August 2002: Moscow and St Petersburg, Poland
Neither of us had ever visited Russia, and Mike (who’d viewed it from periscopes) was invited to a meeting at Moscow University. We were to leave early Sunday, but by 5 PM Friday our visas hadn’t arrived, despite weeks of effort. Should we cancel? By 6, however, we were in business, and off we went, met at the Moscow airport (clean and efficient) by Vera in a Russian car. One of the acoustician organizers of the meeting, she looks 20, but has a beautiful daughter Tanya, 20, who just returned from a University of Washington summer project. I asked Tanya about her CK tee and Levis: Seattle’s garage sales provide wonderful wardrobes! Tanya is tall, slender, and blonde. And smart. She is sweet, like her mother.
Moscow State University, founded in the mid eighteenth century, has been a strong source of mathematicians and scientists. A brilliant but poorly paid physics faculty is the largest at the university, with over 400 professors and 300 researchers, many working in conjunction with western universities. Standards are high. Students have no choice in class selection, but if they fail an exam, they have 4 more chances to retake it.
There are 36 stories on the main tower, flanked by dorms. It's the second highest of Stalin’s “Seven Sisters,” light-colored skyscrapers scattered around Moscow at the dictator’s command, except that he’d ordered eight. They all look like the Empire State Building, topped with towers, aerials, and wedding-cake carvings, crowned by a red star in a laurel wreath. That star had better not fall, since it weighs 12 tons! Opened in 1953 and built by convict labor, our building also sported the old hammer and sickle. A hundred years ago from the university perch on Sparrow Hills, you could see the whole city below; now it throbs with 9 million in a blue-gray haze. Students and faculty have offices and apartments in the high rise; there are wings on either side of the building. We stayed on the 9th floor. Unfortunately for construction under Uncle Joe, materials were often poor quality, and years of neglect have taken a toll.
We arrived in time for dinner. The University of Texas, with 50,000 students in Austin, is surrounded by hundreds of restaurants. Moscow State, with 40,000 students, had two restaurants, one being a small Chinese place we never found. Fewer than one percent of Russians eat outside the home annually. There’s no need for restaurants except for tourists, so after about a half mile walk, we came to Firehouse Number 1, a comfortable place with a patio and bar, marked by a giant fire extinguisher outdoors and a mannequin in a shiny aluminum fireman’s suit in the window. Tables had bright red metal pipes coming to each.Pull your own tap beer as on the wall red numbers electronically change as your glass fills. It could be Cleveland! We ate there several times and always had excellent meals and good service. Waitresses spoke Englishs, since school children learn foreign languages from about 12. Nearby were countless kiosks selling fruits and vegetables, cigarettes, magazines, drinks, and gum. We passed rotisserie chicken and gyro stands that smelled wonderful, but I wondered how it would be in a blizzard or on inky dark winter days.
We were in a newly refurbished suite reserved for special visitors, with great views from a foyer, living room, bedroom, study, 2 baths, and kitchen with plywood cabinets and a dining table. We had a phone and a small TV with 4 Russian channels. There were no glasses, utensils, toilet paper holders, or pictures on walls; carpets were badly frayed where they’d been cut but not bound, and laid with no pads. There was no hook in the shower to hold the hose, which sprayed all over when not held, or lay on the floor. The tile was new, bright aqua and white, but there were no plugs for any sinks, even after Mike went searching! We were told later that nobody has them. Hot water was off the first night. Drapes were clip ons, but new, of shiny light translucent fabric. The bedspread was shiny blue and pink flowered shiny material, ruffled, with ruffled pillows to match, one in a heart shape, perhaps from the same Woolworth’s as the furniture. We used a flashlight to get in through the double door, since the hall light was out. (It was replaced later in the week, but by then we’d mastered Braille insertion.) The flies had no problem getting in. Do you remember unrolled sticky tan flypaper? We saw it in action, studded with numerous black trophies.
Windows and doors at the University’s ground floor entrances needed care and cleaning: the glass was nearly opaque, and the doors cried for washing and varnish. An old man sat at the entrance, but as far as I saw, either read the paper or watched TV. He never spoke. Two elevators served the building, but while we were there, only one was in use, despite some waits. At each floor, a maternal lady oversees a foyer lounge area, usually carpeted, with sofas and plants, and sometimes little personal items hanging from the ceiling, as though it were her living room. The scene looked like a black and white 40’s movie set. She is in charge of the keys, hanging in a cabinet behind her desk, but she usually sits in one of the sofas or easy chairs, reading or watching TV. Some speak a little English, from the days when the “Worker’s Paradise” provided education for all, and succeeded rather well. There is a small bare kitchen on each floor, and a set of stairs which I checked just in case those ‘vators failed.
