BY TRAIN THROUGH EASTERN EUROPE:
PART ONE - AMAZING POLAND: GDANSK TO KRAKOW
By Diana McLeod
The train ride from Poland to Istanbul Turkey took us through the heart of Eastern Europe. Here is my diary of the trip, presented every 15th of the month, until finished. WARNING - this first segment may be disturbing for some people.
The train rolls through miles and miles of bucolic Polish countryside. Poland reminds me of Ohio. Most of it is extremely flat, with endless acres of plowed fields as far as the eye can see. Occasionally, you can see a farmhouse. The little houses and barns and windmills also remind me of Ohio, except for the red tiled roofs. Spring is just beginning here, and the willow trees bordering the fields are showing a hint of new leaves. Crocuses are blooming in peoplesí yards, and forsythia bushes splash the landscape with clouds of brilliant yellow.
My journey is haunted by the book Iím reading. I am deeply into the novel ďMila 18Ē by Leon Uris. This carefully researched novel tells the story of the Jewish uprising in Warsaw during the Second World War, when courageous Polish Jews fought back against Nazi attempts to exterminate them.
It is extremely difficult for me to equate this pleasant country with its terrible history. It is amazing to me how well this country has healed, given its tragic past. These peaceful fields ran red with the blood of millions, not very many years ago. Polish cities were bombed to ruins in both World Wars. The Polish people have been subjected to horrors that we can only imagine. And yet, the Poles today are open and friendly and eager to embrace the outside world.
World War I, Poles were conscripted to fight for both the Germans and the Russians in the two opposing armies. Tragically, Poles were then forced to kill each other on the battlefield. Most of the battles of the eastern front were fought on Polish soil. In WW II, the Germans launched a blitzkrieg against Poland, and killed millions. They built death camps, to exterminate Polish Jews. The Germans also had plans to kill off the general Polish population, to make room for the German immigration. Millions of Jews were gassed to death in the camps. Whole villages of Poles were forced to dig their own mass graves, and then executed. The Nazis committed acts of brutality here that are perhaps the most horrendous that any country has ever suffered in recorded history. After the war, the Russians took over. The country suffered terribly under the Stalinists and Soviet occupation for decades. (Really, this is a pathetic synopsis; I strongly recommend that Americans read more about this, lest we forget).
Somehow, despite all this, this country has thrived. Today, it has gained entrance into the EU. The economy is growing, its currency is strong, and almost every young person speaks some English. There are problems, of course, but when you consider the history here, the progress of this country is amazing.
In the evening, the train pulls into Krakow. Today, this is a beautiful European city. The market square, with its charming open air restaurants, its gold- tipped multi-spired cathedral, and its mediaeval covered bazaar, is a perfect mecca for picture popping tour groups. Families stroll in the sun, and buy balloons for the children. It is incredible to think that this lovely city was once a Nazi stronghold, and the railhead for Nazi death trains, loaded with Jews, bound for the camps.
Poland is not hiding that history, and the tourists will be reminded of it. Every hotel will try to sell them the tour of Auschwitz; the most famous death camp of them all. Most will see the poison gas chambers, where millions clawed at the walls in their agony, and they will see the ovens, where millions of bodies were cremated. They will visit the rooms full of shoes, and the room full of human hair.
I must sheepishly confess that we skipped the tour. The next day was the first sunny day we had after a week of dreary cold and damp, and Auschwitz would have taken the whole day. It was also the first day of our holiday, after weeks of hard work, so we chose to see the city. Iíve also seen Auschwitz in multiple documentaries, and books, and I feel well enough educated on the camps. But, to their credit, most of the young tourists at our hostel were going to see it for themselves. I was glad to see their willingness to face the depths of human depravity firsthand. We must all remember, so that this will never happen again.
Everyone is beginning to take the European Union for granted, now. But remember, just sixty years ago, the powers of Europe were at each otherís throats. The EU and NATO represent the best hope that, at least in this part of the world, countries like Poland will live in peace for years to come. This amazing and resilient country certainly deserves that chance at last!
Thanks for reading!
Sincerely yours, Diana
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