Thursday, 31 May 2012

Travel Update I - Konotop, Ukraine (30th May)


I am now on my travels again and reporting to you from the town of Konotop, Ukraine. Konotop is famous for... nothing really, and is notable because... it has a railway station. There is absolutely nothing of note here save for old trams, a statue of a horse and a statue of Lenin (me like). It is about 150 miles from Kiev and about 50 miles from Russia. You may be asking therefore, why am I here? Well, ten years ago, I was here before, with my brother and a young lady called Hazel. We were intending to travel from Moscow, through the Ukraine to Romania and thence Bulgaria. Unfortunately, we were hauled off the train at Konotop, locked up in the police station for a day and then put on the train back to Moscow for not having a visa, (which we didn't need but they wanted bribes). So, this time around, when I actually I hope to complete the journey I intended all those years ago, I thought it best to start off where I left off, which, unfortunately, is Konotop. Actually, I don't mind too much, the coffee is cheap, it's pleasantly provincial, is full of pretty ladies and, as I've already said, it has a Lenin statue which is enough to keep me happy.

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

P.S. Peruse the images below to see what you're missing if you've never been lucky enough to experience the wonders of Konotop!

The Horse Statue

сувениры конотоп
A tram

сувениры для конотопа
The infamous railway station where dastardly border police hang out

Sunday, 27 May 2012

Poland 2012: Part 5: Wieliczka and the (not-so) Beautiful Game

world-map krakow


As promised here’s the next installment of Poland 2012, a week earlier due to me heading off to Kiev in a couple of days. It is also, unexpectedly, the final installment. There were two more days to go but the Saturday section was so short I thought it best to lump them together and give you something better to read. Incidentally, what do people think of this travelogue? I’ve been receiving lots of hits this month but no comments on whether you like it or not. The last section is quite searching so I’d love to hear what you think of my conclusions, be you in agreement or not, for these are subjects that I consider worth discussing. To help do this, I’ve changed the settings so anyone can leave a comment now.

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Links to all parts of the travelogue:

Poland 2012: Part 1: Krakow

Poland 2012: Part 2: Czestochowa

Poland 2012: Part 3: Auschwitz

Poland 2012: Part 4: Nowa Huta and Emailia

Poland 2012: Part 5: Wieliczka and the (not-so) Beautiful Game

Flickr album of this trip

poland map krakow trip


Our last full day in Poland and we were at a bit of a loss for what to do. All the places that we were desperate to see, we had seen, save for the world-famous Wieliczka Salt Mines and we were booked on a trip to them the next day. True, I quite fancied a trip to Zakopane in the mountains or perhaps the old city of Zamość where I once set a novel,[1] but both involved lengthy journeys and neither of us felt in the mood.

We wandered down to the Wawel, the gigantic fortress that towers over the southern end of the Old City, and booked into two of its half a dozen attractions. The first was the State Rooms where the kings and queens of Poland – and one assumes also Hans Frank, the Nazi Governor – once received their minions and foreign deputies. They were grand and full of treasures but after Częstochowa treasure fatigue, for me at least, was beginning to set in. After that we moved onto Lost Wawel, an exhibition exploring the history of the very earliest settlements and structures on the Wawel hill. I found this far more interesting. There was a huge model of the hill in early mediaeval days showing the first cathedral, fortress and buildings with a wooden stockade surrounding them all. Back in the years when Europe was slowly crawling out of the Dark Ages, the Wawel was Kraków. Commanding a position overlooking one of the most important rivers in the land and on the only bit of high ground around, it was a natural location for a settlement. First came a church, then some buildings around it and a stockade to protect them and thus the city was born. That first church was a rotunda dedicated to St. Felix and St. Adauctus and the Lost Wawel exhibition was centred around the ruins of the first Krakowian building which still lie beneath the much later palace. It was interesting to muse that the stones we were viewing represent the very beginnings of the Polish state.


Mike at the Wawel

After Lost Wawel we had both had enough sightseeing and so decided to take up an idea of Mike’s. The evening before he had argued that since we had originally intended to attend a football match, why not do just that? We’d made enquiries and discovered that Kraków has two teams in the Polish Ekstraklasa (Premier League) – Wisła Kraków and Cracovia. The former was the better of the two in terms of results and league position, but having played away in Europe that week, Wisła were not in action that Saturday. Cracovia on the other hand, were at home and before I’d left England one of my Polish students had informed me that they have the loudest – and most violent – support in all of Poland. An ancient, (the oldest in Poland), underachieving team with passionate support and they even play in red and white – it was a match made in Heaven for an exiled Stoke fan!

So we made our way to the Józef Piłsudski Stadium, a decent-sized ground that would not have looked out of place in the English Championship.[2] We were an hour early so we made our way to the ticket office and joined the queue for tickets. However, when we got to the window the lady at the desk told us that she couldn’t sell any to us until we had gone to a portacabin to have our photos taken for ‘ID’. She didn’t explain why but was most insistent on this so we left and joined a second, considerably longer, queue in front of the aforementioned portacabin.[3] This queue moved forward altogether more slowly due to each member having to go into a booth to get their photo taken when they reached its head but the wait gave us the opportunity to study some of the less savoury elements of Polish society in great detail with a variety of skinheads and their girls pushing in at the front, spitting on the floor and using the word ‘kurwa[4] with every second breath. Eventually though, we finally reached the head with only the door between us and the purchase of Cracovia tickets when, to our dismay and confusion, the queue simply stopped and nothing happened for twenty minutes. As tempers frayed and the kurwas multiplied we discovered that the computer system had broken down. The game kicked off with an almighty cheer and we were still locked out with the cream of Kraków’s underclass for company. The game continued and the atmosphere sounded cracking and we were stood leaning against a portacabin surrounding by spitting swearing skinheads. In the end Mike, who was far less stubborn than I, declared that he’d had enough and was going back into town to watch the rugby instead in the English bar. I hesitated, hating to admit defeat, but then realised that he was by far the saner of the two of us and followed, retreating like Hitler outside of Moscow, so near to my goal and yet so far. That retreat led us to the comfort of our own countrymen and the consolation of the oval ball instead of the round.[5]

That evening was our last in Poland so we did as we’d vowed to and returned to Pod Wawelem for another fine feast and beers in our favourite place in the country. We’d planned to go out further, on a celebratory last night bender, but after a single beer in an Old City bar we both realised that our hearts just weren’t in it anymore and so retreated for the second time that day, this time to the warm confines of Blue Hostel and the warm embrace of eBay.


On our last day we were off on another trip, this time to somewhere mercifully unconnected with the Holocaust or any other Polish national tragedy. We were going to somewhere a bit lighter but further down than anywhere else we’d visited – the world-famous Wieliczka Salt Mines.

Begun in the middle ages and operated continuously for seven hundred years, the mines were included in the first-even UNESCO World Heritage List in 1978. They have over three hundred kilometres of tunnels on nine levels and there is even an underground sanatorium as the air down there is purportedly very healthy, (it certainly felt good when we breathed it).

We walked down several hundred steps and then began our tour, strolling through numberless tunnels and chambers all carved by hand from solid salt, (to prove it, our guide encouraged us to lick the walls). Many chambers had statues in them carved out of solid blocks of salt and several had been converted into chapels, the showpiece being the magnificent Chapel of St. Kinga, an enormous chamber with an altar and artworks including a copy of da Vinci’s Last Supper carved out of the green salt by two men.


