Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Day 16 - April 21, 2010 - Krakow

When we were driving to Auschwitz last week, as Eva told us about the death of President Lech Kaczynski, she alluded to John Donne's famous "Meditation 17" in which he states, "Ask not for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee." Today, we touched the famous bell in the tower of Wawel Cathedral, which rang on Sunday, the day of Kacynski's funeral mass and burial in the crypt inside Wawel. The belief here is that by touching the clapper of the bell and making a wish, the wish will come true. Most of our group probably wished to go home as soon as possible; however, due to our extended stay, we had another wonderful day in Krakow, thanks to Eva, our guide.

We were welcomed by teachers and students at a university preparatory high school, V Liceum Ogolnoksztalcace im. Augusta Witkowskiego, established in 1871 by Franz Joseph I. We attended two English classes, during which our students conversed with the Polish students and asked questions about each others' culture. We also viewed a safety demonstration, and toured the biology classroom, which was complete with a Nemo fish and a chameleon, among many other habitats and live animals. The teachers gave us all Krakow donuts, which they said were the equivalent to Dunkin Donuts. They actually were better: a little less sweet, and a little more substantial, with raspberry filling.

We spent the afternoon touring Wawel Castle, which dates back to the middle ages, and was restored completely in the early 20th century before World War II. We admired the many fabulous, elaborate tapestries which were woven in the 16th century, along with paintings and furniture from the renaissance time period.

Going into Wawel Cathedral, we walked past the wreaths of flowers from different countries that were sent for the funeral of President Kaczynski. Inside, we saw the sarcophagi of many Polish kings, queens, and important Polish leaders. Most surreal, however, was walking through the crypt with the sarcophagus of President and Mrs. Kaczynski, viewing the cold marble, the golden inscription, and the etched cross on the top. After watching the funeral on CNN and being in the streets of Krakow during the funeral procession, actually descending the steps into the crypt felt eerie. Here we were, in line with other Polish citizens, touching the sarcophagus, and mourning the death of their leader with them.

"Ask not for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee." How fitting for us, teachers and students seeking history, seeking the truth about the Holocaust and the past. Living history in the present, and creating memories of a lifetime.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Day 15 - April 20, 2010 - Krakow, Zakopane

Girls from the Chawatselet Jewish gymnasium in Warsaw ride in a horse-drawn wagon during an outing in Zakopane. [Photograph #29029]

Marian Ament goes skiing at a resort in Zakopane, Poland. (Photo #22584)

Every day is a new adventure. Today our guide Eva (who has also become our best friend in all of Poland) took us to the highlands, Zakopane, Poland, where her mother's family comes from, and where she still vacations very often. Located only two and a half hours from Krakow, in the beautiful Tatra Mountains, Zakopane is a quaint, beautiful part of this amazing country, Poland. The teachers on the trip had heard of the town from looking at images of pre-war Jewish life on the United States Holocaust Memorial website in the photo archives ( Zakopane has been a vacation town for Poles for decades.

On our way, we passed by a very famous train museum, where many historical steam engines are kept, including the one used by Steven Spielberg when filming Schindler's List. As we wound our way up the foothills of the mountain, we stopped at a lovely Catholic church, the Spotted Salamander Church, built completely of wood, in the Zakopane style. This ornate style combines carpentry that uses no nails, but tongue and groove joints, and hand-carved decorations and figures. Inside the church are stations of the cross, hand-painted on glass, an art form perfected in Zakopane.

Once in the town, we stopped for lunch at a typical restaurant, serving highlander food. We enjoyed soups with sauerkraut, mutton and potatoes, potato pancakes (they have a better Polish name), Russian dumplings (pierogi), and other delicious, traditional food. However, all the boys in the group chose to go to the Pizza Hut down the street. They said the pizza was excellent.

