As War Rages On, Will Society Become Complacent?

As War Rages On, Will Society Become Complacent?

Ever since the beginning of the pandemic, I have despised the phrase “new normal”…an oxymoron for sure.  There is no such thing as a new normal.  There is the here and now we are living in, and life inevitably changes.  No, I’m not going to talk about the pandemic.  Most would disagree with what I have to say anyways…so it’s a moot point.

The war in Ukraine has been raging for over a month.  I’m going to pause here for a moment and ask that everyone make a conscious effort to NOT say, “the Ukraine”.  Those 3 little letters can make people from that country cringe.  Ukraine is a country, a nation, a recognized state, it is just Ukraine.  We don’t say “the” Poland or “the” France.  Okay, yes, I know we say the United States and the Netherlands.  I can explain, plural names get “the” tacked on.  “The” Ukraine is the way Russians referred to that part of the country during Soviet times.  Before becoming independent, the official name was the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, and it did have those 3 little letters.  If you have asked yourself how you can help, drop those 3 little letters when referring to Ukraine.  I have done it myself and in this part of the world, I have been corrected.  Another small change would be to refer to the capital by its Ukrainian spelling, Kyiv, rather than the Russian transliteration Kiev.  Two simple things you can do and make a difference.

Why did I bring up that dreaded phrase, new normal?  Over a month into the war, I fear that soon, unless you are directly impacted, it is going to become “normal”.  The world is going to become complacent.  Merriam Webster tells us complacent is marked by self-satisfaction especially when accompanied by unawareness of actual dangers or deficiencies; unconcerned, apathetic, indifferent.  As the days turned to weeks, the weeks to months, and the months turn to the unknown, will we become apathetic and indifferent to the plight of these people just like we have so many times before them?  I’m not pointing fingers because I am guilty as charged.  When the war broke out, everyone was gung-ho to help.  I rushed to the train stations, scurried around passing out juice boxes, asking what was needed, and hurried off to a store to fill these needs making purchases with contributed dollars.  Then I found out about Pawel and the #pinball4ukraine initiative.

My friends, my family, and my hometown newspaper all got on board and soon we had thousands of dollars to help.  Pawel is still working hard to find out where and what current needs are.  You can still contribute by sending contributions to PayPal@flippery.org.pl.  This is all great, but what next?  What can I do from here on out?  The mass exodus from Ukraine into Poland has slowed but refugees are still arriving daily.

Wandering through the train station it is “normal’ now to see people sleeping on the floor waiting for a train to somewhere.  We are still living “it” in Warsaw and across Poland, but my guess is that in the west people were shocked, they donated, they did what they could and now life goes on.  I’m not condemning this because I don’t have an answer for what’s next?  The pace of the first few weeks of the war couldn’t continue.  I’m thankful for people like Pawel who haven’t slowed their pace but who are searching for new ways to help besides just being a people mover.

An internal conflict in Afghanistan began in 1978 between anti-communist Islamic guerrillas and the Afghan communist government (aided in 1979-1989 by Soviet troops).  A US-led invasion launched in response to the 9/11 attacks in 2001 was the beginning of the Afghanistan War (2001-2014).  Everyone (both for and against) was up in arms when we pulled our troops from Afghanistan (completed August 30, 2021), yet the conflict continues, and it only seems to come up as fuel for the fire in political debates.

A peaceful uprising in 2011 against the president of Syria turned into a full-scale civil war leaving an estimated half a million people dead.  22 million have fled their country and 6.9 million are internally displaced with more than 2 million living in tented camps with limited access to basic services.  Although Russia was involved in a ceasefire in March 2020, it doesn’t appear the war will end anytime soon.

