The Theft Of Innocence – An Attendant Mystery: Krakow To Budapest (Part Four)

Frantic, nervous and beside myself with a mixture of fear, worry and anger I found the attendant, a young man from Polish Railways who could not have been more than thirty years old. In extremely bad English he asked if we locked the door. I shook my head. He twisted the lock open and shut several times showing me how it worked. He finally left it at open and said, “Public.” What he meant was that if the door was not locked the compartment was open to the public. He was spot on. I felt angry for being so stupid. The attendant left. We continued to search, but less frantically. Our hope of finding the wallet was waning. Then the attendant suddenly reappeared and asked me to follow him to the area at the end of the corridor. This was where it led into the next train car. On the floor was my friend’s wallet, as though it had been tossed there by the thief. The money was gone (between $200 and $300), but his driver’s license and credit cards were still there. We both felt another wave of relief, at least all had not been lost. The money was not that big a deal compared to finding the wallet. Unfortunately, the incident marred the unexpectedly pleasant overnight train trip.

Compartmentalized - Sleeper Train Corridor 

Compartmentalized – Sleeper Train Corridor

Who Done It – Casting For Blame
It was only later after the initial shock wore off that we began to try and figure out what exactly had happened. In the absence of any other suspects, our suspicion fell on the attendant in our train car. This may not have been fair, but we had no one else to blame other than ourselves. The attendant had been the one who found the wallet, but that raised the question of if he was the one who also took it. His compartment was next to ours. He would have heard us coming and going to the bathroom throughout the night. One time during the early morning hours I glanced into his compartment. At the time he looked to be resting. That could have been a ruse or reality. He would have woken up long before us. What if he saw us sound asleep or knew when my friend was using the restroom and I was in a deep sleep. This would have been the most advantageous time to make a move for the wallet. Especially if he heard the door fly open.

If I would have woke up while the theft was taking place, he could have said that he was closing the door. How would I have known any better? There was also the fact that he discovered the wallet. It was lying in the open on the floor just outside of the bathroom. Close to where the entrance was into the next train car. Had it really been in that same place all morning? Many people woke up before us. Surely someone would have seen it and either taken the wallet or turned it in. The chance that it was lying there for an indeterminate amount of time, untouched less the cash, seemed slimmer than the attendant placing it there himself. Quite conveniently, as soon as the attendant came to get me and then led me to the wallet, attention was distracted away from him.

Strangers On A Train – Opportunistic & Ominous
The relief we felt when finding the wallet made us forget all about the attendant’s potential culpability until we got off the train. There was a moment of mild euphoria. Only after we exited the train at Keleti Station in Budapest did we begin to cast our suspicions towards the attendant’s role. There was not much we could have done, even if we were pretty sure it was him. He spoke broken English at best. We only spoke English. Neither of us spoke Polish or Hungarian. We were now in Hungary not Poland. The only way we would have been able to find out whether the attendant was guilty would have been for the police to search his belongings. There was not enough evidence for that to be done. Plus, there was an insurmountable language barrier. And what if it was not him? The thought was chilling.

There was a distinct possibility that someone came into our compartment. An opportunistic thief who made his way from one of the other train cars or was sleeping in the same car. This was more frightening because it would have been someone we would not have known and never would know. A total stranger. When getting off the train at Keleti I wondered if the culprit might be walking among us. No matter who did it, we had to live with the losses. In the overall scheme of our trip it was a violation, but relatively benign compared to what might have happened. My friend had his wallet back. His credit cards were all there. He could use them at any ATM and soon did. I had my wallet and our passports were safe. In sum, we had been lucky. It was a hard lesson learned.

The Mystery Never Ends - Keleti Station in Budapest

The Mystery Never Ends – Keleti Station in Budapest (Credit: Dwight79)

For All The Wrong Reasons – Out On The Edge
Now I knew that night trains were more than noise, nuisances and sleeplessness. The compartment was not isolated from the darker aspects of society. Safety and security were illusions that could easily be stripped away just as fast as my friend’s wallet. There are thieves everywhere and nowhere. People steal for a variety of reasons including to get by or top up their wages. In Eastern Europe, many people with professional jobs live on the edge economically. Several hundred dollars can last someone more than a month. For them it was worth the risk. The crime was likely committed not out of malevolence, but need or at worst greed. As Americans we were targets. Seen as cash machines and tourists. I would never consider myself or my friend as wealthy, but someone saw us as that, sometime late in the night or early morning. Our misgivings about the return trip turned out to be true. We were able to sleep, but we also got robbed. Our overnight train journeys from Budapest to Krakow and Krakow to Budapest had been memorable, but for all the wrong reasons.

Click here for: The Whole of the Moon – Stolen Hours: Krakow to Budapest (Part Three)

 

 

 

 

The Whole Of The Moon – Stolen Hours: Krakow To Budapest (Part Three)

I just could not let it go. Throwing the equivalent of sixty dollars down the drain was too much to stomach. I urged my friend to take the night train back with me from Krakow to Budapest. I did not want to surrender half the cost of a ticket no matter how minimal the loss. It would also mean an entire day spent in transit, wasting a precious day of sightseeing. These two factors made me overlook the painful memory of what had occurred just two days before on our trip from Budapest to Krakow. Surely if we survived it once, we could do so again. I tried to console my friend with the idea “that this would be the last time we ever had to do this.” Such flippant logic only went so far, because we were still going to endure it one more time. And that one time had been one too many. My friend was not happy about the thought of suffering another sleepless night or that “terrible banging noise”. Neither was I, but as much as I hated that first trip, it made for a hell of a story. In the pursuit of adventure and a good yarn I was ready to suffer it all over again.

That lonesome whistle - Waiting on a night train at Krakow Glowny

That lonesome whistle – Waiting on a night train at Krakow Glowny

Getting What You Pay For –  Train Games
There was one caveat though. My friend wanted to see if we could change the ticket from a six bed to a two-bed berth. In a spirit of guilt ridden magnanimity I approached a woman at the international ticket window in Krakow Glowny who spoke horrendous English which was matched by her terrible attitude. The only words I was able to understand were her increasingly loud exhalations of “no refund”. My desperate protestations were no match for her willful indifference.  She was too busy waiting to go on break or perhaps she was already on one. I returned to my friend with the sad, but not surprising news that we would still be bunking with four strangers. He recoiled at this idea. I tried to soothe his nerves by uttering a few useless analogies about how “it couldn’t be any worse than the other night” and “what difference does it make how many people are in the compartment, the banging will be just as loud.”

After a period of tense silence and a pensive stare, he said “I am going to see if I can buy us a two-berth compartment.” Back to the window he went. A little while later he came back looking relaxed and holding a ticket for the two of us in our own compartment. I quietly breathed a sigh of relief. At least we could suffer the return trip by ourselves. I offered to pay my share of the ticket. He was so elated by this small victory that he would not hear of it. We did not enter the train until just past 10:00 p.m. on a Wednesday evening. Our compartment seemed a bit roomier than before. That was because the third bunk was not pulled down. In effect, my friend had paid for our berths as well as a vacant one. We both expressed a sense of foreboding as the train began to pull away from the station. I was prepared for another nightmare scenario. Our lone hope was that we were in a different railway car. It was from Hungarian railways, rather than the Polish one we took to Krakow.

