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.


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