Some marble academic halls were fine and well tended, but some lecture halls and the dusty geology museum on the top floors could have been from the ‘30’s. Meals are taken in the cafeterias inexpensively, and nearly always involve lines, but no one seems to mind. The little breakfast room on the 6th floor where we ate the first morning was closed other days, so we went to the basement of the main building and stood at small high tables for coffee and a roll.
The school’s flower beds were neglected, but all over the city were colorful beds of bright annuals, many arranged in brilliant patterns and well tended. Roads were good, wide in the city—10 lanes sometimes, and there are many recent model BMW’s, Audis, VWs, and even Chevrolets among the ancient Ladas. Unleaded gas and diesel fumes contribute to a haze of pollution, but there are thousands of green trees and bushes among the drab high rise apartment buildings. Several new buildings, of modern design and materials look like they could be in any town, but rents here are highest in the nation. Signs, in billboards or neon, tout Mercedes, Baccarat, Ford, Chesterfield, Pizza Hut, Ikea (4 of them!) and many others unimaginable before perestroika, a mere decade ago. Signs were in Russian and in English. I was told there are cucumber slices on hamburgers served under the Golden Arches, but didn’t investigate.
The next day our group toured the city in busses, stopping at monuments and buildings. As in Europe, there are many memorials for the second world war, and Russia remembers her 25 million war dead at German hands, and another similar size group left homeless. She also struggled with Napolean’s troops, who took a Moscow already in flames, and fought with Sweden, Poland, Tartars, and others throughout her nearly thousand year history. The city, begun as a fortress on the river has often been at war, often been rebuilt. A tall obelisk used every centimeterto reflect a month of the war; next to it a huge modern museum. When we walked in Red Square next to the Kremlin walls, Mike wondered if this were the spot where the “Moscow Missile” would have pointed, from submarines on constant watch in the cold war. Our countries have since agreed not to target each other.
We saw delightful St. Basil’s Cathedral, built by Ivan the Terrible in thanksgiving for victory over the Tartars in the mid sixteenth century. Its colorful onion domes are strangely appealing, crowning a historic and religious icon of the city, the square and even Russia itself. Vendors sell copies, carved in wood and brightly painted, and we bought one for a couple of dollars. Nearby GUM (“Goom”) department store ran nearly the length of the square, in beige classical symmetric lines. It was clean and good looking, its glass roofed arcades filled with shops from around the world and filled with all sorts of consumer goods, even Mount Blanc pens. A statue of two butchers who raised an army against the Poles is in front of St. Basil’s turbaned swirled domes. Huge shiny red stars over the several entrances turn with the breezes, so they won’t be blown off by strong winds.
The square had begun as a market square, so it’s appropriately placed. Christ the Savior Cathedral was rebuilt recently after Stalin had it razed (and wanted St. Basil’s razed too) to make his Mayday marches easier for the soldiers and tanks to navigate. Its clock face is visible from afar, 6 meters across. Tiny pink and white St. Barbara’s is across the way, now offices. St. George slaying the dragon is ubiquitous, seen as often as the two headed eagle.
We visited Lenin in his tomb, looking as he did in 1924, below the brown granite slabs where Stalin et al reviewed the troops. We saw Stalin’s bust and tomb in the Kremlin wall, marked with a brass plaque in a long row of Russia’s heroes. We ignored the gypsy children and gave a few coins to the bent old women who beg near the churches, since their pensions don’t cover the cost of fuel and food. Except for caring children, there is little aid that comes their way. We repeatedly photographed Ivan the Great’s single bell tower and the many churches inside Kremlin walls, adorned with gleaming golden domes. We visited large Assumption Cathedral, completely covered with frescoes inside, saw the huge broken bell and the enormous black cannon that was never fired. It’s hard to keep all the churches and buildings straight.
We learned to read a bit of Russian and hated knowing so little. I could read MOCKBA as Moscow, and PECTOPAH as Restaurant. We passed many huge hotels but had no time to explore them. I never saw the subway stations I’d read about that were filled with art, mosaics, and chandeliers, but noted that the several I did visit were graffiti free and filled with busy passengers, all Caucasian, and many reading. People sell things in the subway halls: black robed bearded priests collected for charities, vendors hawked trinkets, and a family offered puppies.
I loved the golden onion church towers, many of which have been regilded to gleam brilliantly in the sunshine. The bulbous domes made an enormous impression of strength and dignity. They are topped with shining golden crosses with two crossbars, one for Jesus’ arms, and one smaller and lower for his feet, slanted. I was told this was to indicate the good and bad thieves crucified on either side of Jesus, one going to heaven and one to hell. I’m no theologian.
