many of you—whether you’ve ever been to Poland, plan to some day, or not.
[I, as it happens, have visited the east European country, but it was only once for a few days in Warsaw back in 1965, then I was an 18-year-old high schooler in Switzerland. I was on a school trip to the Soviet Union (which was an adventure in itself I may some day recount). Unlike, Helen and Rava, I’ve never been to Auschwitz or any of the camps. We did see the monument at Mila 18 to the Ghetto uprising and the Jewish underground, made famous by the 1961 Leon Uris novel.]
July 15, 2015
Rava and I are just back from 6 days in Poland: 3 in Warsaw, 3 in Krakow. We had a fine time . . . even the obligatory and dreaded visit to Auschwitz was less traumatic (for me) than I’d anticipated. I lit candles for those of my mother’s family who’d perished (we only know where for 2 of them) and because it was windy, I placed them in the lee of the execution wall beside the infamous barracks 11 in Auschwitz 1.
It appears now that I did well to light my candles there because my cousin Arnold told me that his mother, my mother’s elder sister, Katje, died at Auschwitz on January 27, 1945 – the very day the Russians liberated the camp. . . .
As I wrote in my travel journal, What is beyond irony?
We’d booked a tour, which was the most sensible way of doing it because we got ferried there and back from hotel, from Auschwitz to mind- and soul-numbing Birkenau with an excellent guide in both places.
In Warsaw we stayed at the 5* Hilton (if there’d been a 6* it would surely have qualified) – very pampering and built, as we discovered, a stone’s throw from the Warsaw Ghetto. One of the 2 or three remaining bits of the wall was about 200 yards away. We did not see memorial as Rava balked, but I did manage to convince her to go to the former site of the Umschlagplatz [German for ‘collection point’ or ‘reloading point’; the Warsaw square on Stawki Street, where Jews were gathered under German occupation for deportation from the Warsaw Ghetto to the Treblinka extermination camp] – now a wee, walled space with info thereunto written in Polish, Yiddish, Hebrew and English.
There it is, surrounded by apartment buildings just as in Berlin, the site of the Fuhrerbunker is now a parking lots backed by apartment buildings.
Do you remember Carl Sandburg’s poem Grass?
Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo.
Shovel them under and let me work—
I am the grass; I cover all.
And pile them high at Gettysburg
And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun.
Shovel them under and let me work.
Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor:
What place is this?
Where are we now?
I am the grass.
Let me work.
The thing about the Sandburg poem is that if you substitute the names of the death camps . . . it works horrifically!! I have been busily looking him up. Grass was first published in 1918 – so it was a response to WWI. But Sandburg lived until 1967 (b. 1878) – so he’d definitely have been aware of the camps.
At Auschwitz now, the grass covers the ground between the paths, around and among the railroad tracks, so green and laced with its summer bounty of clover, vetch, horsetails and other wildflowers. I was very conscious of the poem, and not only there.
And there’s another supreme irony, that one of the most anti-Semitic nations in Europe (though perhaps now less so), is raking in millions from Holocaust tourism, itself an oxymoron.
In Warsaw we went to the Museum of the Uprising (opposite the Hilton), a small but very dramatic museum that tells the story of the 1944 Warsaw Uprising via posters, artifacts, pictures, movies, slide shows. The Warsaw Ghetto Rebellion also figured there . . . . We didn’t go to the Jewish Museum.
On the lighter side we went to concerts, an organ recital with an awesome Toccata and Fugue in D minor [attributed to J. S. Bach] that left us totally limp, an equally awesome recital of early Polish music by the Ensemble Peregrina that makes this music its life work, and a lighthearted, utterly excellent production of La finta giardiniera [“The Pretend Garden-Girl,” W. A. Mozart]. . . it’s Mozart month in Poland, so a lot of what we heard was by him.
Poland has very thoroughly discarded its Soviet satellite past. Both Warsaw and Krakow are thoroughly cosmopolitan and capitalist with soviet architectural remnants here and there, especially the supernally ugly architectural abomination in Warsaw that’s called The Palace of Culture & Science, visible from everywhere in the city. Stalin’s ‘gift’ to the Polish people. It’s so ugly that I love it!!!
We ate good food – very international these days with every cuisine known to man, and delectable pastries. The most delicious meal we had was in Krakow, an unpretentious little place called Introligatornia – duck salad with raspberry vinaigrette, goose-stuffed pierogi and roast duck leg with red cabbage and ginger-infused stewed apples.
Rather than travel to Krakow by bus, we opted to fly. It was cheaper – $45 – than an express bus – $50+ – and took 35 minutes vs. 4½ hours on the road. Even with the security checks, etc., the whole trip took about 2½ hours. Rava had done her usual, i.e. seeking advice on the Trip Advisor forum. TA has become our bible!!
In Krakow, which the Nazis left untouched [except for looting], I did not feel oppressed as I had in Warsaw. Probably my imagination, but to me Warsaw was resonant with pain.
Krakow Old Town is a delight – a friend of Rava’s lives right off the Market Square – and we wandered happily. We went to the Jewish Quarter which is still full of synagogues, but there are no Jews to fill them – Amon Goth and Gov. Frank took care of that. [Göth (b. 1908), or Goeth, was an SS captain who commanded the Krakow-Płaszow concentration camp during the Nazi occupation of Poland; he was tried in Poland for war crimes and executed in 1946. Hans Frank (b. 1900) became Governor-General of the Nazi puppet General Government of Krakow; he was also tried, in Nuremberg, for war crimes and executed in 1946.] Habad [also known as Chabad: the Lubavitcher sect of Hasidic Judaism] has taken over one of the oldest as its HQ and we saw a few Habadniks. . . The quarter has also (according to Rava’s friend) the best pastry shop in Poland, so thither we went for pastries and coffee. Yes, truly delicious. We also had a cup of hot chocolate at Wedel’s – Poland’s premier chocolatier. It was, as Rava said, like drinking a bar of chocolate – incredibly, impossibly, wonderfully velvety, smooth and rich rich rich!!!
Sorry about the rhapsodies but Rava and I are unreconstructed foodies.
Krakow also has a great castle [Wawel Castle]. We didn’t go inside, but wandered the grounds, and heard a concert in one of the courtyards – a lovely space that pampered the very good voices singing.
We spent some time in Wawel Cathedral, a huge, ornate and elegant European Gothic church with some impressive tombs, including one entirely of silver for St. Stanislaus, Poland’s patron saint. There’s another church – St. Francis – with some amazing art nouveau stained glass windows.
As you can see, we took it easy. No rushing from museum to museum, gallery to gallery.
We came home at 3 a.m. Monday on a ⅔-empty plane. I stretched across 3 seats and managed to nap a bit!!