Poor saps trying to reason with cranky clerks - Ticket window at Krakow Glowny

Poor saps trying to reason with cranky clerks – Ticket window at Krakow Glowny

Thief In The Night –  Dreams & Nightmares
Our expectation of cracks, pops and bangs failed to materialize. The first few hours turned out to be a relatively smooth journey. In comparison to our first trip it was a dream, but as the train crossed over into a Moravian countryside cloaked in darkness my apprehension grew. At any moment the train might start belching forth those tortuous noises. I settled my nerves with a special melatonin drink to help me get a few hours of sleep. Soon I was in a trance, followed by a daze and then I fell asleep. Every hour or so I would awake. At one point I felt the train stop and heard voices outside the window. Peeking through a thin curtain I noticed we were in the small city of Breclav, a major railway junction in the Czech Republic which sits close to the Austrian and Slovakian border. I did not see a single potential passenger on the platform, only border guards walking back and forth. It felt like a dream.

A couple of hours before dawn I got up and went to the bathroom. When I reentered the compartment, I failed to fully shut the door. It swung outward and banged against the compartment exterior. I pulled it closed, but forgot to lock it. I then fell into the deepest  sleep I have ever experienced on a train. When I awoke, it was nearly eight a.m. and we were nearing Budapest. I felt totally refreshed from a good night’s rest. The train ride had been close to perfect. I mentioned this to my friend who was already dressed. His reply sent a shock wave through me. “My wallet is gone.” He was frantically searching his pockets, suitcase and the berth. I began to search as well. He had made the mistake of putting it in the netting hanger just above the bed. I had done the same thing on the first trip, but without any problems. I should have known better.

Another night another train - Krakow To Budapest on Hungarian Railways

Another night another train – Krakow To Budapest on Hungarian Railways

Relief & Recrimination – Lost & Found
It suddenly struck me that my friend had almost certainly been the victim of theft.
He believed his wallet was stolen when we were both in our bunks that night. My friend had distinctly heard the door to the compartment close loudly. It woke him up. He recalled looking at the door and then at me laying there asleep. This made him wonder if he had imagined it.  Whatever might have happened, one thing was for certain, someone else had entered the room that night. This violation made us suddenly vulnerable, feelings of fear, menace and anger descended on the compartment. Usually reserved and rarely prone to cursing, my friend spewed forth an expletive. We were both approaching crisis mode. I began to wonder what we were going to do.

At least I had my wallet, or did I? I checked my suitcase, unzipping one of the pockets. It was empty. Panic flew straight from my mouth, “My wallet and passport are gone too?” I felt lightheaded and a bit dizzy. My heart was pounding, hands shaking. Frantically I checked another area in my suitcase. That is where I found my wallet and both of our passports. A feeling of instantaneous relief passed through me, followed by guilt and shame. My friend’s wallet was still missing. I was the one who had left the door unlocked. He blamed himself, I blamed myself. None of this did either of us any good. We tried to recall what may have happened. He had gone to the bathroom as well. The theft could have happened while he was out. We both believed it had happened in the last couple of hours while I was fast asleep. He remembered hearing the door shut, I remembered nothing.

Click here for: A Hangover Without A Drop Of Alcohol – That Kind of Night: Budapest to Krakow (Part Two)

Click here for: The Theft Of Innocence – An Attendant Mystery: Krakow to Budapest (Part Four)

A Hangover Without A Drop Of Alcohol – That Kind Of Night: Budapest To Krakow (Part Two)

Four in the morning is a terrible time to be awake, especially if you have not slept a wink. The Budapest to Krakow overnight express was rattling its way through Moravia. Hideous sounds came from beyond the walls of our small, rattle trap compartment. Sounding like somewhere out there in the deep, dark night an army of industrial workers was tearing the train apart while it hurtled into the unknown. When the banging momentarily subsided, the merciless sensation of the train shifting from side to side would take hold. The rails were supposed to be straight, but I imagined them as shiny strings of steel spaghetti leading the locomotive through a foreign land.

The train was supposedly headed to Krakow, but it felt like a voyage into an unknown abyss filled with sharp bends and precipitate drops. One minute we would be roaring downhill.  Then the brakes would suddenly scream out in a piercing shriek. The sound effects emanating from the rickety bowels below us were more frightening than anything I had heard in a horror film. Once in a while my friend and I commiserated in our misery. “This is insane” “something must be wrong with the train” and always we came back to the same exasperated question, “What was that awful banging?”

Enter at your own risk

Enter at your own risk (Credit: Man In Seat 61)


Beyond The Grasp Of Reason – Nightmare For A Memory

There was no sane explanation for what was wrong with the train. For that matter, there was no logical reason it stayed on the tracks. All we could do was hope for dawn and then Krakow. Out of sheer exhaustion I finally fell asleep. When I awoke, my friend was already dressed for arrival. He had slept even less than I had. His first overnight train trip had been horrific. It was as though we had been placed in a cage that had been beaten all night with iron bars. I looked out the window at a pastoral landscape covered in mist. This was Poland. It was hard to believe that we were close to Krakow. The previous evening was now a nightmarishly unforgettable memory. We were late for our arrival, but it hardly mattered at this point. Our only thought was getting off this train. I had a distinct feeling of unreality. Having survived this dangerous odyssey was beyond the grasp of reason.

Emerging from the compartment, I met several others in the hallway who looked the worse for wear. A bleary-eyed mother and her teenage son were standing slump shouldered while arguing amongst themselves. They conversed in English and turned out to be Americans. I struck up a conversation with them. They were traveling around Europe on a multi-month journey. I asked them their opinion of the train trip. The mother said this had been their first overnight trip on a train.  She was glad to have the experience, but never wanted to go through a night like that again. Then the inevitable question, “Did you hear that loud banging? What was going on?” Of course, I had no idea what had caused that nightmare of noise. I did not say it, but I disagreed with the mother. I would have gladly traded this trip for a pleasant daylong railway ride to Krakow. I had the feeling that everyone else felt this way as well. Every passenger who filed out of their compartment looked to be in tired disarray. It had been that kind of night. This journey had given me and my traveling companion a hangover without a drop of alcohol.

