September 15-17, 2015 – London.

September 15.

Our main activity for today was to visit the Museum of London. Our friend Jim came to our hotel after breakfast, and as we were walking towards the museum, he gave us an informal tour of some of the sights along the way. We passed through the green at Lincoln’s Inn Fields (very quiet and serious, away from the noise of the city), down into the Silver Vaults near Chancery Lane (incredibly ornate silver decorative pieces – almost like a museum but everything for sale), and by the jewelry stores on Hatton Garden (window shopping only). After we had been at the museum for a while, Jim decided to leave (we have all been here many times), and we made plans to get together again the next day. Denise and I spent the rest of the day at the museum, focusing on the exhibits about early and then modern Britain, skipping the medieval and early modern entirely (not enough time to see everything, especially since we were reading everything and trying to absorb all that knowledge). As if to show ourselves that we’re really tough, or for some other reason, we decided to walk back to the hotel, even though bus and subway were readily available. Needless to say, we were wiped out by the time we got to our room. But we feel that walking is the best way to see London, and that’s why we’re here, so that’s what we did. And we loved the experience.

September 16-17.

When we began our last day in London, we had thought that we’d be going to the British Museum for a few hours, but when Jim arrived, we just wanted to sit in the hotel lobby for a while and chat with him. Turns out we stayed there for the rest of the day. We always have a lot to talk about with him (he was an English teacher in a former life), but we were also enjoying the parade of hotel guests through this very busy lobby. Quite ironically, Denise and I were in London during Fashion Week, and many of the people we were watching were clearly “fashionable,” unlike ourselves. Their clothing, hair, makeup, and posturing kept us entertained.

Because it was Fashion Week and rooms were all booked up, we had to leave the Hoxton this afternoon and spend our last night at an airport hotel. So we walked through the rain to the Underground and eventually ended up at the Novotel Heathrow. This is another hotel chain that we’re familiar with, and we like that its rooms are large and clean with free water and tea. Next morning after a leisurely breakfast, we took a taxi to the airport and were on our way back to New Jersey.

We had been too long away from London, so the chance to see our friend Jim again after our Jewish Heritage tour gave us an even greater incentive to make the trip. It was everything we had hoped for.

Jim and Susan before Entering the Silver Vaults

Jim and Susan before Entering the Silver Vaults

London Building with Traffic

London Building with Traffic

Jewelry District in Hatton Garden

Jewelry District in Hatton Garden

Entrance to the Museum of London

Entrance to the Museum of London

September 14, 2015 – London.

Buckingham Palace today. We took the Underground to the Green Park station, followed the directional signs for the palace as we walked through the park, and emerged at the right front corner of the palace grounds. We walked around the front of this imposing edifice to the left side visitors’ entrance and waited a short time in the 9:30 tour group line. We had saved ourselves some aggravation by having our tickets in hand. Denise had sent off for them, and we received them several weeks ago. We picked up audio guides and followed the directions as we entered the palace.

To describe what we saw, one would have to use the most over-the-top words available: opulence, elegance, extravagance, luxury. Our tour included only the public rooms, so we didn’t see the private apartments, the kitchens, or the service rooms. But what we did see was amazing. There were lots of people going through with us, but the crowds were not oppressive. We visited a number of different rooms: the entryway; grand staircase; blue, green, and white salons; music room; state dining room; grand ballroom; silk tapestry room. Throughout the tour, every room was filled with so many paintings, sculpture, and other precious objects that we could hardly take it all in. In one room, we saw some of the gifts that foreign dignitaries have presented to the Queen: a Mexican art piece, bowls and platters, a model of a Hindu temple, vases, etc., etc. The opulence of the rooms was breathtaking: the wall coverings, flooring, drapery, upholstery, and especially the ceilings, each more ornate than the last.

In addition to our tour through the public rooms, the itinerary included stops at a number of display cases depicting other aspects of life in the palace: the sewing department where the Queen’s dresses are made, the kitchens, the wine cellars, the silver and gold plate maintenance rooms, the cutlery and tableware department (with a note about how all dishes are washed by hand – and very carefully), the office responsible for all the invitations that are sent out every year. Buckingham Palace is a big operation that employs hundreds of people, and they all seem to have the same purpose: to make it all perfect. At least, that’s what we saw today.

