Travel tales of fact and fiction
A good writer is basically a story teller, not a scholar or a redeemer of mankind.
– Isaac Bashevis Singer
If I take these words to heart, everything I write about travel can’t merely be a chronicle of my travels or a delineation of plans. Somewhere along the way I have to tell some stories.
Some of my stories are, alas, not really stories in the traditional sense. My stories of buying a camera or buying new luggage are not filled with dramatic events or interesting characters. There’s no plot to speak of. But I hope they reveal something about how I do stuff.
Sometimes a story can arise from an actual travel experience. Sometimes a picture tells a story or suggests a story that is begging to be told. I hope to write some actual stories, to share a little about my internal journeys, to tell some tales, and to create some narrative. By all means, come along for the ride!
Note: I began writing this post while I was traveling in Poland in April 2019. I didn’t finish during the trip, and have finally completed writing about these heroes now in July. Most of my research comes from Wikipedia.
In Krakow the name Oskar Schindler came up a few times. There are some locales where Spielberg’s movie was filmed. And the Schindler Enamelware Factory is now a museum with a permanent exhibit depicting life in Krakow during the Nazi occupation.
Schindler went to extraordinary measures to help the roughly 1,000 Jews who worked in his factory. He spent a fortune bribing Nazi officials. Toward the end of the war, as the Nazis were retreating westward, he eventually convinced them to allow him to move his factory to what is now the Czech Republic. The 1,200 names on Schindler’s list were Jews who he took with him, saving them from near-certain death in the gas chambers. He died in 1974 and is the only member of the Nazi Party to be buried on Jerusalem’s Mount Zion.
But I don’t think it’s a secret that Oskar Schindler was no saint. He was a loyal member of the Nazi party, working as a spy prior to the war. His original motivation was clearly profit. He hired Jews because they were cheap labor. He was a heavy drinker and a womanizer.
There were 60,000 to 80,000 Jews living in Krakow before the war. On August 1, 1940, they were forced to leave. Only those who had jobs related to the German war effort were allowed to stay, and they, numbering around 15,000, were relocated to a walled ghetto in Podgórze , just south of the Vistula River. Virtually all the rest were murdered.
Beginning in late 1941, the Nazis began deporting Jews from the ghetto. Most were sent to Belzec, where they were killed. Then, in March 1943, the remaining Jews who were still able to work were sent to a new concentration camp at Plaszow, a southern suburb of Krakow. The commander of the Plaszow camp was Amon Goth. Schindler’s wife said Goth was “the most despicable man I have ever met.”
According to one of Schindler’s Jews, Oskar Schindler underwent something of a transformation around the time the ghetto in Podgórze was liquidated. He was appalled by what he witnessed and decided to save as many Jews as he could.
In the last few years of the war Schindler made several trips to Budapest to report to Zionist leaders on the Nazi mistreatment of the Jews. He returned with funding provided by the Jewish Agency for Israel, which he passed on the to Jewish underground.
After the war, Schindler risked arrest as a war criminal because of his membership in the Nazi Party. He and his wife fled the Soviets with a statement written by several of the Jews he saved attesting to his role in saving their lives. He eventually presented that statement to the Americans, who helped him travel to Switzerland.
Virtually destitute, he failed at numerous business ventures over the rest of his life and survived thanks to assistance from several Jewish charities. He estimated that he spent over one million dollars on camp construction, bribes, black market goods, and food to help the Jews he employed.
In 1993 the Israeli government named him and his wife as Righteous Among the Nations. Because of Australian writer Thomas Keneally, who wrote the historical novel Schindler’s Ark (later published in the USA under the name Schindler’s List), and Stephen Spielberg, who made the movie based on the novel, Oskar Schindler is undoubtedly the most famous person to have received that honor.
But on this trip I learned about several others whose stories are equally, if not more, compelling.
I learned about Irena Sendler in Warsaw. An outspoken socialist and pro-Jewish activist, she gained access to the Warsaw Ghetto by convincing the Nazis that she was checking for typhus, a disease the Germans feared might spread beyond the ghetto walls. She began sneaking food, clothing, and medical supplies into the ghetto. Later she helped smuggle Jews out of the ghetto and helped them go into hiding. The urgency of this work increased as the Nazis began to liquidate the ghetto in 1942. Giving any assistance to Jews was punishable by death, not just for the accused but for their entire family.
As the situation worsened, even during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in April and May 1943, Irena accelerated her efforts, working with an organization, Żegota, that was set up to help Jews in Poland. She began working to rescue children, placing them with Polish families or in convents, keeping track of all of them so she could help them reunite with their families, if still alive, after the war.
On October 18, 1943, Irena was arrested by the Gestapo. She managed to pass the lists to a friend, and though she was beaten and tortured, she refused to give up any information. On November 13 she was taken to another location to be executed by firing squad. But Żegota was able to bribe the guards who were escorting her there, and they released her. By December she resumed her work with Żegota.
