Sunday, October 18, 2015


Our tour group rolled into Budapest, Hungary, home of Erno Rubik (the cube guy) and Zsa Zsa Gabor, just in time to see thousands of Syrian refugees milling around the train station trying to get out of town.  Hungary had offered to put many of them up, but they were determined to get to Germany somehow because the Germans offered more free stuff.  The Hungarians weren't going to make it easy for them.  This situation didn't affect us much as tourists except that the police blocked off a road and a bridge across the Danube River.  At least they weren't blocking the entrance to the Las Vegas Casino with its four locations in Budapest. 

Hungarians like Americans in general, but make an exception for country music artist Kellie Pickler who once embarrassed herself on the TV show Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader when she was asked "Where is Budapest?".  Her reply was that she had never heard of it, and when questioned further, suggested it was in France, and then dug even deeper when she thought Europe was a country.  Its on You Tube

Budapest is actually two cities on opposite sides of the Danube River.  Think St. Louis and East St. Louis.  Well not really.  Buda and Pest merged in 1873 and became the capital, commercial and cultural center of Hungary.  Buda is hilly, and Pest is flat.  Buda is the older, Medieval section where the Royal Palace is located on Castle Hill, 600 feet above the river, accessible by a funicular.  The city was named after Attila the Hun's brother. 

Pest is more modern, at least since 1850 when the Habsburgs ordered massive job creating construction projects after the 1848 revolutions against their rule.  Hungarians used to call the city Pest Buda rather than the other way around.   In their language, a person's surname comes first and given name last.  For example, the great Hungarian composer Franz Liszt is identified at the Opera House as "Liszt Ferenc", (with no comma between the names).

The Hungarians speak a  language which is indecipherable to most other Europeans.  It is not related to Romance languages, German or even Russian.  Over 1000 years ago, Hungary was conquered by the Huns and Magyars who brought their languages from Central Asia,  Fortunately for us, most Hungarians also speak English.  They don't use Euros, so we had to change our money to Forints.  I walked out of the money exchange with over 50,000 Forints, mostly in 10,000 Forint notes.  I felt rich, but the exchange rate is 268 Forints to the dollar.  You can buy a lot of paprika with 50,000 Forints. 

Hungary has the second largest parliament building in Europe.  It also has the second largest subway system.  It has the largest synagogue in Europe, but second in the world to one in New York.  Do you see a pattern here?  As part of the  Austria-Hungary Empire, it came in second in World War I.  An ally of Germany, it came in second in World War II.  Not good.  Avis Rent a Car should move its headquarters to Hungary.  Indeed, Conde Nast Traveler ranks Budapest as "The World's Second best City".  Number One was Florence, Italy--I've been there twice and I'm not sure why.  Chicago ranked 23rd. 

People all over the world marvel at the beauty of Budapest, and indeed the architecture is awe inspiring.  We took a dinner cruise on the blue Danube River (which is black at night and gray the rest of the time).  It only looks blue when you're in love.  The magnificent Parliament Building and Habsburg Palace, located on opposite sides of the river are lit up brilliantly at night.  The many bridges are covered with lights from top to bottom.

Hungarian food is liberally spiced with paprika and fills you up very quickly.  Paprika is made from chili peppers originally imported from Mexico.  Now the Hungarians, through plant grafting, grow a less spicy kind locally.  Everything they serve looks like goulash and chicken paprikash.  Nobody walks away hungry in Hungary.  Contrary to what many Americans think, the Hungarian Diet was not created by Dr. Phil, but rather was the Hungarian legislature from 1527 to 1918, and it convened in the chambers at the Parliament Building.


We visited the famous State Opera House, the second largest, somewhere.  It was built in the late 1800's in Neo-Renaissance style with ornate gold leaf decorations and statues of Greek gods.  The horseshoe shaped auditorium seats over 1200 and is renowned for its acoustics.  The vaulted ceiling is covered with murals depicting the 9 Muses.  The hallway has a 3 ton bronze chandelier.   In a pleasant surprise, we were treated to an informal 15 minute opera performance in the hallway by one of the artists. 

The beautifully decorated, centrally located Royal Box was built for the Habsburgs who are now long gone.  Now the Hungarian president sits there.   Madonna sat there when she did the movie Evita.  Michael Jackson wanted to sit there, but was turned down. 

The front entrance is flanked with two statues, the great composer Franz Liszt and Franz Erkel who founded the Budapest Philharmonic Orchestra and composed the Hungarian national anthem.  The hallways are lined with the busts of famous composers like Liszt, Gustav Mahler and Bartok. 


Heroes' Square was built for the 1896 World Expo to commemorate 1000 years since the founding of Hungary in 896 A.D.  In the center is the Millennium Column with the Angel Gabriel on the top, flanked by statues on horseback of the leaders of the 7 Magyar (Hungarian) tribes who conquered the country and the Carpathian Basin at that time.  Before that, Attila the Hun had conquered it.   Today, Attila is a common boy's name in Hungary. 

The monument was completed in 1900.  It has two matched colonnades, each with 7 more statues of the great figures in Hungarian history.  The 7 statues on the left side are long gone kings of Hungary, the first and most notable of which was Stephen I holding the double cross (yes, really) given him by the Pope's emissary.  The other kings did stuff like prohibit the burning of witches, lead a crusade, win a battle, etc.  The last 5 replaced members of the ruling Habsburg Dynasty after the monument was damaged in World War II.    Opposite the square is the Greek Classical Museum of Art which is closed for renovations. 