The audio guide was also very informative. We learned about the history of the various rooms, important events that happened there, which monarchs made contributions to the development of the collections displayed, and how the current Queen and her family have used the rooms. Information was also provided by videos running in continuous loops. They explained how the state dining table is set or what happens during the Queen’s garden parties. We were so happy that we were finally in London at the right time so that we could have this experience.

We had also purchased tickets for the Palace Garden Tour. This was actually just a guided walk along the path that circles the grounds. The guide, a proper English lady who loves her job, pointed out certain features, special areas (such as the play yard of the Queen’s children), and trees and shrubs of particular importance (such as trees planted by various royal personages). When the tour was over, we were near the exit, but we walked back to the palace, thus completing the circuit of the grounds, and had lunch at the Garden Café, outdoor seating under a large tent. Before leaving the grounds of the palace, we did a little souvenir shopping, of course, thinking we might be able to help with the Queen’s cash flow.

We had decided that we would spend the rest of the afternoon walking back to our hotel, so we took off along Piccadilly, then along Long Acre, then to King’s Way and Holborn. Along the way, we stopped a couple of times – for tea and shopping, notably Paperchase, Ryman’s, and Stanfords, all map and stationery stores. Walking in London is one of our all-time favorite activities.

Right Front Corner of Buckingham Palace

Right Front Corner of Buckingham Palace

Front of Buckingham Palace

Front of Buckingham Palace

View of the Back of the Palace from across the Lake

View of the Back of the Palace from across the Lake

The Great Lawn behind Buckingham Palace

The Great Lawn behind Buckingham Palace

Tourist Facilities behind Buckingham Palace

Tourist Facilities behind Buckingham Palace

Garden Café behind Buckingham Palace

Garden Café behind Buckingham Palace

 

September 13, 2015 – London.

Today was our day to visit Greenwich. The weather forecast was iffy, and we decided a boat ride might be a good option. We made our way via the Underground to the Westminster pier, where we embarked on a narrated tour to Greenwich. The “boatman” who spoke to us was a scruffy-looking guy who gave us a lot of information about our route and the sights of London. Most people got off in Greenwich, but we stayed on the boat because the ride continued to the “Thames Barrier” after another 45-minute ride. This contraption has something to do with too much ocean water (the Thames is tidal) coming up the river and having river monitors erecting a barrier for the purpose of controlling it. How the whole thing worked is not clear to us even though we did see it.

The boat then returned to Greenwich, where we disembarked and walked to the visitor center in the Old Royal Naval College. To reach the observatory, where the Prime Meridian is located, we had to walk up a long hill in a beautiful open park. Many other tourists were walking as well, few of whom were speaking English. Actually, some were, but in a dialect that I could hardly understand. Dialectal variation in British English is far greater than in American English. At the observatory, we visited the home of the resident astronomer, toured some exhibits having to do with time and ship navigation, and made a point of standing on both sides of the meridian. I’m not sure why it’s so important to do that, but that seemed to be everyone’s objective. When we were complete with the observatory, we walked back down the hill, wandered around in Greenwich for a while, and then caught a bus back to the city. This ride gave us what was, for us, a new view of London – East London. This area is full of not-so-great-looking apartment blocks and small shops. We saw black people and white people, but not too many others, so I don’t know about the ethnicity of these neighborhoods.

View of Big Ben and Westminster from the River Thames

View of Big Ben and Westminster from the River Thames

View of the Tower of London from the River Thames

View of the Tower of London from the River Thames

The Thames Barrier, Downstream from Greenwich

The Thames Barrier, Downstream from Greenwich

Inside the Old Royal Naval College

Inside the Old Royal Naval College

Plaque in the Old Royal Naval College

Plaque in the Old Royal Naval College

24-Hour Clock and Measurements at the Greenwich Royal Observatory

24-Hour Clock and Measurements at the Greenwich Royal Observatory

Denise on the Prime Meridian

Denise on the Prime Meridian

View from the Greenwich Royal Observatory

View from the Greenwich Royal Observatory

 

September 12, 2015 – London.