A few short days ago Azerbaijan has said it is ready for peace talks with Armenia.  I’m going to hazard a guess and say most people probably don’t even know about a conflict between those two countries.  I just happen to have a flatmate from Azerbaijan and a student from Armenia.  “In 2020, Armenia and Azerbaijan fought a war over Nagorno-Karabakh which killed more than 6,500 people.  A ceasefire deal brokered by Russian President Vladimir Putin saw Armenia cede swaths of territory to Azerbaijan and Moscow deploy a peacekeeping contingent to the mountainous region.  Last week, Yerevan (capital of Armenia) and Moscow accused Baku (capital of Azerbaijan) of violating a ceasefire in the Russian contingent’s zone of responsibility.  A significant flare-up in Nagorno-Karabakh could pose a challenge for Moscow, at a time when tens of thousands of Russian troops are engaged in Ukraine.  Moscow has deployed about 2,000 peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh and a land corridor linking it with Armenia.  Ethnic Armenian separatists in Nagorno-Karabakh broke away from Azerbaijan when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.  The ensuing conflict killed about 30,000 people.” (Aljazeera, March 29, 2022)  And…the conflict continues.

Although my student from Armenia has been in Poland for several years, he told me he has times when his emotions run the gamut regarding the war in Ukraine.  He told me he must admit that sometimes he gets angry.  He explained that he does want peace for Ukraine, but when he sees basically the whole world trying to aid the Ukrainian refugees, he gets angry and wonders where “the world” was when Armenia needed them.  He said he feels that people think it is normal for there to be war in “his” part of the world.

Today, chatting with a student from one of my classes, she said she has felt a bit down lately.  As she goes about her day-to-day life, she fears the fate of Ukraine and its people is becoming part of our normal routine…that we are accepting that this is just the way it is going to be.  She said it’s not that people don’t care anymore, but can we or what should we be doing?  I told her I have been feeling the same way.  I’m not sure what else I can do except support the efforts of #pinball4ukraine.  If there are people in Poland, where well over 2 million refugees have settled, who are feeling like this, I can only imagine the rest of the world can easily push it from the forefront of their minds.

I don’t have any answers to my questions.  My comments are merely my opinion and the stories I tell are factual.  I can’t wrap my head around the things I have been exposed to in the last 5 weeks.  My emotions have taken a roller coaster ride but the one emotion I haven’t had is fear… I can’t fathom the fear some of these people, especially the children have felt and not only Ukrainian children.

I had a student tell me she took her daughter, age 5, with her to a shelter to deliver children’s clothing.  Alice cried.  She couldn’t understand why these children had to live with 400 other people and didn’t have their own homes.  She had questions her mother wasn’t prepared to answer.  Another student told me his young sons were very scared when the war broke out.  His older son who I believe is 10, is quite a history buff about WWII.  He was fearful about what could happen to Poland.  Again, young children with questions he wasn’t prepared to answer.  He said now they won’t even talk about what is happening.

Some mornings, recently, I wake up with little on my agenda and wonder what I should be doing.  I always have things I can do for myself, but is there a need at some shelter or the train station I should consider?  Frankly, I simply want to do nothing but curl up with a book.  Then a little bit of guilt creeps in.  Sometimes I can push it aside, sometimes I check the websites to see if help is needed anywhere, sometimes I put the pen to the paper which is where I have been the last couple of days.  It doesn’t answer the whys or the what’s but it does help me put things in perspective.  It helps me think, it pushes me to research things happening in other parts of the world that when you think about it are really all intertwined.  I have decided that accumulating knowledge can make a difference.  By understanding what is happening around the globe, maybe we can become a bit more empathic.

We are one human race.  War may not be the answer, but it has opened my eyes to the plight of people in Syria, Afghanistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and other places around the world.  I heard a comment, “I don’t care what happens in that part of the world but it’s terrible what is happening in Ukraine.”  I knew it wasn’t worth it to get into a heated discussion over this comment because I would get angry, and the other person would still feel the same way.  Will I soon hear, I don’t care what’s going on in Ukraine or is Ukraine enough like the “west” that people won’t stop caring.  I know it is starting to feel like a normal state of living.  I don’t like that feeling but I’m not sure what to do about it.  Maybe it is the natural evolution of feelings.  I know I’m not the only person feeling like this.

I guess all I can do is continue to educate myself, do what I can, where I can, and when I can.  I can remind myself this isn’t  “normal”.  I remind myself there are still people fleeing their homes and soldiers and civilians are dying for their country.  If you made it this far, thanks for reading my random thoughts as I try to clear my head.  If you use those 3 little letters when you talk about Ukraine, try to check yourself.  Remember the capital of Ukraine is Kyiv and most of all remember war isn’t normal.  I know that together, we can still make a difference.