We visited churches and saw a ceremony that was once “Blessing of the Apples” in Commie days. A procession included the bearded Patriarch and Metropolitan in bulging hats and flowing rich vestments. Many clerical headpieces were jeweled. Their parading retinue was punctuated with waving banners and crosses as they marched through a singing audience around the outside of the cathedral. The women wore babushkas. Inside the domed Greek cross are no pews: the congregation stands during long masses out of respect for God—sometimes for three hours. There are no statues, but busy walls are filled top to bottom with paintings in the Byzantine style, since Russia felt Moscow would be the “third Rome” following Rome’s collapse to northern tribes and Constantinople’s to the Moslem Turks. They adapted the Greek alphabet via Saints Cyril (ergo, Cyrillic) and Methodius. We saw many refurbished churches, in wonderful condition inside and out, and visitors kissing the icons.
I had feared grime and crime, and Mike didn’t bring his computer lest it disappear. We saw evidence of the former, but there is lots of restoration, and every major store seems to have a presence in the city. I had heard about overt prostitution, but perhaps because we weren’t in a hotel, we saw little evidence. None knocked on our door! We traveled in a group with good natured Russians from the University, and felt safe.
Each day, as the international acoustics group delivered papers, many on medical imaging, we “accompanying spouses” were offered tours. We saw wonderful things, including the building where President Putin receives visitors and signs important state documents. The Granovitaya Palata is a grand palace, not normally open to visitors, but is inside the Kremlin and absolutely fantastic. After passport inspection and metal detectors, we met a guide straight from Central Casting: a middle aged stocky woman, short straight graying hair pushed off the face, large glasses with clear plastic frames, plain wool suit, no jewelry, sensible oxfords and thick stockings. We were warned not to leave the carpet, and we minded! She warmed up later, but never ever smiled. We saw fantastic intricate inlaid parquet floors throughout made from woods from around the world, an ancient section covered with icons, golden thrones, domed rooms with the double headed eagle and lion symbols, elegant gilded furniture, jewels, classical columns, beveled mirrors, chandeliers big enough to fill your garage, and portraits of czars and princesses in all their finery. We climbed wide marble staircases covered with fine rugs, gasped at sconces, gilded pillars, velvet upholstery, and in general were agog throughout.
Another tour took us to the Kremlin’s Armory, one of the most elaborate displays I’ve ever seen. Gold and silver thrones, crowns, Faberge eggs, bejeweled church vestments and prayer books, chalices, snuffboxes, gowns, jewelry, elaborately decorated golden carriages and carved sleds, reliquaries, and unimaginable riches attest the power of monarchy. I think what blew me away were the gold stirrups, solid and much larger and longer than the ones we use now, and the incredible jewels as big as your eyeballs for the horses! Their heads, bridles, reins, and saddles were covered with gold, silver, furs and jewels. Just envision the thrones--many gifts from other rulers--much richer. The museum is so popular that all tickets are timed and no one may stay longer than an hour and three quarters. Several people mentioned the Diamond Exhibition nearby; I missed it.
We had a banquet in a large plain cafeteria in the University one evening, and a boat ride dinner along the Moscow River another. The weather was bright and breezy, and the city looked great. There was almost no litter in the river, and city streets looked cleaner than London’s— but that isn’t saying much. We had a fine meal, eventually, in many courses, with wine and vodka bottles lining the tables, and en route home the students gave some John Travolta imitations, especially Mishka, on the lower deck dance floor.
Moscow’s Mayor Luzhkov has built two monuments: one is the huge Christ the Savior Cathedral, where we saw the procession, built in less than 2 years for the city’s 850th anniversary in 1997. The other is a gigantic black metal monument to Peter the Great which overlooks the river. From afar, like many buildings, it doesn’t look as awful as close up. It’s visible from many points of the city.
I invited two students to come with me on a museum trip to be sure I didn’t get lost, and visited the Pushkin and the Tretyakov galleries, with lunch in between at a nice pizza parlor. The Pushkin, designed like a Greek temple, has loads of Impressionists in four big rooms, and I was surprised at how large Rembrant’s Prodigal Son was. It also holds Greek gold willed to Berlin by Heinrick Schleimann from Troy, there only since 1945—think war booty--and many sculptures and plaster casts like the ones in Texas. I saw Botticelli, Carraci, Tiepolo, and others.
The Tretyakov held the world’s biggest collection of Russian icons, which for centuries was the only art allowed. I paced myself at a rapid clip to see both sites in a day, but couldn’t even think of trying for the modern art gallery, Tret II, alas. I paid the students in American dollars, the preferred money of all Russians. On entering the country, you fill out a certificate stating how much cash you have. On leaving, you are to fill out another. No one ever asked for it, and I wish I’d brought a hundred American one dollar bills because in the most stalls, the dollar was requested. The pound or euro seemed to be less familiar. Can you imagine Americans asking for, say, pesos?
Fifteen of us took a midnight train to St. Petersburg, a great adventure. The Moscow station was total chaos, with thousands racing in dense crowds amid booths selling food and drink. Busses dropped off tour group armies, and private cars unloaded into an impenetrable jam. It was a cross between a medieval bazaar and Grand Central Station, with luggage, pets, kids, and commercial goods, brashly lit in the dark. Maybe we resembled one of the medieval paintings of the Last Judgement, heading to hell in a frenzy. We were in high spirits!
