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.

 

Worried In Warsaw –Alcoholics Synonymous: Binges & Bellicosity (Travels In Eastern Europe #44)

The Oki-Doki City Hostel was my initial destination in Warsaw. The name was ironic considering that I felt the opposite of relaxed. Sleep deprivation made me extremely irritable. The hostel turned out to be nice, unfortunately I was not in the mood for nice. I had slept for a total of ten minutes over the last 28 hours. I had a dull headache, was shaking like someone coming off a week-long bender and having trouble comprehending anything other than yes and no. Like almost every hostel I have ever stayed in, the place was a hive of youthful activity, with young backpacker types bouncing through the hallways to their own internal rhythms.

As for myself, I had two choices on how to spend the rest of this day, try to sleep even though it was midday or go see a bit of the city. My decision was made easier by the fact that I was sharing a room with several others. I had been unable to book a private room at what was reputedly the best hostel in Warsaw. Upon checking in I discovered a college age Taiwanese student and her mother hanging out in the room. They were very polite and well-mannered, but command of the English language was about all we had in common. It would have been exceedingly difficult to sleep while they talked. Thus, I chose to see what I could of Warsaw before the sun went down. I decided to make my way over to the Old Town (Stare Miesto).

Bottoms up in Warsaw

Bottoms up in Warsaw

When You Least Expect It –Liquid Courage
My earlier fears regarding theft on the airport bus were now all but forgotten. Warsaw was a safe, clean city. If there was anything to fear, it would have been hard for me to notice, considering my near catatonic state. My focus was now on taking a leisurely stroll. In a matter of minutes, I was striding into Warsaw’s Old Town, gazing at the beautiful baroque structures lining the streets. After a couple of hours of wandering around the area, I began to head back towards the hostel. I was feeling relaxed, surprisingly pleasant considering my lack of sleep. Two weeks of travel were ahead of me, I was looking forward to new adventures. Then out of nowhere, I came to realize the truth about that old cliché of how things happen when you least expect them to.

As I walked out of the Old Town three men were sitting on top of a short wall. They were talking quite loudly. From the large brown bottles in their hands I could see that they were drinking beer. When they noticed me walking in their direction, one man alerted the others to my presence. They conversed among themselves, looked my way and began to laugh. This was a signal for trouble. I braced myself for a confrontation. Sure enough, one of them began shouting at me, asking if I spoke English while the others said spoke in Polish. They laughed loudly and continued making remarks, asking me if I was an Englishman or an American. I was nervous, but kept walking.

It was now early evening, there was still daylight and other people were within fifty yards. If anything happened I could yell for help. When I was almost past the men, one of them suddenly walked right up beside me. He grabbed my arm and began to ask a question. I did not flinch or jerk my arm away. Instead I stopped and looked down at the man’s hand resting on my arm, then looked him straight in the eye. From somewhere deep inside myself I found a reservoir of courage and said, “you are messing with the wrong man today.” His face turned ashen and he immediately let go of my arm. Neither my accoster or his accomplices said a word. There was silence. I kept on walking, this time with a newfound resolve. There was a skip in my step.

Intoxicating Experiences – The Rule Rather Than The Exception
I have always considered myself something of a coward, this likely stems from my schoolboy days when I failed to fight back against locker room bullies. My default setting in the past was always to cower in the face of a physical threat, but in Warsaw I did the opposite. Maybe it was the lack of sleep, the raw energy of unreleased tension or just the fact that at a certain moment in life a man has had enough. Whatever the case, the reality was that the situation was resolved. Unfortunately, this would not be the first or last time that I was confronted by public intoxication in Warsaw. The very next morning while out for a run, I noticed several men passed out among the leafy foliage of the Saxon Gardens Park. Then, after arriving back in Warsaw at the end of my trip, I got on a public bus in the evening which was to drop me off near another hostel. That was when I saw a man taking up two seats while crouched in a semi-fetal position. When the bus started up he began to scream loudly until he passed out, falling into an angry sleep.

These three incidents of public intoxication made me wonder if alcohol was a major problem in Poland. Of course, all my evidence was anecdotal, but these experiences left me with questions. I would later discover that drinking is illegal on the street, in public squares and parks in Poland. The minimum fine is 100 zlotys ($28 dollars). This does not seem to be deterring some people. Poland ranks #14 in the world in alcohol consumption by person. This sounds alarmingly high, but ten other countries in Eastern Europe rank higher, including Belarus, Ukraine, Lithuania and Slovakia, which all border Poland. In other words, Poland is part of a region where alcohol consumption is inordinately high. What I witnessed is more likely the rule rather than the exception in Poland and the surrounding states.

Drink Up – Prosperity & Its Discontents
Much of the alcohol consumption in Eastern Europe and specifically Poland can be attributed to culture. Making matters worse, the economic instability caused by the transition from communism to capitalism has exacerbated alcohol abuse. Yet economically, Poland has done much better than its neighbors. One of the more disturbing pieces of information I unearthed, showed that alcohol intake increased 30% in Poland from 2001-2012. Poland joined the European Union in 2004, which led to a healthy boost in prosperity. Nevertheless, Poles drank not less, but more since joining. I witnessed the trend of heavy alcohol consumption – albeit anecdotally – in Warsaw. One of my enduring memories of the city will always be of publicly intoxicated individuals. As my experience in the Old Town showed, there really was something to be worried about in Warsaw.

