Nie Mowi po Polsku - Zamosc & Krakow, Poland

Greetings and a dedication to Chris Labak back in Chicago, Czesc!

Poland, home of the Pope, who is actually home for the holidays this week, Krakow, the cultural heart of the country.

The main activity in Zamosc, a postage stamp sized town, is sitting out in the main square drinking. It was also here where we discovered how seriously they also take their religion. While both well-schooled in Roman Catholic tradition, dogma and ritual, we were more drawn to faith and study in comparitive religions, leading us to take part in religious celebrations wherever we went, so long as we were not in offense of anyone. But here in Poland, we were on home territory. We went to the Sunday evening 6:00 mass and was surprised to find it packed. People who didn't fit inside the church just sat outside on the grass following along, not the least bit perturbed. 

Young Polish children taking part in the rite of First Communion.

Another interesting point of the Polish version of Catholicism. They keep those priests working hard during mass.  All during the mass, there was a line of people on both sides of the church confessing continually.  They need five priests for the mass, just to keep up with that volume of sinning.  And finally the communion.  We are always interested in how each church handles the communion because we know St Ita's at home in Chicago is a free for all when it comes to scoring the wafer. But here in Poland, the priest actually comes to you. Again there were five priests wandering around, and we waited for them to come to us, but somehow, chalk it up to being a foreigner, but we were skipped. No communion.  Does that still count as a mass?

Back to the drinking, which Poles take in equal measure to religion, and no doubt as comfortable with both, as Irish Catholics partaking in Guiness in a pub after Sunday mass. Surrounding the main square are many outdoor drinking gardens, covered in pretty umbrellas and substantial furniture. None of that plastic resin stuff, but nice wrought iron and wood furniture. There were all outdoor taps and at night, the whole place was illuminated with soft twinkly lights. We fell easily into the rythmn. One drink and shift, matched in time with the crowds letting out from the nearby church, on the hour, on the dot, til we had sampled the beer and ice cream at each pavilion. A very restful two days.  

It was also here in Zamosc that we sampled our first milk bar, a remnant of Soviet times. Designed to quickly and cheaply feed the workers, a few of these places still exist. In a rather bleak cafeteria, we walked up to the food line, and looking at the different metal pans, you point at what you want. We pointed a bit too much and ended up with two heaping trays of hearty polish food for a few bucks. It was very good actually and quite budget conscious. But time to move on to Krakow.  

Krakow boasts a certain vitality that beats throughout the magnificant old town and castle. At its center is an large public square called the Rynek that is wall to wall people, not just tourists but Poles themselves which keeps the city alive. Under the watchful clock tower in the center a stage was assembled and bands played throughout the days. Stepping away from this square, you find yourself wandering down small cobblestone streets lined with graceful Renaissance and Baroque buildings. This town boasts such a rich cultural heritage, tempered by its recent horrifying past.

Krakow was the Nazis northern headquaters, through which many Jews passed en route to Aushwitz.  Despite the horror of the war, Krakow survived intact unlike its northern counterpart, Warsaw, which was almost entirely rebuilt after WWII.  Today, each abandoned synagogue, Renaissance arcade, and towering monument demand attention and admiration. if only for its miraculous survival.  Its heart beats on.

Some highlights of Krakow:

To engage the past, we visited Kasimierz, the former Jewish ghetto.  Today, it stands as a mostly deserted memorial to its former inhabitants.  We visited the only active synagogue in the area which also houses a cemetary with unique above ground coffins that date from the fourteenth century.  Like most of the surviving synagogues, it was used as a warehouse for the Nazis.  Many of the surrounding streets were used in the movie Shindler's List because they look much as they did during WWII.   

One day we wandered out and discovered everything closed.  Turns out it is the Catholic feast of Corpus Christi (like I remember all the feast days) which of course in Poland, any Catholic holiday is automatically a national holiday.  We stood in the rain with the other 500,000 Poles along the main road through town and watched the procession/parade that was being put on.  



There were beautiful crosses and other holy paraphenalia. They even brought out a relic - some saint's finger I believe. The main pagentry was followed by a mile long procession of nuns, monks, friars, and finally priests. There is certainly no shortage of young people rushing to commit themselves to the church.   

Besides endlessly wandering the streets of the old town, we sampled perogies and my new favorite dish, bigos - a stew of various meats and sauerkraut cooked til the flavors and ingredients meld into a rich concoction. We ate at both milk bars and nice restaurants, and sampled ice cream at every stand. Doug highly recommends the Polish beers, Dojlidy and Zwiec. The food was just so good, and so heavy. It fills you and then I swear, it expands, making you feel fuller and lazier as the day progresses.

Two very noteworthy sidetrips from Krakow.

First we visited the Wiezlicka Salt Mines, a fully functioning salt mine since the thirteenth century. We travelled deep into the mine, about 475 feet/158 yards or the distance of a football field and a half toward the center of the earth. The mines actually go more than twice as deep, but not where the public can visit.  The mines are considered one of the modern wonders of the world, mostly notably for the salt carvings.  And that is why everyone comes to visit. Deep within the mines are hundreds of salt carvings by miners to creatively express themselves against the drudgery of mining. Some are hundreds of years old, and all are made by untrained, supposedly unskilled minors, but the works themselves prove otherwise. Within the labyrinth caverns are stories in salt, some of myths, other mining legends, and still others of a religious nature. There is even a huge cavern church complete with salt frescoes, a salt alter, nativity scene and replica of Leonardo's last supper.

Then we visited Auchwitz - Berkenau. I think the enormity of it all overwhelmed me. You can read about it, and watched movies about it, but to actually see it. The full scale of the tragedy becomes horrifyingly evident. Auchwitz today is a museum with exhibits liberated.  In many ways though, Berkenau, less than a mile away, is far more terrifying. While Aushwitz is a museum, Berkenau is a concentration camp, left almost exactly as it was in 1945, when the Soviets liberated the camp. Barracks still stand with the wooden bunks and even original drawings on the walls. Watchtowers rings the camp which is still guarded by rows and rows of electrified barb wire. Here, is where the enormity of the crime becomes apparent. The fields are endless. You keep walking and walking and still more rows of barracks. Finally you get to the ruins of the gas chambers and crematoria, which were bombed by the fleeing Nazis to try to cover up their crimes. But it is still very much recognizable. And you become numb.  The evil is incomprehensible.

Ending on a somber note, Poland is a land continually caught up in the old struggle between east and west. But with a unique solidarity in the face of oppression. The land is scarred, first from the Nazi invasion, then from the Soviet Iron Curtain. In its new independence, visitors find themselves affected by the many juxtapositions, a morning at a gothic castle, an afternoon at a concentration camp. But just when you begin to feel overwhelmed by the history, the spirit and the countryside comfort. Endless rolling green hills dotted with farms and striped by even rows of crops. Horse carts still make their way alongside speedy cars, and the people live on.

over and out

ann and doug

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