Poland: June 16 – 20, 2019
Poland is the 6th most populous EU member with a population of approximately 38.5 million people. The majority of the population is Roman Catholic. Poland has 15 UNESCO sites.
The country is prosperous with a high-income economy and very high standards of living, life quality, education, and economic freedom. The citizens receive free university, state-funded social security and a universal health care system.
Warsaw is the capital of Poland. In 1944 Warsaw was deliberately destroyed as a repression of the Polish resistance to the Nazi German occupation. All of Old Town then had to be reconstructed which took from 1945-1951. Therefore it is more like a ‘New Old Town’ since it is less than 75 years old. It must have been a painstaking project but it looks like the real thing. However, you are constantly reminded that the sites were restored, so much so, that it begins to feel almost fake.
The architecture is varied and reflective of the city’s turbulent history. This jumble makes for an interesting collection of neighbourhoods and landmarks.
Cathedral of St. John and the Royal Castle, the former residence of Polish kings, lovingly restored after its destruction during World War II.
Just hanging out on a castle after school
Monument of the Warsaw Mermaid is the on city’s coat of arms, other statues and imagery. Here you can see a teacher telling her students the fable about the mermaid.
The heart of Old Town is Market Square, with pastel buildings and cool cafes and bars for cocktails, craft beers and vodka shots.
A nice dinner on our own at a French restaurant
Frederic Chopin is Warsaw’s favourite son, as he was born in a small village west of the city. We has his own museum and his dramatic music is played at nightly recitals. And of course, he has a statue. This striking bronze monument to Frederic Chopin, was also reconstructed.
The Royal Route is filled with historic monuments and residences leading to the former Warsaw Ghetto. Warsaw’s Jews were virtually annihilated by the Nazis, and their few remaining numbers have continued to decrease.
After the war, Warsaw had to be completely repopulated. Returning refugees, peasants from the countryside, and the families of officials connected with the new communist state, slowly arrived and filled jobs.
Memorial commemorating the heroes of Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
We traveled to the village of Czestochowa, and visited the famous monastery of Jasna Gora, home of the Black Madonna painting. The Shrine to the Virgin Mary as it is said to have miraculous powers and millions of pilgrims from all over the world come to visit it every year.
Our guide for the monastery was an elderly, English speaking monk, that gave our small group of 10, an extra special tour. First he paraded us along a dedicated lane that encircled the large congregation and group of monks participating in a church service around the shrine. We were allowed to slow our procession though, and take quick photos of the famed Shrine. We all commented later that we felt out of place as tourists, invading their time of worship.
The term Black Madonna refers to statues or paintings in which the Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus are depicted with black skin. There are about 400–500 Black Madonnas in Europe and there is some controversy on the dark skin. Some Madonnas were originally black or brown when they were made, while others turned darker from aging or candle smoke.
The monk took us through a fascinating ‘no photos’ Museum and also the grounds of the monastery.
Here is our monk guide scoping up water from the fountain, telling us how clean and fresh it is. Of course we all followed suit. Monk see, monk do LOL
Auschwitz Memorial Museum
We were nervous about our next tour and experienced feelings of dread and anxiety in the days leading up to it. But we did visit Oswiecim, the town where the Nazis built Auschwitz, their largest concentration and death camp.
We don’t have to tell you any stories, we’ve all seen the movies and documentaries, but we want to share our solemn experience, if you care to listen. I had no intention of taking pictures but everyone was and capturing some of sites still helps us to process and reflect on the horrors that occurred during the genocide. This is so difficult to write!
With our guides narrative and the descriptive wall boards throughout the museum, we learnt the stories of those who were sent here, and who perished here, and it really brought home the scope of Hitler’s extermination efforts. It also brought anger. Difficult to understand how the Nazi Party had 8 million members.
Auschwitz 1, The Museum and concentration camp.
The infamous Arbeit Macht Frei wrought iron sign at the entrance to Auschwitz. The words mean “Work Sets You Free”. The orchestra played at this entrance.
As you wait for your tour to begin, you are drawn to the outdoor photo displays. Consisting mostly of the photos taken of the first concentration camp arrivals. Each had a strip of 3 photos, front, side and a strange upward glance. It wasn’t fear on their faces; confusion perhaps or uncertainty. This was prior to the decision of extermination.
The museum is filled with gut wrenching photos.