 

The Attraction of Fear – The Path To Warsaw: A Self-Perpetuating Delusion (Travels In Eastern Europe #43)

The seeds of my second trip to Eastern Europe were planted on the first one. While talking with Tim, a travel companion I first met at a hostel in Bulgaria, he mentioned his future European travel plans. He could hardly wait to visit Krakow, as it would be at the same time as the beatification of Pope John Paul II. From there he would travel onward to Ukraine. That caught my attention. Ukraine had been part of the Soviet Union, a place I had never been, but was interested in visiting. “Ukraine? Where are you going in Ukraine?” He said to the city of Lviv, not far from the Polish border. It would be an opportunity for him to see a bit of Ukraine and visit one of the most historic cities in the country. Plus, American citizens did not require a visa to visit Ukraine. At that point, I began to formulate my own plans for a trip to both Krakow and Lviv.  Flights to either city from the United States required multiple stops, in addition to a couple thousand dollars. My best bet was to fly into Warsaw, then travel south and east from there.

Polish point of arrival -Warsaw Chopin Airport

Polish point of arrival -Warsaw Chopin Airport

Voices Carry –  A Transcontinental Nightmare
My excitement about this trip was tempered by the thought of starting in Warsaw. A Polish acquaintance from Poznan, in western Poland, had told me how much they hated Warsaw. They said it was a confusing mess that was not worth the bother. According to them, Krakow was the place to go. Others I talked to were of the same opinion. Warsaw might be the official capital of Poland, but Krakow was the real capital. I was also told to visit Gdansk, Torun, Wroclaw, but never Warsaw. My foreknowledge of the city was that it had been almost totally destroyed during World War II. The rebuilding had taken place under a communist government. The outskirts of Belgrade and Bucharest began to loom in my imagination, horizons covered with concrete apartment blocks. I was not looking forward to visiting Warsaw, but nonetheless I scheduled an entire day believing that it would still be worth seeing.

The trip required three flights and twenty hours of travel time for me to travel from the western United States to Warsaw. My final flight would leave from Amsterdam. This one would be the most grueling. I cannot sleep while sitting up, unless at the point of collapse. Nodding off is about the best I can do. Even when I am able to catch five or ten minutes of sleep, I awake drenched in sweat. I was at this point somewhere over Central Europe that a booming, thunderous voice in Polish came from a couple of rows back. A middle aged man in a business suit began to converse in the loudest manner possible. His verbal bellicosity was jarring. For minutes at a time he would pontificate at near ear splitting levels. Several times I turned all the way around in my seat just to glower at him. This did no good.

I began to wonder if I was really awake or if this was some sort of strange transcontinental nightmare. Almost as unbelievable as the volume level of the man’s voice, was the fact that not a single person around him seemed to take notice. The man he talked with sat rapt with attention. Everyone else slept, read or listened to music. Warsaw could not come soon enough. As the plane landed, the man stopped talking. I was shaking from a combination of anger and exhaustion. Like many of the people in life who have driven me close to the point of madness, my two-hour torturer turned out to be inconsequential. He deplaned in good spirits, while I was totally relieved just to arrive. Now that I was half out of my mind, it was time for me to collect my belongings and travel to the Oki-Doki Hostel in the city center. This was not going to be easy, since I decided to take the bus from the airport. That would put me right where I always want to be when entering a foreign country, on edge.

The attraction of fear - airport bus to Warsaw city center

The attraction of fear – airport bus to Warsaw city center

Moment of Clarity – Extra Baggage
My tension and fear were induced by the following sentence from the Wikitravel Warsaw webpage: “ (Bus) Number 175, which runs from the airport to city center, is reportedly infamous for pickpockets and sometimes snatch-and-run thefts.” Of course, I chose to take this bus. I could just as easily have booked a taxi in advance, but I was too cheap. My ulterior motive was more self-serving, some might even say self-flagellating. I was magnetically attracted by potential danger. In the weeks prior to departure I had spent countless hours reading and rereading that sentence, doing ridiculous researches about bus crime in Warsaw. Obsessing over the possibility of becoming a robbery victim made my arrival in Warsaw more interesting.

A logical person would have just taken a cab, but obsessions are never logical. They are grinding, gnawing and all consuming. Warsaw was a city I had little interest in visiting, but I did have an intense interest in seeing whether I could ride bus #175 from Warsaw airport to the city center without getting robbed. Of course, I was exaggerating the threat, but that was precisely the point. The tension I felt when boarding the bus was real. I was in survival mode due to a self-perpetuated delusion. My fear and paranoia were real.

The imagined threat, turned out to be just that. Bus #175 was half empty. The passengers were either tourists like me or locals getting an affordable lift to the city center. Everyone and everything looked to be totally normal. No one was eyeing my bags or sizing me up, for that matter no one was sitting closer than a couple of rows from me. Still I kept clutching my luggage as though any moment a life or death struggle would ensue. I knew better, but obsessing over a crime that would never happen satisfied a deep seated fear. That fear did not repel me, it actually attracted me. This was my moment of clarity. Fear was what brought me to Warsaw and I would carry it with me to the frontiers of Eastern Europe.