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Heritage, Heartache and Holiday: A Balancing Act in Eastern Europe


Aug 20th, 2007, 07:00 AM
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Heritage, Heartache and Holiday: A Balancing Act in Eastern Europe

At the end of July, we took a two-week trip to Poland, Lithuania and Germany, with stops in Krakow, Warsaw, Vilnius, Berlin and Hamburg, an itinerary inspired by our 14 YO son�s passion for Judaism and genealogy. DH visited some of these places about 30 years ago as a college student while they were still part of the Eastern bloc, and has maintained a long-running interest in German history and political culture.

Before leaving, I rented �Schindler�s List� and �The Pianist� (also read this book while traveling, and can say that the movie does follow actual events to a T), saw�the Lives of Others,� (an incredible film worth watching on its own, not just for its look at East Berlin under Stasi control), and read Witness, the recorded testimonies of Shoah survivors and others who lived in those countries. This book is grueling, but very readable, and a must for anyone who wants to learn firsthand what it was like in Europe before, during and after this cataclysmic period.

The challenge for our trip, as I saw it, was to pay proper respect for the past, and yet to also recognize that this was our vacation. With so many museums and war-related sites on our itinerary, I also was a bit worried that by the time we�d gotten to the end our trip, we�d become inured to what we were seeing.

In Krakow, we stayed at the Hotel Copernicus for four nights. This is a restored tenement on the city�s oldest street at the foot of Wawel Hill, with a medieval meets modern décor. This was a perfect location -- a short walk to the main square, but away from the bustle; right by the Planty (the park circling the town); and easy access to Kazimierz (former Jewish Quarter and revived bohemian neighborhood). The hotel was wonderful, particularly with its delightful rooftop terrace and swimming pool in the vaulted cellar. The service was excellent � any time we asked for help, someone was in the room within two minutes of our request.

One of our first stops on the Main Square (Rynek Glowny, Europe�s largest medieval square) was to walk up the tower. Photographs showed the square as it was about a hundred years ago, and to my husband�s eyes, this was akin to how it looked under communist rule. The square was simply buildings. Today, the square, and indeed all of the city, is alive with commerce, with restaurants and shops at every turn. While the city is absolutely beautiful, I think it would have been even better without every place hanging a sign over the street, but I guess for a country emerging from the drab days of communism, the colorful displays of capitalism must have been too appealing to resist.

DH also remembered seeing many old drunks with weather-beaten faces just lying around in the streets on his visit long ago. Today, someone stands in Rynek Glowny with a sandwich board advertising �Booze Cruise.� Another sign of changed times, from drinking as an escape from hopelessness to a way to spend tourist dollars.

Krakow has certainly hit the tourist radar big-time. The streets were filled with people, and the square was busy with street entertainers day and night. But, it is also a university town, and we were told that it is not only tourists who enjoy the old town, but the local residents as well.

One of Krakow�s great charms is its restaurants. Every courtyard and alley provides opportunity for a pleasant café; the cellars are captivating settings for a meal or a jazz performance (or a pool as at Copernicus). Sometimes, when I entered a cellar, my first thought was that it seemed a bit small and dingy, but after about a minute, I realized that the effect was really cozy. One of our most memorable times was an evening of jazz at Piwnicy Pod Baranami, where the small cellar provided amazing acoustics.

We enjoyed the food almost everywhere. We mostly ate traditional, hearty central European fare. One of the great revelations to me was borscht. I had always associated this with yucky pink stuff my father drank out of a Mother�s brand bottle; now I know that borscht is apparently a catch-all name for all sorts of wonderful vegetable-based soups.

On this trip, we got late starts every day, a combination of jet lag, teenage sleep patterns and trying to pace ourselves for a two-week trip, so we didn�t fit in everything we probably could have in Krakow and on our other stops.

Our sightseeing highlights in Krakow included a tour of Kazimierz. We went with Cool Tours, which provided an interesting overview of the Jewish quarter and its history. It was bittersweet touring this neighborhood, because we were filled with sadness on how the population had been stripped of its existence, and yet we couldn�t help but feel captivated by how charming the area was. The tour ended at Schindler�s factory, and I have to confess that I had tears in my eyes on arriving there. Only having recently opened as a museum, there is a small exhibit which gives insight to Schindler himself. I later read in a newspaper that the town is divided on what to do with the building for the future � whether to maintain it solely as a museum dedicated to its role in the Holocaust or to expand use of the larger site and put in an art museum as well. (How to deal with these powerful historical presences would become a theme in Berlin as well, we were to learn.)