After the ghetto was liquidated Irena worked as a nurse. She remained in Warsaw until the Germans retreated, and then she fled before the Soviet army arrived. Later she returned to Warsaw and worked as Director of the city’s Department of Social Welfare. She gathered the information on the hidden Jewish children and, although virtually all of their parents had been murdered at Treblinka, most of them were removed from Poland, sent to Israel or other countries. She was recognized by Yad Vashem as one of the Righteous Among the Nations in 1965. In 1983 she traveled to Israel and a tree was planted in her honor. In 1980 she joined the Polish Solidarity movement. She died in 2008 at the age of 98.
It is estimated that Irena Sendler saved over 2,500 Jewish children.
Until I encountered the Jan Karski bench in Warsaw, I had not heard of him. Born in Łódź in 1914, he was an officer in the Polish army. His regiment was captured by the Red Army in 1939, and he was turned over to the Germans as a person born in what was by then the Third Reich. In November he escaped during transport to a POW camp and made his way to Warsaw, where he joined the resistance movement.
Starting in 1940, Karski made a number of secret courier missions from the Polish underground the the Polish Government in Exile, first in Paris and later in London. On one of those missions he was captured and severely tortured. He was eventually smuggled out of the hospital and returned to Warsaw to continue his work for the resistance.
In 1942 Karski embarked on a secret mission to London to bring evidence of Nazi atrocities to the Polish prime minister and other western officials. To gather evidence, he was twice smuggled into the Warsaw ghetto. He later wrote about what he experienced:
My job was just to walk. And observe. And remember. The odour. The children. Dirty. Lying. I saw a man standing with blank eyes. I asked the guide: what is he doing? The guide whispered: “He’s just dying”. I remember degradation, starvation and dead bodies lying on the street. We were walking the streets and my guide kept repeating: “Look at it, remember, remember” And I did remember. The dirty streets. The stench. Everywhere. Suffocating. Nervousness.
From London Karski traveled to the United States, where he met with FDR on July 28, 1943, to provide information about the Holocaust that was underway. The President did not ask him a slngle question about the Jews. He asked about the horses in Poland.
Karski presented his evidence to various other civic and religious leaders in the US, and to the media, but he faced widespread skepticism and was largely ignored.
After the war Karski remained in the US. For forty years he taught at Georgetown University. Among his students was Bill Clinton.
In 1982 Yad Vashem recognized Jan Karski as Righteous Among the Nations, and a tree bearing a memorial plaque in his name was planted in Jerusalem.
A 40-minute interview with Karski appears in the 1985 film Shoah. A longer, more detailed interview was omitted from the movie but was released separately in 2010.
In a 1995 interview, Karski said
It was easy for the Nazis to kill Jews, because they did it. The Allies considered it impossible and too costly to rescue the Jews, because they didn’t do it. The Jews were abandoned by all governments, church hierarchies and societies, but thousands of Jews survived because thousands of individuals in Poland, France, Belgium, Denmark, Holland helped to save Jews. Now, every government and church says, “We tried to help the Jews”, because they are ashamed, they want to keep their reputations. They didn’t help, because six million Jews perished, but those in the government, in the churches they survived. No one did enough.
Karski died in 2000 and is buried in Washington, DC. In 2012 he was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama.
When I visited the Podgórze neighborhood of Krakow, I saw this pharmacy, Under the Eagle (now a museum, which I didn’t go into). The pharmacy was established in 1910 by Jozef Pankiewicz in 1910 and was taken over by his son Tadeusz in 1933.
When the ghetto was established in Podgórze in March 1941, three other pharmacies in the area were relocated outside the ghetto walls. Pankiewicz sought and was granted permission to continue operating in the ghetto. He continued to reside there, and his staff were given permits to enter and leave the ghetto.
Pankiewicz supplied medication and other supplies to the Jews in the ghetto, often free of charge. He provided hair dyes that were used to needed to disguise their identities and tranquilizers for children to help keep them quiet during Gestapo raids. Pankiewicz and his staff undertook a number of secret operations, smuggling food and information and providing shelter.
In 1983 Yad Vashem recognized Tadeusz Pankiewicz as Righteous Among the Nations.
I learned about Maximilian Kolbe in Krakow, and his name came up again at Auschwitz. He perhaps does not belong with the others, because he has not been named Righteous Among the Nations.
Kolbe was a Franciscan friar in Krakow. After the city was captured by the Nazis in September 1939, he was one of a few brothers who remained at the monastery. They arrested him, but released him in December. He refused to sign the Deutsche Volksliste, which would have given him rights and protections based on his German ancestry. Back at the monastery, he and other friars provided shelter to refugees, including some 2,000 Jews.