The Last Supper: Salt was on the menu

The patroness of this underground temple, St. Kinga, is a lady whom one hears a lot about at the Wieliczka Mines. She was an Hungarian princess, the daughter of Bela IV and was married off, somewhat reluctantly it is said, to Prince Bolesław the Chaste of Kraków. Before moving to Poland she was given a salt mine in Hungary as a gift to her betrothed since salt was scarce in his land. For some unexplained reason, before leaving, she threw her ring into this mine and then set off. When passing through Wieliczka she stopped and told her minions to dig a hole. They did so and struck salt and in the middle of the solid salt block that they found was the ring. Thus it was that she brought prosperity to the land of her husband, but that was all that she did bring, for both she and Bolesław entered into vows of chastity and so never consummated their marriage. After his death she retired to a nunnery where she lived out her days in pious contemplation, never allowing anyone to make mention of her former position as the wife of the monarch.


St. Kinga and St. Michael

Whatever the veracity of the legend, we both enjoyed our trip down the mine that Kinga founded. It was something a bit different and a bit lighter than the solid diet of suffering, tragedy and sporting failure that we’d been fed ever since setting down in the country several days earlier. Poland is a land where a lot of bad things have happened but it is also a country in which there is much good also – cultural, personal and historical. It is easy to get hung up on the bad but in the Wieliczka Salt Mines with their glorious chapels and statues one gets a feeling that it is also a ‘normal’ country because in ‘normal’ countries ordinary people often achieve some extraordinary things in their spare time.

We ascended to the surface in a rather cool multi-storey lift and then took the minibus back to our hotel from where we journeyed by the exceedingly sedate ‘fast’ train back to the airport. This was the end of our little Polish adventure, our excursion – or incursion – into the land of Holocaust and Hans Frank, the Wawel and Wieliczka, Pope John Paul II and Pod Wawelem.

Overall I liked Poland. It is similar in character to both Slovakia and Latvia, (which makes sense since it lies between the two), and I’d liked both of those as well. Although not bursting with folks rushing out to be your friend, at the same time we found the Poles to be not unfriendly also and by and large we were left alone and treated with courtesy which is how I like things to be.

It was also cheap. Places east of Berlin tend to be cheap of course, but Poland was noticeably cheaper than both Latvia and Slovakia and this came as a pleasant surprise. When travelling in Western European countries one generally frets about the costs and keeps a wary eye on the budget but in Poland this wasn’t necessary and instead we could relax and enjoy places like Pod Wawelem without worrying about the bill at the end of the night. Of course I appreciate that those low costs are not translated across to those who have to survive on Polish wages and it was abundantly clear that making ends meet must be a struggle for many Poles – I have never seen so many beggars in a European city as I saw in Kraków – but from a purely touristic standpoint, Poland was a low-cost place to visit and that was good.

Where Poland falls down though is its dreariness. Even taking into account the fact that we were visiting in February and seeking out some of the most depressing tourist attractions in the world, Poland’s dourness is noticeable. The landscape is undulating, featureless and dull, whilst the houses are plain and the apartments of the crumbling concrete type that the post-communist world so excels in. Only the churches offer light and colour but, as I have already said, I found them a bit too much. One does not come to Poland for the scenery.[6]

But one doesn’t choose Poland for her scenery, one comes for something else, her great drawcard which both repels and attracts. One comes to Poland for her history. No other nation in Europe has been overrun, invaded, occupied and punished so much as Poland and that tragic, tumultuous heritage comes across at every turn. Częstochowa was powerful, possessing a power that comes from suffering and then hope in a brighter tomorrow and a deep faith, and in a strange way, the same can be said of Nowa Huta which was born out of despair, a blueprint for a new world and that deep religiosity building the Arka Pana brick by brick. Schindler’s factory too contained elements of this but none of the places we visited, none of the places I have ever visited, came close to Auschwitz, or to be more exact, Birkenau.

I was worried beforehand about having become somehow immune to suffering, too familiar with the crimes that took place there and the other genocidal events in recent world history, and at Auschwitz I perhaps was. But even my good background knowledge of the Holocaust, my visits to Yad Vashem and the Jewish Museum in Berlin; even that room full of suitcases, those children’s clothes, that pile of Zyklon B canisters, that room full of hair, none of them prepared me adequately for Birkenau, the largest factory of death on earth. In the weeks that followed, whilst the rest of our Polish experience slowly faded and everyday life took over again, Birkenau stayed with me, that grey, desolate place of despair where mankind sunk to its lowest.

I talked to my Jewish friend Paul, (he’d felt the same about Birkenau in comparison to Auschwitz), watched Schindler’s List again and documentaries on the internet about the Holocaust; I read Martin Gilbert’s moving Holocaust Journey, the tale of an Holocaust pilgrimage he made around Germany, the Czech Republic and Poland with some Masters students in which he visited Auschwitz-Birkenau and many other sites connected with the tragedy and Jewish life before it happened, and after that an philosophical account on ethics in the twentieth century which covered topics like Stalinism, the Khmer Rouge and Nazism. I even made a brief foray into the weird and bizarre world of Holocaust Denial, watching a lecture by David Irving on YouTube which taught me more than anything else on how human beings can close their eyes to anything if they have a desire to do so. I wanted to understand, to comprehend how and why such inhumanity could have happened. Although this was no new subject to me, visiting Birkenau forced me to re-examine it and look at it anew, with fresh eyes. And in doing so two things struck me.

The first relates to the debate over the ‘uniqueness’ of the Holocaust. For decades the debate has raged in academia and political circles as to whether the Holocaust was unique, somehow different and more awful than the other great traumas of the twentieth century. Glover puts it as follows in Humanity:

‘Another debate considers whether the Nazi genocide was unique. Some say that it takes its place with the other twentieth-century cases of political mass murder. Others argue that it possesses a moral enormity which makes it unique. The debate is blurred by the vagueness of the idea of an episode being unique. Every event is in some ways unique and in other ways not.’[7]

In the past I firmly disagreed with the ‘unique camp’. There have been other tragedies; terrible tragedies which even the six million of the Holocaust can’t compete with numerically. Stalin killed far more whilst as a percentage of the population Pol Pot far outdid Hitler. And if we look at the racism of the Holocaust to be the crime, then were not the Armenians also singled out by the Ottomans to be wiped out? After visiting Birkenau though and reading what I read afterwards, I have changed my mind. I now believe that the Holocaust was unique and to explain why, I find this quote by Eberhard Jäckel to be helpful:

‘The National Socialist murder of the Jews was unique because never before had a nation with the authority of its leader decided and announced that it would kill off as completely as possible a particular group of humans, including old people, women, children and infants, and actually put this decision, using all means of governmental power at its disposal.’[8]

What does he mean by this? Let me try to explain using examples. The Ottoman government tried – and largely succeeded – to wipe out its Armenians, putting a lot of valuable resources into its efforts. But it was never very highly organised and often the degree of participation depended largely on the zeal of the local commander. It was neither as planned nor as organised as the Jewish Holocaust. And the Armenians were to be annihilated because they were perceived as a threat, a fifth column within the Ottoman state. They were exterminated because of the damage they could do to the empire. They were still however, seen as human and had they lived away from the empire, their destruction would not have been a priority or even a necessity. In short, they were worthy of living. Boiled down, the Armenian massacres, like Pol Pot’s, Mao’s and Stalin’s were political, seen as a grim necessity when the world is viewed from a particularly paranoid and twisted standpoint. To the Nazis though, the Jews fell into a different category. Hitler viewed them as a threat to the German people, yes, but by 1940 that perceived threat had been all but eliminated. Instead their destruction was necessary because they were not human, they were sub-human, the antithesis of human and as such deserved only to die. Slaughtering them was not seen as a priority, it was the priority, more important even than winning the war. When the Germans attacked, Stalin relaxed his purges and his stance on things such as religion so are to increase the war effort. The Germans on the other hand delayed troop movements and supplies to the Eastern Front when the fighting was at its most critical in order to kill the Jews, a killing done so methodically, so dispassionately that today we cannot comprehend it. The stories of the political prisoners at Auschwitz, of the martyrdom of St. Maximillian Kolbe speak of an emotional involvement by the Nazis, but Birkenau was merely a production line. A production line of death. Many years ago I worked on a chicken farm on a kibbutz in Israel. We had twenty-four thousand chickens that we fed and watered. Then, one night, they were gone. They had been sold to the slaughterhouse and were taken away in trucks. We did not weep for them or lament them, nor did we miss their presence or feel guilt for our complicity in their murder. They were chickens after all, bred for their meat. They were not human. And so it was for the Nazis with the Jews; they never gave them the respect of being human and so could remove all human emotions, just as we did with those chickens.