We thought that Cool Tours gave a good overview, but the tour did not include going inside the synagogues or the Galicia Museum (except for a snack break), and left us at the gates of the Schindler factory (which was fine, as it didn�t require a guided tour inside). So, we did go back to Kazimierz another day on our own.

Auschwitz, of course, is the most sobering outing of all. There are so many things one can say, but I guess one of the things that stuck in my mind the most was how the Nazis bureaucratized their depravity, recording procedures, memos and details for everything. Auschwitz I is maintained as a museum, with the different barracks containing exhibits and displays. At Auschwitz II (Birkenau) you wander the whole site itself, and you can can get a sense of just how awful life here must have been, not just the fear of death, but the horror of the daily living conditions.

At Birkenau, one of the most amazing sights was watching a group of Israeli students walk up the railroad tracks towards what had been the �selection� platform with the Israeli flag waving and draped across their shoulders, as if to show that we have survived and thrived despite what had been done here.

We hired a driver to take us out to the camps, and toured on our own. There are many options, whether public transport or guided tours, but this worked best for us.

We took the Cool Tours again to the Salt Mine, and found this a convenient way to go as well. A little more expensive than taking the mini-bus, but less waiting time for a tour at the mine and for the return bus. The Mine was fascinating. I thought it would be amazing to see the salt, but really it�s just grey rock, but seeing how they�ve carved out the tunnels, learning how they worked, and seeing the amazing chapel room and other sculptures was well worth it.

We also rented bikes and rode out to Tyniec Monastery. There is supposed to be a bike path all the way out from Krakow along the river to the monastery, but we lost it and ended up on a busy road, somewhat pretty, but not great. The monastery is beautifully situated along the river, but we only had time to get a snack and take a really brief look around, because we had to get back for our salt mine tour (poor planning on my part). On the way back, we managed (with some difficulty) to follow the bike path all the way, and the route was spectacularly pretty, taking us through meadows with towns and farms in the distance, and a church (or something) a beautiful sight on a far-off hill. Given the inconsistent markings on the bike trail, it would be worth considering taking a bike tour instead of going it on your own as we did.

We hated to leave Krakow, having really enjoyed the charm and not having had time to see everything, but� late afternoon on day five we traveled by train to Warsaw, opting for first-class tickets as the price differential wasn�t much. The train was an intercity express, and was great, but I have to say I�m not sure I would have enjoyed getting on one of the other trains on a nearby track which were not as snazzy as ours. We ate in the dining car, which was fun, but not a gastronomic highlight. The scenery was beautiful for much of the way, particularly the first hour out of Krakow, with farmlands and villages. It is easy to see how Poland became the corridor for Germany and Russia over its history as its broad, flat terrain would have made it easy for troops to march across.

In Warsaw, we stayed for two nights at Le Regina, a very stylishly restored old palace in the �New Town,� so named because it was the first area settled outside the initial �Old Town,� but to American eyes it certainly is old! Again, great service and another beautiful pool area, very restful. The only complaint is that breakfast is not included with the room and it is outrageously expensive. We only found one café open that served just croissants, so we did splurge one morning at the hotel, but bought the boys food from a nearby store (luckily, that was open early).

We were surprised at how large and how beautiful the older parts of Warsaw were. We knew that the Old Town had been reconstructed after the Germans razed it, but to us, it looked as if it always existed (perhaps the paint on the buildings around the main square was brighter than it would have been). The New Town was original, as was the section leading from the Old Town towards Nowy Swiat, the pedestrian street. This street (I�ll call it Krakow Boulevard) was a lovely, wide avenue with beautiful classic buildings.