After lunch, we rode the funicular to the top of the mountain, where we were better able to view the Zakopane mountain range of the Tatra Mountains. Most spectacular is the "Sleeping Highlander," a mountain that looks like the profile of a sleeping man. Local residents erected a cross on the man's mouth, which looks tiny from far away, but is actually 15 meters tall and 5 meters wide, and had to be transported from Krakow to Zakopane by train. At the top of the mountain, we couldn't resist taking a ride on the alpine slide. Every one of us rode it, even Mrs. Sussman, Mrs. Tambuscio and Mrs. Bauman! We walked on the top of the mountain, seeing typical mountain homes for this region, with high-pitched roofs, attached sheds for animals, and even some chickens in yards. Eva told us that usually there are many tourists here, but because it is April and the off season, we are lucky and enjoy the views alone.

After riding the funicular down the mountain, we had about an hour to wander the local highlander craft booths, where homemade sheep and cow's milk cheeses, leather slippers, and hand-carved wooden objects were sold. It was truly a step back in time, and indescribably beautiful. We returned home to our hotel, while watching Eva's favorite comedy, "Mickey Blue Eyes." Tonight, we're ordering in pizza and skyping with Mrs. Tambuscio's class at New Milford.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Day 14 - April 19, 2010 - Krakow

Eva, our most excellent Polish guide, who is the queen of hospitality, took us to the local Krakow mall, where we divided into two teams, mostly boys (with the exception of Mrs. Bauman) vs. the girls. The boys (even with Mrs. Bauman) dominated the girls, although Libby and Becca were extremely impressive bowlers. We had a taste of home, with lunch in the mall at McDonald's, and a brief walk through the mall.

From there, Eva took us to her home in the outskirts of the city. What a beautiful, lovely home! She had snacks for us in her garden of fruit trees and lilac bushes, with lovely pansies growing in the window boxes on the patio and porch. Eva owns the movie, "Katyn," an Academy Award nominated film this year for Best Foreign Film, which was filmed in Polish, with English subtitles. We made ourselves comfortable in her living room and watched the movie together on her big-screen TV. As we settled in, Eva told us that this is what she remembers from her college days--her professors would invite students to their homes to watch films that they wouldn't have been allowed to watch at the university, under communism.

From this film, we learned more of the history of the Katyn massacre, through the storyline of Polish officers and their families. The film chronicles how the Polish soldiers were arrested and imprisoned by the Russians in late 1939. It follows their lives until the massacre in April of 1940, and through the end of the war into the post-war, communist Poland, when the Russians forced Poles to believe their propaganda that the atrocities were committed by the Nazis, not the Russians. After the film, Eva and her husband told us that when they were growing up, they were aware of the truth about Katyn, but were forbidden to talk about it. We highly recommend renting the film to learn more about it. What a wonderful experience, to be here in this historical city, watching a film at our Polish friends' house, and to see in the film the sights that we have been seeing throughout our stay in Krakow. How surreal.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Day 13 - April 18, 2010 - Krakow

What a momentous day! We are here, in the city that the world watched today, during the somber occasion of President Lech Kaczynski's funeral mass. The funeral, held live on TV from St. Mary's Cathedral, where we viewed the beautiful, elaborate altar on Friday, brought 1.5 million citizens to Krakow today.

After our morning buffet breakfast at the hotel, our students divided into their testimony groups. Each group interviewed a different Holocaust survivor when in Olomouc last week. This morning, student groups worked on three different computers at the hotel, and typed the testimony of their survivors.

After nearly three hours of work, we took the students to the nearby park for a picnic of sandwiches made in the hotel (since all businesses in Krakow are closed until after the funeral) and warm bagels we bought from a street vendor. While eating, we watched as many Polish citizens walked up the hill toward the square and St. Mary's Cathedral. We were right by a police barricade, and watched as a military parade marched by, along with two military tanks, and police escorted VIPS.

We went back to the hotel to watch the funeral mass on TV in the hotel lobby. Mrs. Bauman, James, Kayla, Victoria and Matt Bachmann went for a very brisk walk around the outskirts of the square just as the funeral mass let out. They passed many priests, nuns, Poles in traditional costume, and people carrying flags as they walked the streets back to the hotel. The entire group walked to the square tonight, passing St. Mary's Cathedral on our way to dinner. We stepped over the trampled tulips, daffodils and other flowers that were strewn in remembrance as the funeral procession passed earlier in the afternoon. After a dinner of Mexican food (yes, even in Krakow) and traditional Polish food, the group enjoyed ice cream cones together on the square as the moon shone above the buildings on Krakow square.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Day 12 - April 17, 2010 - Krakow

After a wonderful buffet breakfast at our hotel, we travelled together to the Wieliczka Salt Mine, located just outside of Krakow. We figured that since we couldn't go up into the sky today as originally planned, we would go down into the ground. As we descended the many, many, many flights of stairs, we were reminded of Dante's Inferno. This mine has not been active for seven years, and is now only open for tourists. However, at one time, dating all the way back into the middle ages, this incredibly huge mine in the depths of the earth was fully operational. Salt, once as valuable as gold, helped to make Poland a rich country.

