The Hotel Ilan

I have learned that Poland from the 15th century became home to the first Jewish settlers, particularly Lublin which region became known as “The Jerusalem of the Kingdom of Poland “, and was the leading centre of Judaic culture and religion. In the 1930s was established a world famous Jewish academy and rabbinical school – I am only guessing but I assume similar to a catholic seminary? It had a famous synagogue attached. Now it is a Jewish museum, a hotel and restaurant specialising in Jewish cuisine. The hotel is not a Hilton but is a rather poignant and slightly shabby establishment but nevertheless clean, friendly and it gets 4 stars from me…

Majdanek Museum and Memorial

Having travelled by “private” Mercedes minibus to Zamosc yesterday , I woke to a dull wet day and for a few minutes, flecks of snow! I resorted to TripAdvisor for recommendations on things to do around Lublin that involved Museums. As it turned out the top site on the list was the Majdanek Memorial and Museum. The second most recommended thing to do in Lublin was to explore the local equivalent of the Westfield Shopping Complex. Truely! By the time I had showered and had a presumably Jewish breakfast, the rain and snow had stopped. The Majdanek Museum was in fact a former German Nazi concentration camp. It occupied an area of 270 hectares or 2.8 sq km! This was divided into 5 fields each containing 2 rows of prisoner huts and a middle open space between each double row for assembly, roll calls. Around the perimeter of electrified barb wire double fences were huts and barracks for workshops, the SS Guards not to mention the bathroom halls, gas Chambers and crematorium. It was ghastly in the extreme.

All I can say is that it was somber and sobering. I shall leave the few pictures I took tell the story of mans’ Inhumanity to man. I was numb physically from the freezing cold and mentally from disbelieve at the site and the it’s cruelty.

The entrance with its Monument Gate – marking the historical entrance to the original camp. The sculpture is a symbolic entrance alluding to Dante’s Gates of Hell.

From here there is a wide road – the Road of Homage, to an immense circular mausoleum under which is a huge mound of earth containing soil and ashes of many of the victims. It is set out somewhat along the same lines as the Anzac Parade from the War Memorial to Parliament House in Canberra. The circular mausoleum like a giant saucer can be seen in the distance.

Part of the bathroom washing sheds. Taps which feed rows of shower heads along the ceiling. The initial stream was icy cold followed by several seconds later, water at boiling temperature. Inmates were then “drenched ” by immersion in the cement tubs containing carbolic acid solution.

Gas cylinders that fed the poisonous fumes into the gas chamber. Note the small window and grill through which I presume the executioners could quickly check on their deadly progress.

A day trip to Zamosc

There are literally hundreds of “private”minibuses that crisscross Poland. They are invariably Mercedes vans and whilst this may seem impressive, they are all in various states of decay belching diesel fumes as they transport thousands of locals between towns and villages that dot the countryside. Such bus stations , seething with humanity and the fumes of diesel and tobacco, evoked memories of such bus stations all over Asia and the Indian subcontinent.

This is the minibus station in Zamosc much more sedate and civilised than Lublin

Having reconnoitred the evening before, discovering that the bus to Zamosc left from terminal 4 ( of which there are more than 26 bus terminals ( in reality a sign post) and rather impressively leaving every 20 minutes, I presented myself at 8:40 with the iPhone pre loaded with

Chciałbym kupić bilet powrotny do Zamościa..…thanks to Google translate –

One does not need a higher degree in language to pick up a word such as “Bilet” and “Zamosc” to have a reasonable stab at the intent. Sadly the driver looked at the screen intently in my hand , then took it himself , looked at it more closely, at this point I had a sense of profound déjà vue ( recall the Warsaw Railway Station ticket saga). He did not turn the phone upside down or back to front but simply stared at the screen as though mesmerised without a single word not even in Polish. Perhaps I had an illiterate bus driver? Had he never laid eyes on an iPhone before?

He eventually turned to the remaining passengers and after a brief discussion, a young woman came to the front of the bus, read the text and explained that I had completely stumped him by requesting a “return “ ticket! To Zamosc it’s one way or nothing. If truth be known the bus had a large sign on the windscreen stating ZAMOSC, so the simple act of getting on the bus would have indicated my intent and I could have handed him a 20 Zloty bill and paid without the need for the spoken word, unless of course I had persisted with my request for a return ticket. I fear he will go home after work tonight, get drunk on vodka or beat his wife or quite possibly, both and I will be to blame.

The medieval fortress town of Zamosc is justifiably a UNESCO World Heritage site. Surrounded by the inevitable walls, moat and bastions it managed to survive mostly intact until the invasion by Germans and Russians during the Second World War.

The 3 pictures above show the famous town square, devoid almost entirely of humanity at 10:30 am, a few Poles and certainly no Japanese. Not sure that Poland is on the bucket list for wealthy Chinese or Korean tourists. The town hall sits at one end of the square. The very colourful buildings that surround the square once belonged to wealthy Armenians ( not Americans!)

