Tuesday, April 28, 2009

A little bit about Poland (only 3 weeks late)

Sorrryyyyy for the lack of posting. I have been some lovely combination of busy and lazy :-)

A few weeks ago, I went to Poland for a week with my program. We went to Gdansk/Danzig (first name is Polish, second is German), Warsaw and Krakow, each for about two days. Now Poland wasn't exactly on my top five list of countries to see, but I thought it'd be a good experience and I'd get to be closer with the people on my program. About 20 or so kids from my program went, so it was a big chunk of them.

We left at 9pm on a Sunday on my first overnight train. After being yelled at in Polish by one conductor dude, then yelled at in German by his co-worker who was translating, my friend Lisa and I finally settled into a room that was more or less supposed to be ours. Thank goodness IES reserved sleeper cars because it was a looong ride. Apparently people were social and hung out in different cars but Lisa and I kind of closed the door and went to sleep, haha. When we arrived, we hear a knock on the door and "3 minutes until the station!" Apparently every other person on our program set an alarm, and our leader wouldn't have even woken us up if my friend Annie hadn't inquired about our whereabouts....great start, eh?

We emerged out of the train onto this gray, damp, kind of depressing platform/view. The first building we see is a McDonalds, and the color in the sign is the only cheer I see. "Shit....why'd I opt for this trip?" I thought, as my head flashed through all my other options of beautiful places to spend a week. We went on a tour with a woman named Bozena that lasted about 15 hours (okay so it was more like 2 1/2, but the cathedral was freezing, the sidewalk was freezing, the dock was freezing...you get the point.) A German tour is hard enough, but slap on a Polish accent and you have a real doozy, haha. So I managed to catch some of it. What was staggering was how destroyed this city of Danzig (I'll just use the German name) was after WWII. About 90% was destroyed, and they put a looot of money into restoring it. An impression that I got (and would continue to get the entire time in Poland) was "When you come back in SUMMER, it is beaaauuutiful." Thanks, but no thanks. All I could think of was the scene from Eurotrip when they end up in *gasp* Eastern Europe! (They're in Bratislava) and they run into a man who is like "You are lucky you come in summer, because in winter it can get veerrryyy depressing." We had a delicious dinner right on the river (inside, luckily.) and a short stay at a good hotel with a yummy breakfast buffet (yes mom, I am going to mention the food.)

Our stop in between Danzig and Warsaw was this huge castle/cathedral/God only knows what that is supposedly the LARGEST BRICK Castle/cathedral/God only knows what in the world. I swear, if I hear the word "Backstein" ("brick") one more time..... anyway, it was an incredibly long boring tour. Even my friend who is probably the most upbeat person I've ever met began staring off into space and looking defeated.

Warsaw was hands down my favorite. We stayed in a huge hotel called Novotel (which, yes is one of those hotels that could be anywhere, but it was SO NICE to be pampered.) We took a tour of the old city and our guide was Marchin, a very nice polish man who went through Poland with us as sort of a backup tour guide, haha. The city is beautiful, despite it's fucked up relationship with the Nazis. (Marchin: Now when the Nazis occupied Warsaw, they wouldn't let Poles or Jews into this park, and took it over for themselves..") The club experience was a little interesting (read: different colored bracelets depending on if you're single or not, and new hits such as the YMCA...good times!) The old city was absolutely beautiful and we were lucky to have nice weather on that day. That afternoon, Thomas (adorable housing coordinator for our program), Lisa, Annie and I hung out in the park and then went to see the last remaining building of the Jewish ghetto (I think my attempt at spelling "schtettle" is embarassing) as well as the ONLY synogogue in Warsaw. It was so disheartening to see such little Judiasm, or really any sort of heterogeneity among the people of Poland. (the next day I was soon to find out why.) Seeing the Synagogue and explaining some of the traditions to Thomas led to a really interesting discussion about the role of religion or faith in one's upbringing.

By the way, Another theme of the trip: PIEROGI! Couldn't get enough. In all cities, in all meals, if I don't further specify, just assume I'd eaten pierogis.

Krakow was a downgrade for me. The hotel was not so great and our room reeked of backed up sewage (which they kindly fixed while we were at dinner.) We had a feast at a restaurant that was supposed to be very "Traditional" which translated to wooden benches, more pierogies (woohooo) and HUGE slabs of potato pancakes. So delicious. We ended the night with beers in our friends Greg and Brian's room (which was our backup place to sleep had our sewage stench not been fixed.)

The next day we woke up bright and early to go to....Auschwitz. Yup. Most of the day was spent at Auschwitz. We took a tour in German of Auschwitz 1 which was unbelievably overwhelming. I spent most of it tearing up and not listening to my headset. I had seen the photos before, of the pile of hair, of the glasses, of the shoes, but here they were behind a glass case. Here these BLANKETS were that were MADE OUT OF HAIR. Here in a display case, as our tour guide said, were some TICKETS that the prisoners bought so that the Germans could finance this genocide more "efficiently." What struck me most was the range, the breadth of how many people this affected. Also what struck me was the cold, detatched search for EFFICIENCY. The attention to detail. the manufacturing quality of it. It was so horrible. Standing up looking at the "Arbeit Macht Frei" sign, I could feel the weight of thousands and thousands of souls on my body. Here we were on a day that was 70 degrees, there were birds chirping, there were plenty of tourists, but this empty feeling still remained. Like a ghost town. I started to see more and more Jewish Youth group groups and had an urge to join them. Why was I here on a GERMAN tour with 99% non Jews? I felt very alone.
After Auschwitz 1 we continued to Birkenau in order to take in just how huge this "solving of the Jewish problem" was. After standing in a barn that was built for 54 horses but housed 700 people, we walked to the rubble of the crematorium, which the Germans had hastily destroyed once they knew the gig was up. Next to the rubble is a huge memorial with the saying in many languages something along the lines of the fact that it is both a memorial and a warning to the future. Because if you think about it, humans did this. PEOPLE did this. And many many many many got away with it.

We had dinner at a JEwish restaurant then went out to a club. The dinner was fantastic and the Klezmer music was great (melocholy and in a flat key as usual) but the club did not work for me. I spent the whole time sitting with a friend and talking. Which was fine, but it was too much after that morning.

Auschwitz and Poland in general brought my attention to the places and events in Germany and the surrounding areas that are riddled with Nazi and then DDR history. Nothing really was wiped clean and started over. A popular vacation spot, for instance, called the Wannsee, is where the Nazis met to "Solve the Jewish Problem." How terrifying is that??? Yet people continue their lives, and as offensive as that seems, this is a different generation of people. They didn't do it.

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