“Whoever saves one life, saves the world entire”

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Beached

For this week’s, WPC theme of ‘danger’, I thought I could post my daughter’s photo of the injured seal that had worn itself out and washed itself up on the beach near Santa Cruz, where she lives.  It was in grave danger until Lisa called Marine Rescue, who turned up quickly and returned to poor creature safely into the ocean.

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There was also a photo of a skunk walking down the garden path between Lisa and her front door!  Skunks are notoriously aggressive, unafraid of humans, carry diseases and smell disgusting.  She was in great danger of being attacked or sprayed as she carried her shopping in from the car.

But then, as I was reading Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice for my Open University course, I suddenly realised just how much danger some persecuted individuals or groups have faced, over the centuries.

In the Merchant of Venice, it is Shylock who is hated for being Jewish.  Shakespeare explores this brilliantly as only he can.  But it reminded me of places I have visited where evidence of the dangers of being Jewish is still clearly visible, or just below the surface.

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Wrought Iron Star of David on the Cemetery gate in Krakow

Last year I visited a little Catalan town called Empuriabrava.  In the old town, I was horrified by the evidence of past abuse of Jews. There was a cemetery dedicated specifically to those who had been coerced into converting to Christianity.
“On 18th February, 1417 more than 100 people were baptised at the font of the Basilica of Santa Maria, surrounded by their godfathers and authorities.
In 1415, there was the first wave of mass conversions to Christianity as a result of the Perpignan ordinations driven by Benedict X111, known as “Papa Luna”. From that moment on, the converted Jews were buried in a delimited space of the Christian cemetery. The cemetery was attached to the Northern wall of the apse of the basilica. This area has been known for centuries as “the cemetery for the converted Jews”. Nowadays part of the old cemetery is occupied by the Cappella del Santissim, built in 1724, and the other part has been restored as a pedestrian walkway. “
It is a beautiful, peaceful town now but I have to say the references and reminders of those dark times were everywhere, and quite menacing.

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wrought iron representing barbed wire on the cemetery wall

At Gettysberg, Maj. Gen. Joshua L Chamberlain said,

“On great fields, something stays.  Forms change and pass; bodies disappear; buts spirits linger, to consecrate ground for the vision – place of souls”.

I knew exactly what he meant when I travelled to Krakow in Poland.

The city of Krakow is beautiful, compact, well preserved and a joy to walk around.  But my visit to the old Jewish quarter in Kazimierz as well as my visit to Schindler’s Enamel factory in Zablocie, which is now a museum, was a revelation.  It happened that I was there on 14thMarch 2012, 69 years to the day of the “final purge”.  The fact that this holocaust happened within living memory is horrific.  The fact that slaughter of innocents on this scale may be happening in parts of the world today is unbearable.

There were about 225,000 Jews living in Krakow before the war but only about 15,000 managed to survive it with the help of brave Poles who kept them hidden, and the enigmatic German Oskar Schindler who needed the cheap labour force they provided.

In March 1941, all Krakow Jews who previously lived in areas such as Kazimierz were forced to live in the new ghetto of Podgorze. The area comprised 320 buildings which had been home to the poorest Poles.  Almost 17000 Jews were now crammed into these buildings and the area was surrounded by barbed wire and walls.  By the autumn of 1941 the jobless Jews who did not have the correct paperwork were transported to concentration camps or shot where they stood.

On March 13-14th 1943 the final extermination was begun.  The first-hand accounts of the few who survived these events were recorded and can be heard at the Schindler factory which is now a museum.  I heard that the remaining men were separated from the women and children.  They were marched off to be used as forced labour.  Any who could not walk unaided were shot on the spot.  Then German soldiers went through the buildings clearing out the women and children to be loaded onto transport which would take them to the extermination camps.  Children and babies were just thrown out of the windows onto the waiting carts, not all landed safely.  The sick and elderly were just killed where they lay.
Literally thousands of Jews were loaded onto transport to the Plaszow camp where they gradually died from starvation, beating, disease, hard labour or execution.   Thousands of others were taken to the extermination camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau over the next few months.   The Auschwitz archives record the fate of those transported.  In February 1944 the remaining men arrived, in May the rest of the children and in August the women.  They all died in the gas chambers shortly afterwards.  The final transport of prisoners from Krakow arrived in Auschwitz the day before the camp was liberated by the Soviet army.
For a harrowing first hand eyewitness account of all the deportations including the final purge there is the memoir, The Cracow Ghetto Pharmacy by Tadeusz Pankiewicz.

Here are some photos from the displays at the Schindler factory or the Jewish Museum which touched me greatly.  They show families and groups of Jews being taken or led away from the ghetto to the camps.  They had to carry whatever they could and abandon the rest.  The last picture shows the Plaszow Camp between 1943-44 where women are being marched to forced labour.

 

Palm Sunday 2014

I have celebrated Palm Sunday in many different countries, Kenya, Spain, France, Poland, Italy and UK and it is a church tradition that I love. When I was at work (teaching primary children) one of our jobs was to make the palm crosses for the local church each year. It was an eagerly awaited treat for the 10/11 year olds in their final year of primary school, to learn how to weave and fold the crosses from simple palm leaves.
I have written about other Palm Sundays before and the links are below if you would like to read them. I hope you do.
This year I am laid up in bed with a very nasty case of tonsillitis on antibiotics so I have not even seen a palm!
But I did look at the Vatican website to see the celebrations in St peter’s Square. My overriding impression is that this Pope, like Jesus is adored by the people because of his common touch and understanding of what it means to be poor in this world. But my fear is that like Jesus, he is rattling too many cages and there will be those who plot against him. I also see in his face that after only a few months in the job he is looking exhausted and strained.
Two Haiku I wrote last year sum up my fears.