Whilst the old town occupies a few hectares, the rest of the vast metropolis is a bleak, depressing landscape of dull high rise appartments… the winter weather, the deciduous, dormant trees give a feeling, common so far in Poland , of an Eastern European country – which indeed it was until a few years aback

Finally tonight , having decided to forgo bread and wine for the rest of the trip, the waiter tempted me with a baked cheesecake. Not any old cheese cake but a typical Jewish Cheesecake..

why it is a Jewish I have no idea, but rather than pressure the waiter, I felt that it required circumspection on my part .

Lublin

I can honestly declare that I have appeared at sessions on all the 4 days of the conference. I have attended 3 of the series of Controversies in Neurology in the past few years and this was of reasonable standard, so much so that I don’t have any feelings of guilt with respect to claiming professional development expenses from my employee. The weather continues to be clear and sunny – but with stale snow on the ground from the last fall of the winter ( I hope). However as I am spending a few days in the southern port of the Poland in the mountain region of Zakopane, I may get to see fresh falling snow!

A 4 hour train journey from Warsaw to Lublin in a 1st class carriage that was reminiscent of the 6 to 8 seat cabins on the country trains in Australia during the 1950 and 60s.

Lublin is a very large city with a very small ‘old town’ – it was all over in an hour or two and that included 20 minutes in the Dominican Cathedral.

But it had a nice feel to it. I was I think the only foreigner, the rest were local Poles or visitors who drove for a day trip from Warsaw. That is apparently what they do. I was fascinated by the number of locals who were carrying small ‘Posies” of dried flowers and leaves on a stick! They looked from a distance like colourful feather dusters. Intrigued, I asked the staff at the Tourist Office and we eventually came to the conclusion that these were part of Palm Sunday celebrations. This explained to me the large number of people quietly meditating in the Cathedral and an impressive queue of repentant Poles waiting to kneel and confess. About the only day in the Christian calendar that gets me vaguely excited is Pancake Day. The queue was only surpassed in length by a line which snaked around the block and across several footpaths, in the village square which was, I discovered, leading to the Icecream shop! Here was I rugged up in down jacket, gloves and beanie (new) breathing frost from both nostrils, to be confronted by literally hundreds of Poles patiently waiting for an ICECREAM! Yes I did relent and had one too – coffee/orange flavour and it was as tasty as it sounds.

.Incidentally I am staying at a rather quaint, musty Hotel that in its day was the centre of a thriving Jewish community I have a very large room and sitting room , warm and very quiet. It is the Hotel Ilan and it is within walking distance of the old town.

Tomorrow, weather permitting I shall take a local bus to Zamosc.

Warsaw in Spring

The organisers of the 12th Congress of Controversies in Neurology have devised a remarkable solution to ensure that I will attend every session of the opening day, which is being held in the Museum of the History of Polish Jews. Architecturally it is modern and well designed, located however in outer suburbia surrounded on all sides by drab, depressing high rise housing complexes with nary a shopping complex in sight. Our accommodation, the Hilton Hotel is more than 20 km away in the opposite direction, the same distance from the tourist old town and requiring a column of buses to transport more than 800 delegates across town in peak hour morning traffic , the journey taking about 28 minutes. Moreover to use public transport from hotel to the historic precinct requires change of bus, takes an hour, the other option is a breakneck taxi ride costing 50 Polish monopoly notes , about $20 which in the scheme of things is not going to upset my financial planner.

The presentations on this the first day have been like the curate’s egg. There is, hopefully a full day on epilepsy the day after tomorrow and the conference moves back to the Hilton hotel, which I trust you recall is a little more than 16 km from the city centre.

Today, Thursday promised “snow showers” in the morning clearing to a crippling biting breeze. There is no way one could cycle in this weather, even if there were safe dedicated cycle tracks (and there were quite a few) as ones’ hands and fingers would be frozen in a clenched fist around the handlebars. For the same reason, it has been nigh impossible to undertake photography of the outside scenes.

It is both disconcerting and yet absolutely fascinating to realise that most cities in Europe were subjected to such carnage and destruction during WWII, that palaces and cathedrals I now explore and wonder at , have been meticulously restored or rather recreated /reproduced ( not even the walls remained untouched). No where was this more evident than Warsaw, Dresden and as I learned last July, St Petersburg. So buildings that were centuries old, ravaged by recurrent fire and the odd cannonball , managed to keeping standing, at least the bricks and mortar, until in the space of 5 years, the Germans, Russians and British (both sides are to blame for these atrocities), razed the cities to the ground. What is just as impressive, if not more so, is that out of this anguish, economically gutted, these countries found the will, patience and resources to rebuild their history, starting even within a few years ofter the armistice and indeed continuing to this day.