Heroes' Square stands at the beginning of Andrassy Street, modeled after the Champs Elysee in Paris.  Andrassy Street is lined with grand apartments and commercial buildings, built in the late 19th Century.  The buildings get progressively taller as you get closer to the Danube River where the street ends.  Some of the buildings are foreign embassies.  Others are museums.   The State Opera House is on Andrassy.  Shoppers can find high end fashion stores like Gucci, Louis Vuitton and Armani on Andrassy.

The street was named after Gyula Andrassy, the 19th Century prime minister who had promoted the plan for the boulevard.  Under the Communists, the street was renamed three times.  First, in 1950, it became Stalin Street.  Then, during the 1956 uprising, the rebellious Hungarians renamed it Avenue of Hungarian Youth.  After the revolution was put down by the Soviets in 1957, they renamed it People's Republic Street.  The city changed it back to Andrassy Street in 1990.

One evening, Dianne and I strolled down Andrassy Street looking for a restaurant near St. Stephen's Basilica and came upon a Re/Max real estate office.  Dianne had been a Re/Max agent for many years, so we dropped in to ask for directions.  The owner was an attractive, statuesque young lady who was warm and friendly.  It was early evening, and she had people with her in the conference room which turned out to be her husband and kids.  We didn't want to impose, but she spent time with us, offered us drinks and extolled the attractions and beauty of her native city.

Budapest has many museums.  At 60 Andrassy Street is the notorious House of Terror which was the headquarters of the Fascists in the 1940's and the Communists after that.   People still recoil when they walk past.  The Semmelweis Museum was the home of Ignac Semmelweis, the Hungarian doctor who taught his colleagues to wash their hands before treating patients.  Well, duh!   The museum displays exhibits on the history of Western medicine.   Budapest even has a pinball museum which we didn't visit.

The most famous restaurant in Budapest is the Gerbeaud Café, located about a block from our hotel.  We walked over for lunch and ate outside on a mild, sunny day. The restaurant is famous for its pastries and club sandwiches.  At the next table was an elderly French lady sitting by herself.  We struck up a conversation and learned much about her.  She had a French father and a Hungarian mother.  She lived in Paris but was visiting Budapest for an art show featuring some of her grandfather's works.  Her grandfather was a famous Hungarian painter--his name didn't ring a bell to us.  Her kids, one of whom lives in New York, are sculptors, and like most grown kids, don't call their mother enough.  We spent an hour in animated conversation, finished our meal and said our good byes.


As I alluded earlier, Dohany Street Synagogue is the largest in Europe.  Incidentally "dohany" means tobacco in Hungarian.  The synagogue could be mistaken for a church or cathedral except it has no crosses or statues of Jesus.  With its large organ, it sounds like a church.  The synagogue is built in Moorish Revival style.  the Viennese architect, Ludwig Forster apparently wasn't aware of Jewish architecture as such, so he ironically chose "architectural forms that have been used by oriental ethnic groups that are related to the Israelite people, and in particular the Arabs".   It was built in 1859 by Reform Jews shortly after the Jewish community had split into 3 groups--Orthodox and Conservative (who would not set foot in the building), and Reform.

It was the Age of Enlightenment when Jews were assimilating and were encouraged to act like Christians.  The Austro-Hungarian Empire had passed laws of religious tolerance. 

All worked out fine until 1944 when the German Nazis marched into Hungary.  They were being pushed back by the Allies, and there was talk Hungary would negotiate a separate peace and switch over to the Allied side.  The local Fascists rounded up 400,000 Hungarian Jews very quickly and sent them to concentration camps, mostly to be murdered.  Nobel laureate Elie Weisel and his family were among them.  Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg did his best to save lives by issuing literally tens of thousands of Swedish passports to Jews.  A monument to Wallenberg is located in a memorial garden next to the Dohany Street Synagogue.  No good deed goes unpunished, and Wallenberg disappeared into the Soviet gulag after World War II, and nobody is certain what happened to him. 

After World War II, the synagogue was in shambles.  It was damaged during the war, and years of neglect made things worse.  Hollywood actor Tony Curtis visited Budapest where his family was from.  He was dismayed to see it in that condition and vowed to restore it to its original glory, partly to honor his family.  He created the Emanuel Foundation in 1987 to raise money to purchase the structure and restore it.  Many of the funds came from small donations, but Curtis had the connections to attract big names.  For example, cosmetics icon Estee Lauder, also with Hungarian roots, gave $5 million toward the restoration.  The results were gratifying--the building is beautiful.

Next to the synagogue is a memorial garden honoring congregants who were deported and killed during World War II.  As many as 20,000 Jews sought refuge in the synagogue complex in 1944, and 7000 died there.  Many of them are buried in the courtyard and their names recorded there.  The Emanuel Foundation commissioned the famous sculptor Imre Varga to create a Tree of Life, a stainless steel stylized  weeping willow tree with 40,000 steel leaves, each containing the name (or names) of a Hungarian Jewish victim inscribed on it.  The Raoul Wallenberg Memory Park contains the memorial to Wallenberg and Other Righteous Among the Nations which inscribed the names of several non-Jews in diplomatic positions who were able to save thousands from certain death. One, Msgr. Angelo Rotta who represented the Vatican, issued protective sheets, misrepresentations of baptism and Vatican passports to 15,000 Jews.  A brand new memorial honors Sir Nicholas Winton, an Englishman who was responsible for delivering hundreds of Jewish children to England, thus saving them from the Nazi Germans.  Winton died a couple months ago, at age 106.    The Jewish Museum in the complex stands on the birthplace of Theodore Herzl, the father of modern Zionism. 