Oh the wonders we saw: chapels, dance halls, a cathedral, and many other rooms, tunnels and 6 full stories below the three levels that we walked through.

We had a lovely lunch at a very Polish cafe across the street from the mine, then travelled back into Krakow to the Jewish Cemetary that was opened in the late 1800's. Because it is Shabbat, we were unable to go inside, however we talked about the synagogue and the cemetary before heading back to the Wawel Castle area.

The weather here was gorgeous: sunny and in the upper 60's. We walked to the Vistula River below Wawel Castle and watched the swans in the river. We saw the infamous Krakow fire-breathing dragon below the castle. Mr. Chang told us his version of the Krakow Dragon legend: A dragon was terrorizing the kingdom until a peasant put sulfer inside the belly of a disguised lamb. When the dragon ate it, his stomach blew up and pieces of the dragon's scales dispersed all over the banks of the river.

Walking back to the main square, the arrangements for tomorrow's state funeral for President Lech Kaczinski were evident. Steel barriers lined the streets to contain the expected crowds, and banners were stretched across the street with the Polish emblem, pictures of the President, and floral wreaths. Upon reaching the square we saw it had been transformed since yesterday. Two jumbotrons had been set up and a mass in Warsaw for the President and First Lady was being broadcast as large crowds of Poles and tourists watched. The main market building, Cloth Hall, which has been under reconstruction, had been painted, and hundreds of chairs had been set up for the guests for tomorrow's funeral. After watching the mass for awhile, we located a wonderful small pizza restaurant and ate dinner.

Upon returning to the hotel, students were engaged in a scavenger hunt in which teams of students were required to take photographs of a list of items. The winning team consisted of Kayla, Erin, Nick and Matt.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Day 11 - April 16, 2010 - Krakow

Today our guide, Eva, took us to see the historical sights of Krakow. Walking through the hallways of Jagellonian University, one of the oldest institutions of higher learning in the world, we were told about the work of Copernicus and even saw his written work and instruments used to determine that the earth revolves around the sun. At eleven a.m., we watched from the central courtyard of the University as the astronomical clock played music and the wooden professors marched regally out and back into the doorways of this historical clock. At noon, we entered St. Mary's Cathedral, where the funeral of President Lech Kaczynski will be held on Sunday. Eerily, we viewed Kaczynski's photo at the altar of the church. A nun in full habit, a common sight here, ceremoniously pulled open the huge wooden, elaborately carved wooden doors of the altar, revealing many scenes in the life of the Virgin Mary.

After lunch, we went to the 20 foot memorial cross for the victims of Katyn. This massacre of Polish prisoners of war, who were captured by Russians, was commited in 1940 when the Nazi mobile killing squads were systematically killing Jews in these same regions. For 60 years the Polish people did not know for sure what happened to these soldiers because the Russians blamed the deaths on the Nazis, and the Nazis blamed the Russians. In fact, the Nazis used the evidence that they found of the Russian killings as anti-Russian propaganda during World War II. At the foot of the memorial cross lay thousands of flowers and candles for the victims of the Russian killings in 1940 and for the victims of the horrible deaths in the plane crash on the 70th anniversary of the deaths in Katyn. Only in the year 1990, the Russians finally admitted their guilt in these killings. However, there are still thousands of Polish deaths that remain a mystery. Their families still do not know what happened to them.

Being here at this momentous historical time for the country of Poland defies description. Here we are, studying the Holocaust, and now, at the end of our journey, we face this sorrow and the repercussions of World War II again. History is complicated, and this incident reverberates in our hearts. Many people suffered during World War II and families are still suffering today.