We had planned to spend the day with our friend Jim. We were up early and walked our bags over to our new hotel, where he joined us. Both the clientele and the staff in this hotel are very young – probably none over 35. The lobby is very welcoming to people who want to use the internet and is provided with comfortable seating and agreeable wait staff. After some discussion with Jim, we decided to walk along the south bank and experience the Borough Market. So we walked from the Bloomsbury Street and Great Russell Street intersection down to the Thames, along the water to Blackfriars Bridge, along the south side of the river, thence to the market. The walk was quintessential London: narrow streets, juxtaposed old and modern buildings, flowers in abundance every so often, lots of people and traffic. The market was mostly stalls of food vendors – all types of food, all sorts of ethnic varieties of everything. Many vendors were offering tiny bites of their products: cheeses, tea, sweets, etc. People were completely crushed together, many carrying the food they had purchased and eating as they walked. Also, on the periphery of the market many people were just sitting on the curb enjoying their purchases.

Leaving the market, we continued along the river, crossing back over on the Millennium Bridge. The Thames is a busy river. Earlier, we had noticed many, many rowboats, evidently from all over England and Europe. Some kind of rowboat race was happening. As we crossed the pedestrian bridge and headed towards St. Paul’s Cathedral, we came upon troops of Morris dancers who were entertaining the passersby in a small open space. I’ve heard of Morris dancing and know it’s very old and very English, but a lot of what they were doing looked quite silly. In the meantime, both the dancers and the onlookers were having a good time. Needing a break, we sat for a while and enjoyed the performance and the pleasant weather. On the way back to the hotel, we walked along Ludgate, Fleet Street, and then the Strand. These are very famous street names for a person who majored in English in college (me). We parted from Jim and decided to have dinner in the hotel. This turned out to be a good idea. The food was good, but the service was special. Our server was a young woman from Poland with whom we shared some of our very positive impressions of her country. Her life in London doesn’t sound too easy. She works a 60-hour week and has a one-hour commute each way. She made that sound like a not uncommon lifestyle.

London Building with Lots of Plants and Flowers

London Building with Lots of Plants and Flowers

Rowboats on the Thames

Rowboats on the Thames

The Globe Theater

The Globe Theater

Crowds at the Borough Market, London

Crowds at the Borough Market, London

Jim with Us on the Millennium Bridge, St. Paul's in the Background

Jim with Us on the Millennium Bridge, St. Paul’s in the Background

Morris Dancers, with Onlookers

Morris Dancers, with Onlookers

Flowers in London

Flowers in London

London Street Scene (Dragon on Pedestal)

London Street Scene (Dragon on Pedestal)

September 10-11, 2015 – London.

September 10.

Our last night in Poland we spent in an American hotel, the Courtyard Marriott. This is a chain we know well. It even has a shower curtain in the bathroom, unlike most hotels in Europe. I wonder if it’s an American invention. The hotel is directly across the street from the airport terminal and at the same level as the check-in counters, and we appreciated the convenience as we were leaving. We did a little shopping to use up some zlotys and then waited at the gate for a short time before boarding.

The contrast between the Warsaw and London airports was most striking when we arrived at Heathrow, where we had to walk for what seemed like miles to reach the Underground station. We boarded the Piccadilly Line to Leicester Square, where we changed to the Northern Line. After many, many steps with our heavy suitcases, and with the help of a kind Brit for part of the way, we reached the surface and walked a short distance to the Bloomsbury Hotel. Overcome by the heavily scented lobby and guest room, we requested to cancel our reservation (at no cost) and were directed to another hotel a block away, the Bloomsbury Street Hotel. This one was adequate, but we could stay for only four nights. We decided to deal with that problem later. Our friend Jim, whom we met on the world cruise earlier this year, came by about six, and we walked with him over to the flat he’s rented for a few months. It’s in a modern high-rise which has an interesting view of London rooftops. We sat with him in his living room for a few minutes to catch up on news and then walked out into his neighborhood, which is bustling with pedestrian, construction, and vehicular activity. A thriving neighborhood, I’d say. We eventually found a busy Italian restaurant (staffed by real Italians) and had a pleasant meal together. After discussing plans for the next few days, we called it a night (as they say).

September 11.

After breakfast the next morning, we were talking to the desk clerk about extending our stay there when I noticed the wallpaper behind the reception desk. Turns out it is reproductions of pages from Mrs. Dalloway, which is appropriate because Virginia Woolf lived nearby. Some of the pages were handwritten, which contributed significantly to the impact of the design. The clerk did find an additional day for us, but at a much higher cost, so we realized we still had a problem. But rather than wasting a beautiful day working this out, we decided to take the Underground to Kew Gardens.