Each person arriving at Auschwitz was allowed to carry only 20 KGs with them. But their suitcases were tossed in piles on arrival and left to be sorted through. The museum was a window into a very, very small percentage of the items from their bags. We found this part of the tour to be the most difficult. Stacks of suitcases, another with shoes, then boots and wooden legs. Eyeglasses. I wanted to flee in the section of the children’s clothes and toys. I stared at the massive pile of cooking pots. Each pot once belonged to a woman who provided family meals for years and her treasure was important enough to pack, to start ‘a better life’.
But the most disturbing display, and the only one where no photos were allowed, was that of the hair of the victims of this holocaust. After they were gassed, their hair and teeth were removed prior to extermination. The hair display was piled so high and so wide and made everything so real. It weighed 2 tons. 2 TONS! And this was only a portion of the museums’ storage. It was horrific. I don’t want to remember it, but I can’t forget.
Another heartbreaking detail, that I only discovered after the tour, was the reason why the buildings believed to hold all the personal items of those imprisoned, were called Canada 1 and Canada 2. They called it Canada because it was their biggest hope, and to them, Canada meant safety, abundance.
Remaining Gas Chamber
Next we drove to Auschwitz 2, the extermination site. People arriving here went directly to the gas chambers.
The Nazis destroyed the gas chambers in the death camp and many of the buildings.
Here is the view of Birkenau from the Watch Tour
The Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum is the resting place for some 1.5 million Jewish people. Today, Auschwitz-Birkenau is an important historical area, allowing visitors to reflect on the monumental horrors that occurred during the genocide.
A visit to Auschwitz makes for an emotionally draining day. For days and weeks following, we found ourselves thinking about moments in the tour, images, but mostly the victims. We continue to reflect on our Auschwitz experience. Visiting means paying your respects to those whose lives were taken.
Kraków, one of Europe’s most beautiful cities, is on the southern side of Poland, near the border of the Czech Republic. We could tell we were going to love this city as we neared it on the bus coming in. It was lush and green and welcoming. Krakow is known for its well-preserved medieval old town, a UNESCO site, and its Jewish quarter. Kraków is home to one of the oldest universities in the world and Poland’s most reputable.
Delicious doughnuts too, made with rose flavoured jam!
The largest medieval market square in Europe
St. Mary’s Basilica, a 14th-century Gothic church
Saints Peter and Paul Church
After Poland was invaded by Nazi Germany at the start of World War II, the Kraków District where the Jews resided, became the capital of Germany’s General Government. The Jewish population of the city, about 200,000 people, was forced into a walled zone known as the Krakow Ghetto from which most were sent to nearby Auschwitz, never to return. Understandably, very few Jews that survived the Holocaust, returned to Poland. The Jewish population in Krakow now is less than 150.
Roman Polanski is a survivor of the Krakow Ghetto. Oskar Schindler selected his employees from the Ghetto, saving them from the camps. ‘Schindlers List’ was filmed in Krakow.
Ghetto Heroes Square, in the centre of the old Krakow Ghetto, with its 33 memorial chairs of iron and bronze, symbolizes the household stuff left behind by the families. Some say each chair depicts 1000 persons who lived here.
Wieliczka Salt Mines
Our tour took us to the Wieliczka Salt Mines, one of the oldest in Europe. This historical mine and the amazing works of art carved into the walls by miners, are a UNESCO Site. The Wieliczka salt mine, excavated from the 13th century, produced table salt continuously until 2007. Commercial salt mining was discontinued in 1996 because of falling salt prices and mine flooding.
The Wieliczka Salt Mine is 327 meters deep, and it’s horizontal passages and chambers extend for over 287 kilometres.
The rock salt is several shades of grey, and looks like unpolished granite instead of the white crystals you’d expect.
The salt formations include chapels with altarpieces and figures
Statues and monuments
This salt lake salt lake is denser than the Dead Sea
The best part of the tour was the huge chamber (54m by 18m, and 12m high) of the Chapel of St Kinga. Every single thing here, from chandeliers to altarpieces, is made of salt. And by some miracle our small group had the place to ourselves during our visit, when it is usually filled with visitors.
It took over 30 years (1895) for three men, who were not artists, but miners who worked on this in their spare time, to complete this underground temple. About 20,000 tonnes of rock salt had to be removed.
Our final dinner together as a tour group.
We enjoyed our tour of the Baltic region immensely. It was educational and inspirational. It certainly exposed some raw emotions.