The couples took a room each; four men took a crowded double deck room. Our well lit comfy compartment had two beds on either side of a window, two big pillows, and clean sheets. A steward dropped off a box to each passenger filled with breakfast, cookies, pistachios, salmon caviar and crackers, and each person got a bottle of juice, beer, “wodka” or spirits. We took vodka. The steel bathrooms open at either end of the car once the train gets moving. We pulled in to St. Petersburg at 8AM, but the bathrooms closed at 7:30, unfortunately for late risers.
Later, we were all deliriously happy to be in a hotel with clean bathrooms, big fluffy towels, shampoo and other creature comforts absent at the dorms. We traveled with Olga, a beautiful and sweet young schoolteacher who was in her first year as a guide but extremely knowledgeable. The city is preparing for its three hundredth anniversary next year, and there is scaffolding everywhere, but it can’t hide the wonderful French and Italian architecture and beautiful streets and canals of Peter the Great’s city on the Bay of Finland, once a marsh. We learned the weather is often cold and wet, but our stay saw only sunny blue skies. The Neva flows through the town and 300 bridges span the Venice of the North which Peter made his fashionable capitol in 1712, using forced labor for about ten years, and deserting Moscow until 1918, after the revolution.
Our two most interesting trips were to the Hermitage and to Peterhof. The former, Winter Palace of the czars (caesars), was sandwiched into an afternoon and the guide was late, which had me in a frenzy, but I got to see a smidgeon of the green and white building above the Neva. I could spend a week there: DaVinci, Rubens, Raphael, Kandinsky, Matisse—I didn’t see it all, amid carved gilded rooms of history, furniture and sculptures. I’d read about leaking roofs, reduced staff, and closed sections, but what we saw was so spectacular that I left awed, even though there were literally thousands of things unseen. The collection includes 3 million items, including a clock with a golden peacock would fill a small room. There are 400 halls, many with stunning furnishings. A hermitage is a place where a hermit would live, yes?
Peterhof is a summer palace, built after Peter saw Versailles and decided he needed one-a-them too. The grounds are fantastic, with golden statues, numerous fountains running on gravity, not machinery, staircases, gardens, topiary; it could be small theme park. Costumed ladies and gentlemen in tricorn hats and powdered wigs played music or strolled the grounds. (It was Peter who forced men to shave their beards or pay tax.) We watched a hydrofoil out on the bay, juxtaposing the 18th and 21st centuries at the home of the founder of the Russian navy.
The palace interior is everything you’d expect. Here were painted ceilings above gilded rococo arcades, beveled mirrors, swags and candelabra, elaborate floors made from fitted rare woods, tapestries, paintings, handmade wallpapers, chandeliers, busts, tables set with elaborate china and glassware, yadayadayada. I suppose it was your normal two-a-penny palace. Peter’s study was plain, but unpainted oak panels in the walls took 5 men 4 years to carve each one. His writing desks had secret drawers.
Paintings included Boris and Gleb, sons of Vladimar who brought Christianity to Russia in 998, and unsigned icons, since one wouldn’t sign a sacred image. Prophets were on columns of the churches, since they were in effect the pillars of the church. Peter III, killed by his wife Catherine’s favorite, was there, as was she, growing older and plumper and taking younger and younger lovers. Her lover Prince Potemkin, however, added the Crimea to Russia to gain Black Sea access. Elizabeth I, Peter the Great’s daughter, left 15,000 jeweled dresses and lots of bills; she disliked wearing things more than once. Or anyone’s wearing the same color dress she wore to a ball! Her father forbade women from wearing makeup, to lessen their allure and deception! His son, Paul I, was killed by his son Alexander I, after only 4 years on the throne. Empress Anna’s husband died of overeating at their 2 week wedding feast. I could hardly keep stories straight, since it’s been challenging enough to learn the English monarchs!
One evening we attended a ballet, Giselle, at the cozy but elegant Hermitage Theater, with rising tiers, pink marble columns and statues of Apollo and the muses. Above them are white roundels with bas reliefs of famous poets and musicians. It’s the oldest theater in the city, celebrating its 200th in 1985, and we were met on arrival by a powdered-wig trio in ball gowns and breeches. After Catherine the Great’s death in 1796, performances ceased until 1989, after restoration.
The next night saw a display of delightful folk dancing at the Nikolaevskii Palace. Vigorous musicians and a smiling energetic young troupe won the audience in the first of two shows, and left us ready to buy from displays laid out on tables next to free intermission vodka and hors d’oeuvres. Girls wore various peasant dresses as boys leapt and whistled during athletic Cossack dances. It was sobering to recall that the Germans’ 900 day siege of Leningrad had those kids’ ancestors eating rats and cockroaches as they starved. We had wonderful meals, and took the overnight train back to Moscow (airline rules, I think) before we all flew home.