No Room For Comfort – Suffer The Night
The best we could say about the trip was that it had been an adventure. The exact opposite of the relaxing, sleep filled, smooth ride we had hoped to experience. A few weeks prior to this trip I had written a blog post expressing dismay that the Hungarian National Railways planned to cut overnight train services. This was part of a trend on many European railway lines. I still hope overnight European train travel survives, but I must admit that in its current form the days of romance, comfort and leisure on these trains has long since passed into history. The problem has as much to do with the passengers as it does the service. We live in an age of mass travel. To be affordable and competitive, night trains must pack many people within the wagon. Three and six bed berths do not leave much room for comfort. Space is extremely limited. The niceties of comfort have been largely done away with. Fine dining has been replaced by an improved version of the tv dinner. Forget a decent bathroom, these are barely above the level of rudimentary. I have begun to wonder if overnight train travel has survived in Europe only because of government subsidies and traditionalism.

The price is not right either. Overnight train travel is scarcely competitive with buses. These days it may actually be cheaper to fly. A traveler can fly between Budapest and many European cities on low cost carrier Wizz Air for a mere pittance. Bus rides between Budapest and Krakow can be had for as little as 10 Euros, about a fifth of the cost incurred by someone booking an overnight train between those two cities a day in advance. Admittedly flying is a hassle and long bus rides are exhausting in the extreme, but the cost and convenience are still tough to beat. Of course, on a train the passengers get to see the countryside. That is except for overnight trains, where they only see darkness. They can always pass the time as I did, trying to read by a very bad light, then tossing and turning restlessly on a ride through railway hell. Fortunately, I did not have to do this with five strangers, but that option had also been available. One could attain a level of discomfort scarcely sufferable, all for a bit of romantic nostalgia.

Arrival time - Krakow Glowny

Arrival – Krakow Glowny

Stoicism & Quiet Agitation – Mourning Arrival
My lone companion had suffered the trip much the same as I did, with stoicism and quiet agitation. When the train pulled into Krakow Glowny there was a sense of beleaguered relief, we had somehow made it. We were not rested and ready, only tired and weak. The first thing that came to mind was getting to our accommodation as soon as possible and sleeping the day off. This thought kept us going. Along with the idea that we could not possibly do this trip again. We had just two and a half days to change our minds

Click here for: Off The Rails – The Nightmare Train: Budapest To Krakow (Part One)

Click here for: The Whole Of The Moon – Stolen Hours: Krakow To Budapest (Part Three) 

Off The Rails – The Nightmare Train: Budapest To Krakow (Part One)

Some people never learn and I am one of them. Several years ago, I took a night train from Belgrade, Serbia to Sofia, Bulgaria thinking it would give me an extra day to visit the latter. It did, but unfortunately only after enduring a bone rattling train ride through the night. The morning after that trip I was the worse for wear. I did not enjoy the extra time I got in Sofia due to my sleep deprived state. I should have learned from that lesson. Overnight trains were not for me. In the intervening years I had marginally better experiences on overnight trains to Spilt, Croatia and Brasov, Romania. I never completely swore off overnight trains. The romance tended to outweigh the irritation I experienced. My enchantment with such train trips started long ago with the James Bond film, From Russia With Love. In it Bond travels with a beautiful Russian bombshell named Tatiana from Istanbul to Trieste. The dining car, elegant compartments, mystery and intrigue captured my imagination. Never mind, that Bond nearly gets strangled with a piece of wire. Or the fact that two other men are murdered on the train which never quite makes it to Trieste. I was still smitten with the idea of train trips through exotic European locales. After six years though, that allure would disappear on a single overnight trip from Budapest to Krakow.

Sleeper car for the Budapest to Krakow route

It looks so appealing – Sleeper car for the Budapest to Krakow route (Credit: Man in Seat Sixty-One)

Just One Night – Rationalizing A Rail Ride
The idea seemed sound. An older friend and myself would take the overnight train from Budapest’s Keleti Station to Krakow Glowny. This would give us an extra day to tour Krakow. Why waste a day sitting on a train, when we could sleep on one at night? An additional benefit of this plan was that it would save us from paying for a hotel room. The train would leave Keleti at 8:07 p.m. and arrive in Krakow the next morning just after 7:00 a.m. My friend, who is much older than I am, was all for giving it a try, but was wondering what it would be like. He had never spent the night on a train. I related my experiences both good and bad, but explained away the Belgrade to Sofia fiasco as a one off. After all that was Serbian and Bulgarian railways. Hungary and Poland were much farther along in their post-communist development. And besides it was as much about the overnight train trip experience as anything else.

We only had one misgiving. Our failure to book early enough in advance meant we could only reserve a three rather than two-berth compartment. This meant we would be bunking with a stranger or so we thought. Neither of us was excited by this prospect. We both loathed the idea of shared sleeping accommodations. My friend was a lifelong bachelor, after almost fifty years to himself, bunking down above or beneath a foreigner who came from an entirely different culture did not seem like an appealing prospect. We both agreed that this was just for one night and we could handle almost anything for a short duration of time. Luckily, the third person did not show by the time the train pulled out of the station. Less than half an hour after the train left, I noticed some loud popping and banging. I rationalized this as the train having a few issues getting adjusted. We slowly and nosily surged forward into northern Hungary.

Northwest by North - Budapest to Krakow by train

Northwest by North – Budapest to Krakow by train

Compartmental Consternation – Invisible Impediments
Soon we were getting ready for bed.  Just before turning the lights out we asked the conductor if anyone else would be joining us. He nodded in the affirmative and said something unintelligible in Polish. The one word I recognized was Bratislava. I assumed that another passenger would be joining us when we stopped in the Slovakian capital. Hopefully by then I would be too exhausted to care. I did not expect to rest very well, but figured as the night went on I would be able to catch several hours of sleep. My companion seemed unsure whether he would be able to sleep or not. He mentioned that he had survived sleeping in Marine barracks during boot camp. This could not be much worse. The problem was that these barracks were on wheels struggling to stay on tracks. We were constantly reminded of this not long after laying our heads down to sleep.

At random intervals the train car would be jarred by some invisible impediment. This would cause a commotion that threatened to toss me all the way over in my bunk. It kept happening as the night gave way to the earliest hours of the morning. That third possible passenger never showed and was forgotten amid the banging and clanging, popping and stopping. Here was a case where we tossed and turned, as much from the train’s wild tango with the tracks, as from our own efforts. Every so often I would pull the curtains back and peek through the window. There was complete darkness for a minute or two and then a lonely light in the distance. I thought to myself, this must be Moravia, but it could have been anywhere. We were cast adrift in a netherworld of travel.

A place not to sleep - beds in the Budapest to Krakow sleeper
A place not to sleep – Beds in the Budapest to Krakow sleeper (Credit: Robs World Adventure Blog)

Toilet With A Twist – Shaking & Shimmying
Several times in the night I made my way to the bathroom, which meant stumbling down a corridor while trying to keep pace with the constant shifts and jolts of the train.  Once in the bathroom I struggled to pee. The problem was that I had to brace myself for the inevitable jolting. My legs were set rigid as I struggled to straddle the toilet. At one point after finally starting to pee, the train began to weave, not along a curve or bend, but literally weave as though it was veering from side to side. My hips started shimmying. I was taking a piss while doing the twist.  Somehow. I managed not to pee all over the wall. I was rather proud of this depraved bit of dexterity, yet also deeply troubled by the train’s weaving. This train gave me the sensation of riding on a self-propelled bicycle directed by a madman.