Pope Francis

Pope Francis

Cheering throngs gather

In Messianic fervour

Fronds fall at His feet
~
Calling for His death

Crowds that cheered Him now decry

Innocent, He’ll die

You can see the Palm Sunday in Rome here http://www.news.va/en/news/pope-to-celebrate-palm-sunday-mass-in-saint-peters
And my previous Palm Sunday posts are here:~
http://wp.me/p2gGsd-y
http://wp.me/p2gGsd-t
http://wp.me/p2gGsd-i

Frogs in Torun

Through towering trees

Strange sounds are carried from a

Bog seething with frogs

Sunday’s prompt for Haiku Heights’ September challenge is the word ‘Frog’.  My mind works in mysterious ways and the prompt instantly took me back to 2004 when I travelled with a group of friends from Global Footsteps, to take part in a conference in Torun, which is in Poland.  I’ve written about it before but I think it is worth revisiting.

Frog in Torun

There is a wonderful fountain in the centre of Torun with several statues of frogs in it.  It is called the Flisakiem fountain.  Flisak was a raftsman in Torun who played the violin very well.  According to an old legend, the city of Torun was overrun by a plague of frogs and no-one knew how to get rid of them.  The Mayor promised the hand of his daughter in marriage  to any person who could clear the city of the frogs.  Of course, rather like the Pied Piper of Hamelin, Flisak played so well that all the frogs followed him and left the city of Torun.    He claimed his reward and married his beloved and they lived happily ever after.

It was on a chilly June morning in London that we caught the ‘Orbis’ coach for the 36 hour journey to Torun.  The bus was not full so there was plenty of room and it was very comfortable.  The friendly hostess, Isabella, served tea and coffee and we had a pleasant journey to Dover where we caught the Ferry to Calais.  The weather was very pleasant and we had an enjoyable crossing.  The channel was unusually busy because it was the 60th Anniversary of the D Day Landings.  Old soldiers were gathering for a memorial service.

We got back onto the coach and set off northwards through France, Belgium, Netherlands and Germany, crossing the River Oder at the Polish border town of Slubice.  We were expecting long delays at the border but were astonished to be met by smiling customs officers who briefly checked our passports and waved us through with no problems.  This is a very encouraging development since Poland joined the European Union this year.  Already the scenery was fascinating to me and the weather was beautiful.   I noticed the narrow cobbled roads in the towns, the many shrines by the roadside in the country and lots of churches.  There was an abundance of pine tree forests and masses of poppies on the verges.  I was thrilled to spot a stag and a hare and then amazed to see storks in the fields and a flock of herons.  We were travelling on Route 22 towards the city of Gdansk.  We saw flats along the way that reminded me of Russia, and a huge river with men fishing.  Petrol stations were Statoil and fuel was 4.0 zl, about 60p, I guessed for a litre.  We saw agriculture everywhere – endless fields of crops with no fences; allotments with dachas like grand sheds; orchards; lakes and picnic spots; and miles of greenhouses and garden centres.  We saw timber-framed houses and lots of new buildings, but we saw very little livestock.  In Belgium and Germany we had seen herds of very healthy looking cattle but none at all yet in Poland.  We saw big churches with round towers, Rapunzel-style, and the remains of old city walls were evident in many towns.

At Bydgostcz we stopped for coffee and met a Polish-Canadian-Scot who reminisced about D-Day, when he was 15 years old.  He told us how he had been taken away from his village in Poland by the German occupying forces.  They had forced him to fight for them.  He was saved by the US troops who eventually offered to take him to the USA to start a new life. He had opted for Canada and eventually married a Scottish lady and went back with her to Scotland.  He has now retired to Vancouver Island in Canada but visits Poland as often as he can.

On entering Torun we saw storks on huge nests on top of telegraph poles.  When the coach stopped a friend was there to meet us.  He took us to the TTCA building to rest and unpack before we met our group leader who treated us to a meal at Damroki restaurant.  The food was delicious and we were entertained by an impromptu folk concert performed by groups from all over Eastern Europe, who had attended the Folk Festival in Torun earlier in the day.

stork

On Monday, Ula (or Ursula), who is a professional guide, met us at the TTCA.  Thankfully she speaks English very well, self-taught we later found out.  She is going to give us a 5-hour tour of Torun.  She was a mine of information and she showed us everything of interest in the old and new town.  We walked miles until we were ready to mutiny so she took us to her favourite coffee shop.  This was wonderful so all was forgiven.  We drank a special coffee like Cappuccino with Pierniki sprinkled on top.  Pierniki is gingerbread, which is the local speciality.  Later Ula took us to a restaurant, which served pancakes and dumplings with exquisite fillings and lashings of strawberries and cream on top.  We were a little puzzled, as they seemed to put savoury and sweet fillings all together and the portions were way too big, however it was very enjoyable.  After our marathon walking tour we went back for a well-earned rest and shower before dinner.