We spent a lovely day there. First, we took a narrated tram ride around the park to get oriented, then entered the Palm Court, which is a huge glass conservatory almost overflowing with an incredible variety of plants. Next, we came upon a “skywalk” which was similar to the ones we had taken in Western Australia and in Singapore. We ascended 100+ steps and walked a circuit through the treetops. There wasn’t much of a view outside of the park, but we did have one unexpected treat. We spied two green birds that looked like parrots poking around in one of the trees. They were almost the same shade of green as the pods which covered the tree. Later, I heard them screeching and saw them flying away. I’m sure there’s some great story about how parrots got to England, but the mystery remains for me. We finished our visit to the gardens by going into the Princess of Wales (Alexandria, daughter of Queen Victoria) Conservatory. This is a newer building of glass, but it has computer-controlled climate zones and exhibits of plants from at least ten different areas of the world: cactus, tropical plants, ferns, bromeliads, lily pads and other water plants, etc. We also came upon an eighteen-inch iguana, who seemed to be lolling about and posing for pictures. An attendant explained that the conservatory has four of these creatures: they eat the cockroaches! By the end of the afternoon, we were tired but glad to have finally experienced some of the attractions of Kew Gardens. We returned to the city, decided to change hotels again, and were able to reserve a room at the Hoxton in Holborn, a short distance from our previous hotel.

Palm Court Conservatory at Kew Gardens

Palm Court Conservatory at Kew Gardens

Us on the Skywalk at Kew Gardens

Us on the Skywalk at Kew Gardens

View of the Skywalk at Kew Gardens

View of the Skywalk at Kew Gardens

Modern Conservatory at Kew Gardens

Modern Conservatory at Kew Gardens

Striking Pink Bromeliad at Kew Gardens

Striking Pink Bromeliad at Kew Gardens

Lily Pads at Kew Gardens

Lily Pads at Kew Gardens

Kew Gardens Resident Iguana

Kew Gardens Resident Iguana

Desert Climate at Kew Gardens

Desert Climate at Kew Gardens

September 9, 2015 – Sandomierz and Koprzywnica, Poland.

We had tacked this day on to the end of the Jewish Heritage tour so that Denise could gather information about her grandmother (who moved to the U.S. in 1908) and the rest of the people in her grandmother’s family. Our new guide Lukasz met us early, and he and Denise together determined the agenda for the day.

Our first stop was Sandomierz, which is southwest of Lublin and is the location for the repository of state archives in which Lukasz expected to find information about Denise’s family. We drove about two hours through the countryside. In this region, there seemed to be a greater variety of crops, such as apples and tomatoes (currently being harvested) and also lots more berries. As we were driving, we talked with Lukasz about historical and modern Poland. As a professional guide, he knows a lot about both.

In Sandomierz we found our way to the state archives building, which used to be a synagogue. It has the characteristic round-top windows that so many synagogues have had on our tour. The entrance door to the building was an unimposing wooden doorway with barely any indication of the building’s purpose. Fortunately, Lukasz knew what to do. We were directed up the stairs to a large room on the second floor complete with an attendant, 6-8 large library tables, people looking at documentary materials (print and digital), large windows, everyone whispering. Denise and Lukasz worked on the documents for a couple of hours until they had looked at everything in that office that was relevant to her search.

Next, we drove about 20 minutes to Koprzywnica, the home town of Denise’s grandmother and the ultimate destination for our trip. By this time, it was raining a little, but we were undeterred. For the next couple of hours, we drove around the town, visiting sites of significance. For example, the synagogue is gone, but Lukasz showed us where it had been located. Today, it’s just two lots separated by a narrow walkway. We spent a long time lingering in the town square where Denise took a lot of pictures and found the address of the home that may have belonged to people in her family. Today, the building in that location is relatively new. The square itself was a small park with benches, paved pathways, trees and shrubs. It’s a quiet place, aside from the occasional loud motorcycle or auto. The streets leading to and from the square, and the square itself, are lined with houses of various sizes, mostly small, some newly built or renovated, a few of pre-war vintage. We agreed that probably none of the ones there today were present when Denise’s grandmother lived there. Next, we drove out of town a mile or so and stopped at a vacant field that Lukasz had identified as the Jewish cemetery. There is no sign of it today.

