Looking for Poland

This was our first trip to Poland, and Krackow, a UNESCO World Heritage site, was our first stop. Krackow dates back to a little Stone Age settlement.

 It’s is remarkably well preserved for a city that has stood for over a thousand years, and survived the hell that was World War II.

 

Even the McDonalds there is deeply rooted in Poland’s ancient history.

Literally!  During its construction, medieval foundations were discovered and incorporated into the restaurant design. We bought a cup of coffee so we could go downstairs to check out the McVault in the basement, and it was like nothing you’ve ever seen in The House That Ronald Built.

Krackow suffered under the Nazis, but Warsaw got pounded.  At the Warsaw Uprising Museum we watched a movie that gave us an aerial view of post-war Warsaw. Of that bustling metropolis, only miles and miles of rubble and ruins remained.  The scale of destruction was unimaginable.

 

When the Poles defended themselves against the German invasion, the Nazis response was to destroy hospitals, schools, churches, universities, and commit mass murder upon both Jew and Gentile. When finally forced to retreat, out of spite the Nazis blew up anything still standing.

The Peugot Building was built where the old synagogue once stood. The Jewish Historical Institute is next door, in a reconstructed building that housed the Jewish Library.

Between the Nazis and the Soviets, over 400,000 Warsovians were murdered in the war. Those lives and all their promise can never be replaced. But the people of Warsaw rebuilt their city, brick by brick.  Canaletto’s 18th century paintings were used as visual references to recreate beloved heritage sites.  All along The Royal Way that artwork is displayed…

…in front of the structures that were rebuilt using them as guides.

You can’t say they don’t make ’em like they used to.

The Warsovians resurrected the Old Town Square too.

 Some say it’s like Disneyland, too perfect, but I thought it was beautiful, and I loved all the cool details.

 The royal palace in Warsaw…

…was also destroyed and reconstructed.

Some furniture and other treasures were spirited away before the Luftwaffe bombings, but the throne room and the banner with its royal eagles were destroyed.

  Only one of the original eagles survived, and somehow found its way to the United States.  It was used a model to replicate the original design.

 The clock in the Knight’s Hall, featuring the god of time, is forever stopped at 11:15, a moment never to be forgotten– the exact time the Nazis bombed the palace.

Poland’s history is harsh and fascinating, colorful and complicated.

Reminders of its painful past are everywhere–like the memorial to the Uprising of the Warsaw Ghetto Jews killed in this bunker by the Nazis. 

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on Pilsudski Square, which was called Hitler Platz when occupied by the Germans.

We saw statues honoring the Polish Resistance and the Warsaw Uprising…

…and one honoring the children who worked for the resistance, although their roles involved carrying messages more often than guns.

There was the memorial to the 15,000 Polish officers murdered in 1940 by the Soviet army at Katyn.

There were even teenage street musicians in uniform, singing war songs.

On a street corner we glanced down and realized we were standing on what used to be the Ghetto Wall.

So much suffering.  So many stories, most of which can never be told.

After living under the jackboot of the Nazis, like so many other countries of Eastern Europe, the Poles endured further decades of Soviet oppression.  But each new rebellion brought them closer to independence.

The success of the Solidarity movement was a long time coming, a difficult struggle that was as much for freedom as for bread.

It is all inextricably woven into the fabric of their nation’s past.

I wondered how it had affected the people…

…and how much of it was passed from one generation to the next.

After centuries of oppression and foreign rule…

…Poland is now a prosperous and independent Democracy.

I saw joy there, most often in stolen glimpses.

But wherever we went we felt safe.  People were always polite and helpful….

…although rarely quick to smile.

I’ve heard that Europeans believe Americans smile too much and too easily, and perhaps we do.

But in Gdansk…

…an old woman caught me watching her.  I could either avert my eyes and hurry on, or smile and give a little wave, which I did.  And when I did, she smiled back with such unexpected warmth that I couldn’t help myself–I blew her a kiss.

That was Poland in a nutshell.

All words and photos copyright 2014 Naomi Baltuck.

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Tiny Miracles

I have been out in the world again.  All the stories I’ve seen and heard and lived have been patiently but eagerly contained, just waiting to be told.

 

In Poland and Lithuania, where we were traveling, World War II still casts a long shadow over the land.  That is a long, hard, sad story.


But little stories are everywhere, and more often than not, you will find stories within stories.  In fact, they will find you.

In Vilnius, even the walls contained stories.  We started to notice things, like faded Hebrew lettering on an old wall…

…Or a Star of David scratched in stone seventy years ago.

We learned that our apartment was in the Vilnius Ghetto, where more than 42,000 Vilnius Jews were imprisoned before they were murdered.

Near our place was a statue in memory of Dr. Tsemakh Shabad, a Jewish doctor in Vilnius.  A lovely young Lithuanian named Yrita gave us the inside story.

 The good doctor was loved by all, especially the children, and not only because he believed most childhood illnesses could be cured with a warm glass of milk and a bit of chocolate.

When a mother brought her little girl to him, that was what he prescribed.  They had no money for chocolate, so for a week he had the little girl come by every morning to take her medicine– a glass of warm milk and some chocolate.  Sure enough, she soon felt better.

When the little girl’s kitten fell ill, she knew just what to do.

She took her kitten to the doctor and asked him to cure it.

The doctor told her that in this case, they would forego the chocolate, and stick with the warm milk.  I’m glad to tell you the kitten recovered as well.

Though Dr. Shabad died in 1935, the children of Vilnius still visit him.  When they do, they rub the kitten’s nose and make a wish, certain it will come true.

 

 Yrita told us that for little wishes, you rub the kitten’s nose.  For very big wishes, you might need to rub the doctor’s nose.

 Sometimes wishes don’t come true, not even the little ones, and not all stories have a happy ending.

Sometimes the best we can do is to search for a little light in the darkness.  Sometimes you will find it in the most unexpected places.

Tiny miracles can be found everywhere– even in a bit of chocolate, especially when served with a cup of kindness.

All words and images c2014 Naomi Baltuck.