Yeltsin allowed demonstrations, Gorbachev allowed free elections and faced imprisonment for facing a coup, and Yeltsin announced from atop a tank that the coup was illegal. He later banned the Communist Party, thereby enraging Gorbachev. After the Berlin wall fell, there were massive demonstrations in Red Square in 1990; Yeltsin publicly tore up his Party card. People were killed trying to secede from the USSR. Leningrad changed its name back to St. Petersburg. On December 8, 1991, the USSR was dissolved; on Christmas Day Gorby resigned and the hammer and sickle was replaced by the white, blue, and red tricolor of the former Russian flag.
In ’93 Yeltsin dissolved Parliament, which led to bloodshed, but the Army stayed loyal. He devalued the ruble, oversaw economic chaos, fought breakaway Chechnya (120,000 dead), and named Putin his successor. It was the FIRST peaceful democratic passage in history. Almost no one pays taxes, pollution is rampant, and there are problems for the future. (And yes, I didlook this up!) I had a great time seeing these things for myself.
Our son Ted pointed out with no prompting that St. Petersburg is spending 200 million dollars on anniversary party preparation and 2 million in HIV prevention. Their syphilis rate is stratospheric. Just so you’ll know.
My advice if Poland’s on your agenda is to skip gray low-rise Warsaw (Warszawa, pronounced Varsava) and head for colorful Kraków (Krack-uv). Drink beer, piwo (“pee’vo”) which is cheap and good, take trains which are also cheap and good, (the 2 lane roads are notoriously slow and dangerous) and expect neither prompt service nor signs in English. Poland’s not quite ready for prime time tourism, but it’s climbed a steep learning curve since independence and capitalism in 1989. It’s clean and litter free, very cheap to stay, but since a fifth of the nation is unemployed, it’s poor and there is still some official corruption. Few speak English. There are a few beggars, but probably not more than anyplace else, and some prostitution, I’m told. Cars are mostly similar to the west’s. Private education is expensive for young people, with limited space, but public education is cheap. Copernicus and his radical heliocentric ideas got followers burned at the stake, and his 1530 book was banned even into the 1800’s, but his image is alive today in Poland.
Despair of ever mastering the language, since so much can alter a word! It’s hard to identify with a queen named Anna Jagiellonka. L with a slash through it is pronounced W, j’s become y’s, v’s are w’s, diacritical marks fall like confetti, and there is a serious lack of vowels! Zhen-KOO-ya, thank you, is “dziekuje”. A receipt says “Zamek Krolewski na Wawelu”. I’m clueless. And the toilets! Should you use the triangle or the circle? It costs a zsloty to go. (Pssst! Girls, use the circle.)
I never realized until I’d seen East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Poland how gray the Communist world was, not only in the dull square utilitarian architecture, but in a pervasive grayness of spirit. In theory everyone would be treated the same, receiving what they need, but in actuality, no one dared be creative or imaginative or colorful and nobody tried to make things work better. There are parks, but the pavement is cracking and missing. Nobody shined or fixed anything, since nobody owned anything or got a bonus for excellence. Mediocre bureaucracy was the name of the game.
Since Lech Walensa and Solidarity, Polska became the first country to leave the Soviet bloc. Jaruzelski, the old Commie, became president. In 1999 Poland joined NATO, and contributed over 200 soldiers to the coalition forces in the Iraq war; Poland hopes Bush says thanks in person. With a vote on joining the EU soon, the government is afraid to go farther in fiscal reform so as not to spook voters. After that comes national elections, so there won’t be fiscal reform by politicians wanting reelection. We spent zslotys and groszys, (zwottys and groshys), but perhaps euros are in the future.
Poland has almost never been its own boss. Its history is conquest and partition by the Swedes, Germans, Russians, Prussians, Austrians, and anyone wanting land. It actually had a democratic constitution restoring the monarchy on May 3 1791, just after the US and just before France. That lasted only a year, but the holiday is still celebrated with parades. From 1918 to 1939 the country was independent, between wars.
The Warsaw airport is modern and uncrowded, and was easy to navigate. Our sleek Marriott offered a great view of the “Palace of Culture” from the 30thfloor, but I’d rather we’d gotten into the older Bristol, located near old town, instead of our location across from the train station (Dworzec Glówny) and the gigantic Palace. The gift from the Soviet people is the tallest building in Poland, once holding Commie HQ, now museums, cinemas, and theaters. It was built under Stalin and looks like the “wedding cake” structures in Moscow. The city is quite low rise, so it pierces the sky in its enormity, surrounded by department stores and wide boulevards. Nearly all the road crossing is done underground, where a warren of shops fills the hallways with activity and food smells. The shops are full, but in rush hours, density is lighter than in London or other big cities. I never saw an African face.