As we drove out of Koprzywnica, Denise said she feels that she has accomplished what she set out to do – to see where her grandmother came from. Her connection with our guide in Poland, Lukasz, will also enable her to continue looking for facts about her family. Our drive back to Warsaw and the airport was long. It had been an exhausting day – and trip.

Relevant Municipal Archives Were Located in Sandomierz

Relevant Municipal Archives Were Located in Sandomierz

View in Sandomierz

View in Sandomierz

Archives Building in Sandomierz

Archives Building in Sandomierz

Archives Room with Paperwork Needed for Working There

Archives Room with Paperwork Needed for Working There

A Himelfarb Page in the Archives

A Himelfarb Page in the Archives

Koprzywnica - The Home Town of Denise's Maternal Grandmother

Koprzywnica – The Home Town of Denise’s Maternal Grandmother

Municipal Building in Koprzywnica

Municipal Building in Koprzywnica

Koprzywnica Today

Koprzywnica Today

Koprzywnica Town Center, Municipal Park

Koprzywnica Town Center, Municipal Park

Seating and Pathways in the Municipal Park, Koprzywnica

Seating and Pathways in the Municipal Park, Koprzywnica

Koprzywnica Today

Koprzywnica Today

September 8, 2015 – Lublin, Poland.

After breakfast, we toured Lublin for a half hour or so. It’s a medium-sized city with old and new buildings, a hilltop castle, busy people, some traffic, some graffiti, lots of apartment buildings. Our first stop of the day was at the concentration/death camp of Majdanek, just outside of Lublin. Now a Polish national museum, this is a vast open space surrounded by double barbed wire fences, with monuments, barracks, open fields, ditches, a crematorium, and various buildings used by the Nazis to carry out their extermination plans. Throughout the museum/camp, plaques have been attached to walls and other surfaces relating surviving prisoners’ personal reflections about their experiences in the camp: in Polish, English (lucky for us), and Hebrew. These heart-wrenching accounts of unspeakable/unimaginable atrocities were often difficult to read, but they were posted in every building as reminders of what happened here.

We entered several of the barracks, which are long, narrow buildings with a door at one end and only clerestory windows, so no one could see inside or look out. The barracks were used both as warehouses and as accommodations for the prisoners. The three-tier bunks designed to hold several people each looked particularly inhospitable.

In addition to the barracks, we toured a prisoner disinfecting building (complete with tubs where prisoners were dunked in carbolic acid), the gas chamber (where guards could watch the proceedings through a peephole in the sealed door), and the crematorium (with an efficiently-designed series of ovens).

The main exhibit of the museum was housed in one of the barracks buildings which looked like the others on the outside but inside was modern and climate controlled. Featured were video testimonies and period newsreels playing continuously, pictures, artifacts of prison life, prisoner uniforms, and brief biographies of many of the ones who survived and of some who didn’t.

On the grounds of the camp were some memorials to the victims. One, a round hilltop mausoleum filled with human ashes, was erected near where more than 18,000 Jews were machine-gunned in ONE DAY. As we toured the camp, we passed by a huge old oak tree, watched birds flying around, and walked over grassy areas, as if nature just has to carry on, no matter what.

We all left the Majdanek camp totally depressed. One of our group mentioned later that this experience was even more moving than Auschwitz. We were practically the only people there, unlike at Auschwitz which was very crowded, and we could take our time to experience each emotion that came up.

Next, our guide Dariusz very thoughtfully brought us to a museum/theater in Lublin which holds out the possibility of hope in all this madness. The purpose of the Brama Grodska Center is to create deep understanding between Poles and Jews. To that end, and to memorialize the Jewish neighborhoods and people of Lublin that were wiped out by the Nazis during the war, this organization has undertaken the task of recording as much information as they can find about each person and each building that existed before the war in the Jewish neighborhood around Lublin’s castle. The museum sponsors art installations, a website, and educational programs which encourage people to engage with their project and thereby to learn about Lublin’s common Polish-Jewish history.

When we left the museum, we walked around for a while in the Stare Miasto enjoying the old building facades and cobbled streets. We decided that lunch should be Jewish food, and Dariusz brought us to a restaurant decorated with objects reminiscent of Jewish life such as a cartoon of traditionally dressed Jewish men dancing, an old Singer treadle sewing machine, and lace tablecloths. We had, among other dishes, cabbage soup, falafel, and kreplach.

