Wawel Castle

Poland’s had a tough history. There’s never been a century when it hasn’t been invaded. I found a map that showed the western countries that hadn’t had a go at taking over Poland were few and far between. What with Swedes and Prussians and Austrians and Germans and Russians invading, ruling, dividing and subjugating, it’s a wonder that Poland has a national identity, language, or culture at all.  But it has. And the Polish people are proud of it.

Take Wawel Castle in Krakow. Originally built in the 11th century, then rebuilt, it burned down in 1499. And what a palace Sigismund the Old commissioned in its place! His wife was from Italy, a Sforza, and Italian workmen wrought a Palazzo fit for her to enjoy.

Since then, it was repeatedly sacked by armies from Sweden, from Prussia, and then from Austria. These last razed churches and houses on the site, constructing instead barracks and a military hospital while ruining the mediaeval fortifications.

Poland was once again re-established after WWI. Since then, the castle and the entire enormous site has gone through a period of painstaking restoration to reveal its earlier Polish ancestry. If this means rebuilding, or scaling away later additions by conquerors, so be it.

Wawel Hill is an enormous site shared by state and church alike. Here are some pictures to give some idea of this magnificent area of Krakow. The images show the Renaissance courtyard, the Royal Cathedral, the Sandomierska Tower and a view of the site from within the Castle walls.

Comfort food, Polish style

After a couple of emotionally draining days, we had a low-key day exploring endlessly fascinating back streets.

Rain threatened all day, and when it finally came, we knew about it. Deluge. We needed comfort food. This is what I chose at lunchtime: zureck. It tasted slightly sour, slightly fermented. I loved it.

You make a zakwas of rye flour, bread crusts, garlic, and warm water set aside for some days to ferment. Then you make a broth from root vegetables. Then you fry onions, bacon, white sausage, and add it to the strained broth. Add a hard boiled egg. And the zakwas. And you’re done. I’m going to make this at home.

This evening we shared a single portion of potato cakes, goulash type stew, sauerkraut, carrot salad served with sour cream. We almost failed to finish it. And I’ve recently acquired a taste for fruit vodkas. Expect us to have gone up two sizes at least by the time you next see us.

Jewish Krakow

Here we are in Krakow. And here we are, staying in the former Jewish quarter, Kazimierz, once a completely separate town.

How come there were so many Jews in Poland by the early 20th century? They formed, for instance, 20% of the population of Krakow by the beginning of WWII.

Blame the crusades. The Polish kings at the time declined to get involved. Jerusalem was so far away after all. So there were no crusaders from Poland in the routine persecution of Jews that took place in those so-called Holy Wars.  And Poland became a place of sanctuary.

Along came the Black Death. Citizens from all over Europe looked for someone to blame. Jews, obviously. Jews needed somewhere to flee. Poland, obviously. Poland somehow escaped the Black Death, so didn’t need to persecute Jews at that time.

Over the centuries, Jews did well in Poland. Well educated by their rabbis at a time when education was far from universal, they prospered. They tended to live together, in harmony with their Christian neighbours.

Then Hitler came to power.  As he occupied Poland, he began his all-too familiar persecution, then extermination of the Jews. But in Krakow, the factories were short-handed. and Jews were required as slave labour. 3000 Poles were forced to leave their homes in the Podgorze area, and 16,000 Jews moved in to the ghetto it became. 

This street forms one of the boundaries of the ghetto.

One of those factories was Otto Schindler’s. 1000 Jews who might otherwise have died lived because of his protection – he could have managed with 100 workers. This dark period is remembered in Plac Bohaterow Getta – Ghetto Heroes Square, where 70 chairs symbolise absence, departure. This Square was the place where Jews were executed, or sent to almost certain death in the local Concentration Camps. Another sobering day.

Museum of the Second World War Gdansk

We visited this recently opened museum yesterday. It was one of the most moving experiences of my life. 

Every community in the world who played their part took their place in the involving and graphic displays, but the inevitable focus was Central Europe and Poland in particular.

I hadn’t really realised how protected we were on our little island from wholesale displacement, from the destruction of communities, from unbelievable and barbaric cruelty to citizens and soldiers in many parts of continental Europe. Maps, displays of humble artefacts, moving personal testimonies told the stories of families torn apart, of wanton destruction and cruelty far beyond the concentration camps.

We spent four hours there. We could have spent days. It was utterly harrowing, utterly memorable. 

Most of my photos are on my camera. I’ll simply show this. We walked past screen after screen with images like this. Every portrait is of one of the countless Jews who lost their lives under the Nazi regime.

Gdansk Shipyards

Back in the 1980s, Gdansk was often in the news. Or its shipyards anyway. And the activist electrician who worked there, fought to end communist rule, and eventually became President of Poland – Lech Walesa – was the one contemporary Pole whose name was known to everyone.

Today, we took a boat trip and passed those shipyards. Here’s our journey, beginning in downtown Gdansk, and continuing through the vast and still active industrial complex.