At some point in the night my friend voiced his concern with the ear splitting banging noises that occurred with alarming frequency. It sounded as though someone was beating the train into submission with iron bars. My friend voiced his frustration by asking no one in particular, “What is that banging?” I had no idea, but whatever it was would not stop. I began to wonder if the train was going to survive this trip. The same could be said for us, its ill-fated passengers.

Click here for: A Hangover Without A Drop Of Alcohol – That Kind of Night: Budapest To Krakow (Part Two)

A Gap In The Defenses – Suwalki, Augustow & Bialystok: Last Forevers (Travels In Eastern Europe #64)

The Seskotai to Warsaw portion of the train trip turned out to be a delightful journey. I had the Welsh couple to keep me company while the train rolled through the gorgeous countryside of northeastern Poland. It was at the height of autumn. The forests were illuminated with fall foliage, while the ponds and lakes which dotted the area shimmered in the afternoon sunlight. The Welsh couple I had met on the platform at Seskotai, consisted of a strikingly attractive, middle aged red-headed woman who worked some sort of office job close to Cardiff, while her stocky husband ran the farm they owned together. Both of them were pleasant and talkative, unless the subject turned to the English, whom they found particularly distasteful. If anything was wrong in Britain, then it was an Englishman’s fault according to them.

Their attitude had much in common with Eastern Europeans from small and medium sized nations that had suffered at the hands of much larger foes. As the English were to the Welsh, so the Poles were to the Lithuanians or the Germans and Russians were to the Poles. The couple were frequent travelers to Eastern Europe, coming to watch horse races each year in Brno, the Czech Republic’s second city. On these same trips they made time to visit other places in the region. They were now heading towards Brno to watch the races starting in a couple of days. The husband studied the rolling landscape with the eye of a farmer. He noted the many fallow fields, remarking that these could easily be cultivated. The Poles were leaving money in the earth. The lack of development in this region made its nature more spectacular.  The forests, fields and ponds literally glowed beneath a radiant, late afternoon splash of sunshine.

State of nature - The beauty of northeastern Poland

State of nature – The beauty of northeastern Poland (Credit: Lilly M)

A Most Important Unknown Place– Strategic Suwalki
I was entranced by the serene and pristine nature. This was matched by my fascination with the area’s history. Despite its beauty, I knew that this land had been fiercely contested by Poles, Lithuanians, Prussians and Russians for many centuries. The geopolitical situation had stabilized since the collapse of the Soviet Union, but could flare up at any time. Half an hour after crossing the Polish border, the train made a stop in Suwalki. Suwalki was not only close on the Lithuanian border, but to its north could be found the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad and to the south, Belarus. Nations that were to be feared rather than trusted.  The area was just as strategically important today as it had been during the first half of the 20th century. The flat narrow strip of land I was traveling through was a highly strategic security corridor for the European Union and NATO alliance.

Known as the Suwalki Gap, the only place the Baltic States border the rest of NATO. It is through this gap, that NATO troops would have to travel if they had to defend the Baltic States from a Russian attack. Conversely, Russia could sever NATO’s connections with Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia by closing off the gap by moving troops and armor into it. This land pockmarked with lakes and dark forests, rolling fields and rural farmsteads has not changed much over the centuries, either physically or geopolitically. Rumbling through it on a Polish train gave little hint as to its true importance to European and world peace. It was hard to imagine that a land hardly anyone knows, visits or cares about could become the setting for another World War.

The Suwalki Gap

The Suwalki Gap (Credit: Bruno Adrie)

A Primeval World – Beauty & The Beast
After Suwalki the next stop was Augustow, one of those places that was in the wrong place at the wrong time multiple times from 1914 to 1945. The First and Second Battles of The Masurian Lakes brought the German and Russian armies here in the fall of 1914 and winter of 1915. Polish and Lithuanian forces fought the Battle of Augustow around the area in 1920. Then during World War II it experienced multiple occupations, deportations and exterminations. Ethnic Poles were deported to Kazakhstan by the Soviets, the Jewish community was wiped out by the Nazis and the Soviets rounded up Polish Home Army members at the end of the war. As for the physical infrastructure of Augustow, seven out of every ten buildings were destroyed. With a history like this, it was a wonder that anything was left standing. Yet the main attraction of Augustow remained unscathed. The train skirted the Puszcza Augustowska, Polish for the Augustow primeval forest, In addition to the venerable woodlands. The train passed by several large lakes that the sunlight had transformed into pools of liquid fire. The natural world trumped the manmade all across northeastern Poland.

Much the same could be said of Bialystok which was the next prominent place the train stopped. Like so many places in the world which are well endowed with natural beauty, Bialystok was on the edge economically. Ever since the collapse of communism, industry had fallen on hard times. This made it a Polish hinterland and not just in a geographical sense, but also an economic one. Its youth fled to more vibrant cities further west. Bialystok was a place to vacation or visit family in the surrounding area, but very difficult to make a living. The history of Bialystok, was pretty much the history of Augustow, just on a larger scale. Half the population and 75% of the city center was destroyed during the Second World War. It was rebuilt afterward. Unfortunately, this took place under the communist regime which left a dismal legacy of concrete and smokestacks. Looking out the train window it was hard to believe that nearby stood the last stretches of the primeval forest which once covered much of Northern Europe. Deep in these woods the European bison still roamed. This ancient world has been protected in the Białowieża Forest National Park. Comparing the surrounding nature to Bialystok was like a reality episode of Beauty and the Beast.

Momentary rapture along Polish Railways

Momentary rapture along Polish Railways (Credit: Grzegorz Saczyło)

Forever Fleeting – Momentary Raptures
After Bialystock, the stops increased, but were in less prominent places. The kind of towns that people leave, rather than visit. Lapy, Szepietowo, Czyzew, Malkina, Tluszcz. Before long we were on the outskirts of Warsaw. This would be my last train trip for at least six months. I was back to where I started two weeks before. Saying goodbye to the Welsh couple filled me with a wave of sadness. Not because we had that much in common, but from the knowledge that traveling brought me into contact with people and places that were otherwise foreign to me. I became familiar with another world, one that was forever fleeting. These were moments that I could only have for a limited amount of time. Somehow I would have to make them last forever.

