A Hostel Affair – Kiev: Man On A Single Minded Mission (Travels In Eastern Europe #54)

During my stay in Kiev, I met the standard mix of odd personalities that frequent most hostels. There were a group of four young male Brits who were drinking their way across the cheaper cities of Eastern Europe. They had come from Chisinau, the Moldovan capital, on to Kiev looking for another few days of dizzying drinking. The hostel’s front desk personnel were all young ladies, who rather than the lively types I had met in other Eastern European hostels, were somber, quiet and shy. They looked as though they had been plucked out of a funeral procession. Sometimes though, they could be surprisingly hospitable, such as the young woman who barely uttered so much as a word, but upon my departure presented me with a box of chocolates as a thank you gift for staying at the hostel.

One of these quiet front desk types did manage to engage with another patron. On several evenings, I overheard an American accent fumbling through Ukrainian words. The woman who was helping him along also staffed the front desk. He was trying hard, but his efforts were well short of fluency or comprehension. I figured his real goal was to cultivate romance. One evening I struck up a conversation with this language learner. My assumptions about his linguistic studiousness could not have been more incorrect.

In search of Ukraine - Cliffs along the Dnieper River

In search of Ukraine – Cliffs along the Dnieper River (Credit: Matvey Andreyev)

Walking Into One World & Away From Another One
The man trying his best to learn some Ukrainian was an American. He looked to be in his late 20’s, had dark hair and a curious look in his eyes. His disposition was more like that of an office professional, than the kind of person one usually meets in a hostel. Prior to landing in Kiev he had worked as a government contractor in Maryland, not far outside of Washington D.C. He had recently quit that job to travel for an indefinite period of time. When I told him that I had taken a Free Tour of Kiev, which was an excellent way to learn about the history and culture of Ukraine, he self-righteously waved the idea off. “I don’t do those tourist things. That is not what I am interested in.” I then proceeded to ask him what he was doing in Kiev. He replied that he was going to spend several months walking along a route that would hug the Dnieper River. I figured he must be taking some sort of footpath or long distance trail. My assumption was wrong again. He was just going to head south while walking as close to the river as possible. His goal was to see and experience the real Ukraine, whatever that meant.

I found his adventure admirable, but a bit perplexing. Was he not a little bit worried about walking on private property? The answer was a confident no, he could manage. Was he going to at least take a look around Kiev before he went about blazing his own trail? In a tone of condescension, he reiterated that Kiev was only a jumping off point for his travels. He had no interest in seeing the city. The idea of tourism was heretical to this young man. I found my limited interaction with the American version of a latter day Robinson Crusoe frustrating. He did not have a plan on when or where he would finish.
It was already mid-autumn, I imagined even the best outfitted, most physically fit person would have difficulties navigating the Ukrainian countryside in winter. I could tell there was no use in bringing up this point. He was on a single minded mission, to see the real Ukraine and nothing was going to dissuade him from this goal.

Days Of Imagination – Land Of Frustration
From time to time I find myself wondering what happened to this American adventurer. I have multiple images in my mind. In one, he is getting shouted at and threatened by suspicious property owners who mistaken him for a thief, while he naively fumbles through some very bad Ukrainian that only serves to implicate him further in their eyes. In another, he is reduced to walking along roadsides, dodging wild drivers and dangerous close calls. After days of frustration, he finds the nearest bus stop and travels to another hostel where he makes a more sensible plan.

In still another, he ignores the hardship and irritation with self-righteous stubbornness. Any villager who shows even the slightest kindness affirms his belief in the goodness of all Ukrainians. If only the world could share his experience. This confirms his belief in the justice of his cause, which amounts to wandering around country roads and fields in a blissful stupor that will somehow prove enlightening. What really happened? I will never know. It is likely that he had some neat experiences along with a few close calls. When the chill of late autumn set in, his thoughts turned to warmer climes and the Ukrainian adventure abruptly came to an end.

Eclectic Endeavors – Not To Nowhere
A neutral observer – of which I was not – would likely say that my cynicism was only matched by the would be adventurer’s naivety. The inquisitive skeptic taking on the stubborn optimist was just about all our interaction really amounted to. Perhaps I was jealous that I did not have the time and courage to undertake such an eclectic endeavor. The adventurer believed in something pure and illuminating, where all I could see was absurdity and foolishness. Both perspectives were likely valid and said as much about why we were traveling in the first place. This man was on a mission to find something. Perhaps a purity and grace that middle class life and a comfortable, if unchallenging job in the United States could never provide him.

I, on the other hand, always wanted to be somewhere, something or someone else. Kiev was just a passing phase, I wished to make the temporary permanent. Going from one place to the next, satisfying my restlessness through constant travel. In search of the next best place, which was much the same as the last place.  Both of our dreams were based on self-delusion. The adventurer in search of one true path, myself in search of too many paths. All of this led not to nowhere or to Kiev or to this hostel, but somewhere deep inside ourselves.