St. Stephen (Istvan in Hungarian) was the first Hungarian saint and a national icon.  In the year 1000, as King of Hungary, he signed on with Pope Sylvester II to convert the country to Christianity.  For him, it was a political decision because it brought peace with the Holy Roman Empire.  King Stephen died in 1038 and was canonized in 1083.  At the canonization ceremony, they opened his crypt, and according to legend, healing miracles started occurring.  Historians attribute it to mass psychosis or deception.  In any event, all they found in the crypt was his intact right hand, the Holy Dexter as it is now known.  The rest of the body was gone.  It was a miracle!

The Neo-Classical church was completed in 1905.  After a long 900+ year odyssey, the right hand was brought to the basilica in 1950, where you can view it today, with a large glove on it, in a glass case.  Like most cathedrals in Europe, this is an enormous and magnificent structure.  It is 315 feet high, the same height as the Hungarian Parliament, the two tallest buildings in Budapest.  The basilica is especially famous for the regular organ concerts which are performed by famous musicians.


All the buildings in Budapest are huge, and this is bigger than the rest.   This enormous Gothic structure, the largest building in Hungary, completed in 1904, is the seat of the unicameral National Assembly of Hungary.  It is located in Lajos Kossuth Square--more on him later.  The building has 691 rooms and 29 staircases.  The top of the huge dome is 96 meters high, the same height as St. Stephen's Basilica.  The number 96 is significant in that it commemorates the nation's millennium in 1896. 

After Buda and Pest were united in 1873, the Diet decided to construct a suitable building to express the sovereignty of the nation.  They held an international competition, and the winning architectural plans were drawn by Imre Steindl.  He began the building in 1885 and went blind before its completion. 

The Communists erected a red star on top of the dome, but it was removed in 1990.


Buda Castle, which is also known as the Royal Palace is not as fancy as one would expect, although it is immense.  The façade runs 1000 feet along the Danube River.

Kings' palaces have stood at this location since the 1300's although they have been destroyed and rebuilt at least 6 times, most recently after World War II when the Germans made their last stand there against the Red Army.  When it was reconstructed, the builders discovered the ruins of the 15th Century palace and integrated them into the new complex.  The result is this enormous structure, a mixture of many architectural styles. 

The structure has six wings arranged around a courtyard, guarded by four stone lions.  In these six wings are the National Library, the National Gallery and the Budapest History Museum.  It would take days to see the whole thing, and we saw only a small portion.

Castle Hill is recognized by the UN as a World Heritage Site, and many of the houses and buildings there are hundreds of years old with plaques on them. 

Next to the palace is the Neo-Gothic Matthias Church.  Its' official name is Church of Our Lady, but everyone calls it Matthias Church because King Matthias Corvinus was married there--twice, in the 1400's.  Like most churches and cathedrals in Europe, this one is magnificent.  From the diamond patterned roof tiles and Gothic spires to the stained glass windows and wall paintings of events from Hungarian history, this church is certainly worth the trip.  When the Turks captured Buda in 1541, they turned it into a mosque and held their victory celebration there.  Fortunately for the locals, the ecclesiastical treasures had been moved to Pressburg (now Bratislava).  The last two Habsburg kings held their coronations in the church.  The church suffered much damage during World War II, but within the last 10 years, the government has restored it to its former glory.

Next to the church is the Fisherman's Bastion, built in 1905, a terrace overlooking the Danube with seven turrets (for each of the Hungarian tribes).  It looks like the fairy castle at Disneyland and is jammed with tourists taking photos. 

We ate our Hungarian diet lunch at the Pest Buda restaurant on Castle Hill.


Many from our tour group visited the Imre Nagy house in Budapest, a popular tourist attraction.  There is much Cold War history in the house.  Nagy, a renowned icon of Hungary today, was executed by the Russians in 1958 for his role in the failed 1956 revolution.  He was a dedicated Communist who rose through the ranks to become the Premier of Hungary.  He was deposed by the Russians in 1955 for being too independent.  He espoused political and economic reforms which made him a little too popular for the Kremlin's liking.  To the Russians, he was setting a bad example for other Eastern Bloc countries. 

The Hungarians brought him back in 1956 when the Revolution broke out.  The Revolution was anti-Soviet, but not necessarily anti-Communist.  Without  consulting the Russians, Nagy withdrew Hungary from the Warsaw Pact, promoted free and open multi-party elections and declared Hungary a neutral country.  Hungarians were free to travel to the West.  These actions were intolerable to the Russians who, under Nikita Khrushchev, sent in troops and tanks to crush the Revolution.  Nagy appealed  to the United Nations and the West for assistance but received none.   Western countries were not going to war for Hungary.

Nagy was officially rehabilitated in 1989, and his statues are all over Hungary today.


During the anti-Habsburg revolutions of 1848-49 which spread through central Europe, Kossuth, a young Hungarian lawyer led the Hungarians as they declared their independence from Austria.  He became president but was forced to abdicate the next year when the Austrians, with significant assistance from Czarist Russia defeated the revolutionaries.  He escaped as a fugitive, eventually winding up in the United States where he was a revolutionary hero.  Kossuth mania reigned in the U.S, when he arrived in 1851.   It was the precursor to Elvis or the Beatles.  They called him the George Washington of Hungary.  Restaurants began serving goulash.  People started wearing Kossuth ties, Kossuth coats, Kossuth t-shirts.