In February 1941 the monastery was shut down and Kolbe and the other friars were arrested. On May 28 he was transferred to Auschwitz, where he was frequently subjected to beatings and lashings by the guards.
At the end of July, a prisoner attempted escape. The deputy camp commander selected ten men to be starved to death in an underground bunker. When one of the men, a Polish army sergeant, cried out that he had a wife and children, Kolbe volunteered to take his place.
After two weeks without food and water, the other nine were dead. Only Kolbe was still alive. The guards killed him by lethal injection on August 14, 1941.
Pope John Paul II canonized Maximilian Kolbe as a saint in 1982. There has been some controversy regarding some of Kolbe’s early writings, which included some antisemitic language, but several Holocaust scholars have discounted allegations of Kolbe’s antisemitism.
“This is what I want you to understand,” said Mateusz as he drew lines and dots on his crude map of Poland.
10:30 am. We were sitting in a coffee shop in Stare Miasto (Old Town). They weren’t even open yet. It was a holiday (Easter Monday), and they were opening at 11am. But Mat, the guide who was giving me a tour of the city, convinced them to give us coffee and let us sit so he could help me understand the history of his city.
The history of Wrocław starts around the year 1000. There was a settlement here before that, but there is no recorded history earlier than the eleventh century. It was around that time that Wrocław became one of the three bishoprics of Poland.
In 1335 Silesia, with Wrocław as its largest city and de facto capital, became part of Bohemia and the Holy Roman Empire, and remained under Czech influence until 1526. In that year the Holy Roman Empire transferred authority over the region to the Habsburgs, and Wrocław became an Austrian city.
Then, in 1741, Prussia conquered Silesia, and Wrocław was now a German city, Breslau. Late in the eighteenth century, three separate partitions of Poland took place. Russia, Prussia, and Austria divided the territory, and for the next 125 year, Poland as a nation ceased to exist.
With the Treaty of Versailles ending World War I in 1918, Poland became an independent republic, but Breslau was still west of the Polish-German border. For most of World War II it was unaffected, and German and Polish refugees swelled the city to over a million inhabitants.
Finally, as the Soviets approached in February 1945, Germany decided that Breslau was a fortress to be held at all costs. Some 18,000 froze to death during a botched evacuation attempt, and the Battle of Breslau lasted three months and resulted in 40,000 additional deaths. Half the city was destroyed. The city capitulated on May 6, just two days before Germany surrendered and the war in Europe ended.
By that time, FDR, Churchill, and Stalin had already met in Yalta and agreed on redrawing Poland’s borders. Immediately after Breslau fell, the Soviet Union declared it to be a Polish city and renamed it Wrocław.
Mateusz explained all of this to me with passion I’ve rarely, if ever, encountered from a guide. His coffee grew cold as he scribbled on his makeshift map.
“My grandmother was living in Lwow,” he said, pointing to the spot in the lower right part of the map, now the Ukrainian city of Lviv. “I once asked her why she chose to come to Wrocław. ‘Chose? What do you mean, chose? They put us on a train, and this is where the train stopped.’”
Poland gained some territory in the west, including what used to be the Free State of Danzig (now Gdansk) and several regions that belonged to Germany before the war. But they lost far more land in the east, including large areas of what are now Lithuania, Belarus, and Ukraine. German citizens in the west fled, as did Polish citizens in the east.
“We’re humble people,” Mateusz said. “We had to be. We have never had the luxury of choosing our own fate.”
Earlier, as we were wandering around the Stare Miasto, I asked him a question I’d asked several other guides in Poland. “Do people feel like the United States abandoned you to the Soviets?”
While there are certainly some people who do feel that way, he said it was a price the US had to pay to get Soviet help with the war against Japan. “It was war,” he said.
Mat was six years old when the Communists fell. While he remembers only a little of life before that, he does remember getting his first pair of Nikes.
“I slept with my Nikes. It was like I had America on my feet.”
Today Wrocław is the fourth largest city in Poland. It has a large university with over 100,000 students. It’s the only place I’ve been on this trip that has a free WiFi network city-wide. It is one of the youngest cities in Europe based on median age, and one of the most educated.
And it is utterly charming to wander around in. Even though I was there on a holiday, I didn’t really mind not being able to visit any of the museums or other historic venues. The Stare Miasto and Cathedral Island (one of many islands in the Oder River that are part of Wrocław) are attractive.
One of Wrocław’s charms is its collection of small bronze dwarfs. Mateusz explained these to me. In the 1980s, an anti-Communist group called Orange Alternative was formed in Wrocław. They used peaceful methods of protest that were meant to look silly, so if they were arrested, it would make the police look bad. They painted dwarf graffiti all over the city. And when questioned by the police, they claimed to be a group of dwarfs meeting. The leader of Orange Alternative, Waldemar Fydrych, is supposed to have said, “How can you treat a police officer seriously when he is asking you, ‘Why did you participate in an illegal meeting of dwarfs?’”