Anything But A Walk In The Park – From Daylight To Darkness: A Trip To Babi Yar (Travels In Eastern Europe #53b)

Trying to find the actual site of Babi Yar was rather difficult though I was most definitely in Babi Yar Park. I had expected to find some directional signage or ominous clues to the ravine’s location, instead what I found were people strolling around a rather large public park filled with deciduous trees. Autumn had yet to take hold despite the season, thus the trees were still thick with leaves. I was surrounded by greenery. It was hard enough to believe that 33,771 people had been executed at Babi Yar in just two days less than four generations ago. It was even harder to believe that such a thing could have happened in such a tranquil place.  Of course, places can change radically over time and the area around Babi Yar Park was quite different from what it had been in 1941. On the edge of the park was a large television station for Kiev. This building had been effectively constructed in place of the Jewish cemetery which had predated the war.

Babi Yar Ravine

Babi Yar Ravine

Dangerous Intuition – An Unfathomable Depth
The few black and white photographs taken at Babi Yar during the time of the massacre looked foreboding. A bleak, black and white landscape of dirt and grime, a polar opposite of the present. While the nature that surrounded me was inviting. I spent many minutes walking down one paved pathway after another. There were many elderly pensioners out for a walk. The deeper I went into the forested parkland the less I heard the city traffic on nearby streets. I began to believe that I was either in the wrong place or a coverup had been carried out. Was nature hiding the area’s history? Using the under and overgrowth as a cover. Straight and narrow paths led in a multitude of directions, these only took me deeper into the woodland.

My attempts to locate the ravine finally sent me off trail. I made my way through woods until I saw a higher point ahead of me. Walking towards this small prominence I came out into an area where the earth began to rise on both sides. I suddenly found myself standing in a ravine. I was unsure whether this was Babi Yar or not. I did not see any memorials or monuments. Coincidentally, the ravine and surrounding woods looked like a place I used to play as a child. Could one of the worst massacres in human history really have occurred in this place, it looked so familiar, so non-descript, startlingly average. The ravine was no more than 50 meters wide at its greatest extent. As I headed up into it, the space between the earthen walls narrowed. About this time another man came walking around the edge. Neither of us acknowledged the other, but I wanted to ask him of this really was Babi Yar? And if so, how could he go for a nonchalant walk in this part of the park.

A Memorial - Babi Yar Park

A Memorial – Babi Yar Park

Deep Disturbance – On The Ground & In The Ground
It occurred to me that I was might be standing where thousands of bodies were once stacked. In a bit of fearful curiosity my eyes darted from one side to the other looking for traces of bones. I did not see any, though nearby tree roots protruding from the earth made for macabre imaginations. And still I had no idea if I was in the correct spot, though some strange intuition began to creep over me. Like the feeling one has when they are in danger or about to be confronted with some horribly unsettling truth. Making my way to where the ravine started I forced to scale the steep earthen walls. Once at the top I began to look for any signs on the ground that this was Babi Yar. Over in some brambles and weeds I found a double cross erected from metal posts. I had to be close. Then I caught sight of a monument where the woods gave way to a clearing. There were a couple of people standing there, in front a monument with large menorah. At this point I knew that the ravine I had just walked up through was Babi Yar.

The confirmation was deeply unsettling. I soon made my way back to the precipice of Babi Yar. Peering down into it I tried, but could not imagine the endless stream of humanity that died here. And when I say humanity, not only the murder victims, but German humanity as well. The Jews lost their lives, the murderers had lost any sense of moral conscience. For me, the latter explained the former, rendering an explanation for what was otherwise a scarcely explicable tragedy. The fact that this site was now a public park with only a handful of monuments I found deeply disturbing. Something this horrible deserved more than what was here. This was the American coming out in me. In the United States, Babi Yar would have been a National Historic Site, with signage to offer education and interpretation in an effort to explain what happened. There was nothing of the sort here. Just the ravine, surrounded by woods and silence.

The Menorah Memorial - Babi Yar Park

The Menorah Memorial – Babi Yar Park

Ordinary People, Ordinary Places – A Million Lives Later
The killings at Babi Yar did not stop with the 33,771 Jews murdered on September 29th & 30th. That was just the start. Over the next two and a half years, Ukrainians, Russians, Roma, more Jews, communists and nationalists were killed here. Estimates of those murdered in and around the ravine are upwards of 100,000. The Syrets concentration camp, located in the immediate area, only added to the horrific death toll. The sheer immensity of the crimes committed were difficult to fathom. I was left asking myself, “All of this and now what”? The peaceful woods, paved trails, muffled sounds of a city in the distance and people enjoying nature. I had no idea what to make of it all. Part of me felt physically sick, another part slowly came to the realization that Babi Yar was a microcosm of the Holocaust. A reflection of the death dealt to millions on ordinary days, in ordinary places, by ordinary people.

The Nightmare That Was Kiev – Cauldron Of Loss: A Trip To Babi Yar (Travels In Eastern Europe #53a)

The main reason I had traveled all the way to Kiev was due to a chance meeting with an Australian at a hostel in Lviv. The Aussie told me of a fascinating daytrip he had recently taken from Kiev to Chernobyl. Tourists were now allowed into the exclusion zone where they could tour sites associated with one of the worst tragedies of the 20th century. I quizzed him for a good half hour about the logistics involved. Before the conversation was over my mind was made up, I was going to Kiev. Arriving on a Saturday afternoon, I soon learned that the earliest I could get a tour to Chernobyl was on a Tuesday. This gave me a couple of days to sight see in the city. Enough time to visit the scene of another 20th century tragedy, a ravine that arguably witnessed as much horror as any other specific spot during World War II. And a place that in many ways represents the nightmare upheaval that consumed so much of Kiev from 1917 – 1945.

