Jul 152017

This is the third installment describing my trip to Poland.  It was also originally posted in October 2005 as three separate posts, which have been edited down into this single one.

After leaving Suwalki I returned to Warsaw.  Happily I could easily find my hotel, which turned out to have its quirks.  It was basically fine and I’d stay there again (location, location, location) but the interiors of the rooms had some questionable aesthetics. Lots of brown… I felt like I’d stepped into someone’s den from the 1970s.

The room did have a TV, which I stayed up too late watching. There was a great musical cabaret show on a Polish channel, which featured a string quartet that reminded me of Canadian Brass (classical music expressed with a sense of humor). Then I watched a bit of Mad About You dubbed in German. Unfortunately it turns out that there’s a vast difference between Paul Reiser saying in his sarcastic New York accent, “Excuse me?” and a dubbed Germanic voice instead saying, “Entschuldigung?” Still, even poorly translated this show was better than the German sitcom that seemed to be one long stupid joke about the husband failing to have an erection. Meanwhile, on BBC World, the sky was still falling. OK, I know there are bad things in the world and it’s good that someone tells us about them, but, still, the BBC news coverage was a bit much. The most uplifting segment I saw them show during the whole two days I got to watch it was on advances in artificial limbs, which is only a happy subject if you don’t stop to consider why people actually need artificial limbs.

Then another Polish channel had a movie that was mostly in Polish but subtitled in English. It wasn’t very good. It was one of those morose European flicks full of melodramatic silences and a darkened city full of no one but the movie’s sinister characters. I wonder, though, if this is not because European filmmakers can’t afford the extras needed to make a place look populated? I’ve seen French films like this too, although they usually include some gloomy dialog where the protagonist waif explains how her parents had both killed themselves and that’s why she’s throwing herself into the clutches of an emotionally-scarred man three times her age. Or at least the one I watched while in Poland was like this…

Anyway, in the Polish movie at one point one bad guy suddenly started speaking to the other bad guy in English. I’m not sure why; they seemed to both be Polish. Maybe they thought it sounded tougher? They thought wrong. The older one, his accent was ok, but his pacing was off. Perhaps he couldn’t really speak English and he learned his lines phonetically, which would explain the erratic diction. I wouldn’t make fun of someone’s language limitations, but I think it’s perfectly legitimate to criticize the filmmaker who wrote his dreadful dialog and directed the performance. The “sit your ass down!” demand was delivered so out of sync from the way any English-speaking heavy would have actually said it that I was surprised the other bad guy didn’t start giggling. (I did.) Then he punctuated his threat with, “Dig it?” I get the sense that the filmmaker perhaps once stayed in my hotel and got confused about what decade it was…

The room also included breakfast, which was an elaborate buffet: cold cuts, all sorts of cheeses, hard boiled eggs, poached eggs, scrambled eggs, cereals, fruit, coffee cake, breads with butter and jams, sausage and some other hot meats, juice, tea, coffee… Sadly however I only had about 20 minutes to enjoy it in order to catch my next train to Krakow.

I was going to Krakow because my next stop was Auschwitz.  It was actually surprisingly hard to figure out how to get to Auschwitz: even my Lonely Planet Eastern Europe book let me down. (The Polish chapter generally needed a lot of updating.)  It suggested taking a bus, but even that was impossible to figure out.  Instead I ultimately opted to take a train, even though it was unclear where it would leave me, but it turned out fine.  When we got to the town, I and all the other tourists converged on the train information guy. (There were no other signs or sources of information.) He couldn’t speak English, and this wasn’t his purview, but he knew all our questions and what the answers should be (how to get there, and how to get back). I ended up splitting a taxi with three other English-speaking people since it seemed easier than taking a bus. The cabbie charged us 15 zloty instead of the usual 10 (“It’s a holiday,” he said) and so we arrived at Auschwitz by taxi.

