Tag Archives: Poland


Friday, 22 July 2011

Caricature artists are a wonderful staple when you travel in foreign cities. It’s a typically tourist thing to do, to sit for a caricature, and I find it so interesting to see the wildly different perspectives and interpretations that different artists have about me that it’s hard for me to resist. But I’ve been good (read: poor) so I’ve just been an observer since Budapest. In Prague, the main tourist thoroughfare is the Charles Bridge, which you have to cross in order to get from the old town to the Castle area. And among other merchants, it’s populated by caricature artists, who advertise their skills by sketching people that everyone knows – movie and TV stars. Every time I crossed that bridge I found it so distracting to see Josh Holloway (from Lost) or Hugh Laurie (from House) trying to catch me eye. Finally, I gave in and took a picture:


In Prague

You may recognize some of those faces, and if you click the photo to open a larger version, you’ll see other booths, with other faces, in the background. There were many.

In Krakow, this artist took a different, more political tack, which I also adored:


In Krakow

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Thursday, 21 July 2011

I started my day today with a visit to Auschwitz. It took about an hour for my tour group to get there by bus, during which we watched a film that I found more harrowing than seeing the place itself. But that’s because the film explained the significance of the sights you were about to see, and also showed what they were like immediately after liberation, with film shot by the Soviet forces that entered the camp.

No one needs to be told that the Holocaust was a terrible thing.

I didn’t come to Krakow to see Auschwitz, but since it’s here, and it partially represents such a monumental and dark passage in human history, I felt I should see it.

It’s a grim place, and the mind rebels. I didn’t see everything I could have because, at times, I felt overwhelmed.

Inside the buildings photography is either banned, or banned if your camera uses flash. Both my cameras use flash in a way I can’t turn off, so that means I didn’t take photos of any interiors in Auschwitz I, although this was allowed in some of the reconstructed sections of the larger, second camp Auschwitz-Birkenau. So let me tell you a few of the things that I saw, briefly.

A room full of empty Zyklon B cans. A room – two rooms – full of shoes, particularly children’s shoes. A room full of luggage. And one with eyeglasses. And one with 7,000 kilograms of human hair, as well as some of the sacks and stockings that the Nazis turned such hair into.

Some of the cremated human remains – ashes – were shown. Aside from flowers and candles at the base, presumably placed there by people who passed through earlier today, someone had placed a photo of Jesus and one of Pope John Paul II, who as you can imagine is rather big here in Krakow. The intentions may have been kind but that struck a sour note with me.

And we saw the only furnaces and crematoria that hadn’t been blown up by the Nazis when they left the camp.

Now let me show you some of the photos I took.

This is the famous sign you already know about:





Some pictures of the camp itself. This is Auschwitz I:







These fences were originally electrified, obviously. And were sometimes used for suicides. Of the 1.4 million to 2 million people who were kept or killed in the Auschwitz network of complexes, only 144 escaped. When the Nazis built the next camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau, they only used one line of electric fence instead of two, because they felt two were unnecessary.





The outside of the surviving gas chamber and crematorium.



Now Birkenau.



Two views of the platform where trains of prisoners, mostly Jews, were offloaded and, in many cases, marched immediately off to the gas chambers.





Most of the barracks no longer exist – they were made of wood, which has decayed. But there are the chimneys, made of brick, which remain, like a dead forest. And some barracks have been rebuilt. This is the inside of one:



We also saw the remains of the gas chambers/crematoria as the Soviets found them, blown up by the Nazis. And there was a memorial. I didn’t photograph these because every time I took a photo I felt a little bit grotesque, so I tried to do so sparingly. By the end I was very very ready for the tour to be over. We spent about four hours at the two camps.

I saw many couples holding hands. I had no one to hold hands with, but I understood.

Let me close with some thoughts.



This quote by Santayana was posted at the entrance to one of the buildings. It says “The one who does not remember history is bound to live through it again.” The message of the camps and the effort to preserve them is to remember, because without memory, we lose our best defense against a recurrence.

It’s a nice thought and may generally be true, but I don’t believe it is strictly true. If you marched the genocidal Hutus of Rwanda through the camps before the Rwandan genocide, some may have been given pause. Others may have been given inspiration, because genocide was, after all, their intent and purpose. Or the “necessary” means toward achieving their intended purpose. I tend to think that when you’re in the process of killing several hundred thousand people, you have a clear idea of what you’re in the process of doing. Fundamentalist Hindus in India – like the ones behind the pogrom of Muslims in Gujarat in 2002 – study Hitler as a positive role model, and there are such things as Neo-Nazis. Some people hate. Other people dehumanize. We’re all susceptible to propaganda, and some ideas – like nationalistic or ethnic or religious fervor – can blind people to our common humanity.