Dorohozhychmetro metro station and the edge of Babi Yar Park

An ordinary scene for a tragic place – Dorohozhychmetro metro station and the edge of Babi Yar Park (Credit: YarikUkraine)

War On One City – Stalking The Streets
Kiev was not the place to be during the first half of the 20th century unless a person was looking to get killed. More death and destruction was inflicted upon the city than entire countries experienced within that same time span. The details are frightening in the extreme. Kiev changed hands no less than 19 times during the Russian Revolution and resulting Civil War. The Red/White warfare led to deadly reprisals. The Bolsheviks won the war and right to rule as they pleased. By the early 1930’s, it was not only the Ukrainian countryside that suffered from widespread famine as starvation stalked the streets of Kiev due to forced collectivization. It was also during this time that Kiev suffered through the indignity of losing its capital status in the Ukrainian SSR to the Soviet city of Kharkiv. Things took another turn for the worse even after Kiev won back that status in 1934. Stalin’s purges resulted in a lethal bloodletting of the Ukrainian intelligentsia and anyone who dared whimper a word of nationalist sentiment. Incredibly, the interwar period was only the beginning of much worse violence to come.

For Kiev, the Second World War was a disaster of unimaginable proportions. The Red Army lost more soldiers in the Battle of Kiev than the United States lost in the entire war. The decisive German victory over the Soviet forces resulted in one of the worst defeats inflicted on any single army in world history. At the center of this cauldron of loss was Kiev. The city was subsequently mined by the retreating Soviet forces. Greeting the German occupation forces were upwards of 10,000 explosions, the product of Soviet sabotage efforts. This set the city on fire for nearly a week and left much of it a smoking, hollowed out ruin. In the aftermath of this devastation, an equally grim human toll was exacted first on Kiev’s Jews, then on the population at large. The casualties rose to unheard of levels. In 1939 Kiev’s population was 846,724, four years later that number had been reduced by almost 80%, to just 180,000. Many of those who lost their lives had done so in a ravine that became synonymous with mass murder, Babi Yar.

Handout dated September 28. 1941 ordering all Kievan Jews to assemble for the supposed resettlement

Handout dated September 28. 1941 ordering all Kievan Jews to assemble for the supposed resettlement

Pinnacle Of Depravity – The Deepest Ravine
Babi Yar sounds more like the name of a Saturday morning cartoon character, than the site of a genocidal massacre. The etymological origins of Babi Yar are quite innocuous, referencing a woman by the name of “Baba” who sold the “yar” (ravine) to a Dominican Monastery. In a darkly ironic twist the site would later be home to Eastern Orthodox and Jewish cemeteries as well as a military camp. Those same purposes would coalesce in the darkness that unfolded in the final days of September 1941. On September 29th & 30th of 1941, 33,771 unsuspecting Jews were murdered at the ravine by Nazi death squads. What Auschwitz was to mass murder by gas chamber, Babi Yar was to mass murder by machine gun. The prevailing stereotypical image of the Holocaust continues to be the gas chambers at Auschwitz-Birkenau. It is often overlooked that in the lands to the east of Poland – Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and western Russia, hundreds of thousands of Jews were shot by Nazi police units and security services. The pinnacle of this depravity was carried out at Babi Yar.

On a bright and sunny Monday morning amidst the waning warmth of early autumn I went to visit Babi Yar. My route took me from the center of Kiev at Khreshchatyk on the metro to Teatralna where I then transferred to the Green Line. From there I traveled three stations down the line to Dorohozhychi. As I got further from the city center, the crowds dissipated. At Dorohozhychi – in the northwestern part of Kiev – I found myself one of only a few people exiting the metro. Making my way to the surface via a long escalator ride I expected to see signage pointing the way to Babi Yar. There was none that I could find. The situation had been very different for Jews on September 29, 1941. They had been given direction earlier in the week by an order posted by the German occupation authorities. This order would lead them to their deaths.

Crimes concealed - Pathway in Babi Yar Park

Crimes concealed – Pathway in Babi Yar Park

The March Of Death – From Incomprehensible To Unimaginable
The order stated that all Jews in Kiev were to gather at the corner of Mel’nikova and Dorohozhytska streets. That street corner was just 2,000 feet from where I exited the Metro station. Standing beneath a brilliant blue sky on a clear autumnal morning I found the idea that one of the largest mass murders of the Holocaust had occurred nearby both incomprehensible and unimaginable. The tens of thousands of Jews that arrived here on that dark day not so long ago had loads of their belongings in tow. Most believed they were headed for resettlement. The Germans were surprised at the number of Jews who obeyed the order. The Jews of Kiev likely did so out of fear. The next to last sentence of the order was a virtual death sentence, stating, “Any Yids who do not follow this order and are found elsewhere will be shot.” Those who had obeyed the order would be ushered to Babi Yar by members of the Nazi police battalions. Never has a death march been so short.

