Things That I Have Learned In Krakow, Poland

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Things That  I Have Learned In Krakow, Poland

“Cities were always like people, showing their varying personalities to the traveler. Depending on the city and on the traveler, there might begin a mutual love, or dislike, friendship, or enmity. Where one city will rise a certain individual to glory, it will destroy another who is not suited to its personality. Only through travel can we know where we belong or not, where we are loved and where we are rejected.” Roman Payne

Perched on Wawel Hill in Krakow, Wawel Castle is one of the most important structures in Poland. It was the residence of Polish kings for centuries before being converted into a museum and extensive art gallery in 1930.

The ornately decorated cathedral (no photos please)  and the royal staterooms are good to include in your visit.

The castle represents nearly every European architectural style, including Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque and consists of a number of structures situated around the Italianish main courtyard.

As in other countries, it is good to be the king.

In Wawel Castle, there is an exhibition of one painting. It is an original painting by Leonardo da Vinci “Lady with an Ermine.” Only five other cities in the world can boast a painting by da Vinci, so don’t miss it. The painting was bought in 1800 by Adam Czartoryski, a Polish prince. It was moved to Paris in 1836 and returned to the Czartoryski Museum in 1876. Hidden from the Nazis in 1939, the painting was found and formed part of Hitler’s Berlin collection before ending up in Waiwei as the property of Krakow’s Nazi commandant, Hans Frank. With Soviet troops getting close, the painting was rushed back to Germany. American soldiers finally confiscated it and returned it home to Kraków in 1946. The painting has since become one of the city’s most loved treasures.

Krąków’s Jagiellonian University was established by King Casimir III the Great in 1364 and is the oldest university in Poland and second oldest in Central Europe.

Krakow is an old town of young people. The twenty-eight Krakow institutions of higher education have over 200,000 students attending them. The population of Krakow is 760,000 thousand. 

St. Mary’s Trumpet Call can be heard playing hourly from the tower of St. Mary’s Basilica – a major symbol of Kraków. The melody always stops short, which symbolizes the legend of a trumpeter who, in 1240, wanted to warn the locals of an approaching enemy, but was killed by an arrow.

Krakow is a city of churches, which is especially visible in its historical center.

In the Middle Ages, the inhabitants of the city willingly gave themselves into the hands of the Saints, who would protect them and help them with all life problems.

Krakow is one of those European cities that takes pride in having a cold cut produced and branded there -like Parma. Kielbasa Krakowska  or Kielbasa Lisiecka are the products whose taste has been synonymous with Polish sausage.

Another specialty of Krakow is the famous bagel (obwarzanek krakowski). The ring-shaped braid of bread covered with poppy seeds is sold on every corner in the city.

It was baked in Krakow since the Middle Ages and popularized by the Jewish community who emigrated throughout the world. 

MOCAK is a very interesting and thought-provoking contemporary art museum.(art makes you free)

The museum has a wide range of contemporary art and sculpture, all well presented and explained in a spacious modern building.

There were some excellent pieces challenging nationalism, globalization and war.

There are both Polish and International contemporary artists represented.

Many European cities have an Old Town, but Kraków definitely has one of the best.

The medieval architecture is especially fascinating and it’s big enough that you can spend all day walking around it.

Kraków’s Market Square is the largest medieval commercial square in Europe (each of its sides is 200 m long).

It is forbidden to feed pigeons in Krakow. The locals hate them. (a few hungry pigeons)

There is a lot of weird sculpture in Poland. The big head in Rynek Square is one of them. It is a good meeting point because every tourist can find it. The head is Eros, the God of Love. Why the blindfold? Because love is blind?

The Vistula River, Poland’s longest, runs through Kraków just outside of the Old Town and Jewish District. There are more locals than tourists enjoying it.

The riverfront is long and wide and goes along both sides. It’s lined with a sidewalk, grass, parks, and a few boat restaurants.