He was entertained twice at the White House by President Fillmore, and even met with Abraham Lincoln in Springfield.  Lincoln called him "most worthy and distinguished representative of the cause of civil and religious liberty on the continent of Europe". 

Kossuth's welcome wore thin when U.S. officials feared he was stirring up fervor among immigrants.  He made political statements like urging German-Americans to support Franklin Pierce for president. He refused to denounce slavery or stand up for the Catholic Church.  He even tried to organize mercenaries to overthrow the Haitian government.

Today, Kossuth is considered a national hero in Hungary as a freedom fighter and bellwether of democracy. He was renowned for promulgating a constitution which guaranteed rights for minorities.   Streets and squares were named for him not only in Hungary but also in the U.S., and his statues are all over Hungary. 


Finally, what could be more Hungarian than Zsa Zsa Gabor and her sisters!  To most Americans, Hungary was just a backwater until the beautiful Gabor sisters came into town, stirring up things in Hollywood.  They were the 1950's version of the Kardashians.  Zsa Zsa (born Sari Gabor) had been crowned Miss Hungary in 1936.  Today, she is 98 years old.  The Gabors were of Jewish descent and had to leave Hungary for the U.S. in 1941 although they had apparently converted to Roman Catholicism.  That was not unusual--it was often done for career advancement. 

The three Gabor sisters, Magda, Zsa Zsa and Eva were all actresses.  They were notable for their continuing support of the matrimonial lawyers bar--they were married 20 times between them.  Zsa Zsa is now married to her 9th husband, Prince von Anhalt, 30 years younger.  She has been divorced 7 times and annulled once.  The annulment occurred because she was still married to her previous husband who had been her divorce attorney.  Von Anhalt himself made news (while married to Zsa Zsa) when he claimed to be the biological father of the late Anna Nicole Smith's child (he wasn't, according to DNA). 

In 1989, Zsa Zsa got in trouble for slapping a Beverly Hills police officer who stopped her for speeding.  Maybe there's a movie plot in that story--Beverly Hills Cop 3?

Zsa Zsa was known for witty one-liners.  She described herself as a fine housekeeper--she kept the house after each divorce.  She had one child, Constance Hilton by her second husband, Conrad, the hotel guy.  Constance died earlier this year at age 67.  Zsa Zsa's house was once owned by Elvis Presley. 

Her first husband, back in the 1930's, was a Turkish diplomat.  Soon after arriving in Turkey, she was noticed by President Kemal Ataturk, the father of modern day Turkey.  Her rumored affair with Ataturk probably didn't much help her marriage. 

Her older sister Magda was married 6 times, and younger sister Eva 5 times.  British actor George Sanders, who once won an Oscar, was married to both Zsa Zsa.and Magda, but not at the same time.   Sanders later committed suicide. 

The Gabors were glamorous, famous for being famous and always newsworthy.

NEXT:  Seeking Kangaroos in Austria or Everyone is a Wiener in Vienna     

Thursday, October 8, 2015


We flew LOT Polish Airlines nonstop from Chicago to Warsaw.  As far as we know, no other airline flies nonstop on this route.  Chicago has the largest number of Polish people than any city other than Warsaw.  Most of the passengers spoke no English, and the signs were all in Polish.  On the flight map I recognized Nowy Jork which apparently is that big city where the Yankees and Mets play.

On the 9 hour flight to and from Europe, the airline gave us headphones to listen to an assortment of music. They offered pop, jazz, new age, alternative, etc.  No classical.  No Chopin.  The artists were unknown to me.  The pop music consisted mainly of Polish pop artists.  People like Antek Smykiewicz and Monika Lewczuk.  Not even Bobby Vinton or Frankie Yankovic and the Polka Kings.  They weren't bad--I was just unfamiliar with them.  It was a long flight.

The Warsaw airport is named after the composer Frederic Chopin who actually lived most of his adult life in France (even acquiring French citizenship) although he is closely identified with Poland and always considered himself Polish. 

Chopin, born in 1810, was either the son of a French expatriate or the bastard child of an unnamed aristocrat--nobody is certain.  Whatever the case, he was a child prodigy, performing at the Polish version of Carnegie Hall when he was 8 years old.  He moved to France when he was 21.  As an adult, he had a 10 year romantic relationship with author George Sand whose real name was Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin.  Ms. (Mrs.?) Sand, whose friends called her Aurore was a bon vivant who had many lovers, smoked cigars and often dressed in men's clothing.    Not much is written about her long suffering husband.  Ms. Sand and Chopin  broke up when she accused Chopin of having an affair with her daughter Solange.  Chopin had many health problems over the years which affected his musical production, and he died at age 39.  The official cause was tuberculosis. 

The Chopin Statue and park with the reflection pool is a must see in Warsaw.  Scattered around the park are benches where you can press a button and hear vignettes of Chopin's life and music.  Every Sunday they plan a free piano recital of Chopin's compositions.  The Germans blew up the statue in 1940.  It was the first monument they destroyed.  It was rebuilt in 1958 using the original mold.

Our tour group was treated to a Chopin piano recital at the Szuster Palace by Maria Korecka-Soskowska who is renowned (in Europe at least) for winning competitions like the Paderewski National Piano Competition and the National Competition of Mozart's Music.  She concluded her hour long performance with a rousing Polonaise in A Flat Major (Opus 53) which most of us recognize, especially if we watched Tom & Jerry cartoons as kids. 

The Szuster Palace was originally built in 1772 as a small villa in the Mokotow garden in the outskirts of Warsaw.  It was expanded a couple of times in the 19th Century and then burned by the Germans in 1939.  It was restored in the 1960's to its former appearance and today houses the Warsaw Music Society. 

