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

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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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