My Life in Poland During the War in Ukraine

My Life in Poland During the War in Ukraine

I am currently located in Warsaw Poland.  Warsaw is no stranger to war.  During the German occupation (1939-1945), 80-90% of Warsaw was destroyed, including museums, art galleries, theaters, churches, parks, castles, and palaces.  During the International Reparations Conference held in Paris in 1946, it is estimated that Poland’s material losses were 16.9 billion US dollars, and two-fifths of the country’s cultural property was destroyed.  If this wasn’t bad enough, Poland was forced to hand over 48% of its land to the Soviet Union due to international pressure from world powers.

Even after the 178,000 km² of land (48%) was turned over to the Soviet Union, Poland continued to be under the rule of the communist party following WWII.  The fall of the former Soviet Union took place on December 26, 1991, and on October 27, 1991, the first free Polish parliamentary elections since the 1920s took place.  This completed Poland’s transition from a communist party rule to a democratic political system, but it wasn’t until September 18, 1993, that the last Soviet troops left the country.

Poland and Ukraine share a border of 529 km (328 mi).  Why is this important?  On February 24, 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine.  On Saturday, February 26, 2022, I attended an anti-war protest in front of the Russian Embassy in Warsaw.  Little did I know at the time, this was just the beginning of what would become the world’s largest migrant crisis since WWII.  At the onset, the Polish government said they were prepared to take on up to 1 million refugees.  As I sit here typing, we are in the middle of day 24 of the War in Ukraine and nearly 3 million people have fled Ukraine with over 1.9 million finding their way across the border into Poland.

What I am witnessing not only here in Warsaw, but all of Poland is a grassroots movement of epic proportion.  I never dreamed I would be living in a country and witnessing the effects of war up close and personal.  I am hundreds of kilometers away from the actual war, but the devastation can be seen in the eyes of those arriving who have no idea what their future will look like.  I also never dreamed this war would become personal to me.  My life, my heart, my soul…they have all been touched in uncountable ways through my travels.  My hope has always been to show friends, family, and anyone who happens to stumble across my social media what the world looks like through my eyes.  I want to tell the stories of the places I go, the things I do, but more importantly, I want to tell the stories of the people I meet.  I want you to know what their eyes tell me when I look into them.  I have cried a river over the last few weeks.  Not just because of the devastation of the war but I have witnessed a coming together of humanity that is close to indescribable.  Here is my story…

February 24, 2022, was a holiday in Poland,  Tłusty Czwartek or Fat Thursday.  In Poland, everyone eats pączki on Fat Thursday.  I had spent the day before in a queue for 2.5 hours to get mine, but that’s another story for another time.  When I logged on to my classes that Thursday, no one was talking about how many pączki they had eaten, but that Russian tanks had entered Ukraine along with a question no one really wanted to voice, what does this mean to Poland?  I received many messages that day, asking, “how far are you from Ukraine?”, “are you safe?”, “do you have a plan to leave Poland?”.  I am a little over 300 km (186 miles) to Hrebenne which is a city near one of the border gates between Poland and Ukraine.  Yes, I am safe for now and feel very comfortable in Warsaw.  No, I don’t have a plan to leave Poland.  Other than some conversation about the situation during my classes, Thursday and Friday went along normally.  On Saturday, I learned there would be a protest/demonstration in front of the Russian Embassy in Warsaw.

I arrived at the Russian Embassy about 30 minutes before the scheduled start time of 18:00.  The road was still open to traffic.  People lined both sides of the street and cars and buses passing by showed support by sounding their horns.  All public transportation in Warsaw is also flying the Ukrainian flag and the flag of Warsaw.  As the crowd grew people continued to queue up along the roadside.  About 5 minutes before the start time, the police blocked the street to traffic and then told the crowd they could fill the street.  At this point, some speakers took to a small stage.  I didn’t understand what was being said but could feel the emotion of the crowd.  When I found Zaka, my flatmate, in the crowd, he was able to translate a few things.  There was a point when the crowd chanted peace in Ukraine and free Russia from Putin.  By the time we decided to leave, the crowd had grown exponentially.  What I experienced was people from many nations, men, women, and children all coming together in unity waving Polish and Ukrainian flags.  As I stood looking at the massive Russian Embassy flanked by Polish police, I realized this war was becoming personal to me.

