Thanksgiving was extra special this year for three reasons: My sister Constance, my daughter Bea, and Bea’s friend Beata.
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.