Glover, in his analysis of twentieth century morals and ethics concludes that mass murder happens due to either belief or tribalism. The Nazis exhibited extreme forms of both. They gave themselves totally to their beliefs in National Socialism and the evil influences of the Jews, and they were encouraged to have no identity beyond that of their tribe. What they did have though, was a moral identity. Himmler was most insistent that his SS men should not steal a single fur or be corrupt – that would be against his moral code. But since that moral code was not linked to humanity, it was as good as useless.

But going back to the chickens, they bring me to the second lesson that I learnt at Birkenau, and that concerns Israel. Whilst we were walking around the camp there were many other groups doing likewise[9] including one carrying a large Israeli flag. At first I wondered whether it was right to go waving a national flag around in such a place but later, when we were in one of the dormitories, we came across the group again, sat on the bunks, singing painful songs of lament in Hebrew, and I realised just how wrong I was. Birkenau is not a place for any national flags bar one, and the Israeli flag is the exception, for it was in Birkenau, Auschwitz, Sobibor, Treblinka, Bergen-Belsen et al that Israel was born. It is a country that was created as a refuge for the survivors of those hellholes, a safe haven where those who had suffered so much could come together in their grief, recuperate and rebuild their shattered lives away from the misery and memories of the past.

For the Jews could not have gone back to living where they’d lived before. Surrounded by so many dead, the memories of so much suffering, normal life could never have been possible. More than that though, they weren’t welcome. One thing that the Holocaust failed to expunge was the prejudice against and hatred towards the Jews in Poland, Latvia, Lithuania and other countries where the murdered millions had once lived. In Gilbert’s book I read the story of a survivor of Birkenau who made his way, after the liberation, back to his hometown of Częstochowa. Upon arrival, perhaps in one of the very streets that I had walked along a day or two before, he was accosted by a group of local Poles and shot simply for being a Jew. Even today I have Polish students who regularly and openly espouse anti-Semitic views. And the other group that they despise are the Gypsies, the only other race that Hitler tried to systematically exterminate.

Today many questions hang over the State of Israel. It comes in for criticism from several quarters over its relationaships with the Arabs and its treatment of the Palestinians and many commentators claim that it uses the Holocaust to gain sympathy for or to justify it actions. Is that true? A travelogue on Poland is not the place to debate such matters but that visit to Birkenau clearly demonstrated to me that to separate the Holocaust from Israel is impossible. Although a thousand miles apart geographically, the latter does not make sense without the former. Israel is a country that I have lived and worked in and know well, yet visiting Birkenau made me understand it far better. Is it any wonder that it sometimes acts erratically: it is a collective founded by millions who have gone through the worst kind of trauma. If Birkenau is the car crash and the Jews its victims, then Revivim, the kibbutz in the desert where I lived, is the sanatorium where those victims recover and then start to move on, building a new life.

And that seemed like a good place to end, for we too were moving on, not from a trauma but from an experience that was moving nonetheless. Both Mike and I had enjoyed Poland and more importantly, unlike many past visitors to those parts, had not killed each other in the process. So much so in fact, that we’d vowed to go on another European break, later in the year or perhaps in 2013. That though, was for the future, now I had another trauma to endure. I opened up Tales from the Fast Trains again and was transported with Tom and ‘E’ to another place.


The future’s bright…

Written HMP Dovegate, April 2012

Copyright © 2012, Matthew E. Pointon

Flickr album of this trip 

[1] The Line

[2] Second tier.

[3] I later learnt from my Polish students that in an effort to combat the rampant hooliganism that plagues the Polish game, the government had passed a law decreeing that all spectators at all Ekstraklasa games must have an ID card.

[4] Literally ‘whore’. The most commonly-used profanity in Polish.

[5] And in the end it was worth it. Despite losing narrowly (12-19) – and a tad controversially – to the Welsh, we witnessed one of the best rugby matches I have ever seen and some good humour as well with one English wit shouting out “Sheepshaggers!” only to a Welsh retort of, “We may shag ‘em, but you eat them!” Cracovia versus Bialystok on the other hand finished a dour 0-0 draw.

[6] Or at least not the bit we went to. Other parts, in particular the mountains just to the south of Kraków however, are reputed to be scenically beautiful.

[7] Humanity, p.396

[8] Humanity, p.396

[9] Including some Germans. Near the monument to the dead Mike lit a cigarette and a German lady came up to him and told him to put it out. “They’re still ordering people around here today,” he commented with a grim smile.

Friday, 25 May 2012

Poland 2012: Part 4: Nowa Huta and Emailia

world-map krakow


A big week for me coming up as I’m off on my annual backpacking adventure! On Wednesday I’m flying to Kiev where I’ll be visiting Chernobyl before then heading south for Odessa and journeying through the weird and wonderful country of Moldova to Romania where I hope to explore parts of Moldavia and Maramures. I can’t wait!.

What all of that means however, is that for the next few weeks Uncle Travelling Matt is going to be a bit different as I can’t go on posting my finished works stored here on my home computer. So instead I’ll be posting updates of where I am with, if I can work out how to do it, photos downloaded from my camera. That way, when I get kidnapped by Transdniestran terrorists, you’ll be the first to know!

All well and good, but that then leaves us with another problem, namely the fact that we’ve not finished the Poland travelogue and it is proving to be very popular with readers. So what I’ve decided to do is start posting an installment every day or every other day until it’s all up, (3 more I think…) and along those lines, here’s Part IV in which Mike and I explore more of Krakow’s tumultuous past including a communist model city, a church inspired by Noah’s Ark and an enamelware factory once owned by a certain gentleman named Oskar Schindler.

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Links to all parts of the travelogue:

Poland 2012: Part 1: Krakow

Poland 2012: Part 2: Czestochowa

Poland 2012: Part 3: Auschwitz

Poland 2012: Part 4: Nowa Huta and Emailia

Poland 2012: Part 5: Wieliczka and the (not-so) Beautiful Game

Flickr album of this trip

poland map krakow trip  


We had a late morning and then headed to the railway station to try and work out Kraków’s complex tram system. In Poland it’s not just a case of jumping on, buying a ticket and going where you want. Oh no, instead one must first buy a ticket, but alas tickets are only sold from kiosks but, crucially, not all kiosks and there is no clue to the uninitiated as to which the correct ones might be. We tried about three before we found one that had tram tickets to sell to us but then, first task done, we had to cope with the second, namely finding the correct tram to get on. There are route maps next to the stops and from one of these I’d worked out that the tram we needed passed by the railway station, but in which direction and from which stand? Eventually, after trying no less than four tram stops, we found the one that we needed and when our tram eventually arrived we had to wander out into the middle of the road, dodging traffic, to get on it. Hardly a Health and Safety Rep’s dream but we survived and managed to board our carriage. That done, it was then onto task three, namely finding the machine that verifies our tickets and inserting them into it in the correct way. Then and only then could we finally sit down and enjoy the ride.