For our day in Warsaw, in addition to just walking around the old sections, we went to the Jewish Historical Institute, and viewed the film on the Warsaw Ghetto. This was an incredibly harrowing experience. It didn�t indicate who filmed it, or how the footage was preserved, but it was taken both before and during the war and showed the most graphic details, including the bombing and the removal of the starved corpses from the streets. It also included scenes from the Germans� propaganda film, where they made men and women strip and bathe together in the ritual baths to show their �depravity� at �cavorting together,� and staged a festive dinner to mislead the world about the ghetto�s true conditions. The film began with a look at the sophisticated city life the Jews led before the war, and it just drove home what an inhuman world these people were thrust into when the ghettos were created.

After watching this movie, we didn�t view the exhibits themselves on the war, but looked at the small collection of old ritual objects and art by Jewish painters. There was a satellite exhibit across the street of work by an artist painting in the ghetto. It included letters from her in which she pleaded for her work to be saved someday in a museum so that the world would know what had occurred and remember the people who struggled to survive. The dignity with which she faced her impending doom was similar to the sentiments expressed in the Galicia Museum in Krakow�s Kazimierz District, which included quotes from young people, some Resistance Fighters, who recognized what their future held and faced it with incredible courage.

The Jewish Historical Institute also has extensive genealogical archives, but these were closed while we were there, which disappointed my son.

We ate both lunch and dinner in cafes on the New Town streets. This whole area just had a great vibe and was such a pleasant place to be. We were blessed during our entire trip with perfect sightseeing weather and were able to take advantage of the wonderful European outdoor café culture.

Next installment: Vilnius.
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Aug 20th, 2007, 07:40 AM
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Skatedancer: a simply marvelous report, sensitive and so full of insight and emotion, though at the same time giving us all the good travel information. You are very well organized, and I thank you for all the info. in this first section. As you know, I'm going to Warsaw and Krakow in about a month, so I'm taking it all with me.
I REALLY look forward to more of your report ....
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Aug 20th, 2007, 07:43 AM
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Wonderful report and thanks for taking the time to write and post it.
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Aug 20th, 2007, 07:46 AM
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Thanks, skatedancer, for this fantastic account! I can't wait to go to Krakow and am eagerly looking forward to the rest of your report.
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Aug 20th, 2007, 02:47 PM
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Just to let oeple know that part of the old Jewish ghetto still exists. The former gov't threw most of the bldgs down and built ugly housing, however around the area of the Ghetto Uprising there were several streets of the original Jewish Ghetto left. They were in deplorable condition when I saw it several years ago, but there were several Jewish business' there also. It was near the Jewish theatre. Also a piece of the original ghetto supposidly is left sranding in a courtyard of an older building. I found this information and folowed it using the Rough Guide to Poland. I don't know if the later editions are as good, but check it out.
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Aug 21st, 2007, 10:45 AM
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thanks for the replies. We did not have enough time to see much of Warsaw, so thank you for aieger for that info. I forgot to say that in Krakow, on our tour of the Jewish Quarter we did cross the river to where the ghetto had been. There is now a memorial in the Umschlagplatz, where the people were assembled for deportation. It is now a square with empty chairs lined up. Also there is a former pharmacy, now a museum, in which a Christian pharmacist refused to leave the ghetto in order to provide medical assistance to its inhabitants.

Now, on to Vilnius!
We flew to Vilnius on a LOT prop plane. Just a lot of vibrating, but with good weather the trip was smooth enough. On our taxi ride to hotel, the radio played American country music, but the driver spoke almost no English, so yes, it did feel like a foreign country!

We booked two nights at the Shakespeare Hotel, where each room is named after an author. The hotel is lovingly decorated, with each room furnished differently, and we felt like we were staying in someones country home.

Vilnius is still in the midst of restoration, so it was fascinating to see both the before and after, and imagine what life might have been like during Soviet occupation when the buildings were left somewhat in a state of decay. Today, the city is colorful, lively and beautiful. With its large preserved medieval center, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Most of the buildings are painted (stucco or plaster?) over brick, so it has an entirely different feel than Krakow, and side streets and alleys weave seductively for wandering.

With about 40 magnificent churches in its old town, Vilnius is a popular site for weddings. On Saturday, we saw many bridal parties posing for pictures in the streets and stumbled on to a few ceremonies in progress as we looked in some of the churches. The interiors of these churches were pretty amazing to see, very ornately decorated and covered with statues.