Warsaw is the scene of much of Polanski’s The Pianist. As a child, he actually lived in the Kraków ghetto, where 16,000 Jews were forced into 320 houses, 15 streets, 3167 rooms. He was returned by a family his father paid to keep him in safety, because it got so dangerous, punishable by death. Yet the family kept the money. After his mother and sister were deported, Polanski’s dad cut a hole in the fence and sent the boy out on his own, and after several hard days, he found shelter. Warsaw held about 450,000 Jews in 1940. The ghetto was eventually leveled, and about 300 survivors emerged from the rubble in 1945. Work the percentages.
German Nazis, enraged by the 1944 Warsaw Uprising, decided to make poorly armed Poles pay for daring to recapture parts of the city. The rebels had expected help from the Reds, already sitting at the edge of the city, but instead Stalin saved bullets by letting them fend for themselves against his German foes. Hitler and Himmler ordered all civilians expelled, and systematically numbered buildings in order of their cultural importance. They looted the art, then dynamited palaces and churches, the most important first, second one second, determined to wipe the city off the map building by building, and nearly succeeded. Nearly 800 of over 950 historic buildings are completely obliterated, and more were heavily damaged. Therefore, nothing is over 50 years old, and until very recently, all replacement was built under Communist rule. It was deadly boring in style. In 1803 there was an earlier Warsaw Uprising, and a planned nocturnal attack on Prince Konstanty failed. Konstanty is the name of our street in Austin. Who knew?
Today along the Vistula (Wista) the Old Town area is beautifully reconstructed to look as it was hundreds of years ago, with churches and verdigris domes outside, statues and gold leaf inside. Caneletto’s paintings of the place were used as models, and old photos. Some buildings have elaborately painted facades, and horse carriage rides clip-clop in the square near many kiosks. Damaged window frames and staircase fragments were used as patterns to make new ones, every historical era of the medieval urban street system was included, building heights and footprints were maintained, and, since 1981, it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I don’t know if UN money was spent to help refurbishment.
My brother Pat McGee married Irena (Ee-ray’na) Sierdzinska, who has two quiet children, Sandra, 15, and David, 21, so we gained new family members. The family tried to be quite respectable at 4PM during the elegant wedding. It was in a small white baroque Palace Jablonna (Job-woe-na) in a park near the city. I think the kids might have gotten suspicious of us later! The civil ceremony, in Polish and English, was in a graceful round hall under a painted blue dome with clouds. Afterwards, Pat and Irena tossed glasses over their heads not once, but twice. A waiter brought a tray of bread for sustenance and salt for flavor symbols of life’s essentials, accompanied with vodka, since it was a wedding. Irena wore a long embroidered crème dress with a full skirt, and Pat probably had on the dressiest tux of his life, with an embroidered waistcoat. They’re both slender and looked great, and the castle was gorgeous. Afterwards, we ate, drank, danced, drank, danced, and ate ‘til midnight. The tables groaned under two meals, flowers, and candelabra for their State Department friends and us. Waiters filled glasses for hours—and nobody was driving. The singer had blue hair. Yeeee-haw! Can you say Na zdrowie! Can you toss down another “wodka”? Watch this!
On Sunday morning, we fought off hangovers with a Marriott swim, then headed for Old Town on the number 175 bus. We saw a ticket inspector politely request three people to leave the bus with false or expired tickets, and were glad we’d known to stamp our tickets at the beginning of the ride. Busses are clean and comfortable—and frequent.
It was Fireman’s Day, and the hook and ladder truck in the sunny square was taking kids up in the air on its extension ladder. A “jaws of life” demonstrated how to cut through a car door. We listened to a uniformed firemen’s band concert during lunch near the Warsaw castle, amid flags flapping in the brisk wind. We admired the tall column holding the statue of King Sigismundus bearing a giant cross and curved sword (1644).
There are LOTS of churches! Priests and nuns abound, in traditional cassocks and long dresses. We walked through St. John’s Cathedral and other churches, and then the former Jewish ghetto, but we couldn’t quite find the museum there. The neighborhood looked normal, mostly dull apartment blocks. A better map or a phrase book might’ve helped. There are whole tours of Jewish Warsaw, so there must be more than we uncovered. There are Chopin tours too. We saw an arresting monument: carriage wreckage and wheels of a railroad car, tipped onto RR tracks, studded with hundreds of upright charred wooden crosses and one gleaming silver cross. An ultramodern blue glass building nearby was closed. It spanned the street. We stopped at the black carved monument to the Warsaw Uprising, in two parts, one with soldiers and civilians with guns, one with people climbing into the sewers, which the Germans gassed. Candles and flowers were left by visitors.