We were amazed at the low prices of meals in Torun.  It varies of course but it was possible to get a very good meal and a drink for less than £2.  Coffee and delicious pastries with fruit and cream cost less than £1.40.  Kodak films for my camera (pre-digital cameras!), which cost £4 in the UK cost £1 here and a loaf of freshly baked bread from the bakers cost about 23p.  We just cannot imagine how the shopkeepers manage to sell their goods at these prices and still make a profit.  We are worried that the cost of living may rise dramatically now that Poland has joined the EU.

Public transport is very reasonable here and accommodation is good.  Rents seem very cheap at £75 a month for a 1 bed roomed, central flat.  Big US hotel chains are moving in with high priced rooms but there are still bargains to be had for the traveller or tourist.  We stayed at the Twin Town Association building, which is in the restored Burgher House and Tower of the ruined Teutonic Castle.  The large rooms have been refurbished to a very high standard and we shared bathrooms and a kitchen as in a Youth Hostel in UK.  It was comfortable and cheap and, with fabulous views of the River Vistula from our windows it suited us very well.

On Tuesday our guide met us at 8 am and rushed us off to catch the bus to the railway station where we caught a train for the 90-minute journey to Gniezno.  The city is known as the cradle of the Polish state as it was in the Cathedral here that the first King of Poland, Boleslaw Chrobry, was crowned in 1025.  We rushed to the Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary and St Adalbert, founded 1000 years ago by King Boleslaw the Brave.  Here we saw the famous bronze doors from 1175, which show 18 scenes from the life of St Adalbert.  We also saw the statue of Our Lady of Gniezno and the sarcophagus of St Adalbert.  St Adalbert was a Bohemian Bishop from Prague who passed through Gniezno in 997 on a missionary trip to convert the Prussians, a heathen Baltic tribe who lived in N E Poland.  Sadly they didn’t want to be converted so they chopped his head off.  King Boleslaw paid a ransom of his weight in gold for the body then brought it back to Gniezno and buried it in the Cathedral in 999.  Pope Sylvester then canonised the martyr.

After this very short visit we rushed off to catch a narrow gauge train to Biskupin.  This trip was organised as a treat and was a major highlight of the trip for me.  Gorgeous weather and fabulous countryside edged with poppies, and white and purple wildflowers.  Biskupin was besieged by children on school trips but was very interesting.  It was a sort of Baltic Blists Hill, with characters in costume minting coins, chopping wood, firing crossbows and riding horses etc.  The ‘iron age’ fortified town was built entirely of wood some 2730 years ago on the shore of a beautiful lake.  It was subsequently disappeared under a peat bog where it was perfectly preserved until 1933 when it was discovered by accident.  It is now a fascinating archaeological reserve and one time film set.

Wednesday was another gorgeous day arranged for us by a local friend, Anya.  We started with a bus ride to the bike shop where we hired bikes.  It took an age to organise this because the shop appeared to only have huge mountain bikes, which were fine for the men but not for we 3 delicate and very fussy ladies!  We ended up a very motley selection with one on an ancient ‘sit up and beg’ shopper complete with basket, dodgy gears and a mudguard, another on a man’s bike with sticky red handles, and me on a junior BMX!  After lots of giggles and false starts we set off for a 23 km round trip to Anya’s home for a barbecue.  We cycled through the forest and past vast poppy fields and a bog seething with very vocal frogs.  When we reached Anya’s home village of Lysomice we saw stork families on top of telegraph poles.  Then we were treated to a super barbecue and lots of homemade blackcurrant drinks, some alcoholic and some not!  We also met Killer the guard dog, who eats cucumbers, and had a guided tour of garden and greenhouses where Anya’s family grow tomatoes, cucumbers, fir trees and flowers to sell at the local Farmers’ Markets.  The whole day was absolutely wonderful and we really enjoyed the cycle ride home to Torun.  I was very proud of myself since I hadn’t been on a bicycle for 25 years!

Thursday saw the Feast of Corpus Christe and being a Catholic country, the celebrations were massive so we had a free day in Torun.  After the 9am Mass in the churches and 2 Cathedrals, the entire congregation left to process through the streets to the square where decorated altars had been set up.  There were columns of nuns, altar servers, guides, scouts, priests, and rows of young girls in long white dresses and veils.  They carried baskets of flower petals, which they scattered on the ground in front of the canopy covering the Priest and the Monstrance containing the sacred host.  There was a military band leading the procession and a vehicle at the rear with loudspeakers amplifying traditional hymns.  The processions came from all quarters to meet near Copernicus’ statue.  There was a huge poster showing Pope John Paul 11 who visited Torun in 1999.  A service was held here before the whole procession moved on to another square for another service.  The crowd was huge and everyone was dressed in their ‘Sunday Best’.  The windows and balconies of many houses and businesses were hung with posters, tapestries, candles, statues and mini shrines to celebrate the Feast Day.  The Priests and altar servers wore white cassocks with embroidered or lacework chalice and host decorations.  It was a grand occasion and a privilege to watch.  It reminded me of May processions in the North of England when I was a child.

In the evening we visited the Fort and saw a huge fire on the horizon.  We never did find out what building was on fire.