My flatmate in Changning, China was from Moscow.  I enjoyed her Russian hospitality during my visit to Moscow in June of 2017. When I got home from the demonstration, I messaged her and told her I had attended.  Her response to me was, “all my friends and most of the people I know want the same thing – peace for Ukraine and freedom for Russia”.   Then I thought about my other Russian friend I met when I was living in Qingdao, China.

I read her words later that night, “I want to believe that there are more Russians who realize that we’re all responsible for this.  It’s just they’re chickening out because in this country you get jailed, tortured, and you disappear for speaking up.  Some have families and cats to feed, some are just greedy and are afraid of losing their businesses and reputation, but I guess that’s also understandable.  We’re all just trying to stay safe….Let’s just try not to hate each other personally”.  As I thought about my Russian friends, their words,  and all the Russian hate right now, it reminded me of how so many were anti-China at the beginning of the pandemic. Even more so now as no one knows if China will align itself with Russia, please remember there are good, kind people in Russia who don’t want this war any more than we do.

Saturday of the demonstration was also the day Tatiana, my cleaning lady, was scheduled.  She had returned to Lviv, Ukraine a month earlier to renew her Visa.  When the war broke out, she made the decision to remain in Ukraine with her family.  I didn’t hear from her again until March 13th.  She had returned to Warsaw but because her sons are between 18 & 60, they were obligated to remain in Ukraine.  Please keep the safety of her sons in your thoughts.

I usually email lessons to my students on Sunday for the following week,  As I was doing this, I thought about a student who although was living in Poland, was from Belarus.  It was in Belarus that it was reported that military vehicles had entered Ukraine through Senkivka.  This is the point where Ukraine meets Belarus and Russia.  I sent them a separate email asking how they were.  Their mother is Russian, they have family in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Poland.  They told me their life was a living nightmare.  Of course, I can’t talk about Belarus without thinking of my former flatmate,  “my little one”, from Belarus.  This conflict is affecting people in ways that we can’t comprehend.  Suddenly, they are concerned about repercussions if they label themselves as “Belarusian” or “Russian” and may even be fearful of returning to their country as they may not be able to return to Poland.

Monday rolls around and this war continues to become personal.  Summer 2021 found me on the Black Sea in Kiten, Bulgaria.  I was working at a summer camp, and we had two campers from Ukraine.  I learned they had both taken refuge, one in a bomb shelter.  During the first week of March, I learned that one had made it out of the country safely.  The other, as of today, I have had no word.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The war is becoming more real, more personal by the day.  I find myself hungry for information on the humanitarian efforts I know are going on in Warsaw and all over Poland.  In the first 4 days of the crisis, over 220,000 refugees crossed into Poland, many coming to Warsaw.  I discovered Warsaw had 28 collection points in the city.  The grassroots movement had begun.  Ordinary citizens were organizing these collection points and through the power of social media were able to let people know of immediate needs…blankets, diapers, food, and beverage to give to people as they crossed into Poland, etc.  At this point, I couldn’t report on what was going on in Ukraine, but I could share what the people of Poland were doing. The border town of Przemyśl greets refugees with food, beverages, clothes, blankets, books, and stuffed animals for the children.  Warsaw has 3 train stations which also have nearby bus stations.   There are reception points set up in these areas.   They provide the new arrivals with food and beverage and assist them in getting information regarding trains and buses to destinations beyond Warsaw and beyond Poland.  They point them to ATM machines, to first aid stations, and just try to provide a smile and a friendly face.   It may appear these places are unorganized, but trust me, it is organized chaos.  Think about it, Poland, a country of almost 38 million, and as of March 20, 2022, 1.95 million people have entered Poland.  This is a 5% increase in population in just 3 weeks.  Even more unbelievable is that about 300,000 are currently being sheltered in Warsaw, a city of 1.77 million.  If you do the math, that is a 17% increase in the population of my city.  I don’t think anyone could explain it better than David Harris, CEO of the American Jewish Committee, did when he was interviewed at the Warsaw Central Station.  When you see the images of families sleeping on the floor of the stations, please know they are making this choice.  They have already lost their homes and most of their personal belongings, not knowing when or if they will ever be able to return to their country, their homes.  They are choosing to “camp out” on floors instead of going to a shelter because they don’t want to miss the opportunity to catch the next train to somewhere…somewhere they may have family, somewhere that they may be starting a new future…a future they never thought about.