Our destination that morning was Nowa Huta, a suburb of Kraków with a population of around a quarter of a million. After the war when the communists came to power they embarked upon the modernisation and industrialisation of the country and the construction of Nowa Huta was a key plank in their strategy. In true Stalinist tradition, it was decreed that steel production needed to increase dramatically and so a vast new steelworks was planned and beside it a new city to house the workers, (the name ‘Nowa Huta’ literally means ‘new steelworks’). A decision was made that this new city would be a model city, a bold declaration to the world of the new, socialist Poland.[1] As such it was to be built on a grand, monumental scale in the officially approved Socialist Realist style and with plentiful amenities for the workers. Those who had previously been ignored and trampled upon were now the masters and would be treated accordingly. They would have access to theatres and green spaces and would live in buildings that resembled the palaces of the old nobility. Significantly though, in this new city of the future, in the Brave New Poland, there would be no room for the ‘superstition’ and ‘backwardness’ that I had witnessed two days before in Czestochowa. Nowa Huta was to be a beacon of atheism with not a church in sight.

Our tram dropped us off in the magnificent Plac Centralny[2], the centre of the new workers’ paradise. Grand avenues stretched off in all directions whilst three sides of the square were flanked by impressive classical buildings. It reminded me strongly of Ceausescu’s Bucharest but then it should do for both were mammoth projects inspired by the same ideal.


Plac Centralny

We walked down the grand Aleja Roz to the Ratuszowy Park. Nowa Huta was never completely finished and this was originally planned as a vast ceremonial square with a magnificent city hall in the centre. That never got built and newer buildings betray where the original plans were modified to something less spectacular. It is a shame for if built to the original vision, it would have been incredible.


Original plan for the city hall

Just beyond the park is the small Nowa Huta Museum. We entered and checked out the exhibits which detailed not only the grand vision behind and the construction of the city, but also many subsequent events, in particular the building of the Arka Pana – the first church eventually allowed in the city by the communist authorities – and Nowa Huta’s starring role in the anti-communist Solidarity movement during the 1980s. Ironically, the workers who were so extolled by the regime that purported to represent them during the 1950s were the very people who brought it down in the eighties and their model city was one of the main focal points of resistance.

We walked on through the damp streets of that model city towards the Arka Pana and I thought about the whole Nowa Huta project. On the one hand, I must confess to liking it; architecture and town planning have long interested me and planning on such a grand scale – the ‘mega-project’ – is always exciting to witness, and I was sad that this one – like so many mega-projects – was never completed. I was attracted too to the idealism, the goal of building a better world, a world where the worker is valued, the poor man is king. It is a noble dream and that nobility is what gave communism its appeal and sustained it for so long. Who cannot applaud the efforts of men who believed that those at the very bottom of society should have access to theatres, libraries, decent living conditions and proper schools for their children so that they could escape the poverty trap that ensnared their parents, green spaces in which to run and play, and all the other amenities which give life its purpose and quality. The style too is rather to my tastes. I like architecture with a nod to the past and Socialist Realism, although much decried by many critics, has just that, both to classical architecture and the vernacular Polish styles. Furthermore, it is an architectural style that states something clearly and that is a statement of hope in the future, of progress, of victory, of belief in a better world to come. Modern and Post-Modern architecture is so often, by its very definition, purposeless, drifting, driven more by cost factors than aught else. Socialist Realism on the other hand implies that the poor are worth spending a little extra on and that to me is refreshing to see.


Nowa Huta: the vision

However, despite all these factors, at Nowa Huta something was wrong. I can’t place my finger on it exactly, but definitely something wasn’t there. Perhaps it was the grey? The formerly socialist world always seems to appear overwhelmingly grey and dark and Nowa Huta is no exception. To be fair, on a dark, rainy afternoon in February most places ever appear at their most colourful, but nonetheless, this was still was a dour place. More than that though, it was the scale. Nowa Huta is grand, big, stupendous in its vision. The streets are wide and the buildings high yet in amongst all that the humans that live there are almost lost, overwhelmed by the scale of the built environment that surrounds them. In his book A Vision of Britain HRH Prince Charles argues that the human being should be central to the scale of all buildings since that is who they are built for yet at Nowa Huta this maxim seems to have been ignored. Perhaps this is because, whilst the ideals behind it are laudable, Nowa Huta, like so many communist initiatives was imposed on the people, with pressure from above, not below. People were being told what was good for them, not consulted, but without that consultation those people somehow got forgotten on the way.

On our way to the Arka Pana, just past the Teatr Ludowy we stopped at a market. Mike is an avid browser of such places and had been told to explore them by his Polish neighbours. This one however, held little of interest, mainly cheap tat and vegetables. At one stall some old women were selling goat’s cheese and, feeling pity for them, we thought about buying some but when they gave us a taster it was bland, watery and vaguely unpleasant so, much to their disappointment, we passed on.

The Arka Pana (Lord’s Ark) Church is remarkable not only for its architecture – bold and modern, the architect Wojciech Pietrzyk was inspired by Le Corbusier’s Chapel of Notre Dame du Haut in Ronchamp – but also the story behind its construction. As I have already said, Nowa Huta was conceived as an atheist city and there was to be no church within its boundaries, but as early as 1960 residents were agitating for one to be built. Construction finally began in 1967 and built entirely through donations and voluntary labour, it rose brick by brick. The Arka Pana was finally consecrated by Cardinal Karol Wojtyla – later to become Pope John Paul II – in 1977 and during the years of martial law (1981-3) Masses for the Fatherland were held every Friday followed by anti-government demonstrations after the services had finished.


Arka Pana

Not being a particular fan of modern architecture, I must admit to being rather nonplussed by the exterior but inside it was altogether more appealing. There was a Marian grotto underneath the main altar but what caught my eye most were the Stations of the Cross, fourteen grand paintings depicting Christ’s Passion in a traditional rural Polish setting. I’m a firm believer in the principle that religion should interact with and become part of the local cultural tapestry and this was a perfect demonstration of this. They were marvellous to behold.

station of the cross

Detail from one of the Stations of the Cross, Arka Pana

We walked back to Plac Centralny and ate a traditional communist restaurant named Stylowa where we enjoyed soup, a meat main with cabbage and mash and fruit juice for a very reasonable 14zł. Then we jumped onto a tram and headed out to our next stop on our tour of Kraków’s outer districts.

On the 3rd March, 1941 the Germans ordered that all the Jews from Kraków and the surrounding districts be collected together in a ghetto in the working class district of Podgórze on the far side of the River Vistula. Conditions were appalling. Some fifteen thousand people were crammed into an area containing some three hundred and twenty buildings, or, to put it another way, there were over four families in every apartment. On top of that, food rations were minimal and unless you had a job – unpaid – Jewish wages went straight to the SS – starvation was a real danger. Even so, most Jews still did not realise just what the Nazi masterplan was. “At least we are still alive”; “This is the bottom, things cannot get worse”; “They won’t get rid of us, we are useful to them” were the kind of comments that were banded about by Jews still in a state of shock at the degradations they had already been made to suffer. They were wrong. On the 30th May, 1942 all residents without work cards were rounded up and sent to Belzec Concentration Camp. Few survived the war. Then on the 28th October, 1942 all the ‘excessive’ residents – the elderly, infirm, children – were also rounded up and taken to Belzec. Few survived. Then in December 1942 the ghetto was divided into two zones – Zone A for the workers and Zone B for the others. Finally, on the 13th March, 1943 all the inhabitants of Zone A were moved to the nearby Płasów Concentration Camp. The very next day everyone left in Zone B was massacred. In retrospect the German plan was clear: concentrate the Jews so that they could be controlled more easily, squeeze them slowly, use the useful and dispose of the excess and then finally kill those that remained. They were all doomed from the moment that the German tanks first rolled into Poland.

Little remains in Podgórze today to remind the visitor of the horrors that once occurred there. The most interesting building that Mike and I came across was a fantastically ornate church but that had lain outside of the ghetto walls. All that we saw to remind us was a short section of the ghetto wall that had been preserved and in Plac Bohaterow Getta (Heroes of the Ghetto Square) a memorial to those who had been killed. It was a series of empty chairs, meant to symbolise the shock and the hurry in which the residents had been forced to leave.