On Friday we had a very early start again for the 7.45am bus to the railway station to catch the train to Malbork.  The journey took just 2 hours so we arrived in time for a lovely cup of coffee in the shopping centre.  Sadly when we came out the heavens had opened so we had to buy umbrellas.  The rain was torrential but nevertheless we set off for Mary’s castle.  This is reputed to be Europe’s largest Gothic castle and Poland’s oldest castle.  It is so important that in 1997 it was included in UNESCO’s World Heritage List.  It is situated on the Nogat River, an eastern arm of the Vistula River, which flows through Torun.  It is a truly impressive and huge reconstruction.  The castle was built in three parts (higher, middle and lower castle) by the Teutonic Knights, who called it Marienburg (Mary’s Fortress).  The Teutonic Knights, a German order, were also called Knights of the Cross.  Their commander in chief was called a Grand Master.  They were crusaders who wore white robes with a black cross.  The castle was started in 1276 and finished within 30 years.  The Knights ruled from here for 150 years.  It was the largest fortress in the middle ages, but the castle, like Poland, had a very stormy history being in the hands of various conquering armies then largely destroyed in World War Two.  It is now in danger from subsidence.  Inside the castle there are several notable exhibitions.  There is a room full of tapestries and a room full of exquisite jewellery boxes, altars, crucifixes, artwork and jewellery all made purely from amber.  There is also a bombed out church which has not been renovated due to lack of funds.  This is breathtakingly poignant with its battered walls and statues, and the miraculously undamaged boss of the Mother and Child.  The memory of the broken crucifix will stay with me always.  This empty shell of a church was the most moving thing I saw in Poland and for me it illustrates the total pointlessness of war.

Saturday was a very special day and we had to get up very early for a bus and train journey to Gdansk.  The area was referred to a Gyddanyzc (Gdaniesk) or wetness in 999 in “The Life of St Adalbert”.  There was a settlement here as early as 2500BC and by the 13th century when the Teutonic Knights seized the city it was a major port and municipal centre.  In 1454 the city broke free from the Knights and became a part of Poland.  Over the next century there was incredible economic development in the city, which had a monopoly of trade in Polish grain.  The city also became the largest town in Poland and a great centre for shipbuilding.  1580 to 1650 was a ‘Golden Age’ when artists and craftsmen settled here and the city became a centre of artistic and cultural style.  In 1793 during the second partition of Poland the city was annexed to the Prussian state and underwent a long period of Germanisation, briefly interrupted by a period of French rule in 1807 to 1814.  After 1850 there was another economic boom due mainly to the railways, the port and shipbuilding.  In 1920 after WW1 due to the influence of the Britain the free city of Gdansk was created under the patronage of the League of Nations.  However it then fell to the Germans in WW2 during which the Polish citizens of Gdansk were exterminated in concentration camps.  Allied forces carried out air raids then the Soviet Russian troops almost destroyed the city and ruined its industrial base.  After WW2 the Germans were expelled and thousands of new inhabitants set about rebuilding the city.  I think they did a wonderful job as the city is incredibly beautiful.  Peace did not last long though, because between 1970 and 1980 workers’ protests turned violent and prompted great social and political changes in Poland.  In 1997 the city ceremoniously celebrated the millennium of the visit of St Adalbert Slawnikowic, the Bishop of Prague who left Gdansk in 997 on a Christian mission to then still pagan Prussia.  In 1992 and 1999 Pope John Paul 2 visited Gdansk.

We explored as much as it was possible to see in a day.  We saw the shops, the churches and cathedrals, the memorial to the fallen shipyard workers and then caught a tram to the beach and paddled in the Baltic.  It was a wonderful day and Gdansk is a place that everyone should visit.  It is a city with everything in my opinion.  It has history, culture, spirituality, beautiful buildings, wonderful people and a golden sandy beach.  What more could anyone want.

 

An earlier trip to Poland ~ Torun 2004

A Trip to Torun in Poland ~ June 2004

 

On a chilly June morning we caught the National Express coach to Victoria with some friends from Global Footsteps.  On arrival in London we caught the ‘Orbis’ coach to Torun in Poland.  The bus was not full so there was plenty of room and it was very comfortable.  The friendly hostess, Isabella, served tea and coffee and we had a pleasant journey to Dover where we caught the Ferry to Calais.  The weather was lovely and we had an enjoyable crossing.  The channel was unusually busy because it was the 60th Anniversary of the D Day Landings.  Old soldiers were gathering for a memorial service. 

We got back onto the coach and set off northwards through France, Belgium, Netherlands and Germany, crossing the River Oder at the Polish border town of Slubice.  We were expecting long delays at the border but were astonished to be met by smiling customs officers who briefly checked our passports and waved us through with no problems.  This is a very encouraging development since Poland joined the European Union this year.  Already the scenery was fascinating me and the weather was beautiful.   I noticed the narrow cobbled roads in the towns, the many shrines by the roadside in the country and lots of churches.  There was an abundance of pine tree forests and masses of poppies on the verges.  I was thrilled to spot a stag and a hare and then amazed to see storks in the fields and a flock of herons.  We were travelling on Route 22 towards the city of Gdansk.  We saw flats along the way that reminded me of Russia, and a huge river with men fishing.  Petrol stations were Statoil and fuel was 4.0 zl, about 60p, I guessed for a litre.  We saw agriculture everywhere – endless fields of crops with no fences; allotments with dachas like grand sheds; orchards; lakes and picnic spots; and miles of greenhouses and garden centres.  We saw timber-framed houses and lots of new buildings, but we saw very little livestock.  In Belgium and Germany we had seen herds of very healthy looking cattle but none at all yet in Poland.  We saw big churches with round towers, Rapunzel-style, and the remains of old city walls were evident in many towns.