Lost & Found – Kiev Metro: The Memory Of Moments (Travels In Eastern Europe #52)

One minute I was in a half-empty train car fighting off sleep, the next I was standing in the central railway station of Ukraine’s largest city. Kiev-Pasazhyrskyi station was a hive of energy, people were everywhere. It was Saturday afternoon and the whole world was in motion. The signboards showed trains heading in every direction. One in particular – the express from Kiev to Moscow – caught my eye. Russia suddenly felt very close, even though it was still hundreds of kilometers to the east. Then again, the genesis of Russia much to the chagrin of the Kremlin, began with Kievan Rus. Up until the mid-13th century – when the city was destroyed by Mongol hordes – Kiev was the nexus of the Eastern Slavic world. At Kiev I was entering another world, where Europe and Asia intermingled, politically and culturally it did not belong to one or the other, but something all its own. Geographically this could be considered the far east of eastern Europe. 

Into the Depths - Escalator to Kiev Metro

Into the Depths – Escalator to Kiev Metro (Credit: Jason Minshull)

A Current Of Fear – Plumbing The Depths
Upon arrival, my immediate mission was to find my way to the Kiev metro. From background reading I had learned that it was incredibly cheap. I also discovered that the metro was an engineering marvel, having the deepest station (Arsenalna) in the world. I weaved my way through the crowds, making my way to the metro entrance. Before entering I would first have to purchase a ticket. This should not have been a problem except for the fact that all my Hryvnia (Ukraine’s currency) was buried within a self-inflicted system to discourage pickpockets. It included two layers of pants atop a money belt. As waves of passengers headed to the escalators, I was stuck beside the ticket machine attempting to excavate my wallet without stripping.  At one point my hand was crammed down the front of my pants while I tried to somehow unzip the money belt. No one seemed to notice my embarrassing predicament except for the one person whose attention I most wanted to avoid. A young Ukrainian policeman was standing close to the entrance chatting with another man. He watched as I rummaged around in the front of my pants. I saw him staring at me, then noticed that he said something to the man beside him while nodding in my direction.

A current of fear ran through me. The policeman walked up to me and asked for my ID. This sent me into a furious second excavation attempt.  After more frantic rummaging, I finally managed to procure my passport. Handing it over, the officer leafed through the pages, until he found the one with my personal information. I watched as he studied it with intense suspicion. He did not say a word, then glanced up at me. Abruptly he said “Ok” and handed it back. I felt a wave of relief. For a moment, I had believed he would take me and my passport away in a bribery scam. When first confronted I had been sweating profusely from lugging a large suitcase around. A typically confused tourist overwhelmed by the speed and energy of a large city. Maybe I did not look worth the bother, or maybe I looked like I would not have much to offer or maybe he was just doing his job. Whatever the case, that interaction then made the following minutes of procuring a ticket seem rather easy. Soon I was on my way into the subterranean bowels of the Kiev Metro.

Illumination- Vokzalna Metro Station Kiev

Illumination- Vokzalna Metro Station Kiev (Credit: AMY)

Squeezed On All Sides – Packing In The Passengers
The escalator ride to the underground took minutes rather than seconds. It was difficult to fathom the depths of Kiev’s metro system. Two things were immediately noticeable on this Saturday afternoon. The first involved the metro cars, which were packed with people. Passengers were literally standing within inches of one another. The heat in the car was nearly overwhelming, almost all of it emanating from the packed in passengers. I managed to somehow squeeze into this seething mass with a very large suitcase. In a matter of seconds, I was sweating profusely. I also noticed the eerie quiet that descended on the metro car. It was a strange feeling to be pressed so closely against fellow passengers, but for everyone to remain silent. The only other sound besides the train rolling along the tracks, was the breathing of passengers.

The Kiev Metro is by far the most utilized public transport in the city. Over a million passengers a day ride on three metro lines, this accounts for nearly half of all passengers using public transport in Kiev. And no wonder, even by Ukrainian standards a ticket is ultra-cheap. For a westerner such as myself, the cost of the ride – the equivalent of 20 cents – was negligible. The drawback to such cheap and efficient transport was the overflow passenger levels, especially along the most utilized routes. I was going three stops down the busy Red Line, starting from Vokzalna (which is accessed from the main Railway Station) to Universytet then Teatralna and finally Khreshchatyk. At each stop I hoped for a respite from the human induced humidity within the car, but more people boarded at each stop. By the final two stations I was literally squeezed on all sides.

The Memory of Moments - Kiev Metro Train

The Memory of Moments – Kiev Metro Train

An Elusive Quest – To Meet A Woman He Had Never Met Before
One of those pressed close to me was a middle aged man who said “excuse me” as we were pressed into one another. This led to a short conversation. He hailed from the Netherlands and was headed to the city of Odessa on the Black Sea coast of Ukraine to meet a woman he had never met before (this is rather typical of foreign men and Ukrainian women). He had a couple hours layover, thus he decided to take a look around Kiev, before the potential marriage meet up in Odessa. Something about it sounded romantic and rather ridiculous.  As he was telling me all this, the surrounding passengers did not say a word, eyeing us suspiciously for breaking the silence. We were both pouring sweat, swaying to and fro while the metro car jerked, skidded and glided its way to Khreshchatyk. Upon arrival, the Dutchman informed me that he was traveling on down the line. I exited and headed towards the surface.