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During World War ll, the Nazis occupied beautiful Krakow. Hans Frank looked over the terror from his office on Wawei Hill which is why Krakow was not destroyed.

Krakow is one of the most charming cities. it is hard to believe there was so much death and darkness in such a peaceful place with all those churches. 

I would like to thank Jo Fisher and Aryeh Maidenbaum of Jewish Heritage Travel for putting together such an interesting, well thought out trip through Poland. I have learned so much of the history and complexities of Poland and appreciated the thoughtful intelligent guides and of course, the great hotels.  Hope to travel with you again, some day.

Fly safe,

JAZ

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Street Art In Krakow, Poland

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Street Art In Krakow, Poland

“Creativity takes courage.” Henri Matisse

 The first thing I did in Poland was a private street art tour. I was told to meet the guide at Ghetto Heroes Square.The Ghetto Heroes Square is in the center of the old Krakow Ghetto.This square was called the Umschlagplatz by the Nazis. it was the place where the Jews had to assemble before being transported to the Belzec death camp, Auschwitz- Birkenau or the Plasnow Forced Labor Camp just outside the city. Iron and and bronze empty chairs commemorate this place. It is a holiday and the square is eerily empty.  It is a deeply moving memorial.

 I meet up with Joanna Switala who explains the memorial. She knows a lot about the area and the artists. 

Street art in Poland and other ex Soviet countries derives from the spirit of protest. In the last several years, there is trend to improve the quality of public spaces with commissioned  street art murals. Street art is the uncensored, unofficial, egalitarian voice of the people.

In the districts of Podgorze and Kazimierz, public art is both encouraged and controlled, and street artists are often invited to create elaborate works of art that celebrate the city’s history, culture and revitalization.

 The Jewish Cultural Festival invited one of Israel’s most famous street artists, Pil Peled, to create an image to watch over the district. Entitled ‘Judah’, the mural is said to represent both the vulnerability of the Jews and their strength to overcome.

This black and white mural was created by the Israeli group, Broken Fingaz was for the same festival to honor the memory of the Bosak Family, who lived in this area for four hundred years until World War ll .

The woman in the painting is Irene Sendlar. .In 1941, .Irene Sendlar was recruited to head the Underground Council to Aid Jews, which was credited for protecting children by working with orphanages and welfare agencies to change their identities. They also smuggled an estimated eight to ten children out of the ghetto monthly by hiding them in suitcases, packages, and sometimes even coffins. Approximately 2,500 children were saved .

This mural was created by Marcin Wierzchowski, and is visible on the wall of the Galicia Jewish Museum. It represents pre-war Kraków and modern Jerusalem.

101 Murals for Krakow was put together by Krakow street artists who created the mural by bringing together multi-format paintings and connecting them with urban, historical, and architectural contexts of the different districts of the city in Kazimierz and Podgórze.

 City officials are forever trying to erase the playful and political stencils of  street artist Kuba .

 Mythical murals are painted across many of the city’s abandoned buildings by Mikolaj Rejs.

The mural at Joseph Street shows various people that are associated with the district: King Kazimierz the Great and his Jewish lover, Esterka; Prince Joseph II, who became the patron of this area during Austrian times; the architect of the district, Karol Knaus; and Helena Rubinstein, the Jewish queen of cosmetics who lived in Kazimierz before WWII.

 Though i didn’t see it that day, we talked about the internal feuding culture of football graffiti in Poland which might more accurately reflect some of the views here. Patriotic white-and-red colors, swastikas, Celtic crosses, football club emblems, Stars of David hanging from gallows, fans who died in fights with rival supporters and the Fighting Poland symbol are found on walls throughout Poland. 

The city-sponsored  ArtBoom festival invited Bolognese artist Blu to create this giant mural called  Ding Dong Dum.

 Street art as a form of protest remains, even in the publically sanctioned events. When the street artist Pikaso was invited to paint a mural as part of the 2012 ArtBoom festival the authorities refused to allow him to create his original design. Instead, he painted the giant and symbolic mural “For God’s Sake the Censorship is Everywhere.”