A Dream Lost In Time: A Trip To Trakai Island Castle: The Memorable & The Unforgettable (Travels In Eastern Europe #61b)

In 1866 a Polish artist by the name of Jozef Marsewski visited Trakai. He proceeded to paint a view of Trakai Island Castle from an opposite shoreline of Lake Galve. In the painting, the bare ruins of the Castle stand austere and dignified. Two decrepit bastions appear to the left of the main castle tower which rises above everything in the painting except for a luminescent sky. Sunlight warms the left side of the tower and collection of ruins which spread out beneath it. The waters of Lake Galve are placid and act as a giant watery mirror, reflecting an array of colors across the sky. On the left side of the painting, the sky and water almost become one, blending in a glorious shade of pastel pink. In the foreground, two figures on either end of a boat glide atop the still waters. I saw this painting long after I visited the castle. It made me yearn for another visit to Trakai. One that would take place in the waning afternoon hours of an intensely warm summer day. To watch the sun slowly evaporate into a pink hued horizon while the castle shimmered in a medieval mirage.

Trakai Island Castle in ruins by Józef Marszewski

Trakai Island Castle in ruins by Józef Marszewski (Credit: National Museum in Warsaw)

Capturing Trakai – Ruins & The Imagination
Such a scene did not materialize on the day I visited Trakai. It is highly unlikely that I will ever have that experience , but I can always dream or at least gaze at Marsewski’s painting which has much the same effect. The painting can be seen today in the National Museum in Warsaw.  The scene Marsewski captured at Trakai evoked an intense mysticism in me. That mysticism was shadowed by a sense of irrevocable loss. It would be difficult enough to find a day similar to the one Marsewski portrays, but impossible to find Trakai Island Castle in ruins. The restored castle I visited on that gray autumn day looked thoroughly grand and astonishingly beautiful. Unfortunately, it did not speak to me the way those ruins did as seen in Marsewski’s painting. Perhaps that was because the finished product of the present does not lend itself to the imagination the way ruins do.

One thing that could be recreated from that picture was a boat ride on the waters of Lake Galve. As I was leaving the castle, a lone boatman pleaded with me and a handful of others walking the grounds to go on his watercraft. He was insistent to the point of irritation. His beckoning followed me in and out of the castle. I heard him bellow forth at others with the same phrases. His cacophonous voice was the only sound in an otherwise silent environment. He was persistent, following whomever would listen or look his way. There was nothing remotely threatening about the boatman. When I thought about him later I felt a bit sad. Here was a man at the end of tourist season trying to make a living. His prospects for the next six to eight months were bleak. No wonder he was trying so hard. I think he deserved payment for being so adamant and obstinate. He left an impression on me that developed into an eternal soft spot for him in my heart.

Trakai Castle ruins sometime between 1870-1880

Trakai Castle ruins sometime between 1870-1880 (Credit: Arz1969)

Imperiousness – At Everyone Else’s Expense
On my way back to the mini-bus I met the Englishman who was on the tour with his mother. We struck up a conversation. He thought the castle was a fabulous sight, but Lithuania was not for him. The people were reserved, if a bit cold. There was so much silence. Even though I enjoyed Lithuania, I knew what he meant. There was something about this land and the people that made me feel alone. A quietness and solitude seemed to pervade everything. The only exception was our tour guide, who came walking briskly up to us ready to unload a mindful of information. It was supposed to be a short ride back, but I felt a sense of inevitable interminability coming on. Sure enough, as soon as we began the ride back toward Vilnius, the guide told us everything she wanted us to know about Lithuania. What Lithuanians did for fun, what sports they played, what the economy was like, what daily living was like and strangely enough, when she might get married. She was the Lithuanian version of a walking almanac.

I had to give her credit though for trying so hard. Plus, I came to value her torrent of information much more after the imperious, older Norwegian lady began to talk about herself. She owned many businesses, had been insanely successful and made sure we knew it. She reminded me of a haughtier version of successful small-town businessmen in America that I have known. No one could do it better than her. And she did it at everyone else’s expense. I wondered what the Englishman and his mother thought. They were humble middle class people, polite and deferential. By the time we got back to Vilnius I knew this woman was better than me and everyone else she had ever met. It was a relief when the mini-bus dropped us off in the Old Town.

Ready to go - Boat on Lake Galve with Trakai Castle in the distance

Ready to go – Boat on Lake Galve with Trakai Castle in the distance (Credit: Henryk Kolowski)

Warmth & Wonder – A Mother’s Instinct
The Englishman then asked me if I wanted to have a drink with him and his mother. I said sure. We found a nice outdoor café and ordered a few beverages. I noticed when we were at Trakai that his mother always stayed behind. When she walked, it was with noticeable pain. I wondered if this was the product of some sort of recent injury. It turned out that she had a chronic arthritic condition. She winced while trying to sit down and getting up was just as difficult. It was painful  to watch her facial expressions as she tried to get comfortable in a chair. Her son was infinitely patient. He helped her get up or move around. The mother looked to only be in her early 50’s, if that.

Despite her physical condition, her outlook on life was cheerful. She enjoyed talking to me about her life on the outskirts of London. Her eyes radiated a sense of warmth and wonder. I could not imagine how painful it must have been for her to travel to Lithuania or on the bus just to visit Trakai. She and her son gave me their addresses and phone numbers, then told me to come visit if I was ever near their home. We finished up our drinks and said short goodbyes, hoping to meet again in the future. I deeply regret that somewhere along the way I misplaced their contact information. It is almost certain that I will never see them again. It is also certain that I will never forget them. That was worth the trip, both to Trakai and Lithuania.

The Book Of Names – Erno Berger: A Resurrection At Auschwitz

It was in Block 27 at Auschwitz that I came upon one of the most arresting physical representations of the Holocaust ever conceived. In one room of the block can be found The Book of Names. The title of the exhibit is perfectly descriptive, but trying to explain the effect of this voluminous compendium of death is not easy. Try to imagine the number and size of the pages it would take to print the names of 4.2 million people. Now imagine that after each name, the year and place where that person was born is given. Finally, try to visualize that at the end of each entry, the place where the person was murdered during the Holocaust is listed, if it is known. If you can imagine all this, then you can imagine The Book of Names. The entire exhibit stretches out over several meters with the large pages bound together in a multi rowed, thick compendium of tragedy. It is the thickest book I have ever seen before and I hope to never see another one like it again.

What makes this huge tome particularly unfathomable is its subject matter and what that endless list of names says about humanity. Everyone listed in the book was murdered due to a choice by one group of human beings to single out and destroy another group. This litany of depressing data gives the sparse details of the individual lives and deaths of millions. Open The Book of Names to any page and one is confronted with hundreds of lines that cause the senses to reel. Soon the eyes glaze over as one name looks like another name. After a couple of pages all those lines run together. The sheer immensity of this catalog documenting the humanity lost in the Holocaust can scarcely be conceptualized by the mind. The only way for me to make any sense of it was to seek out an individual name. I had one to focus on, a personal connection, that suddenly made my eyes stop and closely search all those lines for traces of an existence.