My first visit to the train station was 15 days ago, 10 days after the invasion.  This is what I saw there.  The place was full of people just arriving in Warsaw from Ukraine.  Many with glazed looks in their eyes, some crying, others looked exhausted, and many had their pets with them.  There were volunteers helping direct them to information points, they were walking around passing out sandwiches and drinks, etc.  It was a beehive of activity. I was just passing through on this day but made the decision I needed to find out how I could help.  I went outside and caught a tram home.  As I was arriving home I was in front of my building and a woman came up to me and said Apteka which is a pharmacy.  It was easiest for me to just walk her around the corner.  I said I only speak English.  She said, no English, Ukraine.  I managed to discover (thank you Google translate) she just arrived in Warsaw 4 days ago with her family.  She said the name of her city and said the word home and motioned that it was flattened.  I literally started to cry just as I got her to the pharmacy.  She told me “thank you” in Polish and all I could do was take her hands, look her in the eyes and say good luck.  Seeing these people, looking deep into their eyes is something I won’t ever forget.  When I got into my flat, I started searching and found a Facebook group that was organizing everything at the train stations.  I joined the group and continued scrolling Facebook.

As each day passes, this war affects me in many ways.  But most of all we are living it in Poland.  We are seeing the people arriving with just a simple bag of necessities or some with nothing but the clothes on their back, their children, and many even their pets.  I had a student tell me they wouldn’t be attending class one day as they were helping at the border.  She lives in a small village in the southeastern part of Poland.  She is the mother of 3 young children, I asked if I could share a few of her words.

“My life has changed a lot in the last few days.  I had the opportunity to be at the border to help two families from Ukraine.  I have been able to see people who want to escape the actions of a madman.  I could see the fear, despair, longing.  But I also saw love, solidarity, unity.  I was able to participate in building a temporary life anew.  I was able to observe terror which with time turns into hope despite the constant specter of evil and tragedy.

I cried with people powerless in the face of events that turned many dreams to dust.  Enjoyed the kids delighted with the Frozen towel and coloring book, whose fathers and brothers were left fighting for their freedom.  In the evening, I cried with relief, looking at my sleeping children, appreciating that such terrible things had not touched my loved ones.

In recent days, I have been observing people whose lives have changed dramatically.

I have no punch line.  I only have a solemn request that we continue to be able to show our heart to those who are NOW in a much more difficult situation than we are.  WHAT, NOW?  These are words that come back to me like a boomerang in recent days.  I don’t know my tomorrow.  I know my today. And I want to share my good “today” with those whose “yesterday” and “tomorrow” is gloomy.”

During my first year in Poland, I was always searching for interesting things to do.  I happened to discover Pinball Station, an interactive museum established in 2016 by 2 hobbyists.  That evening, as I was scrolling, I saw a post by Paweł, one of the founders of the museum.  It read (translated version),  “To everyone who wants to help refugees.  Pinball Station has launched a coach bridge between the border and Warsaw.  I, Paweł Nowak, have personally been to the border 5 times.  We have coaches and drivers available.  Today at 5 am we transported another 48 people.  In total, it is already about 150 people transported in two days.  We ask you to help raise money for the next transport.  Out of 150 people transported, there were only a few men, the rest were women and children, even babies.  I am determined, I am in constant contact with foreign countries, we are looking for accommodation and further transport for them.  Please help.”