The dark history of Poland is always there but maybe the urban culture of street art in a country that didn’t have that freedom before, shows that change is possible.

Thanks Joanna for making my first day, interesting, informative, fun and full of art. I highly recommend her street art tour in Krakow. guideskrakow@gmail.com

Fly safe,

JAZ

Visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau, Poland

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Visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau, Poland

“We can do evil. We can stand by and do nothing. Or, we can do good.”Eva For, Survivor

No matter how much you have read, how many documentaries and movies you have watched and how many Holocaust museums and other tragic sites you have visited, nothing can prepare you for Auschwitz, Birkenau. I will never find the right words to describe it.

We entered through the main gates of Auschwitz One which was a labor camp. The words Arbeit Macht Frei are clearly seen on the cast iron fence. The direct translation for this is work sets you free. 

I walked through the gate completely numb. The one thing that I was not expecting was the perfect blue sky, warm sunshine, and bright green grass.

Auschwitz One was occupied by the SS in 1940, where the first prisoners, mostly Polish and Soviet, were deported and killed. It was where the Nazis started the experiments with the Zyklon B gas. (canisters and pellets of Zyklon B – pesticide used to kill prisoners, gas chamber)

The old red brick buildings and people taking photos make it really hard to believe that at this place human beings were cruelly tortured and murdered.

The “museum” is a path where each building (or block with its number, to be more precise), has been given a particular name to show the visitors the horrors that took place during the Holocaust with pictures, signs and explanation panels.

There are buildings dedicated to the extermination plan and gas chambers, to photos and records of the prisoners and to the monstrous medical experiments conducted by Dr. Mengele . There are other buildings where you can see mountains of shoes, personal belongings, suitcases with names, artificial limbs, crutches, wheelchairs and human hair of the victims. My eyes focus on a tiny kid’s shoe, a suitcase with the name Eva Hecht clearly marked on it and a woman’s artificial leg. Every item tells a story of a family torn apart and a life taken away. My numbness gives way to too many emotions.

Birkenau is the mass extermination camp a few miles from Auschwitz.

The train tracks lead into the camp and stop at the mostly destroyed crematoria.

The Nazis tried to destroy the evidence of what they had done in 1945. 

The camp is huge.  The many barracks and group latrines were empty and clean.

The chimneys go on forever. 

I walk these paths of hell and I feel nothing. I feel no pain and no ghosts of the over one million people killed there. I feel no evil. I just feel empty – like the emptiness of the camp that I was looking at. I hear the guide talking but i’m enveloped by my own numbness. I say the prayer for the dead at the memorial to the Holocaust victims there.

I say it again in my head at the memorial where some of the ashes are buried in a pit.

There wouldn’t have been any grass. There wouldn’t have been any wildflowers.  It would have been freezing, covered in snow in winter and muddy and miserable when it rained. The air would have been filled with smoke and ash at all times.  Even on a day like today, when for a few minutes they could close their eyes and feel the warm sun on their face, it would still have been the worst place on earth.

Auschwitz Birkenau asks as many questions as it answers. As a quote on the wall at Auschwitz says: “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. George Santayana

. I had to go and see it for myself and pay my  respects to those who died here.

 I had to go and see this and hold on to these images.

 Our world is filled with hate and my visit to Auschwitz will always remind me that it can never happen again – to anyone. 

Fly safe,

JAZ

Auschwitz (Oswiecim) Poland

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Auschwitz (Oawiecim) Poland

“At a mass meeting in Berlin, Adolf Hitler shrieked, “And who is responsible for all our troubles?” Ben Cohen shouted, “The bicycle riders and the Jews!” Hitler looked up, astonished. “Why the bicycle riders?” “Why the Jews?” replied Cohen.” Leo Rosten.