Just outside the former ghetto though, stands Oskar Schindler’s Emailia enamelware factory where many of the ghetto’s Jews once worked and which was to become the ark that saved over a thousand of them.

Schindler’s factory is now a museum and a very good one at that. It details the history of Kraków during the years immediately preceding the war and with a particular emphasis on the Jews and Schindler. Mike, who once designed museum sets for a living, was particularly impressed by how it was set out and I had to agree. It was fascinating and we were both glad to have spent a couple of hours there, giving more depth and understanding to what we had seen at Auschwitz the day before.


Inside the Schindler Factory Museum

That evening we returned to Chłopskie Jadło where I enjoyed one of the finest soups that I have ever tasted. It was made from bacon and sour cream and called zurek. It was followed up by some ribs in honey sauce which were also rather moreish. After than neither of us fancied drinking so we retired to the hotel and Mike fired up the computer and started bidding for antique watches on eBay, (he’s a bit of a buyer and seller). Such things are addictive though, particularly to one with a penchant for buying old banknotes and very soon I was bidding two and by midnight we’d both spent all that we would have spent on drink and more with naught but some inter-war German currency and Soviet timepieces to show for it. Hmm… Money-saving strategy fail.

Next part: Poland 2012: Part 5: Wieliczka and the (not-so) Beautiful Game

Flickr album of this trip

[1] One reason why this new city was built adjacent to Kraków was because in a referendum on establishing the People’s Republic in 1945, the predominantly middle-class and conservative citizens of Kraków had voted firmly against it – a major source of embarrassment for the communists. Consequently, a new satellite city was planned to attract people from lower socio-economic backgrounds and thus “correct the class imbalance”.

[2] Actually, it has been renamed in honour of Ronald Reagan since democracy although this was controversial, unpopular and no one uses the official designation. Good.

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Poland 2012: Part 3: Auschwitz

world-map krakow


Still in Poland, this week I talk about my visit to one of the most affecting places on earth; certainly one of the most affecting that I’ve ever visited. In this episode, Mike and I visit Auschwitz where over a million souls perished during the Second World War. Not happy reading but essential in my opinion.

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Links to all parts of the travelogue:

Poland 2012: Part 1: Krakow

Poland 2012: Part 2: Czestochowa

Poland 2012: Part 3: Auschwitz

Poland 2012: Part 4: Nowa Huta and Emailia

Poland 2012: Part 5: Wieliczka and the (not-so) Beautiful Game

Flickr album of this trip

poland map krakow trip


There was one place that I knew I had to see on this trip and that was Auschwitz. I’m not a big believer in ‘must sees’ but Auschwitz is an exception. I need not explain why.

Yet at the same time I had apprehensions about my visit. Most people have apprehensions about visiting a concentration camp where thousands were murdered I would imagine, but mine were different. Over the years I have read so much about and visited so many places connected with mass slaughter in general and the Holocaust in particular that I was afraid of being numbed somehow to what had taken place there, unable to fully feel the horror that such a place warrants.

I can’t remember when I was first told about the Holocaust. It was probably in a primary school History or RE lesson. My first memory of being aware of the horror was watching Escape from Sobibor, an eighties film about the breakout of prisoners that took place from that camp in 1943.I never watched the entire film – it was rated 18 and my parents were always very strict about film ratings – but an image stuck in my mind of a cattle truck with dozens of human hands thrust out of the tiny ventilation holes accompanied by a barrage of screams and groans.


In the first year of high school we visited the Jewish Museum in Manchester. There was an exhibition on there on the Holocaust which included some photos showing emaciated bodies being thrown into a furnace. These images shocked me profoundly. Since then though, the feelings that I encountered at Yad Vashem, the Berlin Jewish Museum, Hiroshima, Tuol Sleng and other sites of great horror that I have visited have been more akin to an empty numbness.

Auschwitz – or ‘Oświęcim’ to give it ts Polish name – can be visited either independently or as part of a group. My initial inclination had been to do it independently but prior to leaving Britain I rang up Paul, an old family friend and leading light in the North Staffordshire Hebrew Congregation. He’d been to Auschwitz on Holocaust memorial and educational trips and I wanted his advice. “Go on the group tour,” he implored. “Seriously, go on the group tour. I know it’s a little bit more expensive but you’ll miss so much out if you don’t. For starters, Auschwitz is on two sites and they’re a couple of miles apart and getting from one to other can be a real pain.”

Thus it was that we were sat on a minibus rolling through the grey, sleet-covered Polish countryside. It felt like an ordinary group tour; in front of us were a young Liverpudlian couple who were waxing lyrical on what a fashionable city Liverpool is, (“Although the fake tans and false eyelashes can be a bit much like…”), whilst the guide warned us about the perils of not straying too far from the group. Only the catalogue of horrors that I was reading in my novel reminded me that this was no jaunt to a beauty spot.

It was cold and grey when we arrived at Auschwitz. We were assigned a guide with excellent – if curiously accented – English whom we listened to through a set of headphones. Then we stepped out of the entrance hall and into the camp itself.

Auschwitz was not how I’d imagined it to be. I’d expected a bleak collection of wooden dorms surrounded by a high fence punctuated by the infamous gate with the words ‘ARBEIT MACHT FREI’ written across the top.[1] Instead what I found was somewhere far more civilised. The dorms and other buildings were all built solidly out of brick and the site compact and tidy. “Plant some flowers and it might even look nice,” I said to myself. This looked more like the prison where Mike and I work than the jerry-built hell-hole of my imaginings.


At the Gates to Auschwitz

Our guide explained to us why this was. “This was a Polish Army barracks before the Nazis[2] took over and made it a prison. And Auschwitz I was never a death camp; Auschwitz I was a concentration camp, mainly for political prisoners.”



We went into an exhibition cheerfully called ‘Extermination’ in one of the old dorm blocks. The interior had been stripped and instead were a series of displays that attempted to explain just what had gone on during the war. The first gave a number – 1.6 million approximately – that had been murdered at Auschwitz. No bodies were left; the vast majority had been cremated and the ash spread on the fields as fertiliser. The only memorial was a large jar full of human ash. It could just as easily have been taken from our old coal fire at home. All that was left from 1.6 million, the equivalent of the populations of Liverpool and Birmingham combined, was a jar of grey dust.


The remains of over a million souls…

One room had been left as it was, a dorm where the inmates had slept on straw like animals. It didn’t look that bad, not as bad as I’d expected it to be, but it was. The corridor was lined with photographs of some of the earlier inmates, (after a year or so, the Germans gave up bothering to record their victims – there were simply too many), with names, arrival and death dates. The average stay was three months.

Other rooms detailed just how the mass slaughter was carried out. It was explained that gassing people with Zyklon B did not happen immediately. Auschwitz had originally been a prison camp for political prisoners who, like those in the photographs downstairs, had been mostly Polish and had been worked and starved to death rather than murdered outright. It was only later on, largely after the ‘Final Solution to the Jewish Problem’ had been decided upon[3] that methods for wholesale mass murder were explored due to several factors, such as worries about how shooting huge numbers might affect the German troops psychologically, economic factors, (the bullets were needed at the front), but primarily the sheer numbers involved. Early ideas involved carbon monoxide – a variation on the suicide tactic of putting a tube from a car exhaust into the car itself, shutting the windows and turning on the ignition – and indeed this system was used at Treblinka until the end of the war, but at Auschwitz experiments were done using Zyklon B and that was found to be more effective. Later on, when we visited the punishment block, we came across a cell in the basement with a plaque on the wall in remembrance of the 600 Russian POWs and 250 Poles who had died in the first experiments with the gas on the 3rd September, 1941. In the Extermination exhibition we saw a large-scale model of one of the gas chambers at Birkenau and a huge pile of empty Zyklon B canisters, enough to kill several thousand. What surprised me though is that it wasn’t a gas that was piped in but instead small pellets that only turned to gas in the humid atmosphere of the chamber, warmed up by the heat of hundreds of bodies pressed close to each other. It took an excruciating twenty minutes to die.[4]


Canisters of Zyklon B

There were other rooms of horror after that. A room full of suitcases, all from a single train, a ‘delivery’ of Jews from Holland; rooms full of glasses, shoes, cooking utensils and, most stomach-churning of all, human hair. Even this though, did not affect me like the room full of children’s clothing, many of the garments the same size as those my four-year old son wears. To murder adults is one thing; to slaughter innocent children is something else entirely.