And I say this as a preface because the Jews, as a people, have suffered an extraordinarily long history of persecution and hatred. Of marginalization and discrimination. Of extremely creative cruelty by many other peoples around the world. It’s one of the reasons why, aside from my Jewish ancestry, I identify with the Jewish people so strongly. They have persevered against great injustices and against great odds, and I cheer for them.

But Jews are not synonymous with the state of Israel, much as some Jews would like to obfuscate this point. There are many millions of Jews who choose not to live in Israel for various reasons. Jews, like any people, are diverse in almost every respect, including their ideological and political opinions. And Jews within Israel are not united behind the Israeli treatment of the Palestinians by any means. So I limit my remarks to the state of Israel, and those people – in Israel and outside of it, Jewish or not – who support Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.

Your behavior is absolutely indefensible. Absolutely indefensible. And you should have the courage to know it, and see through the arguments you’ve wrapped yourself in.

Years from now, people will look back on Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians as people look back on the system of Apartheid, or Jim Crow. Certainly there were African Americans in the United States who advocated and committed violent acts against people during the time of Jim Crow. Nelson Mandela and some of his associates in the ANC at one time did the same. The question is not whether there is violence on either side; this and other arguments are designed to obscure the truth and perpetuate the systems of oppression that exist, just as other arguments and justifications perpetuated other systems while they existed.

My friend Hande told me that when she visited the camp she saw groups of Israeli soldiers there, presumably sent by the State of Israel. I did not see such soldiers there, and there could be another explanation for their presence. But I highly doubt that Israel is doing what it is doing to the Palestinians because it does not remember the Holocaust. Let me give you one example, from 2004. These are excerpts from the full story at the BBC:

The footage has sparked a debate in Israel, where some media compared the army’s conduct to Nazi coercion of Jewish musicians during the Holocaust.

Concentration camp prisoners were forced to perform classical music for their Nazi guards in the World War II.

The human rights group’s film of the West Bank incident shows Mr Tayem playing to an audience of border guards and waiting Palestinians as his documents are checked.

Mr Tayem has said he was humiliated at the checkpoint and the army’s accounts do not make sense.

“They asked me to open the case and show them the instrument, which was fine by me,” he told Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

“But then they asked me to play. I did not offer to play,” he said.

He added that the soldiers would have asked him to step back and play his violin at a distance if they feared it might contain explosives.

This minor incident – hardly significant in real terms in the larger conflict – caused such a stir within Israel and abroad precisely because it symbolized and crystalized the fact that the oppressed have now become the oppressors.

It’s wrong.

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Thursday, 21 July 2011

Planner and schemer that I am, I figured that I could do my laundry more cheaply if I did it in Poland, and I was right. All it cost was 5 zloty a load for the detergent. 5 zloty! When’s the last time YOU paid five zloty for anything?

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Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Lest you be overcome with bitterness at the depths of my woe, let me remind you that I haven’t yet told you how much I enjoyed my time in Prague, or the sheer pleasure I’m having here in Krakow.

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Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Let me gripe to you a little bit about couchsurfing, and accommodation-surfing in general.

Yesterday was my first day in Krakow, and without going into too much detail yet, it was a wonderful day. A glorious day. Until I came back to the hostel and started trying to arrange my accommodation in Copenhagen, the next stop I had planned. I realize that this July-August time frame is the busy part of the travel season, but so far I haven’t had too much trouble with my method – when I arrive in a place, and get a sense of how long I want to stay there, I arrange a place to stay in the next place. Arranging where to stay before you know how long you want to stay where you are – and therefore when you will be in the next place – always seemed a bit like putting the cart before the horse. Anyway, now that I’m venturing into Western Europe, I’m running into trouble.

From about 10 PM to 2 AM last night – that’s four hours – I looked for someplace reasonable to stay in Copenhagen. But I ran into two problems – first, that many places are already booked. Second, that there is no reasonable place to stay in Copenhagen, aside from a park bench, and even then you may wake up with a bill tucked underneath your eyelid.

I’ve stayed in hostels thus far, and I like hostels. You get to meet interesting people when you want to; come and go as you please; you can afford the rates; and if you’re lucky you can find a place near the railway station. They have free maps, free breakfast (if you wake up in time, which I rarely do); free linens, and some even offer free laundry. You can put your leftovers in the refrigerator – for free – and secure your valuables in a locker – for free – if you’re so inclined. The people at the front desk are helpful, and can answer everyday questions (in English) like, “Where is the nearest post office so I can mail these postcards?” and “Where can I get an inexpensive but authentic Slovak meal?” Showers are free, internet access is free, and sometimes they even have candies at the front desk.

In Copenhagen, the normal rules/expectations no longer apply.