At Bydgostcz we stopped for coffee and met a Polish-Canadian-Scot who reminisced about D-Day, when he was 15 years old.  He told us how he had been taken away from his village in Poland by the German occupying forces.  They had forced him to fight for them.  He was saved by the US troops who eventually offered to take him to the USA to start a new life. He had opted for Canada and eventually married a Scottish lady and went back with her to Scotland.  He has now retired to Vancouver Island in Canada but visits Poland as often as he can.

On entering Torun we saw storks on huge nests on top of telegraph poles.  When the coach stopped a friend was there to meet us.  He took us to the TTCA building to rest and unpack before we met our group leader who treated us to a meal at Damroki restaurant.  The food was delicious and we were entertained by an impromptu folk concert performed by groups from all over Eastern Europe, who had attended the Folk Festival in Torun earlier in the day.

Monday –At 10 am Ula (or Ursula), who is a professional guide, met us at the TTCA.  Thankfully she speaks English very well, self-taught we later found out.  She is going to give us a 5-hour tour of Torun.  She was a mine of information and she showed us everything of interest in the old and new town.  We walked miles until we were ready to mutiny so she took us to her favourite coffee shop.  This was wonderful so all was forgiven.  We drank a special coffee like Cappuccino with Pierniki sprinkled on top.  Pierniki is gingerbread, which is the local speciality.  Later Ula took us to a restaurant, which served pancakes and dumplings with exquisite fillings and lashings of strawberries and cream on top.  We were a little puzzled, as they seemed to put savoury and sweet fillings all together and the portions were way too big, however it was very enjoyable.  After our marathon walking tour we went back for a well-earned rest and shower before dinner.

We were amazed at the low prices of meals in Torun.  It varies of course but it is possible to get a very good meal and a drink for less than £2.  Coffee and delicious pastries with fruit and cream cost less than £1.40.  Kodak films for my camera, which cost £4 in the UK cost £1 here and a loaf of freshly baked bread from the bakers cost about 23p.  We just cannot imagine how the shopkeepers manage to sell their goods at these prices and still make a profit.  We are worried that the cost of living may rise dramatically now that Poland has joined the EU.

Public transport is very reasonable here and accommodation is good.  Rents seem very cheap at £75 a month for a 1 bed roomed, central flat.  Big US hotel chains are moving in with high priced rooms but there are still bargains to be had for the traveller or tourist.  We stayed at the Twin Town Association building, which is in the restored Burgher House and Tower of the ruined Teutonic Castle.  The large rooms have been refurbished to a very high standard and we shared bathrooms and a kitchen as in a Youth Hostel in UK.  It was comfortable and cheap and with fabulous views of the River Vistula from our windows it suited us very well.

Tuesday – Our guide met us at 8 am and rushed us off to catch the bus to the railway station where we caught a train for the 90-minute journey to Gniezno.  The city is known as the cradle of the Polish state as it was in the Cathedral here that the first King of Poland, Boleslaw Chrobry, was crowned in 1025.  We rushed to the Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary and St Adalbert, founded 1000 years ago by King Boleslaw the Brave.  Here we saw the famous bronze doors from 1175, which show 18 scenes from the life of St Adalbert.  We also saw the statue of Our Lady of Gniezno and the sarcophagus of St Adalbert.  St Adalbert was a Bohemian Bishop from Prague who passed through Gniezno in 997 on a missionary trip to convert the Prussians, a heathen Baltic tribe who lived in N E Poland.  Sadly they didn’t want to be converted so they chopped his head off.  King Boleslaw paid a ransom of his weight in gold for the body then brought it back to Gniezno and buried it in the Cathedral in 999.  Pope Sylvester then canonised the martyr.

After this very short visit we rushed off to catch a narrow gauge train to Biskupin.  This trip was organised as a treat and was a major highlight of the trip for me.  Gorgeous weather and fabulous countryside edged with poppies, and white and purple wildflowers.  Biskupin was besieged by children on school trips but was very interesting.  It was a sort of Baltic Blists Hill, with characters in costume minting coins, chopping wood, firing crossbows and riding horses etc.  The ‘iron age’ fortified town was built entirely of wood some 2730 years ago on the shore of a beautiful lake.  It was subsequently disappeared under a peat bog where it was perfectly preserved until 1933 when it was discovered by accident.  It is now a fascinating archaeological reserve and one time film set.

Wednesday – Another gorgeous day arranged for us by a local friend, Anya.  We started with a bus ride to the bike shop where we hired bikes.  It took an age to organise this because the shop appeared to only have huge mountain bikes, which were fine for the men but not for we 3 delicate and very fussy ladies!  We ended up a very motley selection with B on an ancient ‘sit up and beg’ shopper complete with basket, dodgy gears and a mudguard; A on a man’s bike with sticky red handles and me on a junior BMX!  After lots of giggles and false starts we set off for a 23 km round trip to Anya’s home for a barbecue.  We cycled through the forest and past vast poppy fields and a bog seething with very vocal frogs.  When we reached Anya’s home village of Lysomice we saw stork families on top of telegraph poles.  Then we were treated to a super barbecue and lots of homemade blackcurrant drinks, some alcoholic and some not!  We also met Killer the guard dog, who eats cucumbers, and had a guided tour of garden and greenhouses where Anya’s family grow tomatoes, cucumbers, fir trees and flowers to sell at the local Farmers’ Markets.  The whole day was absolutely wonderful and we really enjoyed the cycle ride home to Torun.  I was very proud of myself since I hadn’t been on a bicycle for 25 years!