To this day I still wonder what happened to him and that potential relationship. This is the magnificently evocative part of travel, to meet someone for less than five minutes and find yourself thinking about them recurrently for years to come. Travel becomes an elusive quest to retain the memory of people, places and events that were experienced intensely for a few minutes or moments. These have the potential to change everything or nothing, mostly it is the latter. The metro left me with a first and what would become a lasting impression of Kiev as a big, bold city. The policeman who checked my documents left me with a scare, the Dutchman left me with a recurring memory that gets dimmer as the years pass. The same could not be said of the Ukrainian capital. In the coming days Kiev would leave me with a memory that never goes away, even if I wish it would.

A Bathroom & A Borderland – Against The Unknown: Lviv to Kiev By Train (Travels In Eastern Europe #51)

Sleep could not arrive soon enough for me on the train from Lviv to Kiev. It was not long before I fell into a fitful somnolence. After about an hour I woke up with my forehead covered in sweat. Once I realized that I was on a train somewhere in Ukraine there was only one thing to do, use the bathroom. I made my way past the other passengers in the semi-empty compartment. Everyone was fast asleep by this point in the trip. Long train rides have an air of romance about them, but that is before you visit the bathroom. The ultimate cure for the excitement and adventure of travel is a bathroom in an older Ukrainian railways train car. This one I found to be like so many others on Eastern European trains, with toilet paper the consistency of sandpaper, powdered soap (if you could call it that) that was dispensed from a turnstile type mechanism emitting dry flaky white stuff.

The worst was the toilet and not because it was dirty. Instead the toilet seat had small spiky gradations atop it, not unlike those found on a cheese grader. I found this rather perplexing, because only the most demented mind would inflict this on passengers. I stared at the dull silver surface of the toilet partly bemused, partly frightened. It occurred to me that someone only invented this painful looking toilet to deal with a real or perceived problem. I shuddered at the thought of what that problem might have been. The one good thing about this toilet was that whatever your business, it did not flow straight to the tracks. There is nothing quite so disconcerting as taking a leak while watching the ground speed past. I did my best to concentrate on using the bathroom and vacating it as quickly as possible. After this bathroom I was ready for almost anything.

Simply frightening - Toilet on a Ukrainian Train

Simply frightening – Toilet on a Ukrainian Train

Lost In Space – Unfounded Fears
As the train slowly made its way eastward into the vastness of the Ukrainian interior, I grew increasingly cognizant of the land’s size and scale. Woods, marshland and empty fields passed by, seeming to go on forever. Ukraine was huge by European standards, two of the largest nations in Eastern Europe, Poland and Romania would fit within it. The train was beginning to cross the vast east European Plain, stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea. Imperceptibly the train crept from plateau onto the plain. The hilly terrain in and around Lviv soon became a distant memory, the land became flatter and more featureless. This was a pass-through landscape that kept me falling in and out of sleep. Sometimes I would suddenly wake up and wonder if I was dreaming in daylight. Where was I at? Ukraine yes, but where in Ukraine.

The train made a few scheduled stops, one at a larger town known as Korosten, which was a major railway junction. I could not see very much of the city from my window, but what I did see frightened me. Not because of any real danger, this was entirely imaginary and had nothing to do with crime. I was afraid, because I had no real idea of exactly where I was. I did not have a decent map or travel guidebook. I wondered what would happen to me if I got off at this station. At the time, no one in my family had any idea where I really was, for that matter neither did I. I could not speak more than a couple of Ukrainian words, found the Cyrillic alphabet an endless source of confusion and would have had trouble explaining myself to even the most patient person. I was lost without being totally lost. Of course, the best advice when you are lost is to stay put. I had no intention of doing anything else.

Korosten Railway Station in north-central Ukraine

Something fearful – Korosten Railway Station in north-central Ukraine

An Immense Borderland – Filling In The Emptiness
This was why I traveled, to test myself against the unknown. The fear I felt was paradoxically matched by a sense of nervous excitement. Every stop was another offer to step into the unknown. I did not take that chance, but I found the idea intriguing. Part of my fear was a product of ignorance. I hardly knew anything about north-central Ukraine except that it was a horrific place during the first half of the 20th century and a very tough place to live during the last half of it. Every time I looked out at a barren field I wondered how many peasants had succumbed to hunger during the forced collectivization of the early 1930’s. At the sight of marshland, I imagined invading armies sinking in the mud. When woodland came into view, it was a reminder that in these forests thousands of Jews had been machine gunned by Nazi death squads. This landscape gave the impression of anonymity, subtly disguising the succession of terrifying tragedies that lay just beneath the land. There was nothing in the geography of this netherworld to stop an invasion, ideological imposition or inquisition.

Clock tower at Kyiv-Pasazhyrskyi Station

Arrival time – Clock tower at Kyiv-Pasazhyrskyi Station (Credit: Prymasal)

Ukraine roughly translated means borderland. For me borders have always conjured up images of clear dividing lines and definitive crossing points. This borderland was indefinite and expandable for hundreds of kilometers in any direction. It was relatively easy to cross. The problem was its size, it seemed to go on forever. The sameness, the flatness, the vastness left me feeling defeated. There was too much distance to comprehend. I found its immensity daunting. It took quite a bit of effort to believe that Kiev, with some three million people was getting closer by the minute. There had to be people somewhere out in this empty landscape or so I hoped. I was nearing one of the great cities in both European and world history without much of an idea what to expect. Before I knew it the train was approaching Kiev. My sense of time had been warped by fatigue. One moment time was passing at a glacial pace, then suddenly all the slowness and sameness disintegrated as the train pulled into Kiev-Passazhyrskyi station. The had arrived right on time and I was not ready for Kiev.