The Book of Names in Block 27 at Auschwitz

The Book of Names in Block 27 at Auschwitz


The Outlines Of A Life – The Power Of Presence

The name I searched for was that of Erno Berger. It took me several minutes just to find the specific page. There was not one Erno Berger, but many lines listing men with that same name from a multitude of places in Eastern Europe. There were thirty-one Erno Bergers in all. Just the fact that the name was repeated so many times was a chilling reminder to me the depth and penetration of the Nazi’s genocidal thoroughness. I began to study each Erno Berger entry more closely until I found the specific one I was searching for. Finally, I came upon the following entry: Berger, Erno, 2/3/1982 Belgrad, Yugoslavia, Place of death unknown.

It was a surreal feeling to find this Erno Berger. Suddenly, I felt a pulse of energy and interest. A tangible connection had been made. For a moment, at least for me, Erno Berger rose from beyond all those pages, he came back to life, if just for a moment. He was no longer anonymous or just another name among millions, but a person whose existence had been documented. He lived on in this handful of details, straddling a couple of lines his life and death came down to these inches. It is an extraordinarily powerful feeling to never have met someone, to have been born a quarter century after they died and yet feel like they are very close to you. I could not touch this man’s presence, but he was touching mine. I, a white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant with no Jewish blood suddenly had a connection, a thread that I could unspool and use to trace the outlines of a life lost among millions of others lost.

There are 31 entries for Erno Berger in The Book Of Names

There are 31 entries for Erno Berger in The Book Of Names

From Father To Son  – Making A Name For Themselves
Who was Erno Berger and why was I searching for him in The Book Of Names?  He was born in Belgrad during the late winter of 1892. His father was J Kohn. Eventually he migrated to Debrecen in eastern Hungary where he worked as an electrician. In June 1944, he along with nearly the entire community of Jews in Debrecen – 7,411 to be precise – was rounded up and deported. The deportees were sent either to Auschwitz or Austria where many more would die in forced labor battalions. Which one Erno Berger went to is still a mystery. Somehow he ended up in Bergen-Belsen where he died. One thing is for certain, he never came back to Debrecen. The only existing remnant of his existence is his name on a memorial wall. It can be found in the courtyard of one of only two active synagogues left in Debrecen. He never saw his ethnic Hungarian wife again or the lone child that was born to the couple not long after Erno’s deportation.

This son would be given the name of the father he never knew. His surname eventually changed, as so many Hungarians Jews did during the communist period to avoid persecution and any lingering anti-Semitism. Assimilation was no longer necessary to survive, but it was to thrive. The son would grow up to become a noted physician in the city that had rejected his father. He would eventually marry a Hungarian as well, just as his father did. This was in the late 1960’s rather than the mid-1940’s. Hungary was a very different place by then. The kind of place where a man with brilliant intellect and smarts could achieve great things, despite or perhaps because of communism. And this son did just that. He healed, he taught, he loved and he lived. If not for him, I would never have been standing at Auschwitz searching for the name of Erno Berger.

A Lot To Learn – Ancestral Feelings
The son and by extension his father really must have been something, to have such power and influence continue beyond life. I never met either of them and never will. The day the son died I was still in high school. I did not know anything about Hungary and the Holocaust meant little to me other than what we learned of it in history class. I had a lot to learn then, I still do now. Erno Berger and his son meant a whole new world to me because they were my wife’s grandfather and father respectively. It has been through her that I came to know them. And it has been through her that I can see them.

One Among Many Millions – Life Lost: The Tragedy of Kazimierz (Travels In Eastern Europe #47)

Krakow and the city’s rich Jewish heritage are inseparable. Tragically that heritage no longer really exists in human form. It was all but wiped out by the Holocaust, but many physical traces remain. These can be found in the district of Kazimierz. The district gained notoriety after the award-winning film Schindler’s List came out. Several scenes were filmed in the district by Steven Spielberg, who chose the district for its authenticity. Krakow’s suburbs were also home to Schindler’s enamelware factory. In these places, an entire sub-genre of Krakow’s tourist industry has developed. Visits to notable Jewish sites are now on nearly every city tour’s itinerary.

These sites include eleven different synagogues. As museums, they offer a window into the mystical, eastern exoticism of Judaism which managed to coexist largely in peace with Polish Catholicism for over five hundred years. That was until all force of life was taken from these by the Holocaust. The rituals and traditions of Judaism that were observed in Krakow’s synagogues mean little without people. Today only a single synagogue is still active in the city. That is because only about 200 Jews now live in Krakow. The human destruction of Polish Jewry is frightening to contemplate. In less than six years, millions of people and an entire culture were almost completely obliterated.

Kazimierz scene

Kazimierz scene (Credit: Barbara Maliszewska)

Looming Shadow – Auschwitz In The Distance
I was able to visit the lasting traces of Jewish Krakow while in the city. This led me to a looming question: Should I visit the site where many of Krakow’s Jews perished, the most infamous concentration camp of all, Auschwitz? It was hard to avoid thoughts of Auschwitz while staying in Krakow, since the site was only 60 kilometers (35 miles) west of the city. Tours to the camp were advertised by multiple agencies. There were also twelve trains per day traveling between Krakow and Oswiecim (Polish for Auschwitz) for those who wanted to visit on their own. When I first heard the Polish name for the camp, it somehow made seemed less menacing. The German name had come to symbolize the Holocaust in all its horror.

A million and a half people had perished in the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex (Birkenau also known as Auschwitz II was an extermination camp).  That figure was twice the current population of Krakow. This was industrial genocide on an unfathomable scale. And it was the largest of several such camps that had soaked the soil of Poland with the blood of Jews, Poles, Soviet prisoners of war and a host of other peoples from every nation of occupied Europe. Polish Jewry had suffered the worst of this cataclysm. Prior to the outbreak of World War II, 70% of all the Jews in the world lived in Poland. By way of comparison, today 40% of the world’s Jews live in Israel and 40% in the United States. The percentage left in Poland is miniscule. In 1939 there were approximately 3 million Jews in Poland, now there are 20,000. 68,000 lived in the district of Kazimierz, only 200 still live in Krakow today. The Nazis campaign to eradicate the Jews in Poland had been monstrously successful and Auschwitz was the ultimate example of that.

Remuh (Old Jewish Cemetery) - in Kazimierz

Remuh (Old Jewish Cemetery) – in Kazimierz (Credit: Emmanuel Dyan)

For All The Wrong Reasons – A Detour Into Darkness
Auschwitz was the darkest day trip imaginable. I was curious, but loathed myself for such curiosity. No one wants to admit it, but many people are fascinated by Auschwitz, that is usually what happens when something that horrific has not personally affected you. There would be a human connection, but not an intimately personal one. Going to Auschwitz because of fascination felt like the wrong thing to do, while not going to Auschwitz also felt like the wrong thing to do. I finally decided not to go. The main reason I made that choice was a previous visit to another concentration camp at Sachsenhausen north of Berlin. It was nowhere near the scope or scale of Auschwitz, but I still carried that nightmare memory with me all the way to Krakow. It caused me to recoil at the thought of ever visiting a concentration camp again.