Shoes of the dead


Suitcases from a Holland ‘delivery’

In the punishment block we saw cells were eight people were forced to stand in a space barely big enough for two; cells where inmates were starved to death including the one where St. Maximillian Kolbe died. He was a Polish priest who, in July 1941, offered to take the place of a condemned man because that man had a wife and children who needed him. The Germans accepted and the condemned man survived the war. Kolbe died in his place but for his Christ-like act is revered throughout Poland and beyond as a great Christian martyr.[5]

We saw also the wall against which thousands of inmates were shot, the ‘hospital’ block where the infamous Dr. Mengele conducted his hideous experiments and then the spot where, after the war, the former camp commandant Rudolf Höß was hanged. Near there our guide pointed out Höß’s former residence, a large house that is not part of the museum because it is lived in by a Polish family who have refused to sell it despite many offers. Why anyone would want to live in such a place though is beyond me.

Then last of all came the gas chamber itself, a non-descript brick bunker in which around three hundred and forty people could be herded and killed in one go.[6] Walking through the changing rooms into the chamber itself, it was chilling to think that these were the last scenes that sixty thousand fellow human beings ever saw of life on earth. As our guide explained things though, strangely, perhaps because the human mind cannot cope with so much suffering and death, more practical issues came to mind. It took around twenty minutes for all the people in the chamber, but the ovens next door had a much lower capacity – if worked constantly, it took around twenty-four hours to burn the corpses – and so emptying the chamber could take days. The biggest limiting factor for the Nazi operations was not the killing but instead the disposing of the bodies and for some reason that I can’t quite understand, that really shocked me.


Mike at Auschwitz

What most people do not realise unless they have visited for themselves is that what is referred to as ‘Auschwitz’ was not actually a single camp but instead a whole colony of them that got its name from that of the nearby town, the German rendering of which is Auschwitz but for the Poles it is Oświęcim. The institution that Mike and I had visited first was Auschwitz I, the oldest of the camps but that was not the biggest nor the place where most died. After the Final Solution was decided upon, Auschwitz II – Birkenau – was constructed, ten times the size of the original and unlike Auschwitz I its primary purpose was not as a labour or prison camp but instead extermination pure and simple. Auschwitz I was the concentration camp where inmates were worked to death, but Birkenau was a death camp where over a million, mainly Jews, met their deaths in the gas chambers. Most inmates of Birkenau went straight to their deaths from the trains; they were not there for long. In addition to these, there was also an Auschwitz III – Monolitz – which was primarily a labour camp for supplying the various industrial complexes in the town with slave labour and forty-five sub-camps mostly situated in or near to the factories where their inmates were put to work.

We now got on the bus and made our way the two kilometres across from Auschwitz I to Auschwitz II – Birkenau. If Auschwitz I had been a prison – not the most shocking of places to two people who spend their working lives within a similar institution – Birkenau was something else entirely. On a cold, windswept plain, huge, surrounded by a high fence and watchtowers, with row after row of wooden huts and a railway line leading through the brick gatehouse and into its dark heart, the railway line along which the doomed of Europe were transported to their deaths, this was the very realisation of one’s nightmares about the Holocaust.

It was freezing cold. An arctic wind blew from the grey sky and chilled our bones. On the platform where the incoming trains were once unloaded of their human cargo – and where today stands a single cattle truck as a reminder – our guide told us of what once happened there. “The train would arrive and an SS doctor would stand here. He would look at the prisoners quickly. If they were fit and healthy they went to that side and they would live. This side was for the gas chambers. However, if they had enough workers already, then the train would just continue straight past here to the chambers and they would all die.


Birkenau – where the prisoners were unloaded from the trains

We walked up to the place where the railway tracks ended and where today a memorial now stands under which are a series of plaques which read, in many languages:














Next to the memorial are the remains of Crematorium IV which were blown up on the 7th October, 1944 in a revolt of the Jewish Sonderkommandos – inmates kept separate from the rest to work in the crematoria disposing of the bodies – who attacked their SS guards with makeshift weapons and blew up the crematorium with explosives smuggled in from a weapons factory by female inmates who worked there. This was also the crematorium depicted in the model we’d seen at Auschwitz I and so recreating it in our minds was easy if horrific.

We finished our tour off by visiting some of the barracks, firstly one in the women’s camp and then a toilet block which inmates were allowed to visit twice a day only and then for only a minute at a time. These were depressing places, originally designed as stables. To live in them would have been hell and to live in them on a cup of ersatz coffee, watery soup and slice of bread a day even worse. But at Birkenau few ever lived long. Well over a million passed through its gates. Upon liberation by the Red Army on the 27th January, 1945, only around fourteen thousand remained.

Our guide though, did finish on a positive note. Stood in the toilet block, he told us the story of Jerzy Bielecki, a Polish inmate who fell in love with a Jewess, Cyla Cybulska. He managed to acquire an SS uniform and escaped with his love by walking out of the gates with her in tow, telling the sleepy guard that he was taking a prisoner to be interrogated. After the escape they hid in different places and lost contact with another, he returning to Kraków and she, after the end of the war, moving to the USA. Then, in the 1980s, after a chance conversation with her Polish cleaner – Cyla had told her that she’s been at Auschwitz and had escaped with Bielecki and the cleaner recognised the name since he had been on Polish TV – they were reunited thirty-nine years later. In 1983 she arrived at Kraków Airport where he stood waiting with thirty-nine red roses, one for each year they had spent apart.

On the way back to Kraków I read Schindler’s List. I felt numb. On the one hand I felt guilty for not having been more horrified; on the other hand I knew that what we had seen was beyond the human capacity to understand. That evening we went out to a bar to do what we had originally booked our holiday to do, watch Stoke City do battle in Valencia. The football took our minds away from what we had seen that day and for ninety minutes we were engrossed in the Beautiful Game, as Stoke fought pluckily but went down a goal to nil and ended their European adventure. In the next room crowds were watching the local boys, Wisła Kraków as they travelled to Belgium, needing a win to progress. They drew and so we all ended up disappointed.

After that we moved on but despite the fact that the beer was fine, we were on holiday and the company good, Auschwitz remained with us for long afterwards. It was almost like a delayed reaction to the shock. “I can’t get that place out of my head,” I told Mike. He nodded. “The second one, Birkenau, it was horrific,” he agreed. After that, we had no more to say.

Next part: Poland 2012: Part 4: Nowa Huta and Emailia

Flickr album of this trip 

[1] Literally ‘Work Makes You Free’. One of the many lies – or cold jokes – used by the Nazis at Auschwitz. I’d read about the gate before and so expected it. Mike on the other hand, hadn’t heard of it and found it a shock. He later told me that for him it was one of the most affecting parts of the visit.

[2] Interestingly, he always used the term ‘Nazis’ and not once ‘Germans’. At the end of the tour I asked him why and he replied that it was “not politically correct” to use ‘Germans’.

[3] Agreed at Wannsee Villa, Berlin, January 20th, 1942.

[4] Actually the time that it took to die depended largely on how near the vents you were. For those lucky enough to be directly under a vent, death was virtually instantaneous.