We spent a fascinating morning in the former KGB headquarters, now the Museum of Genocide Victims. The main floor has exhibits about the Soviet repression, the resistance fighters and the deportations of the local population as they were displaced so that the Soviets could Russify its Baltic outposts. They provided a lot of specificity about what life was like for these fighters living in the woods and for the families forced to the camps in the Soviet Union. In the basement are the prison cells, torture rooms, execution area and the exercise yard left as they were during their use. Gruesome.

We visited the only surviving synagogue, the Choral Synagogue, which was built about 100 years ago. We thought the interior was beautiful and much different than anything we would have at home. We were led in by a man sitting on a chair outside the door. As he spoke Yiddish and DH speaks German, we were able to communicate somewhat. Apparently, there are enough men to have a minyan (prayer quorum) so services are held every day there. This man seemed very excited to have us visit, showing us pictures and encouraging us to pose with him for a photograph.

There are several branches of the Jewish museum, and we picked the one that focuses on the history of Jews in Lithuania. It is in the former home of the Jewish Philharmonic, and the building is beautifully restored, with a modern design sensibility overlaid against the old stones left exposed. A really interesting museum, which I hope eventually gets more tourists.

Upon our arrival in Vilnius, we arranged for a guide to take us in the countryside, and purely by chance ended up with the man who apparently is the best guide for Jewish tourism. His name is Stefan and we booked him through Baltic Roads Travel Agency.
First, we visited Paneriai, the site of the mass executions of the Jews during WWII. I would recommend hiring a guide to see this to fully understand what occurred here.

WARNING: skip over this next part if you do not want to read graphic details or want to hear about Paneriai on your own if you visit (look for the ALL CAPS to see when to read again):

We stopped on the roads outside the woods, where the Jews were made to wait as groups were escorted in. If they didnt know their fate already, they learned it quickly enough upon hearing gunshots. Each group was brought to a pit (formerly fuel storage pits left behind by the Russians) and shot, one executioner per victim. The bodies were covered with a thin layer of soil and then more victims were piled on top.

Stefan told us about the Jews who were forced to burn all this evidence as the German defeat became evident and of their daring escape from the area. Chained together to sleep in the pit at night and watched over by guards, they began digging a tunnel in the dirt with their hands, and then eventually with metal objects they saved from the pockets of corpses. As their hole got deeper, during the day they would spill out the excess soil as they walked. Eventually, they burrowed enough of a tunnel for an escape. Some were killed by land mines, but some (I think it was about 17 people?) survived and joined the Resistance Fighters.


Stefan also took us to a former shtetl (small Jewish village) somewhere in between Vilnius and Kaunas. Some of these small wood houses were in a state of decay, and nearly ready to cave in, but some were restored and still being lived in (not by Jews however). There is an old wooden synagogue there, also about to tumble. A woman who lives next door cleaned the building of garbage, and now stands watch and lets visitors in. She had a file of newspaper articles and pictures about her and the building. She grew up in the area, and as our guide said, as a child likely saw the convoys of Jews being driven off for execution. It was a very touching experience to meet her and to thank her for her attempts to preserve the site.

We then spent two nights at a resort on Lake Trakai, Akmenine Uzeiga. I stumbled across this during some very creative googling. It was a nice spot, although a bit smaller and less upscale than I had pictured it from the website. I guess thats what happens when you book without the benefit of any TripAdvisor reviews! The mosquitos were pretty bad, and I have come to realize that not all parts of the world believe in screened windows, unfortunately. They had a wood-fired sauna, which was great when paired with a refreshing dip in the lake. The buildings were modeled to look like the areas traditional architecture, wooden with thatched roofs.

The English spoken by the staff was minimal, so my husbands limited Russian helped somewhat, as it did with the taxi we hired to visit the castle on the lake. The castle is a restored island castle, and was an interesting visit, particularly the rooms displaying things like stamps and pipes that showed how much craftsmanship and decorative detail used to be lavished on everyday objects.

We took a short ride on a yacht with a skeeper. No need to sue for false advertising, as the small sailboat was right there by the signWe asked our skeeper how people felt about post-Soviet life, and he said that many people, particularly the older ones, were much more comfortable under the old regime, where there was no personal economic uncertainty. He also told us that before, a young man courting a woman could compete on personality, but that now the ladies were more interested in the style of car, etc. a man owns.