Hell On Wheels – Lviv To Kiev By Train: Eastern Questions (Travels In Eastern Europe #50)

After a sleepless night listening to the excesses of drunken youth I felt a sense of relief to be departing from my hostel in Lviv. Despite the considerable effort it took for me to rouse the besotted front desk clerk from an alcohol induced slumber, I did manage to have him call a taxi which arrived right on time. The sun had yet to rise over the city, so an endless series of street lights guided the taxi’s way to the train station. My zombie like state was worsened by the glaring blur of fluorescence. With my head screaming I arrived at the station a little too early. My train to Kiev would now leave for another 45 minutes. I dragged myself into the waiting room, hoping to stay awake long enough to not miss my train. I was surprised to find the waiting room packed with people before dawn. The station had been just as crowded when I arrived late in the night three days earlier. The place had also been packed a day earlier when I purchased my ticket to Kiev.

The way to Kiev from Lviv

The way to Kiev from Lviv

Waiting Games – States Of Unreality
I began to wonder if the station acted as a permanent residence for a subset of Lvivians. It would have made a great short story. These people always on the verge of leaving, filled with hope and expectation of new beginnings. Unfortunately they could never find their way to the platform. They were stuck in an eternal waiting room. This idea was intriguing and depressing, sounding a bit too much like life. I picked my way through the would be passengers, stepping over their baggage and bundles. I spied a vacant seat beside a sleeping woman, curled in the fetal position, taking up two seats for herself. Not long after taking a seat I smelled a foul odor. In my sleepless sensory state I had trouble discerning whether it was body odor or coming from the station itself. I looked down at the woman lying on the seats beside me. From what I could make out of her shriveled figure, she looked to be a bit grungy. I began to wonder if she was a passenger or a vagrant.

About this time, a policeman who was making rounds through the waiting room walked up to her and proceeded to smack her half-heartedly with a baton. The jolted her, she looked up at him and tried to ignore this signal. He then stopped, looked at her again and gave her a harder smack. He then followed this with some harsh words. The woman, who happened to be ethnically Roma, raised herself up, scratched her head and after a couple of minutes left the seat. For all of Lviv’s architectural beauty, I could also see how it was part of a developing country. Poverty was in plain view and the police were brutish. In countries further west such as Hungary and Slovakia I had seen Roma begging in public transport stations, but the police tended to ignore them. In Ukraine, they offered an opportunity for a cop to exorcise his frustrations.

Running The Rails – A Soviet Scaffold
Bleary eyed, head throbbing, silently shaking, unable to think straight or for that matter at all, I boarded the train for Kiev Pas, the Ukrainian capital city’s main station. It would be a six-hour journey, but in my current state I would have been fine with a 12 hour journey. All I wanted to do was sleep and periodically wake up to have a look at the Ukrainian countryside. I had a second-class ticket, but from the looks of it everything was second class on this train. The seats were cheap leather with no arm rests, the passenger accommodations spartan with no hint of luxury or provisions made for comfort. I had little doubt that this train car came from the Soviet era. That was not all bad for Ukraine, since the Soviet Union at one time had been an empire that could afford to spend much more on infrastructure.

The nation of Ukraine had inherited a vast railway network. That was a good thing, since the country’s politicians and upper classes had spent the first two decades of independence stealing almost anything of value. Every time I saw anything rundown that was part of the public sphere I immediately thought to myself “the money to improve it must have been stolen.” Two years after my first visit to Ukraine, the people had enough of the systemic corruption and revolted. Speaking of revolts, as the train started moving down the track I began to second guess this trip to Kiev.

Despotism Before Democracy – A State Of Lawlessness & Disorder
Despite or perhaps because of my exhausted state, I was a nervous wreck, both worried and excited to be traveling eastward from Lviv. I was now moving further away from Europe culturally, economically and politically. Central and eastern Ukraine were heavily influenced by one big mother, in the form of Russia. Russia is neither completely European or Asian, it is a hybrid. Though Ukraine is officially the largest nation inside Europe, prior to the Maidan Revolution, it tilted more to the east than the west. This eastern orientation meant despotic rather than democratic government, oligarch dominated economies, the rule of lawlessness and disorder. I was unsure how any of this would affect me. The poor governance was too opaque for someone as unimportant as me to worry about, the oligarchs were people best avoided unless I took to valuing dishonesty and violence.

On the other hand, Ukraine’s lawlessness could not be ignored. In Lviv, which was reputedly much better run than the rest of Ukraine, I noticed on several occasions that the police looked menacing. They seemed to exist outside of public control, wandering about looking tough and edgy. One English speaking Lvivian I met told me they were terrified of the police, but that fear was matched by a corresponding hatred. I did my best to avoid any encounters with law enforcement. That was something I likely would not have to worry about on this train, but there were more personal concerns, such as the bathroom.