There are few obvious tourists, not a single photo stick, nor even a huddle of oriental travellers. I have a deliciously politically incorrect image of a “huddle” of Japanese tourists, mimicking the behaviour of those huge colonies of Emperor Penguins, that squeeze into a seething, steaming catherine wheel, slowly rotating from outside to inside, during the blast of winter in the Antarctica. However it was not the Asian hordes that invaded museums, art galleries and cathedrals, but Polish school children. They were mostly of infants school age, walking along, rugged up and wearing their bright yellow reflective vests and with typical innocence holding hands with each other, or the occasional anxious boy holding the female teachers’, it was delightful to see and to appreciate that from an early age they are encouraged to learn about their heritage. They are also much easier to navigate past than a moving mass of “penguins”.

During my adventure holidays over the last several years, I have without fail, lost or misplaced items of clothing, cycle helmets, bike locks on a regular basis. Indeed it is inevitable that I will manage to lose either one sock or a single mitten (mostly the left hand) and the absolutely amazing thing is that I seem to misplace or dislodge one of a pair of things whilst actually wearing them……..Poland is no different and I have now lost in two days, both of the warm caps (beanies) that I carefully packed in anticipation of the weather.

Whilst waiting for the WARSAW train in Poznan, I felt like a Baguette and so I gazed at the selection and eventually pointed to the rack that contained the healthy cheese, tomato, lettuce. I pointed to the front where there were the multigrain, pumpkin seed baguettes. The assistant quick as a flash grabbed one of the baguettes closest to him wrapped it up and had it in the bag with paper serviette before I could say, ‘multigrain’! He had picked the white bread. My attempts to explain that I had chosen, indeed pointed obviously to the front of the display case, did not go down well! He leaned across the counter in a rather menacing way and it was at this very instant that I also realised he was about 6ft 6 inches and played front row for the ‘Warsaw Wringers’ – the local Rugby team and that he had ‘mother’ tattooed across the knuckles of his right hand. He then said as he clenched my baguette in his fist, ‘are you English’? I felt that if I said ‘No, Australian’ this may have provoked him further so I said ‘yes’. He then confirmed in reasonable English that I had indeed asked for a cheese baguette. He said that the paper bag contained a CHEESE baguette! Yes I agreed, trying to be assertive, but failing abjectly, by then noting that he had a skull and cross bones tattooed on his neck with the word ‘KILL’ where the teeth should have been. Mild mannered Clark Kent, by now was thinking of withdrawing, but at the same instance it flashed into his Neanderthal brain, that he was about to lose a sale, so he changed tack and admitted almost with a degree of guilt that the multigrain bread was in fact just white bread that became brown and ‘ healthy’; by the simple addition of molasses to the dough! I stood my ground and he relented. I must say the baguette consequently lost some of its tasty attraction.

Not sure what the moral of this story is? Perhaps it is that some seemingly straight Poles, can be bent?

Poznan

Having been terrified by the sights of the ‘Beast from the East’ weather pattern across Europe in the week before I left Adelaide, it has been a remarkable beginning to my holiday, at least as far as the clear, blue sunny days. Granted there is a biting breeze and a chill factor that brings back memories of Iceland in July last year, but so far every day has been perfect – a sort of reverse temperature variation of the weather slogan for Queensland!

Today I shall visit the Palm House Gardens before leaving at 15:30 for Warsaw and the Conference! Yes I do need to justify the expenses claim, I have no doubt that Stephen Marshall will be checking up me personally.

Incidentally, as a complete aside, being the trend setter that I am, more than 6 years ago I committed FaceBook suicide and started my own blog site – the very reason you are on this page! The reason had nothing to do with the fact that my daughter had 4983 ‘friends’ and I had 3 , 2 of whom had actually accidentally ‘liked’ the wrong Graham Norton anyway. Seriously I am, I feel vindicated by the current data breach mess, not that I have anything to hide: it is in the open domain that I am a ‘pillow biter’ and have never slept with a member of parliament- state or commonwealth.

A few pictures with occasional comments

Lets get the picture of interior of the local cathedral out of the way first

Various pictures of the Poznan town square. In the centre is an ornate town hall and municipal offices which is now an historical museum. I have a sense of déjà-vue, but I cannot remember where I entered a town or city square like this in Europe. Any suggestions?

I explored the Cathedral Island a fortified island in the middle of the Worta River. There is a flourishing monastery and I saw several priests in black flowing cassocks, some quite youthful surprisingly. At least two carried IKEA bags which begs the question of what on earth would a seminarian need to self assemble in the cloisters, or perhaps the closet? I dawdled in the vicinity in the hope that I might chance upon a Nun or two carrying bags from the Polish equivalent of Bunnings, it was not to be.

This is a VERY clever visual perspective optical illusion…. look carefully at the picture below..

Well… have you worked it out? The Yellow red roofed building to the right of the square is real, BUT the facades of the buildings facing towards you, the green house, the tree and all the mish-mash of houses and appartments are PAINTED on the side wall of the pink faced building facing east, right up to the sky line of the pink building .. I also mean the tree behind the green house not the tree at the corner of the square, which is real.

Finally in the 20 km I walked on this day, I finished up exploring Citadel Park – a forest atoll with many graves and a rather derelict museum of war machinery – tanks, airplanes etc. It not really a War Memorial as such but nevertheless a large peaceful park in Poznan for meandering and meditation