While language was somewhat of a problem in the countryside of Vilnius, on the whole, we were fine with English in both Lithuania and Poland. Before the trip I was worried about restaurants, but that was not a problem as menus everywhere had English translations. Or did they really? Herewith, some of our favorites:

sort of dumpling
withered beef
vegetarian dishes and not only
hotch-potch soup

and our number one favorite menu translation:
veal tenderloin roasted as a lump

Next stop, Berlin.
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Aug 21st, 2007, 11:55 AM
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Aug 21st, 2007, 12:26 PM
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Hi skatedancer,
I'm enjoying this report as much as your experiences of AR, this is a part of the world on our list to visit too!
Looking forward to reading the rest.
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Aug 21st, 2007, 12:53 PM
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owlwoman -- you are stalking me! Won't get to Berlin report until tomorrow as I am now heading into the city to see Spring Awakening (my second time, my daughter's fourth). Will you be there tonight, too? LOL
(for the others, Owlwoman and I discovered that we were both in the Berkshires this weekend via a different posting. Sorry for the digression....)
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Aug 22nd, 2007, 03:06 PM
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How did you get to Lake Trakai?
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Aug 22nd, 2007, 05:23 PM
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After we did the tour of the countryside, our tour guide dropped us at the hotel on the lake. To tour the castle the next day, the hotel called us a cab, and then we kept his phone number and he brought us back at the end of the day.

I know it is easy to do day trips from Vilnius. I think there might be a bus, or else you probably could arrange a driver for the day if you want. Everything's pretty cheap there.

not to seel this forum short, but I'm pretty sure I recall seeing this question answered on TripAdvisor's Lithuania board.

will probably have to write up Germany tomorrow. Need to recharge my writing batteries a little...
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Aug 27th, 2007, 02:28 PM
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Hi skatedancer. Thanks for letting me know you had started posting your report. I truly enjoyed reading about Krakow since we had just been there in May...and I look forward to Berlin since it's on my list of places to go. Sounds like you had a great time. Keep posting - I'll check back soon.
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Aug 27th, 2007, 02:48 PM
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hi, skatedancer,

thanks for posting the report- I'm really enjoying it, especially teh Krakow bit, as that is on our radar for next year.

how far in advance did you book your hotel in krakow?

regards, ann
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Aug 27th, 2007, 04:36 PM
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Actually, we changed our mind about the Krakow hotel, and booked Copernicus not too far in advance, at most a month, if even that, I think. We were lucky, I suspect. If you have your travel plans, I would just go ahead and book it when you know, as Krakow really is quite popular.

sorry I haven't gotten to the Germany part yet; I promise to soon!

Kenav, is you are checking back on this, you might be interested in two articles on Vilnius -- one in Gourmet, Nov. 06, and one on the NY Times 4/29/07.
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Aug 27th, 2007, 05:08 PM
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Thanks for the great report. My grandfather (DziaDzia) was from Poland and I've always wanted to go. Nice to see it through your eyes.
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Aug 27th, 2007, 07:56 PM
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Wow, what a great report! We took our kids, older then yours to Poland in 2003 and loved Krakow. I wish we would have gone to the Jewish Historical Instutute in Warsaw. We only spent a friday afternoon and evening there. My husbands background is Lithuania, and he mentioned when we were in Poland, (my background) that he would love to explore where he's from, and now with your trip report, we may have a future trip destination to look forward to. Really fascinating, Thanks!
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Aug 27th, 2007, 08:16 PM
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Skatedancer: I don't know if I'll ever have a chance to travel to this part of the world, but I'm glad I had the chance to read your very interesting report.
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Aug 27th, 2007, 08:28 PM
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Very moving report, skatedancer.
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Aug 28th, 2007, 04:48 AM
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skatedancer - Did you book your inter-country planes separately fromm your booking to/from U.S.? Could you give an approximate cost of the transportation for this whole trip?
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Aug 28th, 2007, 05:23 AM
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Thank you for a very interesting report

My husband visited Germany in 2002 with some friends and a woman whose (Jewish) family had left a small town in Bavaria after Kristallnact and moved to South America then the United States. It was an incredible experience.
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