It turns out that it had been a good choice to take the taxi because I got there just in time for an English tour. It started with a 15 minute film, and then the guide walked us through several buildings. We then took the shuttle to Birkenau, 3 kilometers away, which is the place everyone really thinks about when they hear, “Auschwitz.”

Unfortunately my trip was rushed, and I was preoccupied with worrying about how I would get back to Krakow in time for my night train. In the end, when the tour ended in Birkenau, I took another cab (again 15 zloty!) back to the train station. The train was an easy 40 minute trip to Trzebenia, but the train we transferred to for the rest of the journey was packed. I boarded it like I would a crowded B-line train in Boston…

Arriving in Krakow I had about an hour and a half to spare. My initial impression of Krakow in the morning had not been good. The area around the train platforms was decidedly uncharming, and disconnected from any sort of central station area. I’m not sure I even believed then that any existed, and in the morning I had no time to explore. But later I did, and I was curious. So I followed the path away from the platforms, and found at the end of the Victorian-style covered pathway a nice old restored station building. Its overall aesthetic reminded me quite a lot of Disneyland, actually.

By then I was hungry so I wandered down a road to find some food. What I found was a lot of gorgeous, old, lit-up buildings. My initial impression of Krakow now seemed entirely wrong. It seemed like a quaint, medieval European city worth another visit (although perhaps maybe not for another year or so, to give them time to finish up some of the infrastructure construction they are working on).

In fact, Auschwitz should probably be visited again sometime when I have more time. The trip to Suwalki consumed most of my weekend and emotional energy, although that’s fine, I’m really glad I went. But then I had to rush to get to Auschwitz (and, really, who wants to rush to go there???) and I couldn’t really connect to the place because I was so distracted about the logistics of leaving.

At one point I worried that I’d perhaps somehow ruined the Auschwitz experience by doing the trip like I had. Then I mentally slapped myself, because how do you “ruin” Auschwitz? I perhaps failed to fully absorb the dramatic depths of its horrors, but not entirely. My memories of Birkenau in particular come to me in flashes. These camps need to be seen in person to really understand their scale. In some ways it’s a scale more vast than anyone can imagine (for instance, it took 10 minutes at a rapid pace to walk from the end of the train tracks by the gas chambers back to the gate house), and in some ways it’s also smaller than one might think.  (For instance, even though the gas chambers/crematoria were crumbled ruins, they were smaller than I imagined). And having at least seen it once will give better context to other Holocaust history I learn.

Still, if the experience seemed anticlimactic, I think there are several reasons. On my end, in addition to my distraction, I’d also seen another concentration camp that very week, which probably led to a saturation problem. But I’ve also heard others criticize the presentation of Auschwitz. It’s hard to put my finger on why, but there’s something about it that’s disengaging. I liked my guide, so that wasn’t really the problem. I think it may have something to do with the logistics of getting there. It should feel very dramatic to enter those gates. But it’s such a confusing hassle to get there and figure out what’s going on that it’s hard to be emotionally ready to take it in properly. And so then you just sort of end up stumbling into it (whereas in Neuengamme and Dachau the entrances to these camps were inherently more definitive thresholds). And maybe, too, the area could be better curated as a museum. The 15 minute film about the camp’s liberation, although necessarily awful in its subject matter, was nevertheless one of the blandest Holocaust films I’d ever seen. Furthermore, ever since the Neuengamme guide pointed out that most pictures of camp life were actually SS propaganda, I’ve not been able to take them as seriously as realistic representations of the horrors of the camp. However bad they may look, the reality was worse.

But as I said, the guide here was good, and her tour was peppered with anecdotes explaining the psychological torture inflicted by the SS as much as the physical. It was also good to get her personal insight on some of these matters. In Suwalki I had noticed that the WWII memorials never referred to Nazis or Germans. They always used some form of the word, “Hitlerowcowy.” I asked her what it meant and why they seemed to always use it. Apparently it means, “Hitler’s People,” and she thinks it’s more accurate than saying either Germans or Nazis. With the latter, she pointed out, who were they? They were a political party. But that’s like saying “communists.” It’s a party too, and it isn’t even clear of which country. As far as using the term “Germans,” it tars too many people. The atrocities themselves were only carried out by Hitler’s People.