After lunch Dariusz showed us a few more Jewish sites within the town and then dropped Denise and me off at our hotel. The rest of our group was leaving Poland, and he was accompanying them to Warsaw. We said our goodbyes with sadness because we all enjoyed spending time together on this remarkable tour.

Barracks at Concentration/Death Camp Majdanek

Barracks at Concentration/Death Camp Majdanek

Majdanek - Double Barbed Wire Fences and Guardhouse

Majdanek – Double Barbed Wire Fences and Guardhouse

Majdanek - Nazi Monument with a Secret

Majdanek – Nazi Monument with a Secret

Majdanek - Monument on Top of a Huge Pile of Human Ashes

Majdanek – Monument on Top of a Huge Pile of Human Ashes

Majdanek - Building of Death

Majdanek – Building of Death

City of Lublin

City of Lublin

Lublin - Archives of the Brama Grodska Center

Lublin – Archives of the Brama Grodska Center

Lublin - Our Lunch Restaurant with Jewish-Style Décor and Food

Lublin – Our Lunch Restaurant with Jewish-Style Décor and Food

Lunch in Lublin

Lunch in Lublin

 

September 7, 2015 – Rzeszow to Lublin, Poland.

After a pleasant breakfast the next morning, we left for our first excursion of the day – on foot. We walked near and through the town square of Rzeszow, observing Jewish monuments; a synagogue, which is now an art museum and city archives; and the site of a former graveyard, which now is a park without any tombstones. The Rzeszow town square is very pretty, having a town hall with a date of 1897 engraved on the pediment.

We did a lot of driving today, much of it on pretty bumpy roads. We mentioned to Dariusz that the villages we were driving through seemed generally prosperous, the houses very attractive and substantial-looking. He explained that Poles spend all the money they get on their houses, rather than on other material comforts or foreign travel. About the crops along the way: we saw field upon field of tobacco, frequently people harvesting the huge leaves; corn was still growing; there were many, many fields with rows of berries, these also being harvested.

After what seemed like a very long drive, part of the time next to a railroad track (from now on, seeing a train line running through forest will carry heavy meaning for me), we arrived at Zamość. First, we looked at the outside of a beautifully restored Sephardic synagogue; then we walked another block to the town square. It was charming, with beautiful colored facades, arcades, and an imposing town hall with an impressive spiral staircase leading up to the front door from ground level. Since it was time for lunch, we tourists found a restaurant below street level and enjoyed another meal together.

Our next stop was a town named Izbica. All we did here was walk up a steep, narrow path to a former Jewish cemetery on the top of a hill. This town once was inhabited by thousands of Jews, but they were all murdered, and no Jews live here today.

When we arrived in Lublin, we drove around town a little, visited a synagogue, and made our way to the Grand Hotel Lublinianka, where later in the evening we had a lovely farewell dinner because this was our last night with our group. About our hotel: the name was not misleading. It’s an old building but very well appointed, with high ceilings, grand staircases, plenty of light, traditional furnishings, no musty smell, large rooms. Best of all, our room was in the front of the hotel, with two large windows overlooking the bustling main streets of Lublin.

Jewish Cemetery near Rzeszow

Jewish Cemetery near Rzeszow

Former Synagogue in Rzeszow, Now City Art Museum and Archives

Former Synagogue in Rzeszow, Now City Art Museum and Archives

Main Plaza of Zamosc

Main Plaza of Zamosc

Building Façade Made of Tombstones in Izbica

Building Façade Made of Tombstones in Izbica

School and Synagogue in Lublin

School and Synagogue in Lublin

Interior of Synagogue in Lublin

Interior of Synagogue in Lublin

 

September 6, 2015 – Krakow to Rzeszow, Poland.

Today, we drove from Krakow to Rzeszow, with several stops along the way. On the highway today, we were among rolling hills, not flat land, with farms and occasional small towns. Our first stop was at the town of Dabrowa Tarnowska, which has a beautifully restored synagogue which is today being used as a cultural center and only occasionally as a synagogue. It has exhibits depicting a few aspects of the Jewish and non-Jewish culture and life of the area. There are carefully painted designs with Jewish motifs on the walls and ceilings and a beautiful wooden staircase and bannister, all very well done. Although the building is now used for largely secular purposes, the Jewish symbols and artwork and Hebrew lettering have been retained and restored. The evidence of Jewish life here has been thoughtfully restored but Jews no longer live in this town, where they once made up 80% of the population.