All concentration camps are awful, but some are more awful than others and each are awful in their own way. The one thing I never forgot from my Sachsenhausen visit was how the Nazis sometimes made prisoners take part in executions of other prisoners, ensuring that everyone shared in the guilt. When it comes to guilt, concentration camps have a way of spreading that feeling around, even to visitors who were far removed from them by time, place or nationality. Sachsenhausen showed me the depths of evil to which human beings can sink. Auschwitz-Birkenau would have multiplied that effect a hundredfold. Instead of visiting there I took the easy way out, going on a free tour of Jewish Krakow. We went through Kazimierz in the late afternoon, viewing old synagogues which were ancient by American standards and seeing a few of the places shown in Schindler’s List. The places were interesting and atmospheric, but I felt like this was more window dressing history than a deep dive into the horrific tragedy that had consumed the area. While many Jewish sites were still standing in Kazimierz, these were inert testimonials of a vanished culture.

Jewish youth walking in Kazimierz during the 1930s

Jewish youth walking in Kazimierz during the 1930s

Nightmare Vision – That Which No Longer Exists
Where were the people who made these places come alive? They were all dead. It was a sobering thought. Oddly enough, it was not the physical remnants of Jewish Krakow that left me with the greatest impression, but a human aspect that provided the most meaning. While touring Kazimierz I noticed a couple. I assumed they were Orthodox Jews by their dress. I walked past them on one of the cobbled streets. They would stop periodically to look closer at a building, talk quietly then walk on. I had no idea what their conversation entailed.

Watching them walk slowly away, it suddenly struck me that this scene had been repeated here thousands of times, on countless evenings prior to the Holocaust. This couple’s stroll was nothing special. That was until I realized that it rarely ever occurred in Kazimierz anymore. Daily life for Jews in Kazimierz, such as an evening stroll, quietly conversing, enjoying the atmosphere had been all but extinguished. Both lives and life had been lost because of the Holocaust. Those things we think of as so simple and so normal and so human, no longer take place for Jews in Krakow. A terrible tragedy, one among many millions.

 

 

A Paradise That Was Never Lost – Krakow: The Great Escape (Travels In Eastern Europe #46)

If Warsaw was an acquired taste than Krakow turned out to be my favorite flavor. It did not take me long after arriving in the city to realize that the old Royal capital of Poland was a jewel box that offered up a multitude of sumptuous treasures. The beauty of Krakow’s Old Town (Stare Miasto) was a feast for my eyes. It was both quaintly charming and splendidly grand, thoroughly royal and invitingly homey. Spectacular, but on a human scale. Resisting the charms of Krakow was impossible. I gave in willingly to this seduction. It had everything, a world class castle, ecstatic Renaissance architecture, evocative neighborhoods filled with the ambiance of vanished cultures and enough history to fill a set of encyclopedias. It was one of the most enthralling places I have ever had the pleasure to visit. I found myself thinking time and again that Krakow should be the capital of Poland. It is little wonder that following the movement of Poland’s capital to Warsaw in 1596, Polish kings continued to be crowned at the famed coronation castle on Wawel Hill. Such was its magnificence that Krakow could make royalty fall at its feet. I was no different, unable to resist its enchanting allure. My impression of Poland would largely be informed by Krakow. To the point that Warsaw became a faint memory. That led me to question how Krakow had managed to avoid the worst excesses inflicted on Poland over the last several centuries. The answer, luck.

Wawel Castle - A crowning achievement in Krakow

Wawel Castle – A crowning achievement in Krakow (Credit: Jakub Hahn)

The Unscathed City – Great Escapes
One of the most tragic of numerous traumas in Polish history was the partitions. Over the course of three separate, but similar instances – in 1772, 1793 and 1795 – Poland was carved into oblivion by ravenous neighboring states. Portions of it were divvied up to the Russian, Prussian and Austrian Empires. Krakow, as part of a region that came be known as Galicia, was fortunate enough to end up under Austrian rule, which was relatively lenient, largely respecting Polish culture. Nevertheless, in 1794 a revolt started in Krakow’s Market Square. The rebellion turned out to be still born, as it was rapidly quelled by Prussian forces who then looted treasures from Wawel Castle. Fortunately for Krakow, this turned out to be pretty much the worst of its suffering during that era when Poland was partitioned into nonexistence. For three decades – beginning in 1815 – Krakow enjoyed an exalted status as a nominally independent Free City.

Meanwhile, Warsaw suffered as a frontier and administrative outpost on the fringes of the Russian Empire. Tsarist control was extremely heavy handed with few rights for ethnic Poles. The same was true for the Polish population in what had once been the Kingdom of Poland’s western reaches, as they were subjected to intense Germanisation by their Teutonic overlords. Meanwhile, the situation continued to improve for Krakow in the latter half of the 19th century. The province of Galicia was given autonomy by the Austrians in 1868, leading to a wellspring of Polish intellectual and cultural revival whose epicenter was in Krakow. The city was proving to be Poland’s favorite child time and again, sidestepping the draconian measures inflicted on its fellow countrymen in other parts of the land. Krakow’s elegant Old Town sparkled radiant in the waning light of the hundred-year peace that lasted from 1815 through 1914.

Kanonicza Street in the Old Town - Kraków

Kanonicza Street in the Old Town – Kraków (Credit: Taxiarchos228)

Superficial Survival – The Darkest Of Ironies
Two cataclysmic world wars wreaked havoc on Poland. At least superficially, Krakow remained intact, but the human toll was tremendous. In the First World War, much of the population fled the city to avoid a Russian siege in the depths of winter. Twenty-five years later the situation turned exponentially worse, even though it did not start that way. On the sixth day of the war, Krakow’s mayor surrendered the city before it could be attacked. The Germans then decided to headquarter their General Government (administering occupied Poland) in the city. This meant that very few bombs fell on Krakow. While Warsaw underwent repeated waves of destruction, Krakow’s architecture remained intact. Inside museums and churches it was a much different story, as countless works of art were stolen by the Nazis. Intellectuals were arrested and shipped off to concentration camps.

The greatest price was paid by the city’s Jewish population, some 70,000 lived in the city when the Germans first arrived in 1939. Famously, Oskar Schindler saved 1,200 Jews working at his enamel factory. While a heartwarming story, that figure pales in comparison to the approximately 65,000 Jewish Krakovians who perished in the Holocaust. By the end of the war only about 4,000 Jews were left in Krakow. Though much of the Jewish quarter in Kazimierz was left intact, the people and culture it had fostered were extinguished. It would eventually become a place for tourists, rather than Jews. Parts of Schindler’s List would be filmed there, bringing it much acclaim. Many failed to see the macabre irony in this. It would never have been used as a film set if a thriving Jewish community had still existed.