Warsaw is quite an amazing city and a testament to the hard working Polish people.  During World War II, the German Nazis systematically destroyed the city block by block.  It was pretty much a ghost town in 1945 at the end of the war.  We stayed at the elegant Bristol Hotel which opened in 1901.  The hotel and surrounding area were not destroyed because the German officers were staying there.  Today, this area is home to foreign embassies as well as restaurants and cafes with outdoor seating.     Next door to the Bristol is the beautiful white Presidential Palace with the current president Andrew Duda lives.  He has 2 official residences.  Down the street is a square containing a statue of Copernicus whom you may recall as the guy who came up with the novel idea that the Earth actually revolves around the Sun.  It took several hundred years before the hierarchy of the Catholic Church embraced that idea.  Copernicus feared for his life and had to do his work in secret. 

After the Communist government fell in 1989, the grateful Poles erected a statue of Ronald Reagan, who was revered by the Poles for his support of their revolution and his steadfast anti-Communism.

Warsaw is a new city made to look old.  It has modern buildings, but much of the city, especially in Old Town contains replica buildings built to recreate the 18th Century structures they replaced.  The authorities worked from old photographs to rebuild the new Warsaw.   I found it to be a comfortable city.

Today, Poland is considered part of Central Europe.  Eastern Europe is Ukraine, Belarus and Russia.  The difference is that Central Europeans are generally Roman Catholic while Eastern Europeans are Eastern Orthodox,  Central Europe uses our alphabet.  Eastern Europe uses the Greek-Cyrillic alphabet.  Of course, during the Cold War, every nation under Soviet domination was "Eastern Europe".

Poland has had an unfortunate history for the past 300 years or so.  The Poles are a stubborn people--they don't react well to foreign invaders.  In the Middle Ages, Poland comprised a much larger area than it does today.  At one time, it incorporated parts of Russia, Ukraine and Lithuania as a result of strategic marriages between the royal families of Europe.   Poland was partitioned three times by its neighbors in the late 1700's and ceased to exist as a separate country until 1918.  The Northeastern parts became part of Czarist Russia, the Southern part became part of the Austria-Hungarian Empire, governed by the Habsburg monarchy.  The Western part was Prussian, or German. 

Poland was desirable to its neighbors because the land is fertile and the people hard working.  Their agriculture produces apples, grains and pork for export.   Poles hold land dear.  When they have money, they buy real estate.  There are two main reasons for that.  Under Communist rule, they could not own land.  Many of the farmers were fortunate to reclaim their land when Communism fell.

The other reason is that their money has gone worthless several times in the 20th Century.  Hyperinflation after World War I.  I don't have to tell you about World War II.  Then the Communists came.  The Stalinist government borrowed heavily to rebuild the country, but the zloty was essentially worthless in world markets.    The Poles had money but it wouldn't buy much.  After the transition from Communist rule in 1991, they had to float the zloty, and the result was 600% inflation in one year. 

Before 1989, few Poles had automobiles.  During most of the 1980's Poland was under martial law.  They could buy cheaply made East German Trabants but had to wait several years for delivery.  After 1989, everyone wanted cars from the West.  They bought virtually every used car available in Germany, and traffic got out of hand.  Poland's infrastructure has taken a long time to catch up.  Even today, the road system linking Warsaw to other cities like Krakow leaves much to be desired.  The Polish government is starting to invest in road construction, and traffic is tied up everywhere.  .   

Most of the Poles who came to America prior to World War I were hayseeds from backward rural areas who had never lived in big cities before.  Most came from Russian controlled areas where life was harsh, and they had no access to education.  They found jobs as laborers in steel mills and factories and mines in the Eastern and Midwestern states.  They were unsophisticated, and many Americans perceived them as ignorant or stupid.  The phrase "dumb Polack" was widespread.  Poles from the Austria-Hungarian Empire were more cultured and often became academics and professional people.

In one interesting story, maybe partly true, cartoonist Mel Blanc needed a stereotype hunter for his cartoons.  Many Polish immigrants liked to hunt.  Blanc created Elmer Fudd who speaks with, in effect, a Polish accent, converting "R" and "L" to "W".  "Cwazy wabbit!"  There is actually a name for that--Rhotacism,  Maybe he was mimicking Barbara Walters instead.  In Polish, and several other languages, "L" is pronounced like "W".  Actually, in Polish they roll their "R's"


To put our Poland trip in context, we have to consider its history.  The "official" date for the founding of Poland was 966 A.D. when it adopted Christianity.  Back in the early Middle Ages, a noble class arose.  Rome was gone.  There was no central government around to keep order, and local warlords emerged to control their areas.  The warlord was the toughest guy in town, the local Tony Soprano.  He would confront the peasants and say, "Work for me and I'll protect you."  He would thus create a private army.  Obviously the more people under him and the more land he had, the more powerful he would become.  The warlord would then make a deal with the Church and be rewarded with a title like Duke or Count.  The "deal" was to convert his people to Catholicism or else.  Whether he really saw the light or not was not important as long as his people went with the program. 

Land was kept in the family through primogeniture in which the eldest son would inherit all the land, thus maintaining power and stability by keeping the wealth consolidated.  The younger, disinherited sons, would often go into the priesthood or the military. 

The Catholic Church kept everyone in line by threatening excommunication if anyone resisted.  The people were taught to believe in an afterlife.  If they were excommunicated, they were condemned to an afterlife of eternal hell.  This possibility scared the bejesus out of the average peasant and ensured his cooperation with the program. 