There are something close to 400 of the commemorative dwarfs around the city. It has become more of a tourist attraction than a monument to the resistance, although there is one larger dwarf statue erected in a place where many of the events of the Orange Alternative took place. I only found a handful. Here’s a small sampling:
As attractive as Wrocław is, it is also overrun with people racing around on Lime scooters. You have to watch out for them! There are also a lot of beggars who are persistent and in your face. While I was having dinner at an outdoor restaurant on Sunday night, I was approached no fewer than five times and asked for money. And they do not take no for an answer–they beg and plead and tell you about their hungry children. (At least the ones who spoke English did; I don’t know what the ones who spoke only Polish were saying, but they kept saying it.)
I wish I’d been able to visit Wrocław on a day when everything wasn’t closed. But I think I got a real feel for the city, especially thanks to my guide Mateusz.
I shared this post with Mateusz via Facebook, and he was gracious enough to provide a response. He suggested the following corrections; my numbers might be off somewhat.
As long as i have the numbers right: — when the soviets got to Wroclaw there was around 700 000 people to be evacuated and around 200 000 that remained to defend it or did not go away from the city
- since they had only few days to evacuate all these people — it was impossible to stuff all in trains. Therefore many decided to walk away. These numbers are uncertain but we might have had 200 000 breslau citizens to leave the city on foot out of which around 60 000 froze to death due to heavy winter temperatures.
Total amount of german civillian casualties who stayed to defend the city defending Breslau is estimated to be: 80 000. Then total ammount of german souldiers is: 6 500 Total ammount of soviet souldiers who died during breslau seige: 13 000
Scale of destruction of the city is estimated to be 65% of all facilities.
That’s more or less about the numbers. I hope i was helpful
I have been thinking a lot about the situation here in Mexico that has led to long lines for gas and an explosion killing 90-some people in the state of Hidalgo.
Chapter 9 in Rick Steves’ book Travel as a Political Act covers a topic that is close to my heart and about which I have strong feelings: the Holy Land. In 2013, after Rick got back from his trip to Israel and Palestine to produce a television documentary about this troubled area, he gave a talk in Edmonds, where he lives and where his business is located. I attended, and for me the talk was enlightening. But even before that, I had somewhat well-baked views about the Holy Land, and as a Jew (at least by heritage if not by belief), my views are often in conflict with the majority of that community. So it’s with some trepidation that I set out to review this chapter from Rick’s book.
The full title of Chapter 7 in Rick Steves’ Travel as a Political Act is “Europe: Not ‘Hard on Drugs’ or ‘Soft on Drugs,’ but Smart on Drugs.” It’s an awful title in my opinion, but it’s an interesting topic. Rick is a strong advocate for the legalization of marijuana in the United States. He is a board member of NORML and was a co-sponsor of Initiative 502, which legalized adult recreational marijuana use in Washington state. He says he is not “pro-drugs,” but that he thinks many European countries have a much smarter, more pragmatic approach to the drug problem than the United States.
Chapter 5 of Rick Steves’ Travel as a Political Act is about Denmark. I visited Denmark in 2012 and really fell in love with it. I didn’t look upon my visit to Denmark as a political act, so it was interesting to get Rick’s perspective.
Chapter 3 of Rick Steves’ Travel as a Political Act covers a broad range of topics: economics, diversity and immigration, the refugee crisis, sex, drugs, alcohol, nudity, and the wide range of European passions for their culture. I will only touch on a few of these topics here.
In 2014 I traveled in the former Yugoslavia. I wrote about my walking tour of Sarajevo with someone who had grown up during the siege there in the 1990s. And I wrote about three of the local people I met in Mostar, people who almost made me forget about the beautiful bridge that is the sightseeing star of that city.
I recently finished reading Rick Steves’ Travel as a Political Act. Originally published in 2009, its third edition was released last month. I found the book provocative and illuminating. I learned a lot and found much to ponder.
This is the first part of my series of chapter-by-chapter reviews of Rick’s book. See the tag Travel as a Political Act for my reviews of other chapters as I add them. I think these will be more a series of takeaways than reviews. I want to share what I think were the key points, chapter by chapter, adding my own perspective as appropriate. Of course I am much less experienced than Rick Steves as a traveler and as a travel writer, so I don’t pretend that I can offer anything more than a whetting of the appetite. I would urge all travelers, arm-chair travelers, and would-be travelers to read Rick’s book.
I’m a worrier.
I don’t know why I’m a worrier, and I’m not going to worry about why, because I have enough other things to worry about.
But here I am, just about two weeks from my next big trip, and I’ve got all these things I’m worried about. Will I pack efficiently? Will I forget anything? What if the airline loses my luggage? What if I don’t get along with the other people on the tour? I might not enjoy the tour. I might get sick. On and on it goes…