[5] The man in question was one Franciszek Gajowniczek. An inmate had escaped and the Germans selected some prisoners at random to be starved to death as a punishment. Upon hearing that he had been chosen, Gajowniczek cried out, “My poor wife! My poor children! What will they do?” Upon hearing this Fr. Kolbe offered to take his place and the Germans permitted it. Kolbe was starved for fourteen days and during each day he celebrated Mass and sang hymns. At the end of this time all the other condemned men had died but Kolbe was still alive. He was then injected with a fatal dose of carbolic acid. Gajowniczek survived the war and was reunited with his wife but sadly not his sons who were killed in a Soviet bombing raid in 1945.

[6] This was tiny compared with the four chambers at Birkenau which had a combined capacity of 4,420, with two accommodating over a thousand each.

Sunday, 13 May 2012

Poland 2012: Part 2: Częstochowa

world-map krakow


Here’s the next part of my Polish feast, a trip to Częstochowa , the spiritual heart of the country where the Eternal Queen of Poland resides…

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Links to all parts of the travelogue:

Poland 2012: Part 1: Krakow

Poland 2012: Part 2: Czestochowa

Poland 2012: Part 3: Auschwitz

Poland 2012: Part 4: Nowa Huta and Emailia

Poland 2012: Part 5: Wieliczka and the (not-so) Beautiful Game

Flickr album of this trip

poland map krakow trip


It was Wednesday and more than that, it was Ash Wednesday; one of the most important days in the Christian calendar, for Ash Wednesday marks the start of the Lenten fast which stretches all the way until Easter. Since 2004 I have adhered to the fast but this year I was being a bit naughty and postponing it until I returned from Poland – after all, what’s the point in visiting a country and not indulging in the local cuisine and besides, I seem to recall something about there being exemptions for people who are travelling – promising to make up for the lost days later in the year. I could not abandon faith altogether however, particularly when in one of the most religious countries in all of Europe, so that day I headed off to Częstochowa, the spiritual heart of Poland. Mike, who is an atheist, stayed in Kraków.

The city of Częstochowa is holy to the Poles because it is dominated by the Jasna Gora (Bright Hill) Monastery inside of which is housed the famous Black Madonna of Częstochowa. This is a 122cm by 82cm painting of the Virgin Mary and Christ Child that was reputedly painted by St. Luke the Evangelist on a table of the Holy House in Nazareth. It is believed to have been brought to Częstochowa from Jerusalem via Constantinople arriving in 1382. In 1420 it was attacked by the Hussites who slashed it, the face of the Virgin still bearing the scars, but in 1655 when the Swedes attacked the city and in 1920 when the Russians came, legends say that the painting helped to save Częstochowa in particular and Poland in general. A cult of healing akin to that at Lourdes and other Marian shrines has grown up around the painting which was crowned Queen of Poland in 1717 and is revered by the entire nation, the former Pope John Paul II being particularly devoted to the image. I wanted to visit because this is the spiritual heart of Poland so it is apt for an Ash Wednesday, but also because I wanted to understand a little of this new country, see into her soul as it were, and where better to do so than by meeting the nation’s eternal queen?

I’d been told by the guy on the hotel reception desk that there was a train at 08:00 but it transpired that there wasn’t one until 08:55 so I mooched around the station, bought some postcards for friends and read a little of Schindler’s List, my new read of choice having decided to save the second half of the exploits of Tom Chesshyre and the delightful ‘E’ for the return flight. Schindler’s List was a conscious choice: it is about the Holocaust and we would be visiting Auschwitz the following day, but upon starting it I discovered that it was an even better choice than I’d realised for it was set primarily in Kraków which is where the Jews that Schindler saved came from and the factory in which they worked was situated. Even more than that, when the film was made in 1993, it was shot largely in Kazimierz where we had gone drinking the previous evening.[1]

The train to Częstochowa was of the type found all over Eastern Europe: slow, warm, sparsely populated and divided into compartments. In short, the very best type of train there is. I got a compartment to myself and wiled away the two and a half hours journey time by reading, writing letters and postcards to friends, gazing out of the window and dozing. Beyond the glass there wasn’t a lot to see; the impression I got of Poland from that trip was of an empty land of rolling fields punctuated by vast forests of birch trees and small villages. Of all the places that I’ve visited, it reminded me most of Latvia. The overall impression was of a desolate, under-populated land, rather drab and dreary, but to be fair to Poland, most countries fit that description in mid-February when the weather is cold, the skies grey and the land partially-covered by melting snow, and even more so when one is reading a catalogue and maltreatment and mass murder of that country’s citizens but a half a century ago.

First impressions of Częstochowa when arriving by train are of a drab, colourless, down-at-heel city. The station is a vast, soulless concrete cavern of a place and beyond it are streets lined with grey buildings in which purveyors of tat and other low-cost goods occupy the ground floors whilst in the distance huge industrial complexes belch out smoke. It is the very stereotype of Eastern Europe.

And all of this is partly deliberate. After the war the communists attempted to water down the city’s religious spirit with a bout of intense industrialisation and the area around the railway station is in the heartland of that post-war attack on tradition. Beyond it though, things differ and it is clear that Częstochowa is no ordinary city.

Częstochowa is no ordinary city because it is totally dominated by a single road. The Aleja Najświętszej Panny Marii – the Holy Virgin Mary Avenue – stretches the length of the town, starting at the Plac Daszyńskiego with the Church of St. Zygmunta in the centre and leading, four lanes wide with a garden in the centre, ramrod straight, due east. It is clearly a road that lead somewhere important and that destination is clear to all for at its far end is a hill and atop that hill, shrouded in mist when I visited, is the looming hulk of the Monastery of Jasna Gora crowned by its 106m high bell tower, the tallest church tower in all Poland and a beacon for the faithful.


The Aleja Najświętszej Panny Marii

I trudged up that road, moving towards my goal. I was hungry but it was only eleven and nowhere was open, (eventually I had to settle for a kebab). Crossing the vast Plac Biegarískiego where the City Hall (now the museum) and an interesting looking Orthodox-style church flanked the sides and I vowed to check both out later, but for now I had a different goal.

The Monastery of Jasna Gora appears like a fortress. On a hill, surrounded by a ditch and set of walls, one enters through a gate that separates the sacred from the divine. Through that gate the atmosphere was different, quiet and hushed, the people respectful and reverent. I entered the Basilica but, like the churches of Kraków, it was an orgy of baroque, which, whilst sumptuous, was not really to my taste. I exited through a side-door into another chapel and immediately I knew that I was in a special, holy place.

The Chapel of Our Lady was dark and intimate. Although the shrine around the image itself was decorated, the rest was understated. The walls however, were not bare, but instead covered with the offerings of thousands of grateful pilgrims whose prayers Our Lady had granted. The atmosphere was powerful although silently so; there was an aura of great holiness. I sat and contemplated. The holy image itself was covered by a golden screen but the faithful still knelt and prayed or circumnavigated it on their knees. Here I knew, dwelt the soul of the Polish nation.

I left the chapel and by the door came across two large boards with photographs displayed on them. I scanned them and saw that one, larger than the others, was of Lech Kaczynski, the former President of Poland, and his wife. Then I realised that this was a memorial to all those who had died in the tragic air crash in April the year before in Smolensk which had killed Kaczynski and all the others pictured before me. I scanned the faces and names; they were young and old, male and female, mostly Polish but a few Russians as well. Yes indeed, this was more than a monastery, more than a home for a holy image; Jasna Gora is Poland’s national shrine.