First, the normal rate you may pay for a room is way out of scale. In Bucharest and Budapest I paid 10 euro. In Bratislava, 15, which was overpriced. Prague, 15, and Vienna 18 due to my late planning. Now, in Krakow, I am paying 13 euro.

23 would be reasonable for a Western city like Copenhagen, or even 30. Instead, the cheapest dormitory hostel bed I found was three thousand euro a night. Oops, did I say thousand? I meant million. Who has that kind of cash?

But then there are the fees. Want sheets on your bed? Gotta pay. Free internet? It isn’t free. When you speak to the person at the front desk, do you want them to verbalize their responses into sound waves using their vocal chords? There’s an extra charge for that; double if you want answers in your language; a new charge for each reply. Each room is sealed, and when you find you need more oxygen – say, in the middle of the night, when you’re suffocating – you can pay by cash, debit, or credit card. Credit card charges entail a surcharge, as credit is difficult to collect post-mortem.

There is another option which I didn’t even know existed before I stayed with my dear friend Christina in Istanbul. It’s called couchsurfing, a colloquial term for staying over at someone’s place. I knew what it was, of course; in fact that’s exactly what I did in Istanbul when I stayed with Christina. But I did not know there was a community of people – strangers – who habitually opened their homes to travelers (other strangers) for free. Christina was such a host in Seattle, and has herself stayed with other hosts on her own journeys. Even when you have a website to search for hosts – like couchsurfing.org – this does raise other problems. Like safety: if I stay with this random dude, is he going to rob me? Rape me? Fingerprint me in my sleep? Hosts might wonder the same – they are, after all, opening their own homes to complete strangers, who may themselves turn out, in the course of events, to be robbers, rapists, or fingerprinters.

Couchsurfing.org addresses these issues in several ways that, as an enthusiast for the internet and its ability to generate accountable communities, makes my heart glow. Hosts and guests are both required to establish profiles, and when there is an interaction – a couchsurfing stay – one or both may post a permanent review regarding the other. People profiled on the site can also “friend” each other (a weak certification) or “vouch for” each other (intended as a strong certification). But none of these accountability measures would ultimately work without a set of norms, adopted by the community and voluntarily enforced by the community. Without such agreed-upon norms of behavior (when to “vouch” for someone, say, and what that signifies) the community would not last. Only because these norms persist – are made to persist by the community – does the community continue to exist. It’s a wonderful thing, and I am an enthusiastic proponent.

But there are other considerations that other people, more patient (or less grouchy) than I, need to negotiate. Each person may or may not have a space available for a couchsurfer at any given time. But once you have a list of folks with a couch (which must be, according to the norms of the community, provided for free), you’re not done yet. Let’s say 200 people in Copenhagen have a couch available. Each of those 200 people live in a different place in the city. They have different personal schedules and, in many cases, you’ll be dependent on those schedules, because they will not give you a key – you have to leave when they leave and return after they have returned. Many seem to have the immensely, monumentally annoying idea that you should spent immense and monumental amounts of time together, drinking beer, cooking together, chatting about your travels and bonding as human beings in this lonely, lonely world. And it goes on, because as a guest – a stranger in their home – you are completely at the mercy of their personalities, their preferences, their moods, and their expectations. You have no control. Aside from the ability to choose whom you want to ask to stay with: who, that is, you want to lack control with.

I say, that sucks. I do want to meet people, and I’ve met some interesting and fascinating people thus far. But in all those exchanges, I’ve had the ability to leave whenever I wanted. I wasn’t at their mercy. I didn’t HAVE to ask to go to the bathroom or drink beer with them or wait for them to come home at night. I was the master of my own domain. When you couchsurf, that’s not the case. Your experience of a place is dependent to a high degree on the relationship you have (or can forge) with a particular person, or set of people: your host(s). People who have no obligation to you, whom you’ve never met, but who have a high degree of discretion and control over your travel experience.

I say, that sucks. Even looking through the different profiles that people post, with their differing – wildly differing – sets of minute rules and expectations, gives me a headache. It’s a mess. I understand why people have such differing rules and expectations; they are all different people, after all. If I wanted to make my home available to complete strangers, I’d do the same. But I don’t have the patience to sift through all the mess, nor the hours of free time, and, in the end, you’re still entrusting your experience of place – and the control over that experience, in many ways – to someone very different from yourself. I don’t want to do that.

So after four hours, I was no closer to finding a solution than I was at the start, and I decided to say to hell with the thing, and figure it out in the morning.

This morning, I decided to hell with the thing, and I’ll skip Copenhagen altogether. Why stay anyplace where you’re so clearly unwanted and unwelcome? Copenhagen was already going to be a 21-hour train ride from Krakow, a train ride I was willing to put up with. But not if I’m going to have my pants pulled down at the end of it.

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At Night

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

I wish I could describe to you what Krakow is like in the evening. It’s just like being in Krakow. Only at night.

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