Thursday – Today is the Feast of Corpus Christe and being a Catholic country the celebrations were massive so we had a free day in Torun.  After the 9am Mass in the churches and 2 Cathedrals, the entire congregation left to process through the streets to the square where decorated altars had been set up.  There were columns of nuns, altar servers, guides, scouts, priests, and rows of young girls in long white dresses and veils.  They carried baskets of flower petals, which they scattered on the ground in front of the canopy covering the Priest and the Monstrance containing the sacred host.  There was a military band leading the procession and a vehicle at the rear with loudspeakers amplifying traditional hymns.  The processions came from all quarters to meet near Copernicus’ statue.  There was a huge poster showing Pope John Paul 11 who visited Torun in 1999.  A service was held here before the whole procession moved on to another square for another service.  The crowd was huge and everyone was dressed in their ‘Sunday Best’.  The windows and balconies of many houses and businesses were hung with posters, tapestries, candles, statues and mini shrines to celebrate the Feast Day.  The Priests and altar servers wore white cassocks with embroidered or lacework chalice and host decorations.  It was a grand occasion and a privilege to watch.  It reminded me of May processions in the North of England when I was a child.

In the evening we visited the Fort and saw a huge fire on the horizon.  We never did find out what building was on fire.

Friday – A very early start again today for the 7.45 bus to the railway station to catch the train to Malbork.  The journey took just 2 hours so we arrived in time for a lovely cup of coffee in the shopping centre.  Sadly when we came out the heavens had opened so we had to buy umbrellas.  The rain was torrential but nevertheless we set off for Mary’s castle.  This is reputed to be Europe’s largest Gothic castle and Poland’s oldest castle.  It is so important that in 1997 it was included in UNESCO’s World Heritage List.  It is situated on the Nogat River, an eastern arm of the Vistula River, which flows through Torun.  It is a truly impressive and huge reconstruction.  The castle was built in three parts (higher, middle and lower castle) by the Teutonic Knights, who called it Marienburg (Mary’s Fortress).  The Teutonic Knights, a German order, were also called Knights of the Cross.  Their commander in chief was called a Grand Master.  They were crusaders who wore white robes with a black cross.  The castle was started in 1276 and finished within 30 years.  The Knights ruled from here for 150 years.  It was the largest fortress in the middle ages, but the castle, like Poland, had a very stormy history being in the hands of various conquering armies then largely destroyed in World War Two.  It is now in danger from subsidence.  Inside the castle there are several notable exhibitions.  There is a room full of tapestries and a room full of exquisite jewellery boxes, altars, crucifixes, artwork and jewellery all made purely from amber.  There is also a bombed out church which has not been renovated due to lack of funds.  This is breathtakingly poignant with its battered walls and statues, and the miraculously undamaged boss of the Mother and Child.  The memory of the broken crucifix will stay with me always.  This empty shell of a church was the most moving thing I saw in Poland and for me it illustrates the total pointlessness of war.

 Saturday ~ Today saw us rise very early for a bus and train journey to Gdansk.  The area was referred to a Gyddanyzc (Gdaniesk) or wetness in 999 in “The Life of St Adalbert.  There was a settlement here as early as 2500BC and by the 13th century when the Teutonic Knights seized the city it was a major port and municipal centre.  In 1454 the city broke free from the Knights and became a part of Poland.  Over the next century there was incredible economic development in the city, which had a monopoly of trade in Polish grain.  The city also became the largest town in Poland and a great centre for shipbuilding.  1580 to 1650 was a ‘Golden Age’ when artists and craftsmen settled here and the city became a centre of artistic and cultural style.  In 1793 during the second partition of Poland the city was annexed to the Prussian state and underwent a long period of Germanisation, briefly interrupted by a period of French rule in 1807 to 1814.  After 1850 there was another economic boom due mainly to the railways, the port and shipbuilding.  In 1920 after WW1 due to the influence of the Britain the free city of Gdansk was created under the patronage of the League of Nations.  However it then fell to the Germans in WW11 during which the Polish citizens of Gdansk were exterminated in concentration camps.  Allied forces carried out air raids then the Soviet Russian troops almost destroyed the city and ruined its industrial base.  After WW2 the Germans were expelled and thousands of new inhabitants set about rebuilding the city.  I think they did a wonderful job as the city is incredibly beautiful.  Peace did not last long though, because between 1970 and 1980 violent workers protests prompted great social and political changes in Poland.  In 1997 the city ceremoniously celebrated the millennium of the visit of St Adalbert Slawnikowic, the Bishop of Prague who left Gdansk in 997 on a Christian mission to then still pagan Prussia.  In 1992 and 1999 Pope John Paul 11 visited Gdansk.

We explored as much as it was possible to see in a day.  We saw the shops, the churches and cathedrals, the memorial to the fallen shipyard workers and then caught a tram to the beach and paddled in the Baltic.  It was a wonderful day and Gdansk is a place that everyone should visit.  It is a city with everything in my opinion.  It has history, culture, spirituality, beautiful buildings, wonderful people and a golden sandy beach.  What more could anyone want.