That became more and more evident the further I explored the complex. I visited museums of relics including possessions of the Polish Pope and rosary beads made out of bread by concentration camp inmates,[2] an oil painting of John Paul II conquering communism – or maybe it is fascism? – with a cross and aided by the Madonna, items belonging to St. Maximillian Kolbe, the Polish priest who died at Auschwitz and countless banners of the Solidarity movement. There was also an enormous model of the monastery under siege by the Swedes during the 17th century – when it was saved by the Madonna – and weapons from that famous battle. More common than such beacons of hope however, were images of despair. Every era and facet of Polish suffering was commemorated here and they were all most powerfully symbolised for me by a huge oil painting that occupied an entire wall in the former arsenal. The painting depicted Our Lady of Częstochowa bathed in light on a dark blue background whilst emanating – or being drawn to her – in all directions were thousands of little lights, each of those being a cross or a heart and bearing the name of a battle, massacre or other tragedy in Polish history. A scan of these names was a sweeping survey of some of the most terrible crimes and abject misery committed in recent European history: Treblinka 1942-3, Sobibor 1942-3, Katyn 1939, Warsawa 1944, Gdansk 1981, Oświęcim 1940-5 as well as some famous dates from further back: Austerlitz 1805, Wien 1683. All this needless suffering, all those lives wasted and yet at the heart of it all was a simple woman, no stranger to suffering and loss herself, offering hope and support, wiping tears, understanding their plight since her own, innocent, son was murdered too, as a criminal, unjustly, and she too had her own fair face slashed, disfigured by mindless vandals.[3]


W środku nocy

I still had a little time so I explored the room above the Chapel of Our Lady where there were some paintings depicting the Stations of the Cross by the famous Polish cartoonist Jerzy Duda Gracz. These were a remarkable series of contemporary images that really brought Christ’s Passion to life for a modern Polish audience. They depicted Our Lord mocked and persecuted by rotund politicians, smug churchmen, beer-swilling louts and starving African children. On the Cross where His Mother stands watching, there was no figure of Mary but instead the image of the Madonna of Częstochowa. They were some of the most powerful pieces of religious art I have seen in a long while.


One of the Stations of the Cross by Jerzy Duda Gracz

I returned to the chapel for the daily unveiling of the image. The crowds were gathering as I knelt in prayer and fingered my rosary. Then, with a bugle fanfare at 1:30 precisely, the cover was drawn back and Our Lady of Częstochowa revealed in all her glory. On a trite and superficial level it was all very ridiculous, laughable even, a room full of grown adults kneeling and praying before a damaged and aged oil painting of dubious artistic value, yet to all those present there was nothing ridiculous, nothing at all. I gazed into the face of that aged lady, the eternal Queen of Poland, and tried to understand. And in her sad eyes, in her slashed cheek, in her mournful expression, I think I did, or at least, I caught a glimpse of it all. The Poles as a nation, perhaps more than any other, had suffered. For century after century they have endured invasions, indignities, exploitation, massacre and much more and that has, it must have an effect on their psyche. So much misery, so much pain, so much torment. Yet in Our Lady of Częstochowa they have something else: hope. Here they have one who understands, one who has suffered the same, one who still suffers daily and yet still provides a limitless supply of love and compassion to bestow upon mankind. As an Englishman I did not find her as powerful or moving or as relevant to my needs as I do Our Lady of Walsingham, but that is as it should be for this was her message to the Poles, not the English. As a spectator though, I felt honoured to be present, for seeing the faithful knelt before her I began to understand so much of what had first confused me. The baroque, all that excessive finery… why? In such a bleak land with so many woes, perhaps the churches need a bit more ostentation to help their people visualise Heaven. But most of all, at the end of that long, long catalogue of woe and suffering, there is her smile and the promise voiced by a great saint from my own country, hundreds of years ago when plague swept the continent.

“All shall be well.”


Back in the city, I called in at the museum on the square that is housed in the former city hall. It offered a potted history in Polish and some mildly interesting visual displays which were opened up and shown to me by a very serious guide who looked as if librarianship was her calling in life. Despite her seriousness, she spoke English with an incredibly sexy accent which made the guided tour somewhat more engaging and to keep her talking I asked about the Orthodox-looking church on the far side of the square. She informed me that it was a Roman Catholic church these days but had been built originally as an Orthodox house of worship back in the days when Częstochowa was part of the Russian Empire.[4] I was surprised that a city so far west and south had once been Russian – I’d assumed that this part of Poland had been occupied by the Austrians in those days – and after viewing the dubious delights of the museum I popped across to get a closer look. A board outside reiterated what the velvet-tongued curator had told me, but added that when the church had been taken over by the Catholics it had been refurbished in the style of an early Roman Christian church. I tried to take a look inside but it was locked so a glance through the window was all that I could manage. What I saw inside was something ancient yet modern, Eastern yet also Western. It was a joy to behold after the constant barrage of baroque and was easily the most aesthetically-satisfying church interior that I’d viewed in Poland.

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The Church of St. Jakub: Orthodox yet Catholic

On the railway station I came across something that I have encountered nowhere else on earth. On the footbridge, in a converted waiting room, there was a chapel with a Mass in full progress. I entered and found it packed to the rafters with both young and old. With an hour to wait, I joined them, listening to the Liturgy in Polish whilst arrivals and departures were announced on tannoys outside and trains rumbled in and out of the platforms below us. It was a strange juxtaposition: an ancient and timeless ritual, the chants calling to mind images of Polish peasants eking out a living from the black soil over the centuries, taking place in a thoroughly modern and bustling setting, and yet I liked it. A church should go out to the people, not wait for them to come to it and here, where hundreds come and go every hour, it was doing just that. I received the traditional ashes of Ash Wednesday on my forehead from the young priest but unfortunately had to depart before the Host was distributed.


The chapel on the railway station, Częstochowa

That evening we were out dining and drinking again. We ate in a restaurant recommended to us by the tourist information centre named Chłopski Jadko, (literally ‘Peasant Eating’), where I had a delicious variety of traditional soups – sour cabbage, mushroom, tomato and beetroot – and some perogi, a staple Polish dish consisting of little pastry packages with cheese or meat inside them. Mike told me about his day spent around the city and then we moved onto other matters, returning to Kazimierz to sample more of the bars there. Having read most of Schindler’s List on the train to and from Częstochowa, the streets came even more to life now and it took little to imagine this quiet and fashionable district as a hive of Jewish activity, Yiddish mixing with Polish and perhaps even German in the air. Now though, it was silent. We selected a fine little bar in a basement with Wisła Kraków shirts and scarves on the walls and some locals sat quietly sipping beers. It was a pleasant, low-key place and a fine spot for wiling away an hour or two whilst lamenting the woes inflicted on us poor men by both work and women.

Next part: Poland 2012: Part 3: Auschwitz

Flickr album of this trip

[1] I had seen the film but it was years ago and I’d forgotten a lot of the details. However, Oskar Schindler’s apartment was just below the Wawel, his workers had mainly lived in Kazimierz before being moved to the ghetto just across the Vistula in Podgórze which was also where Schindler’s Emailia factory was situated. After the ghetto was ‘liquidated’ they were moved to the concentration camp at Płaszow, just to the south of Podgórze and when that was closed down most of the Jews that Schindler didn’t manage to save – and his female workers for one very unhappy transit stop of three weeks – ended up in the hell of Birkenau itself. There are few more powerful Kraków reads than Thomas Keneally’s moving Schindler’s List.

[2] Incidentally, a Russian student in my class did the same a few months ago. A tradition surviving from the days of the gulags perhaps?

[3] The painting in question is W środku nocy (In the Middle of the Night) by Alexander Markowski.

[4] Actually, this was not strictly true. Częstochowa was part of the Kingdom of Poland which was set up in 1815 after the defeat of Napoleon and was theoretically independent although in practice the state was merely a puppet of Russia. During this period Częstochowa grew dramatically and it was then that the Aleja Najświętszej Panny Marii was mapped out and constructed.