We start our day at the Auschwitz Jewish Center in Oświęcim (Oshpitzim in Yiddish), a small town in southern Poland 31 miles west of Krakow .http://ajcf.pl/en/ The town went from anonymity to being known by its German name Auschwitz.The word Auschwitz has become synonymous with the worst things human beings can do to each other.

As with other parts of Poland, there is an old synagogue (that was returned to the Jewish community)  and a museum about Jewish life in Oscwecim over the last hundred years and no Jews.

The Center is used a lot by tourists and schools to promote dialogue about Polish Jewish life, xenophobia and the Holocaust. The Museum Of Jewish Heritage that I am traveling with was responsible for helping to create this Center. It does not have local community or government support.

Maciej Zabierowski our wonderful  guide for the Jewish quarter in Krakow works there. As with our other guides, Maciej’s quiet honorable manner makes you feel hopeful that there are more like him than the Nationalists in this country. Tomasz Knncewicz  tells us some of the history. We ask about the law passed earlier this year which criminalizes false attributions to Poland’s responsibility in the Holocaust. I have read that Auschwitz  guides have been accused of downplaying the fact that 74,000 Poles were also killed in Auschwitz. He mentions that there are pressures being exerted on Holocaust and Jewish Museum directors and Auschwitz guides due to the wave of hate.

I think about it on the short drive to the Auschwitz Birkenau Camp.  On one hand, the government is right. It is a distinction without a difference and a horrific thing. But, the Jews were killed because of racism. Many other victims were also deemed by the Nazi’s racial ideology  as unfit to live such as gypsies, homosexuals and the handicapped. The Poles and people from other German conquered countries were killed because of power.

The Holocaust happened at a time in the present to people like you and me. How did a civilized society do this? At what point does the Nationalism and hate rhetoric we are hearing in the world today, take a turn like this?

We pull into the very busy Auschwitz car park along with many buses and cars. There is train whistle in the distance.

Fly safe,

JAZ

Ten Things That I Want To Do In Poland

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Ten Thing That I Want To Do  In Poland

“It was a small room with dim light coming in the window, reminiscent of old Polish films.” Haruki Murakami

Choosing to visit Poland. is not an easy decision for me. There are many places in Poland where horrific events took place during World War Two. I’m trying to combine those with seeing what the country is like now. I want to have an open mind but racism seems to be under new management again in Poland.

Since I love street art, I will be taking a Krakow Street Art Tour. I haven’t done one in Eastern Europe before so it will be interesting to see if it has an activist, protest quality. Poster Art has been a tradition in Poland so it was probably be a natural transition to street art.

Krakow is one of the most fascinating medieval cities in Europe and one of the few that escaped destruction in World War II. Today it’s famed for its soaring Gothic church spires and cobblestone streets, while its Old Town is a UNESCO heritage site, it is also known for having one of the liveliest after dark scenes on the continent.

The story of Oskar Schindler and his employees is one which has been well-known. It was made famous by Steven Spielberg’s film Schindler’s List (which was shot almost entirely in Kraków). The factory has been turned into a museum about his story and the occupation of Poland.

A visit to Auschwitz is a test in humanity that not everybody is prepared to take, One can hardly call it a tourist attraction. The three million victims of the largest of Nazi Germany’s concentration camps don’t need high attendance records. What they need is a moment of reflection on what happened and what should be done so that this tragedy never happens again.

You wouldn’t imagine that a museum dedicated to people digging for salt would become a popular tourist draw, but that’s exactly what Wieliczka Salt Mine is. It is an easy day trip from Krakow. The mine was in operation from the thirteenth century till 2007 .Now it sees over a million visitors a year, who take the tiny elevator down into the depths and explore the “buildings” inside, which include chapels, statues, and even a whole cathedral carved out from the rock.

There are various ways to explore the music of Frédéric Chopin, Poland’s famous composer. While walking through the city there are many black benches with buttons on them. Simply press the buttons at any time and they play the music of Chopin. Chopin concerts are held regularly in venues throughout Warsaw, To understand all about the man himself and see his last piano, head to the Chopin Museum.