We watched a little girl have her First Communion picture taken. She wore flowers in her hair and a long white dress, standing in front of a palace with her family. It reminded us of our little Morgan in Milwaukee, who’d just made her own first communion. We called her from a park bench near a garden of yellow tulips. Cell phones are a wonderful invention!
The Warsaw Barbicon is a huge brick entry gate that’s being rebuilt in red brick, with fairy tale pointed towers, a big parapet, and a moat. Violinists and merchants in its thick entry passage attracted crowds of mostly young people and families, many eating ice cream cones--lody. We visited a museum filled with art concerning the Passion and Resurrection from modern to ancient artists, and on the top floor a display on the national poet Mickiewicz. There were countless places we never saw, including the largest university in Poland.
We passed rows of dark blue police vans parked in the quiet street, each full of cops, and a cark blue water cannon truck with them. At the same time we heard songs and cheers from a stadium nearby. Later that afternoon, parades of young men and teenagers, wearing football scarves and chanting, noisily marched down the streets in groups. (Cousins of our British yob thugs?) Between each group were hordes of police in helmets with plastic visors, with black clubs at the ready. There was no trouble.
The next morning, Monday, we took the train south to Kraków. In the railroad station, we gave our coffee sugar packets to a frazzled woman probably not much older than me. She had earlier asked for money and seemed a little short of a full deck. For the train ride, under 3 hours, we had our own comfy compartment: In the gentle countryside we saw small tractors; occasionally a farmer in boots walked behind a horse and plow. Some people rode bicycles on the dirt roads. There were hundreds of flowering fruit trees and graceful white birches. Throughout the trip brilliant yellow dandelions, more than I’ve ever seen, blanketed city and countryside. They were a delight—or maybe just a reflection of weed killer use in Poland. There are lots of storks, but I saw only one, flying overhead.
The city, one of 12 UNESCO World Cultural Heritage sites, is a wonderful, vibrant change from Warsaw! It seemed like the “other Prague.” Somehow the domes and crosses adorning rooftops of this former capitol have survived since its charter in 1257. Our little hotel was on a narrow street with red and white Polish flags waving overhead. It led to the enormous market square, as every street once did, as large as St. Mark’s in Venice or the Grand Place in Brussels, and surrounded by an ancient cathedral, churches, and shops. London has Nelson, but here on a high column Adam Mickiewicz, the Romantic poet, overlooks busy kiosks, tourists, horse carriages, and outdoor cafés. An enormous long yellow building in the center demands attention: it’s a two story baroque Cloth Hall. It’s filled with carved wooden stall rows against the walls. Goods are plentiful and cheap, leaning towards crystal, carved wood, and table linens; the building has been in Market Square, the Rynek, since medieval times. The city’s name begins with either C or K, and whatever I consult varies.
The elaborate red brick St. Mary’s cathedral nearby boasts the biggest Gothic altarpiece in Europe. It’s brightly colored, as is the rest of the overly decorated church, all in perfect condition, with many clear colors and fresh gilding. The Pope, hometown hero, used to say masses there. From its tower, on the hour, a live trumpeter appears, and in 4 directions, from 4 small windows, plays the hejnal, a tune that warned of the Tartar invasion in 1241. He stops abruptly in mid-note, commemorating the Tartar arrow that found his neck. Or not. But it’s a great story!
In squares a long horse-drawn buggy ride costs about $20. We aren’t sure how horse and driver both survive, but the carriages look good! Our driver, an elderly sweet man with no English, jeopardized life and limb after I pointed to the lilacs overhead and asked their name in Polish. He was determined to pick some for me and my sister Peggy, despite our protests! He did, and I trust that Mike left a nice tip.
We went to the Wieliczka Salt mines the first afternoon, also a UNESCO site, which my brother thought we must see. He neglected to mention the initial walk down about 40 flights of stairs! For 150 miles under the ground, there are tunnels, and in some vast caverns there are chapels with salt crystal chandeliers overhead, strung with electric lights. Black statues (because of the minerals) of madonnas, war heroes, the pope and other grand pieces fill smaller caverns and tunnels. If you think the statues look like marble, you’re invited to a taste test lick! It’s definitely salt!
We saw a vast room used for airplane part manufacture by the Nazis, safe from allied bombs, and one underground cathedral where masses are still said. Carved bas reliefs of the Last Supper and other religious work fill the walls. Far below the surface, there were formerly horses and mules to draw water from the mines or turn pulleys, but some staggeringly demanding pumping and carrying was done by Jews or prisoners in 12 hour shifts. Before steam engines and electricity, imagine what life underground was like: pick, shovel, flickering lamp, and constant threats of methane explosions and accidents.
Our guide had been a miner, like his father and grandfather, but spoke excellent English and several other languages. He assured us he knew everything, and his dry wit enlivened the tour. Every group gets a guide, and there is little commercialism with the deal. We made a group of 9. There is a creaky elevator back up, a lifesaver after two hours of walking. Minibuses return tourists to the center of town, a half million annually, and run every few minutes.