There was another dark irony to come during the Cold War. Krakow’s architecture may have survived World War II intact, but a focus on heavy industry by the postwar ruling communist regime inflicted much greater damage, especially in a superficial sense. This was almost totally due to Nowa Huta, a vast industrial development and planned urban settlement built as an eastern suburb to the city. The Nowa Huta steelworks was one of world’s largest. The pollution emitted from that giant complex left the city’s historic architecture coated in a sheen of toxic grime. The district was supposed to be a touchstone of enlightened central planning that would expedite the movement towards a worker’s paradise. Instead, it became a cauldron of dissent. By placing so much of the working class in one area, it spawned movements against, rather than for the state. Communism finally collapsed, just like fascism and imperial authority had before it, the one thing still standing in Krakow was its architecture, awaiting a restoration that would soon arrive.

Cloth Hall and Main Market Square - Krakow

Cloth Hall and Main Market Square – Krakow (Credit: Jorge Lascar)

Eternal Mission – The Peak Of Poland’s Past
The restored and preserved version of Krakow was the one I had come to visit. A city of superlatives, architecturally, culturally and intellectually. Here was the greatness of Poland, collected all in one place. Eastern Europe’s Renaissance city with an edge, a paradise that could never be quite lost. Krakow was a romance with many dark chapters, but it had arrived at a happy ending. This was its lot and its luck. Krakow always managed to find a way to escape and was an escape, at least for the Poles. The city acted as a hidden gate that led back to the glittering kingdom that once was and would forever be Poland. Now another golden age was in progress, the city was living off and building upon itself, realizing an eternal mission to forever stand at the peak of Poland’s past.

 

The Miracle of Warsaw – Poland Survives & Thrives: The Royal Castle (Travels In Eastern Europe #45)

A miracle as defined by Webster’s Dictionary can be ”an extremely outstanding or unusual event, thing, or accomplishment.” By that definition, I know for certain that I have witnessed at least one miracle in my life, that miracle is the existence of Warsaw. The fact that the Polish capital exists today is nothing short of miraculous. Most people are familiar with the destruction wrought by the dropping of atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that effectively ended World War II. Less familiar is the calamitous destruction suffered by Warsaw during the war. From the first day of the war, September 1, 1939 until the latter part of 1944, the city was repeatedly under assault with its citizens brutalized by bombs, bullets and deportation. The architectural and human toll of these attacks is difficult to comprehend. Comparing Warsaw’s plight to that of Hiroshima and Nagasaki gives some idea of the immense scale of violence visited upon the city. 85% of the buildings in Warsaw were destroyed during World War II, compared with 69% of Hiroshima’s and 39% of Nagasaki’s. In 1939, Warsaw had a population of 1.3 million, six years later that number had dropped to just 422,000.

Scholars put the loss of life among Varsovians at over 800,000. To put that figure into perspective, consider that is more than the combined number of casualties suffered by the United States and British forces during the war. Following the 1944 Warsaw Uprising, a failed attempt to throw off the deadly yoke of German rule, it is estimated that anywhere between 150,000 to 250,000 Poles were killed as the civilian populace was expelled from the city. There were at least two to three times the number of civilian deaths compared with Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Now some might say this is a skewed comparison, since casualties in those Japanese cities were the product of single bombs, while the death toll in Warsaw came from hundreds of thousands of bombs and bullets over several years. While that may be so, it does not lessen the cumulative effect of the horror visited upon the Polish capital and its inhabitants. The Uprising also led to the final atrocity against the city, namely its wanton destruction by order of the Third Reich.

The Royal Castle in Warsaw as seen from Castle Square

The Royal Castle in Warsaw as seen from Castle Square (Credit: Dennis Jarvis)

Looking Old, Feeling New – On the Surface
Contemplating the unimaginable scale of the wartime destruction made the city’s resurrection that much more impressive as I began to wander around its bustling center. The Warsaw that exists today provides little hint of the horrors inflicted on it just seventy-five years ago. Oddly enough, where I sensed the destruction most was while walking around the Old Town (Stare Miasto). The entire area has been magnificently reconstructed, so much so that it looks a little too pristine. The wear, tear and grit of centuries was missing. It became apparent to me just how new the Old Town really was. I have been in many old city centers of Europe, but few have ever looked so immaculate. The one that came immediately to mind was Dresden, that city in eastern Germany that was infamously firebombed into a raging inferno by the Allies and has since been meticulously rebuilt.

Ruins of the Royal Castle in Warsaw at the end of World War II

Ruins of the Royal Castle in Warsaw at the end of World War II

In my opinion, Warsaw’s reconstruction trumps Dresden’s, in both its scale and detail. To begin with, a much wider swath of Warsaw was destroyed. Though the reconstruction used whatever remaining materials could be salvaged, much had been obliterated. One thing that had not been lost, were the twenty-six detailed urban landscape paintings, known as Veduta, done over a ten-year period in the latter half of the 18th century by Bernardo Belloto. These renderings allowed for an intimately detailed reconstruction. In fact, the Old Town that exists today has much more in common with how it looked two and a half centuries ago, rather than in the early 20th century. Despite the surreal nature of this reconstructed venerability, Warsaw’s Old Town is a resounding triumph of the Polish people’s will. It symbolizes the indomitable spirit that raised their capital city from the ashes of destruction.

Razed To Destruction – Raised To Perfection
The Nazis wanted more than anything to wipe Poland and its storied history from the face of Europe. Their efforts failed. The Polish response was to recreate the historic core of their capital city. Nothing better symbolizes that effort than the Royal Castle (Zamek Krolewski) which stands at the heart of the Old Town. The elegantly styled Baroque-Mannerist castle almost deceived me into believing this was the real thing. With only minor exceptions, nothing could be further from the truth. Less than a month after German forces occupied Warsaw in 1939, Adolf Hitler ordered the castle blown up. That did not happen right away because German experts in antiquities and artistic treasures were sent to oversee a thorough looting. It was only after the Warsaw Uprising that the Nazis carried out their venal destruction of the city, including the castle. By the time demolition crews were through, all that remained of the castle were fragments of two walls standing amid a pile of rubble. Six centuries of architectural and human history looked to have been all but extinguished.

Miracle of Warsaw - The Royal Castle as seen from the Vistula River

Miracle of Warsaw – The Royal Castle as seen from the Vistula River (Credit: Prorok96)

Following the cessation of hostilities, work began to rescue what material could be salvaged from the ruins. These mere fragments would serve as a starting point. Two and a half decades went by before reconstruction work began. Once it did donations poured in, chiefly from Poles now living in the United States. The citizens of Warsaw could hardly contain their enthusiasm. Case in point, when the castle’s clock on Sigismund’s Tower was restarted in the summer of 1974 thousands gathered to watch. It was set at precisely the same time as when the city was first struck by Luftwaffe bombers during the war. Ten years later the reconstruction was complete. The overriding majority of the labor, as well as the financial and artistic donations, had been voluntary. The end result was a point of Polish national pride. A nation that had been on its knees just forty years before, with the capital and all of its history at the point of extinction, had been brought back to life. That indeed was a miracle. I saw that miracle for myself while visiting Warsaw.