Before World War ll, Warsaw had the largest Jewish community in Europe.The WarsawGhetto was the largest ghetto set up by the Nazi’s during the war. Over seventy years ago, the area of Jewish residents (which numbered up to one million) was sealed off from the rest of the city. It was enclosed by a wall that was over 10 feet high, topped with barbed wire, and closely guarded to prevent movement between the ghetto and the rest of Warsaw. Life deteriorated quickly.  The world already knows the terrible history of the Jews in the ghetto. There are memorials and museums dedicated to remembering the victims. The Warsaw Ghetto was the location of the Warsaw Uprising where the Jews fought back from Mila 18 street.

Warsaw’s central Old Town neighborhood is one of the city’s most popular areas and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This historic district, which was rebuilt after bombings from World War II destroyed most of it, is filled with restaurants, art galleries, shops and cafes housed in structures designed to replicate the region’s former fourteenth to eighteenth century buildings.

The market square in Wroclaw is one of the largest in Europe with two town halls. Piwnica Swidnicka located on the square is the oldest restaurant in Europe. It is always crowded and fun.

Łódź’s Museum Of Modern Art (Muzeum Sztuki) is one of the oldest museums of Modern Art (ha) in the world and holds the largest collection of world art from the 20th and 21st centuries in Poland.

Recently, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki caused an uproar when he said that there were “Jewish perpetrators” in the Holocaust, along with Polish and Russian ones. Is it how everyone feels or is it like Trump saying ”There are are good people on both sides which means some good Nazis?”

I believe travel is one of the ways we can educate humanity about our similarities. It is how I learn that I am not so different from you. Since I have this opportunity to be there, it is my responsibility to see what is going on for myself and figure out the truth. I have to challenge my assumptions and not judge the people I meet based on history and the media.

Fly safe,

JAZ

Nine Things That I Will Take To Auschwitz

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Nine Things That I Will Take To Auschwitz

“Monsters exist, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the common men, the functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions.” Primo Levi

I have studied about World War II in school, read a lot, saw the movies, documentaries and visited other concentration camps. I’ve obsessed over the Holocaust since I read Anne Frank when I was nine years old. I don’t really know how to  prepare for my trip to visit the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp. Since opening to the public in 1947, it has become a world-known symbol of the atrocities that took place during WWII. Here is my list of things that I will take with me.

1.Courage. How will I stand in front of the gas chambers that killed one million people? Can I be brave and afraid at the same time?

2. Anti anxiety medication or at least some lavender oil. It will be hard to be in a place of so much darkness.

3. Mental toughness. How many stories of pain can I tolerate? How will I see and hear about the intolerable and insufferable acts  when I am actually there?

4.Camera and Notebook. I’m not sure if I will use them or if I will instead really be present and be an observer of what has happened.

5.Sadness. I know i will feel some deep, horrible sadness.

6.Memories of the people I knew who had those numbers on their arms; of the strangers that I saw with them and the people who died that I never knew but heard their stories. Memories outlast mortality.

7.Reason. It’s not possible to apply normal logic when trying to understand the Holocaust. How will I comprehend anything when I am actually there? In his will, Hitler blamed  WWII — including the Holocaust — on the Jews. On the people he was systematically exterminating. No, there is no logic there; no sense to be made of it. There was only madness and the people who followed it.

8.Anger at the current wave of antisemitism in Poland in response to the new Act on the Institute of National Remembrance, This law makes it illegal to accuse the Polish nation of complicity in crimes committed by Nazi Germany, including the Holocaust.The law also bans the use of terms such as “Polish death camps” in relation to Auschwitz and other camps in Nazi-occupied Poland and carries a three-year prison sentence.

9. Faith that monsters do not last forever and eventually truth and hope prevails.

Fly safe,
JAZ