In Poland, the warlords, or nobles would elect the king--it was not a hereditary position.  If the king wasn't up to the job, they could remove him also.

The most powerful nation at that time was the Holy Roman Empire which, as Voltaire described,  was neither holy nor Roman--or even an empire.  It comprised fiefdoms in most of today's Germany and France.  Borders were constantly changing, but the people remained the same.  The Holy Roman Empire was created when Charles Martel led the Franks to victory at the Battle of Tours in 732, defeating the Moors in France, essentially throwing a roadblock at the Muslim advances in Europe and driving them back to Spain, saving Christianity.  They had to save it again--in 1683 when the Polish army under King Jan Sobieski defeated the Ottoman Turks at Vienna. If they had lost, we'd all be speaking Arabic today.

Martel's grandson Charlemagne consolidated those gains, and in 800 A.D. was crowned Emperor by the Pope.  Their joint mission was to convert the heathens in Europe to Christianity.  Having the Pope as an ally kept everyone in line--like having God on your side.  The Holy Romans were very successful in spreading Christianity.

Poland faced an external threat from the pagan Vikings from the North, and in 1226, made a deal with the Teutonic Knights to fight them off.  They were an order of monks who eventually went secular.  It was the beginning of the end for Polish independence.  They were invited in, but never left.  The Polish king paid off the Knights with land in the area by the Baltic Coast around Konigsberg in what later became East Prussia.  They became fabulously wealthy merchants who created the Hansetic League, setting up trading posts all over Europe.  The last Grand Master of the Monastic State of the Teutonic Knights was Albert Hohenzollern who, in 1525, converted to Lutheranism, confiscated Catholic Church lands, dissolved the Teutonic state and created the Duchy of Prussia.  The monks agreed to divide up their wealth, give up their vows of poverty and chastity and crowned him King of Prussia.  He ruled for a total of 58 years.  Despite their religious differences, Albert worked things out with his uncle, the King of Poland, pledging a personal oath to him.  The problem for Poland was that she gave up her seacoast.

The reign of Casimir III, the Great, in the 1300's was significant.  He was considered on of the greatest Polish leaders.  He recognized that for Poland to be respected, it needed educated people, especially lawyers to codify the laws and administer the court system.  He was responsible for two significant accomplishments. 

In Krakow, he created what became known as Jagiellonian University where we visited and bought t-shirts.  The university is now 652 years old.  His other accomplishment, for better or for worse, was he invited and encouraged Jews to come to Poland to populate the country and establish a merchant and banking class.  His successors for the next 600 years or so were not so welcoming, but by the eve of World War II, Jews comprised about 20% of the population of Poland.

Through the marriage of the Lithuanian Wladyslaw Jagiello and Queen Jadwiga, Poland hooked up with the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, and it was a powerful country until the 1700's when, after three partitions (1772, 1792 and 1795), ceased to exist as a separate country. 

In 1794, General Thaddeus Kosciusko who had fought under George Washington and built West Point, started a revolt against the Russians but was defeated which led to the Third (and final) Partition.  Kosciusko is considered a national hero because of his bravery.   Kosciusko was also instrumental in writing a constitution in 1791 which, among other things, granted full citizenship to peasants and Jews.  That was intolerable to Poland's neighbors and prompted a Russian invasion (Second Partition) which overthrew that constitution in 1792.

In 1918, the Russians, soundly defeated by the Germans, overthrew the Czarist government.  The Bolsheviks, led by Lenin,  won the ensuing civil war and attempted to spread communism throughout a Europe weakened by World War I.   In the watershed Battle of Warsaw in 1920, General Josef Pilsudski and his troops defeated the Bolsheviks and ended Lenin's plans for domination of Poland and Europe, at least for 20 years.  General Pilsudski, a national hero, served as president of Poland until his death in 1935. 

On September 1, 1939, the German Nazis invaded Poland.  About two weeks later, the Soviet Russians invaded from the other side.  The people were caught between a rock and a hard place.  The Russians, personally ordered by Stalin, hauled off the Polish officer corps and killed them all--20,000 at Katyn Forest in the Soviet Union.  We didn't know all of this until the Soviet Union fell in 1991 because information like that was suppressed under the Communists.  We visited the memorial to them in Warsaw.  Each name was dramatically recorded on a plaque which covered several large walls from floor to ceiling. 

In the same building is a memorial to the April 10, 2010 plane crash in Smolensk which killed 96 people, including Poland's president Lech Kaczynski, the chiefs of staff of the army, navy and air force, and other top officials who were going to the Katyn site for a dedication. Many Poles believe the plane crash was not an accident.  However, it occurred in heavy fog, and the pilot was advised to divert the flight to another city.  The pilot was reluctant to do so for fear of angering the top brass on the flight.  According to independent investigations, the pilot, with limited visibility, came in short of the runway and crashed into trees.  The Russians expressed the appropriate condolences and appeared to cooperate fully with the investigation. 

As you can imagine from their troubled history, Poles and Russians generally don't like each other.   After World War II, the Russians had a heavy hand in undermining Poland's elected government and turning it into a Soviet satellite.  In 1955, the Poles revolted against the Soviet influenced government.  The Russians still occupied part of Vienna and Austria at that time.  The Austrians asked the Russians to leave, and to everyone's surprise, they agreed to do so.  Their condition for doing so was that the Western powers would leave also and make Austria a neutral country.  After that, the Poles and Hungarians decided to try the same approach toward the Russians.  It didn't work.  They had thought the Russians were moderating after Stalin's death.   They thought wrong.  The Red Army rolled in with heavy tanks and artillery in putting down the rebellions. 