Next, we drove to a killing field in a nearby forest. Nazis started bringing people to this forest in 1939 in order to shoot them and bury them in mass graves. Ghastly. A communist column is the most imposing and tallest monument, but it doesn’t mention the fact that most of the people killed here were Jews. The communists just inscribed some typical propaganda on the stone. Other monuments to some of the victims list their names. These are the ones known from nearby communities, both Jewish and non-Jewish Poles. Other monuments don’t list the names at all because these graves hold the thousands of Jews brought here for murdering. Particularly touching is the mass children’s grave. Nazis didn’t waste bullets on the children. They just bashed their little heads in and threw them into the pit. Horrible. Today, this area is full of the kinds of plants, bushes, and trees which were here 70+ years ago when the murders happened; they are still bearing silent witness to these crimes.

Next, we drove to Tarnow, where we walked through the old town and observed buildings, monuments, plaques, and symbols relating to the once-thriving Jewish life there. On the market square we stopped in at an old hotel for a lunch of traditional Polish foods. We were the only guests and enjoyed sitting at the table together and regaling each other with the stories of our lives.

Next, we drove to Lancut, another old town with a partially restored synagogue and a very interesting non-Jewish attendant. He is an antiquary who has been collecting artifacts of Jewish life for display in a small museum he has set up in the anterooms of the building. Next door to the synagogue is the palatial residence – complete with a dry moat – of the patron of the synagogue, a wealthy Polish family. They were so powerful that the Nazis let them leave Poland with most of their treasures. Anyway, the synagogue attendant believes the rumor that there was once a tunnel between the palace and the synagogue. No one has found it yet, though. Today, the palace is used as a museum, and several tour groups were in evidence as we were standing outside.

Our final stop of the day was in Rzeszow, where our surprisingly modern hotel on the town square (The Bristol Hotel) had a brew pub where our group had dinner together. Another delightful evening, despite our exhaustion from the day’s travels.

Restored Synagogue in Dabrowa Tarnowska

Restored Synagogue in Dabrowa Tarnowska

Mass Children's Grave in the Killing Field near Dabrowa Tarnowska

Mass Children’s Grave in the Killing Field near Dabrowa Tarnowska

Small Museum with Artifacts of Former Jewish Life in Lancut

Small Museum with Artifacts of Former Jewish Life in Lancut

Interior of the Synagogue in Lancut

Interior of the Synagogue in Lancut

Our Tour Group at the Former Palace (Now Museum) in Lancut

Our Tour Group at the Former Palace (Now Museum) in Lancut

September 4-5, 2015 – Krakow, Poland.

September 4.

We spent this morning touring Krakow. This seems to be a prosperous city, full of busy people. It was not damaged much by the war, and the city buildings are in various states of preservation: some old and dilapidated, some renovated nicely in the old style, some modern and strikingly different. According to our guide Dariusz, the ownership of many of the buildings cannot be proven. Ones now owned by the state may have once had Jewish owners murdered in the holocaust with living relatives who might come forward to claim them; thus, when ownership is at all questionable, one’s investment in a building may be lost.

We spent a few hours wandering through the former Jewish quarter in Kazimierz. We saw at least five synagogues, none perfectly maintained or restored but most of them active in one way or another, especially as host sites for large groups of Israelis or other foreign visitors. These synagogues are also used as community centers for concerts/lectures and as venues for the annual Krakow Jewish Festival, which has taken place in Krakow for the past 25 years (since the fall of communism). Adjacent to one of these synagogues was a graveyard. In answer to our question about how it survived the war, Dariusz told us that the Jews had covered the graves with earth, after knocking over the tombstones, to make the area look like a field so the Nazis wouldn’t realize that something was there that they could desecrate. Today, about half of the graveyard is back to normal, with upright tombstones, pathways, and shade trees. During our walk, we also stopped by the Krakow Jewish Community Center, which is actively providing community programs. It was dedicated to Britain’s Prince Charles, who committed himself to raising funds to get the center underway.