A Secret That’s Been Passed Around – The Discovery of Lviv: Mass Tourism (Travels In Eastern Europe #49)

When I think back on my first visit to Lviv, I find it almost impossible to consider that trip without also reflecting on the last time I visited the city, three more trips and four years later. During the interim, Lviv had hosted matches for the Euro 2012 Football Championships, been buffeted by the economic and political tumult of the Maidan Revolution, seen remarkable growth in its burgeoning Information Technology industry and become a major tourist destination. It was the latter change that would become most visible to me. The Lviv I visited in 2011 was still a rather sleepy place for foreign visitors. I remember thinking “everyone should see this place.”

When I would tell friends or family to visit Lviv, they would recoil in shock at the mere mention of Ukraine. They could hardly believe I had been brazen enough to visit that ill-fated land. I told them Lviv was different from stereotypical Ukraine, it had more cultural and historical connections with Mitteleuropa than Moscow. It was the furthest eastern extent of the Renaissance, the old Polish Kingdom and Austria-Hungary. It was a new and different Ukraine, one filled with hope and possibility, leaning towards the west. Of course, I said all this in the knowledge that my advocacy for Lviv was falling on deaf ears. The city could not escape Ukraine and its dangerous reputation or so I thought.

A sense of direction in Lviv

A sense of direction in Lviv (Credit: Buka – Власна робота/)

Charm Offensive – The Old Town Imagined Anew
In the fall of 2015 I found out the meaning of be careful what you wish for because you just might get it. I said everybody should see Lviv and it this wish had been granted. Lviv was packed with tourists on the weekend of my arrival in the latter part of October, not a time usually known for heavy visitation. At certain points in the Old Town I was standing elbow to elbow in crowds. I heard as much Polish as Ukrainian being spoken. The cafes and coffee houses had a refined, sleek veneer. The cobblestone streets and sidewalks were pristine, some of the trams looked as though they had been transported from the space age and the smart, immaculately kept shops could just as easily have been in France or Germany rather than Ukraine. Lviv had been “discovered”. To find any hint that only twenty-five years before Lviv had been part of the Soviet Union, I would have had to flee the city center. Most tourist establishments used Latin as well as Cyrillic script in their signage now. Lviv’s Old Town looked so smart, tidy and trendy that I wondered if it had ever or never looked this way. Lviv was managing to charm the masses with a reinterpretation of itself.

The Lviv I first visited in 2011 had yet to realize its full tourist potential. Outside of the Old Town, signage in Latin script or written in English was scarce in the extreme. The amount of English spoken was even rarer. The Old Town at that time was evocative rather than electric. The range of accommodation on offer was limited, with few good hostels. Tourist information in English could be found, but only after searching. Except for the locals, I felt as though I had the city to myself back then. Mass tourism was a thing of the future. 2011 was a time when I could stroll the narrow streets, four years later I would jostle my way through them. I could hardly blame Lviv for this transformation, it was cultivating Old World charm in a bid to boost its economy. A reminder of this came blaringly loud at strange intervals, as a trumpet played a few notes that seemed to signify some sort of medieval sounding call. I had heard much the same thing in Krakow four years earlier, Lviv was becoming more like its bigger, more well-known Galician sister city.

The Logo Says It All

The Logo Says It All

Come Together – The Lure Of Lviv
In the interim, Lviv had inadvertently managed to gain from the instability in Kiev and unrest in the eastern part of Ukraine that started with Maiden. Through no fault of its own, Lviv was some 1,200 hundred kilometers away from the violence consuming parts of the Donbas region. This made Lviv one of the safest places to live, invest or visit in Ukraine. When the Hryvnia (Ukraine’s currency) plummeted in the wake of Maidan, Lviv became one of the best values for domestic and foreign tourists. Domestic tourists could no longer afford to go abroad, so instead they traveled to the most European city in Ukraine which also happened to call itself the most Ukrainian. The weekend of my arrival there was a living history reenactment of the street fighting which occurred during the 1918 Battle of Lemberg (Lviv’s Austrian name) following World War I.

The reenactment took place in Rynok Square which was packed with Ukrainian and Polish tourists looking on. It was strange watching a battle reenactment in a country that was currently at war. It was stranger still that Ukrainians and Poles stood side by side watching. Once blood enemies, they were now united in their fear of a resurgent Russia or quite possibly they were just looking to be entertained while on holiday. Tourism and marketing had brought hundreds of people into Rynok Square that day. City leaders are hoping to lure tens of thousands more to follow in their footsteps.  As much as I selfishly would like Lviv to be the way I found it in 2011, there is little hope of that. The same year of my last visit – 2015 – the city hosted two million visitors for the first time ever. Such increases led to the creation of 30,000 jobs in the tourism sector over the last several years. With much faster rail links to Krakow and Kiev, the tourist numbers are only going to increase.

Waiting on the future in Lviv

Waiting on the future in Lviv

A Selfish Desire – Old World Beauty
My memory of that first visit to an uncrowded Lviv is still vivid, wandering around a spacious Rynok Square, the churches empty except for the locals and restaurants hoping for a few more patrons. That moment is now as much history as anything else in Lviv. I had been fortunate to visit the city before millions of tourists smoothed the cobbled streets with their foot traffic. Yet my perspective has become skewed by a selfish desire to want Lviv all to myself. If I am honest, I was just as much a part of the increase in tourist numbers as the masses I profess to loathe. By the time I arrived in Lviv, it had been transformed from a crumbling, neglected Ukrainian provincial city, to a vibrant Old World beauty. A city that millions would come to visit, just as I did. My “discovery” of Lviv was like learning a secret, only to later learn that it’s been passed around.