 

Krakow today

I must just write a more cheerful account of my visit to Krakow to counter the gloom of the previous post.  Krakow is indeed a beautiful city and a fabulous place to visit.  It is so easy to get to from Bristol Airport taking just 2 hours and 10 minutes.  Once in Krakow it is very easy to catch a bus right into the heart of the city.  Bus tickets are very cheap as is most transport.  We travelled on trams which are spotlessly clean, very efficient and very frequent.  Once in the heart of the city though it is best to just wander.  There is so much to see and it is easier on foot.  If you really want to be a tourist however there are little vehicles which go to all the main sights, or the open carriages driven by a pair of beautifully groomed horses.
There are 10 world class heritage sites in Krakow and I think I saw them all!  I really did walk my feet off but it was a pleasure. There was never any problem with language as most young people speak very good English and older people are so lovely and friendly that we got by with maps, smiles and pointing!  Most of the time though we were shown around by Ben who speaks Polish like a native having lived and worked there for some time.
I suppose I could split my photos up by the days we were there or by the things that really interested me.  I have covered the unmissable Jewish Quarter and (unmissable for me) the Papal connection as well as the Black Madonna Icon.  Apart from those there was the great food, the lovely people, the superb buildings, and the sensational art nouveau stained glass windows of Stanislaw Wyspianski.  I missed the famous salt mines, the oldest in the world, with their breathtaking chapels hewn out of salt but will definitely go there one day.
I spent very little money as we were so well looked after by Ben and Kasia but I wish I had bought some of the amazing amber jewellery.  Amber is called the Baltic Gold, it is not a precious stone but is an organic substance – fossilised tree resin.  The largest deposits and some of the oldest are found around the Baltic shores.  Imagine, it was formed 40-60 million years ago!  I just love its purity, timelessness, richness and sheer beauty.  There is a shop in Krakow which has the most amazing display of amber.  Below is a picture of a sailing ship made entirely of amber that I would love to give house room.  I walked past it many times just to drool!
The meals we had were all superb.  The portions were so big that we had to share!  Krakow is full of wonderful cafes, restaurants and hotels.  Unlike in UK we felt that we could linger for hours over lunch or tea.  In fact there are cafes with WIFI where you can just sit and work or read for hours over a drink without anyone bothering you.  It is part of the cafe culture to encourage artists, writers and academics to spend time together and it is certainly inspiring.
There is a fun side to Krakow too as seen in the Dragon’s Den and the statue of the dragon by the River Vistula.  I had heard the legend of the dragon that used to live in a cave beneath the castle walls waiting to eat sheep or fair maidens.  But I was not prepared to be scared out of my wits by it!  I took little Maja for a walk along the river while my friend popped to the loo.  As I passed the dragon it suddenly roared and belched out a huge jet of smoke and flame.  Apparently it does this every so often – but no-one had told me that!
I also had lots of fun trying to catch a photo of the bugler who plays the Hejnal from the upper windows of St Mary’s Church to the four quarters of the world.  I always seemed to be looking in the wrong quarter!  The Hejnal is the musical symbol of the city.  It was played in medieval times as a warning call.  It is now played daily every hour and at midday on Polish radio.
The market square and cloth hall are fascinating places where tourists can buy any manner of things.  I bought a beautiful palm for Palm Sunday.  I watched the young girl make it from ears of wheat and dried flowers with palm leaves interwoven.  I was surprised by the abundant flower stalls as there did not seem to be any flowers growing locally.  In fact, after a harsh winter when even the Vistula froze over, there was very little greenery around.  I suppose the flowers, huge roses and daffodils, are grown in greenhouses somewhere but they really are beautiful.
So I came home with most of my spending money still in my purse!  The currency is the  Zloty (zl).  It is pronounced zwo-ti and is divided into 100 units called grosz (gr).  The notes feature Polish Kings.  I should have changed my sterling in Poland as I could have got about 5 zlotys to the pound there.  In the UK I only got 4 which is a terrible rate.  But as I didn’t spend most of them it is academic really.
Below are some of my photos, if you want to see the other 600 you will have to pop round!

A visit to Krakow in Poland

This street was used in the filming of Schindler’s List

Crakow~ The Iconic City

The city of Krakow is beautiful, compact, well preserved and a joy to walk around.  I went last week with a dear friend for a few days.  It was a leap of faith for me after my last disastrous attempt at a plane journey.  But this time I just relaxed and enjoyed the whole experience.  I thought it would be really cold but actually it was warmer in Krakow than the UK.