On the other hand, she said she has started using the term “Germans” to make it clear that she does not mean Poles. She said she gets offended when people ask her how many Poles served in the camp. First of all, she noted, a Pole couldn’t be in the SS even if they wanted to be – it was reserved only for Aryans, and Poles are Slavic. Secondly, they were victims too. The country was divided and fought over by Hitler and Stalin, the government was in exile, and Poles themselves were deported and imprisoned. Around the camp 5000 people were displaced as punishment for helping an early Auschwitz escapee. They were sent away, and their houses dismantled (the SS then used the bricks to build Birkenau).

But my time in Poland led me to believe that the history of non-Jewish Poles and their Jewish neighbors from that period is more complex than any of these museums might capture.

Back in Krakow I decided to have Chinese food for dinner. Or at least the Polish approximation of Chinese food… After dinner I went back to the train station to catch my night train back to Germany. And that’s when things got annoying. The trip up until that point had worked out really well: trains were caught, hotels found, destinations visited, weather fine (true it rained a bit in Auschwitz, but the gloom was sort of fitting).

But now, at my train, the conductor seemed to be saying that my ticket was no good. Well, not that it was no good, but that it didn’t cover the part of the journey from Krakow to the German border. Um, yes it does, I fruitlessly argued. I showed him the itinerary that the Deutsche Bahn agent in Hamburg had printed out for me, where we discussed that I needed a train from Hamburg to Warsaw (having transferred in Hannover), Warsaw to Suwalki, Suwalki to Warsaw, Warsaw to Krakow, and Krakow to Hamburg with a change in Berlin. I asked him to infer that it would have made no sense at all for me to have a ticket with a huge geographic hole in it (why would I have bought a ticket that covered almost the entire loop but not all of it?) but he was not convinced.  In fact he said I was lucky they let me travel from Warsaw to Krakow because he didn’t think the ticket was good for that part either.

European train tickets are a bit opaque. The way they generally work is that you buy a ticket that covers traveling the distance, but not a specific seat. For a specific seat you make a reservation. For a seated train it’s usually a nominal cost and has the advantage of meaning you get a seat no matter how crowded the train. For some trains reservations are optional, for others mandatory, and for others they aren’t possible at all. For a night train they are mandatory, at least if you want a bed, because you have to pay extra for that. So I had my couchette all reserved and paid for, that part was no problem. Yet still he was telling me that, even though the agent had sold me a couchette reservation, she had not remembered to sell me a ticket, and if I wanted to go home, I was going to have to buy another ticket from him.

You may be asking yourself, in what language did this conversation take place? The answer is Polish, a language I don’t speak. Fortunately, a girl had come upon me and offered to translate. She was very nice and very insistent in making my arguments to the conductor. The whole thing stretched about an hour (we continued once the train was moving) and she was very persistent, but in the end the argument was lost.

Upon arriving in Berlin I had a two hours layover, so I tried complaining to Deutsche Bahn. But they told me to wait to complain until Hamburg since I still needed the ticket for the last part of the trip. So with the remaining time left in my layover I went to Alexanderplatz, a place I barely recognized from the last time I’d visited in 1996.  If it weren’t for the TV tower I might not have recognized it at all.

The rest of the journey back to Hamburg was uneventful, and back at the station where I’d bought my ticket I went in to complain about the problem. The clerk said the ticket should have been valid and couldn’t explain why the conductor hadn’t accepted it. We filled out a form for review in Berlin, which would decide whether to refund the money I’d had to pay on the train.  What was rather amazing is that I handled this entire exchange, successfully, in German.  I should have had more faith in my speaking skills, because when Deutsche Bahn later called to follow up, I had a German friend field the call for me, and he apparently somehow told them it was no big deal and I never heard from them again.

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