Back on the bus, we drove across the river to the area designated as the Jewish ghetto by the Nazis during the war. Today, it looks like a part of the city, but with one striking feature: there is a huge plaza with large, black, straight-back chairs placed at regular intervals on the surface. The chairs are empty, symbolizing the emptiness of Krakow after the Jews were removed. At one corner of the square is a pharmacy remaining from the pre-war period. The owner, a gentile, remained in his pharmacy throughout the war and was instrumental in saving many Jewish lives by providing people with medicines, or papers, or a means of escaping from the ghetto.

Next, we drove to the factory of Oscar Schindler, where the administration building has been turned into a museum of life in Krakow during the war. The Jews were living in deplorable conditions during the war, but the Poles of the city were better off. Several display cases contained artifacts of their lives. There were also reconstructions of ghetto apartments, of normal apartments, and of a below-ground hiding place for the Jews. Life went on as normal for some of the inhabitants of Krakow, but it was horrible for others. Dariusz led us through the exhibits, fortunately, or we might have been there for days because there was so much information to absorb. The museum is very well done and was full of tourists like us.

Back at our hotel, Denise and I dumped our stuff and took off for a city walk, our destination being the market square, which is an important feature of Krakow. This is another huge plaza, bordered by multi-story buildings and lined with outdoor bars and cafes on all sides. We found a place for pizza and enjoyed sitting outside on the sunny afternoon watching all the passersby on the square. A long building, the “Cloth Hall” took up one side of the square, and we went there looking for local crafts. We were not disappointed.

For dinner this evening, we went back to the Krakow JCC for a Sabbath meal with dozens of other people. We sat across from an Israeli couple and their daughter who have resettled in Krakow and love it here, although they miss Israel as well. The daughter speaks English very well, plus Hebrew and Polish, and she’s learning French in school. Amazing. We found it heartening that this family confirms Dariusz’s statement that life for Jews in Poland is getting better.

September 5.

Our destination this morning was Wawel Castle. This edifice tells the history of Poland in stone. The walls, the buildings, the cathedral were all built at different times in different materials, and all tell the viewer many facts about Poland’s history if you know what you’re looking at. Dariusz was a fountain of information, with a phenomenal memory for dates and facts. Both interior and exterior views of the castle showed impressive, massive spaces: the height of the walls and buildings, the size of the castle courtyard, and even the public rooms which we visited. These were some of the features of the interior: carved limestone doorways, each unique; Belgian tapestries on both secular and Biblical subjects; massive furniture, money boxes, and thrones; huge oriental carpets. Dariusz took us through all the public rooms explaining everything we saw.

For the afternoon, we drove a short distance to Wieliczka, the location of a very old and famous salt mine. We met our guide, a young woman with imperfect English, at the entrance and engaged in our first task, which was to walk down 54 flights of steps to the first level of the mine. We then followed her through underground passages, up and down several more flights of steps, stopping every so often in rooms or cavernous spaces to look at the salt sculpture and wooden supports which were the two main features of the mine. One gigantic space in particular was impressive: it looked like a timber-frame building, but its purpose was to stabilize the roof and walls of the cavern. This mine was built in the 13th century originally and had been producing salt continuously until 2007. It hosts about 1.2 million visitors annually. We traveled at least 2 miles underground, and at the end we rode back up to the surface in a tightly-packed elevator. With restaurants, gift shops, and toilets readily available, I think we were somewhat better off than the miners who used to work there.

Jewish Community Center in Krakow

Jewish Community Center in Krakow

Restored Synagogue in Krakow

Restored Synagogue in Krakow

Interior of Beautifully Restored Synagogue in Krakow

Interior of Beautifully Restored Synagogue in Krakow

Pharmacy that Remained Open During the War

Pharmacy that Remained Open During the War

Plaque Marking Schindler's Factory

Plaque Marking Schindler’s Factory

Main Plaza in Krakow - Cloth Hall on the Left

Main Plaza in Krakow – Cloth Hall on the Left

View from Wawel Castle in Krakow

View from Wawel Castle in Krakow

Us in the Courtyard of Wawel Castle in Krakow

Us in the Courtyard of Wawel Castle in Krakow

Inside the Salt Mine at Wieliczka

Inside the Salt Mine at Wieliczka