Krakow was the capital of Poland for centuries until it was moved to Warsaw in 1609.  We visited Wawel Royal Castle on Wawel Hill, walking distance from our hotel.  Wawel Castle is the symbol of Polish statehood, culturally and historically.  The cathedral there was built around the year 1000.  It became the official residence of the kings of Poland, beginning with Wladislaw the Short (!) who was also known as Wladislaw the Elbow High in 1319.  During World War II, the notorious Hans Frank, the Nazi governor of occupied Poland added insult to injury and used the castle for his headquarters.

The magnificent cathedral also contains the Royal Crypts, the last resting place for most of the Polish kings of the Middle Ages, as well as more modern notables as Kosciusko (1818), Josef Pilsudski  (1935), and more recently President Lech Kaczynski who was killed in the 2010 plane crash. 

Today,  Wawel is an art museum, featuring a collection of Italian Renaissance paintings and a tapestry collection.  The most famous artwork is the daVinci painting, Lady with an Ermine which you can see but can't get close to it.    

Krakow's most famous citizen was Karol Wojtyla, later Pope John Paul II, the first Polish pope.  Our guide pointed out his house, actually his apartment.  Tributes to Wojtyla are everywhere in the city.  He was a remarkable man, even before he became the pope. He grew up in a nearby town, attended public school and had many Jewish friends, even female ones.  Jews comprised about 30% of the population of the town and football (soccer) games were often organized between Jews and Catholics.  On several occasions, when the Jewish team was short a man, Wojtyla would play goalie for them. 

He was a pretty normal kid until after his father's death in 1942, when he entered the seminary.  That was a dangerous thing to do during the German Occupation, and his religious studies under Cardinal Sapieha were essentially conducted underground.   Although the Nazis killed all the Jews and Roma they could find, under their nefarious racial theories, they needed the Slavic people to do the manual labor. To quote the Nazi Himmler:  "For the non-German population of the East there can be no type of school above the four grade rudimentary school.  The job of these schools should be confined to teaching of counting (no higher than up to 500), the writing of one's name, and the teaching that God's commandment means obedience to the Germans, honesty, industry and politeness.  Reading I do not consider essential."   Despite the dangers here, the Poles ran a significant underground education system, the Secret Teaching Organization, and over 1 million were taking lessons by 1944.

Wojtyla worked as a messenger and was often in a position to save individuals, Jewish and Christian, from certain death.  .  He is credited with saving many lives by hiding people or spiriting them out into the country.  During the war, Wojtyla was hit by a German truck and seriously injured.  To his surprise, the Germans took him to the hospital to recuperate.   His life saved, Wojtyla took this as an affirmation of his dedication to the priesthood. 


Less than an hour's drive from Krakow is the Polish city of Oswiecim which is better known by its German name, Auschwitz.  Our Tauck tour guide, Blake, has visited it 180 times.  I certainly had mixed feelings about visiting there, but ultimately, I felt an obligation to witness it.  To me it was personal.  Auschwitz is a major tourist attraction, and I felt that it was tastefully presented, considering the subject matter.    It was suitably uncomfortable--the temperature was 100 degrees, and the facilities are, of course, not air conditioned.

In 1940 when it was built, the Germans relocated all the locals and made it a restricted military zone.  Auschwitz consisted of three main camps and perhaps 40 sub-camps (near industrial plants using the slave labor) spread over a fairly large area.  Auschwitz I is today a museum where we entered several of the brick buildings, viewing photos and seeing evidence of the atrocities that occurred there.  For example, a large room was filled with shoes; another was filled with suitcases with the names of the victims painted in whitewash on them; another room was filled with Jewish prayer shawls; another contained the used canisters of poison gas. 

Large photos of the victims covered the walls--lineups each day, people exiting the cattle cars, etc.   This stuff wears you down.  The tour guide for group was a young lady about 30 who has worked there for 11 years.  I asked her if people lose it--get highly emotional.  She said they do, but generally if they have experienced some other trauma in their lives such as a recent divorce or death of a loved one.    Many of the tourists were visibly sobbing. 

Auschwitz II-Birkinau was mainly for Jews, and the conditions were worse than Auschwitz I, if that is possible.  The gas chambers, which were destroyed by the fleeing Germans, were located fairly close to the railroad terminal.  We visited a couple of the drafty wooden barracks where hundreds of prisoners were kept--the ones who were not murdered upon exiting the train.  One barracks was the community latrine--approximately 100 toilet seats.  The prisoners were allowed 5 minutes in the morning before they were marched to their work.  They also had 5 minutes at night to use the toilets;  We're talking over 1000 prisoners.

For the fact that we know much, if anything about Auschwitz, we can thank two Polish patriots of the era, Witold Pilecki and Jan Karski who were eyewitnesses to the events and attempted, unsuccessfully, to get the attention and assistance of the Allies, specifically Britain and the U.S.  Their stories are worth recounting.

Both men were highly trained in the Polish military.  In 1940, Pilecki volunteered for a Polish resistance operation to get imprisoned at Auschwitz to gather intelligence and organize resistance.   At that time, they didn't know what the camp was used for.  The Allies had aerial photos of the camp, but couldn't figure out its purpose.  Inside the camp,  Pilecki built a crude transmitter, using smuggled parts, and broadcast details of deaths and arrivals to the Polish underground and the Western allies. 