That day was Irena’s name day, which, once you’re over 18, is the day celebrated more than your actual birthday. We all bought her little gifts. The calendar is full of Christian names. Do you know when your feast day is? Patrick is easy, on March 17. Chic bought all us girls fragrant little nosegays of lilies of the valley. Flower sellers are everywhere.
The next day we took a coach to Auschwitz, a sobering experience in which children under 14 aren’t allowed. The name is an easier German form but the Polish use Oswiecim. (There should be marks over the o and under the e but my computer won’t make them.) In the sunshine, with grassy lawns where probably dirt, snow, or mud once lay, the place looks benign. We entered under the famous gateway : Arbeit macht frei, work sets you free.
The camp was originally for Polish prisoners, and later Soviet POWS; locals were moved out of town so German officers and staff could use their houses nearby. War conventions forbid prisoners doing slave labor. As Jews, gays, cripples, priests, artists, professors, and others began filling the place, the need for quicker processing developed. The German efficient solution was to build an even larger camp next door in 1941, Birkenau, with a RR track alongside, and more crematoria. A trainload arrived, with prisoners sent to the right or left (death or life, however short and miserable) and “showered” before the next train pulled in! In 1944, there might be 4 or 5 trains a day. Even as the war was being lost at the end, killings continued. German companies purchased over 100 tons of human ashes from the camp!
Usually only strong young men were spared immediate death, but if there was enough labor handy, they too would be sent directly to the showers. The band played as prisoners marched to work, making it easier to count them, and flowers were planted next to some of the buildings to make them look less menacing. Attempts at escapes meant many more deaths, sometimes with corpses left on display. From all Europe the crowded freight cars rolled in, in freezing winter and stifling summer, with no food or sanitary facilities. I thought of Stephen Reich’s haunting musical composition about the trains. There were women in the camp briefly, but usually only men. 600 of 200,000 children survived; I recalled my former students at the JCC. At Addlestone Hebrew Academy in Charleston, I began the music and art program in the mid 70’s; when I told Rabbi Levine I didn’t know much about the feasts, he replied, “We’ll get you a book!”
One of the most awful camp sights was the tiny basement chamber entered by crawling in on hands and knees through a small black metal door, rather like a pet door. Inside, prisoners stood all night with a few others in a cell too small for reclining, then worked the entire next day. With 1000 calorie rations daily and vigorous labor required of most, this ensured a painful demise. Was this better than the starvation cells? Or the ones with one tiny hole for air that 40 people might be crammed into? In the morning, nearly half were dead, propped up against the living.
Latrines in the long wooden wash building were circles cut inches from each other in a long slab of stone. There was no paper, much diarrhea, and sometimes only seconds were allowed to sit. The purposeful inhumanity of the medical experiments, often with twins or childbearing women, appalled. There is a long display case filled with braces or old shoes or luggage with individual names. New shoes and good clothes were sent to Germany. There were tons of human hair, all one color due to the effects of Kyclon gas, to be baled and sold to tailors and mattress makers. You get the idea. It makes you never want to drive a BMW or even eat sauerkraut! Yet, after Poles, most tourists are German.
Our Polish guide Iwona was factual and thorough; when I asked how she managed to do this every day, she quietly said she thought it was important. She also pointed out that the work going on at the electric fencing was not replacement, but repair. Each post will cost about a thousand American dollars to repair, and there are thousands holding the rows of electrified barbed wire encircling the camp. The gas chambers at Birkenau were blown up by the Germans to mask their perfidy, and are untouched, piles of brick rubble under undulating roof parts. It is a ruin forged in Hell. We made the bus ride back mostly in silence.
That afternoon in a total change of pace, we toured the incredible Wavel Hill castle in Krakow, with fantastic marble, marquetry, paintings, furniture, carpets, chapels, and more. Its center is a three story Renaissance courtyard with fresco friezes that could be in Italy! Most ceilings are coffered and gilded, and one throne room has 197 carved heads peering down from inside the coffers! There are 136 huge Flemish tapestries on the walls. The entire complex is like a miniature Versailles, and is beautifully kept. When it was built in the early sixteenth century, King Sigismund ruled areas of Poland, Lithuania, Bohemia and Hungary, from the Baltic to the Adriatic. None of the guides speak English. In the crypt below the chapel are buried Polish kings, and the roofs are ornamented with graceful domes and lanterns. Kodak moments await in every direction.
There were so many things we missed in our short stay. I would certainly return, to attend concerts and visit DaVinci’s lady with the Ermine, which I’m sick about missing! I’d visit galleries, eat more pierogis and hope they acquire a Starbuck’s before I return, because Poland could use some good coffee. Do widzen
Brilliant golden domes, not steeples, mark Russian churches.
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