There are some times and some places I find, when all your interests seem to converge, and this was one of those times and places for me.  I once read that the thing of interest to a scientist is ‘everything in the universe’.  I’m no scientist but I do like to make sense of the world and I prefer to find out for myself rather than be told what to believe.  So my visit to the old Jewish quarter in Kazimierz as well as my visit to Schindler’s Enamel factory, which is now a museum, was a revelation.  This is what I learned:

“On great fields something stays.  Forms change and pass; bodies disappear; buts pirits linger, to consecrate ground for the vision – place of souls”. 
So said Maj. Gen. Joshua L Chamberlain at Gettysberg and I knew exactly what he meant when I stood on the site of the Jewish ghetto after visiting Oskar Schindler’s enamelware factory in Zablocie, Krakow.  It happened that I was there on 14thMarch 2012, 69 years to the day of the “final purge”.  The fact that this holocaust happened within living memory is horrific.  The fact that slaughter of innocents on this scale may be happening in parts of the world today is unbearable.
There were about 225,000 Jews living in Krakow before the war but only about 15,000 managed to survive it with the help of brave Poles who kept them hidden, and the enigmatic German Oskar Schindler who needed the cheap labour force they provided.
In March 1941 all Krakow Jews who previously lived in areas such as Kazimierz were forced to live in the new ghetto of Podgorze. The area comprised 320 buildings which had been home to the poorest Poles.  Almost 17000 Jews were now crammed into these buildings and the area was surrounded by barbed wire and walls.  By the autumn of 1941 the jobless Jews who did not have the correct paperwork were transported to concentration camps or shot where they stood.

On March 13-14th 1943 the final extermination was begun.  The firsthand accounts of the few who survived these events were recorded and can be heard at the Schindler factory which is now a museum.  I heard that the remaining men were separated from the women and children.  They were marched off to be used as forced labour.  Any who could not walk unaided were shot on the spot.  Then German soldiers went through the buildings clearing out the women and children to be loaded onto transport which would take them to the extermination camps.  Children and babies were just thrown out of the windows onto the waiting carts, not all landed safely.  The sick and elderly were just killed where they lay.
Literally thousands of Jews were loaded onto transport to the Plaszow camp where they gradually died from starvation, beating, disease, hard labour or execution.   Thousands of others were taken to the extermination camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau over the next few months.   The Auschwitz archives record the fate of those transported.  In February 1944 the remaining men arrived, in May the rest of the children and in August the women.  They all died in the gas chambers shortly afterwards.  The final transport of prisoners from Krakow arrived in Auschwitz the day before the camp was liberated by the Soviet army. 
For a harrowing first hand eyewitness account of all the deportations including the final purge there is the memoir The Cracow Ghetto Pharmacy by Tadeusz Pankiewicz.

On a lighter note, (well a bit lighter!), I am fascinated by the process of education, so a visit to the Jagiellonian University where my hosts worked, Copernicus studied, and Pope John Paul 11, as Karol Wojtyla, both studied and taught, was a rare treat for me!  I discovered that Krakow is still a city of real learning and culture.

Karol Wojtyla, actor, poet, playwright, keen sportsman, philosopher and eventually Pope, was born on May 18th 1920 in a small flat with no bathroom and no running water.  The flat was above a shop owned and rented from Jews in Wadowice, which is 30 miles south west of Krakow.His mother died when he was very young and in 1938 he moved with his father to Krakow to the Jagiellonian University and became immersed in Polish Literature.  On September 1st1939 the first German bombs fell on Krakow as Karol prayed in the Cathedral onWawel Hill.  By the 6thSeptember the German army had occupied Krakow and renamed it GG, General Government.  On 17th Sept the Russians entered Eastern Poland.  On 27thSeptember Warsaw surrendered, the Polish Government took refuge in Romania and the swastika flew over Wawel Castle.  By November all 186 professors from the Jagiellonian University had been deported to a concentration camp.   This was the beginning of the German plan to destroy Polish culture.  Secondary schools, Universities and theatres were closed.  Masses were restricted and the celebration of Polish feast days was banned. When the University closed Karol got a job in a stone quarry and later in the office at the quarry.  He was involved in a subversive theatre group and the underground religious movement between 1941 and 1945.  On 17thJanuary 1945 the Russian army entered Krakow and the Germans retreated.  Karol Wojtyla was training for the priesthood in secret, finally being ordained on 1st November 1946 and going to continue his studies in Rome.  When he returned to Poland in 1948 it was under communist rule and it might have stayed that way if Karol Wojtyla had not become Pope John Paul 11 in 1978.  His power and influence on the world stage gave support to the trade unions in Poland which led to the Solidarity movement participating in the elections of 1989. Combined with the reforms led by Mikhail Gorbachev in the Soviet Union,and increased pressure from the West, communism collapsed in Europe and the Berlin wall came down.  In 1990 Lech Walesa became President of a democratic Poland.

Lastly,anyone who knows me well knows that I am a passionate collector of icons ~ of the postcard variety I hasten to add not the priceless originals!  I had thought I would go on a bus trip to Czestochowa to see the Black Madonna, but Our Lady of Czestochowa found me in a chapel in the Royal Cathedral at Wawel Hill.  I was mesmerised by this ancient copy, especially the eyes of the Madonna.  They seemed to look right into my soul.  I was more than happy to miss out on the bus trip and stay and pray here.
 So my short visit provided lots of food for thought.  It reaffirmed my belief in the dignity of the individual; in human rights; and in Christian values.  My gregarious side was thrilled to spend time in the company of our wonderful hosts, Ben, Kasia, Maja and their multi-lingualfriend Adam.  I would love to visit Krakow again one day.

Here are some photos from the displays at the Schindler factory or the Jewish Museum which touched me greatly.  They show families and groups of Jews being taken or led away from the ghetto to the camps.  They had to carry whatever they could and abandon the rest.  The last picture shows the Plaszow Camp between 1943-44 where women are being marched to forced labour.

Jewish cemetery

Karol Wojtyla’s parish church

Proud to stand by the statue of Pope John Paul 11 in his home town of Krakow