He had to dismantle it in 1942 after concerns the Germans might discover it because of "one of our fellow's big mouth".  In 1943, the Gestapo was ferreting out his comrades and killing them, and Pilecki decided to escape.    He was assigned to a night shift at a camp bakery outside the fence.  He and two comrades overpowered a guard, cut the phone line and escaped, taking documents stolen from the Germans. 

He wrote a detailed report describing the scale of Nazi atrocities.  The Allies believed it was greatly exaggerated.  It would be comparable to the reaction if he had claimed to be abducted by aliens and taken on a space ship. 

After World War II, Pilecki was arrested by the Communists and, in a show trial, was found guilty of spying for "foreign intelligence" (British M16) and executed in 1948.  His last words were "Long live free Poland!"

Jan Karski (born Jan Kozielewski) was an officer in the Polish cavalry.  He was taken prisoner by the Red Army but concealed his true rank and was identified as a private, thus escaping the Katyn Massacre I discussed earlier.   He was turned over to the Germans in a prisoner exchange, but escaped from a train going to a POW camp.  He adopted the nom de guerre of Jan Karski.  He joined the underground resistance and made secret trips between France, Britain and Poland.  In Slovakia, he was captured by the Gestapo and tortured.  He was sent to a hospital where he was smuggled out. 

In 1942, he was selected by the Polish government in exile in London to perform a secret mission to inform them about Nazi atrocities in Poland.  He was twice smuggled into the Warsaw Ghetto to observe for himself the conditions there.  He also obtained from the underground a microfilm with information about the extermination of European Jews in Poland.  His work led to a widely distributed leaflet, "The Mass Extermination of Jews in German Occupied Poland" presented to the United Nations in December, 1942.

Karski personally spoke to British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden and later President Roosevelt, describing the Jewish Holocaust in detail.  These conversations fell on deaf ears.  According to Karski, Roosevelt was indifferent to the victims' plight, didn't ask questions and even appeared bored by the conversation.  Karski even met with Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter who was Jewish.  Frankfurter was skeptical of the report.  He said later, "I did not say that he was lying, I said that I could not believe him.  There is a difference."

The bottom line was that the Western Allies had no intention of diverting troops or materiel from their main objective of defeating the Germans as quickly as possible.   Wars must have an objective, and saving the Jews was not the patriotic objective the Allies could sell to their troops and the populace back home.  Sadly, at least for me, they were probably right.  At the time, most believed the stories about German atrocities were greatly exaggerated   Anti-Semitism at the highest levels of the government (in England and the U.S.), and especially in the U.S. State Department was widespread.   The military concluded that bombing the camps would result in the deaths of the prisoners anyway, and destroying the rail lines would result in the determined Nazis coming up with more creative ways of killing their prisoners.  Even when the war was hopelessly lost, the Nazis highest priority (even more than winning battles!) was to kill as many victims as they could. 

Karski survived the war and became a college professor at Georgetown University in Washington where he taught international affairs.  One of his better known students was Bill Clinton in 1968.  Karski wrote several books and received many accolades in the West and in Israel.  Back in Poland, his wartime exploits were not acknowledged until after the fall of Communism in 1989.  Karski died in 2000 at age 86.

There were small individual acts of heroism in the camps.  For example, in the women's barracks, the prisoners figured out they could slow the killing process by blowing up a crematorium--there was a logjam when the Germans could not dispose of the bodies quickly.  The women worked in an explosives plant.  Although they were searched every day upon leaving work, they were able to smuggle out small amounts of explosives.  Most prisoners survived the camp conditions for only a few months, and the women knew they probably wouldn't live long enough to see their plan succeed, but they passed it on to newcomers.  Eventually the women accumulated enough explosives and did blow up the crematorium.

Many prisoners at Auschwitz never saw gas chambers.  If they were assigned to sub camps to work at, say I.G. Farben or Krupp, they were marched to work each day.  They were at Auschwitz, conditions were cruel, many died of starvation or beatings, but many, like Nobel Prize Winner Elie Weisel survived the war.   Holocaust deniers attempt to seize upon the fact that these prisoners were at Auschwitz but didn't see any gas chambers.  They didn't have gas chambers in the sub camps.  The point we make is that the Holocaust is one of the most well documented mass crimes in human history. 


In the heart of Krakow, we visited the Collegium Maius, the oldest building in the university, built in the 1300's.  The university was named after the Lithuanian King Wladyslaw Jagiello (whom you will recall married the Polish Queen Jadwiga) who purchased the house for the already established Krakow Academy.  The school expanded from there.  It was already well established when famous alum Nick Copernicus attended the ground floor lecture halls in the 1400's.  By the time Karol Wojtyla, the future Pope John Paul II attended classes, the building hadn't changed much.  The professors lived and worked upstairs.  The football team, if they had one, practiced outside. 

Today, the university houses a collection of historical scientific instruments including a brass Arabian astrolabe from the year 1054, a celestial globe, and a 1510 sphere known to the world as the Jagiellonian Globe with the newly discovered American continents crudely depicted.  1054 A.D. is significant because on July 4th of that year, a brilliant supernova appeared in the heavens where the Crab Nebula is located today.  It was the brightest object in the night sky and visible for two years.  This celestial firework was well documented by Chinese and Arabian astronomers and even by American Indians.  In Europe, nobody celebrated the 4th of July at that time, and little or nothing was written about it, so one might conclude that nobody noticed it--or more likely, astronomers were afraid to say anything  (See Copernicus, Nicolas).

NEXT:  Touring Hungary.