Running Into Problems – The First Morning In Lviv:  Dawning Of A Darkness (Travels In Eastern Europe #48)

On my first morning in Lviv I woke up with one thought on my mind, I was late, late for my morning run. This was understandable since my train from Krakow had not arrived until almost 11:00 p.m. the previous evening. I did not arrive at the hostel until just before the clock struck midnight and did not fall asleep until a couple of hours later. When I awoke it was mid-morning, hours past my usual dawn run time. It took me a good ten minutes just to figure out where I was at, the disorienting sensation of coming into a new country late at night had yet to wear off. It took me minutes just to put on trainers and sweats for the run. As I walked down the stone staircase which exited the hostel I was overcome by fear. An unsettling question suddenly came to mind, what awaited me outside on the streets of Lviv. A ridiculous notion perhaps, but this was my first visit to Ukraine, a land best known for revolutions, endemic corruption and bad governance. What would I find on the other side of the large, wooden door that stood in the way of entry or exit from this building? I had no idea.

Obstacle course - people and traffic dodging in Lviv

Obstacle course – people and traffic dodging in Lviv

Entering A New World – Uncharted Course
When I had arrived the night before, the city was shrouded in a supernatural fog. The taxi I took from the train station to the hostel was consumed by mist, giving me the sensation that I was being led through a mystical tunnel into another world. Now the morning sun was beaming through the windows and I could hear Lviv just beyond the door. Fear and attraction gripped me. I had no planned running route, knew next to nothing about the street patterns or city layout. My goal was to run for an hour. Where this would occur was a mystery to me. I wondered if this might be my final run, if fate would finally catch up to me in Ukraine. Paradoxically, this thought propelled me out the door. Fatalism offers an alternative path to destiny. It was time to enter a new world, one unlike any I had ever known.

The first thing I did was run the wrong way and it would not be the last time. Within 30 seconds I was running in place at a crosswalk on Prospekt Svobody, the pulsing heart of Lviv, surrounded by groups of pedestrians all looking to cross the street. Judging by their dress, the majority of these Lvivians were either on their way to work or school. Most of them managed to ignore the strange looking American in their midst, bouncing up and down to the internal rhythm of exercise. I have scarcely felt so vulnerable, a byproduct of what those around me likely defined as strange or foolish behavior. Prospekt Svobody was a congested mass of people and traffic. There was little hope of trying to make an illicit crossing. I did not trust Ukrainian drivers to slow or stop for me. When the light changed I picked my way through the crowd to the other side. Only to find that I would have to endure several more crossings.

Following An Obsession –  Crossing Over
I could have decided to stay in the center of Prospekt Svobody, running circles around park benches and old men on their morning strolls, but I wanted to find somewhere that provided a bit of privacy. What I needed was a park, what I needed even more was a plan. That should have been the logical first step when I awoke that morning. Unfortunately, logic is often the first casualty of obsession. I made a snap decision to weave my way through the foot traffic and head into the area known as the Halytskyi District. Approaching crosswalks, I used extra caution. The traffic was chaotic and the sidewalks slender. I was the only person mad enough to go jogging in the city during morning rush hour. It took intense concentration to keep from running into pedestrians or getting run over by reckless drivers. I never considered that I was the one being reckless. The entire time I was distracted by the Cyrillic lettering written on signs, buildings and advertisements. Even though I had previously been in Bulgaria and Serbia where Cyrillic was the alphabet of choice, nearly everything I saw that morning in Lviv was written in Cyrillic script. This made Lviv seem more foreign and exotic.

Eventually I began to make the slow climb up Mykoly Kopernyka street. At the time, I was not aware that Lviv’s city center is situated atop a stretch of the Poltva river. Located in a valley which is imperceptible due to the surrounding urban environment. But the further one gets from the center, the more likely they are to encounter hills. I soon spied some greenery which made my pulse race faster, unlike my running pace, which was suffering from travel lag. There was a steeply forested hillside which I hoped would prove to be a park, saving me from eternal sidestepping along Lviv’s slender sidewalks. Unfortunately, the hoped-for park proved elusive as the greenery turned out to be a clump of woods, but I managed to find a rough path. Scrambling up a steep hillside, I nearly plowed over a man attempting to walk his dog on the twenty-five percent incline.

Running into problems - remnants of The Citadel in Lviv

Running into problems – remnants of The Citadel in Lviv

Running In Circles – Discovering The Citadel: Present & Past
Reaching the summit, I found my way to a clearing occupied by a large brick, circular structure. This was about as good as I was going to get on this run. There was enough of a path that I could run circles around the structure. So that is what I did for the next half an hour. I wondered if this old, worn roundhouse was some sort of obsolete water storage tower. Later I would discover the horrifying truth. The structure was once part of an old Austro-Hungarian imperial fortress known as the Citadel. After the Nazis occupied Lviv (known by its Polish name of Lwow at the time) in the summer of 1941 they used it and other existing buildings within the old fortress to house Soviet prisoners of war who they systematically starved to death. Thousands upon thousands died within the walls that I ran circles around that morning. This was just one of many instances in the deep-rooted darkness of the city’s past. Lviv would turn out to be symptomatic of Ukraine, a place where you can never run away from problems.

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.