Almost simultaneously as I am reading this, I received a private message from a friend asking if they could send me money to help.  Next thing I knew I had a couple more friends message me.  Since I only worked a half-day that coming Wednesday, I decided I would go to the Pinball Station to get more information.  I had turned the monies I received into cash (Polish Zloty).  My plan had been to leave a portion of the money to help with another transport.  Paweł wasn’t there, but the young lady working immediately got him on the phone to chat with me.  After a long (Paweł likes to talk) conversation, I felt that I could trust him, the project seemed to fit the request of my friends which was to help the refugees, and the amount of money they sent was almost the exact amount to sponsor a bus.  I made the decision to leave 3000 zł with the girl at the museum and hoped I could trust my gut.

This also left me with a few hundred zloty I could use to purchase things that were needed at the train station.  On March 11, 2022, I received photos from Paweł showing a bus full of people we helped bring to Warsaw from the border.  I was overcome with emotion knowing we made a difference.  Later that evening, I was contacted by my hometown newspaper, The Tribune Chronicle asking about life in Poland during the war.  I told them my story up until that point and that I planned to return to the train station the next day to help.  I had no idea the tidal wave that was about to hit.

I woke to a beautiful Saturday… blue skies and sunshine and not too cold.  I started out heading to the Central Train Station to help wherever I was needed.  I stopped for lunch on my way and saw a post that they needed some help and supplies at the West Train Station.  I finished my lunch and changed direction.  2 buses later I arrived at a scene that I am at a loss for words to describe. Poland was prepared to accept about 1 million people across their border.  By this morning, day 16 of the war, 1.6 million people have crossed into Poland.  What I am witnessing here by everyday people in this city is beyond description.  There were people everywhere. A tent was set up almost like a small boutique.  Those just arriving could go and help themselves to whatever they needed.  Next to that was a tent that was distributing sandwiches, snacks, and beverages.  Inside the station were makeshift beds and people everywhere.  I did what I could there for a couple hours, including keeping beverage supplies stocked.  When I decided it was time for me to leave here I caught the bus back to the Central Train Station to see if there were any needs.  It was the same, people, everywhere.  Women going around offering strollers and baby carriers to mothers with young children.  There was a tent city set up outside the train station with a sign that said free food.  Tents for clothing, personal hygiene items, T-Mobile, and other phone carriers handing out sim cards with free minutes and data.   People leave boxes of snacks, beverages, and sandwiches in the middle of the hall for arrivals to help themselves.  Again, normal citizens somehow come together to make this work.  I don’t know how Poland can keep accepting people, but they are resilient and are doing whatever they can to make it work.  I struggle to find the words and pictures that do not tell the story you see in the eyes of new arrivals.  I’m tired, I’m thankful, I’m blessed.

I fell into bed exhausted, physically but most of all, emotionally.  I woke up Sunday morning to a plethora of messages.  Many who saw my post from the train station wanted to know how they could help, could they send me money?  Although a bit overwhelmed, I couldn’t say no.  After all, one of my favorite quotes is from Mother Theresa and says, “I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.” I was already witnessing the ripple effect across Poland.  I ordered my Starbucks (it’s my Sunday treat to myself), opened the Tribune app on my phone, and was shocked to see my story on the front page, “the drive to save lives”.  Between my post from the previous day, a zoom chat with friends in Florida, and now the newspaper article, my notification chime kept dinging.  It looked as if our ripple was turning into a tidal wave.  At this point, I knew I couldn’t handle this all myself.  I asked my friend Teri in Warren, Barb in Alabama, Dawn in Tennessee, and Marla in Florida if they would each handle contributions in their areas.  By that evening, I was an emotional wreck.  People I have never met, casual acquaintances, friends I went to school with, friends of friends, my family, more people than I ever imagined were sending contributions.  If this doesn’t give some hope for humanity, nothing will.  As I am writing this today, I have received over $13,000 of love and kindness for those fleeing the war in Ukraine.  One person said they had been to Ukraine last summer with their child and he wanted to help.  I heard, “my family chooses a charity to support each year and when we saw this it is what we want to do.”  I discovered that people wanted something they could be a part of and see the results.  When I said this war was becoming personal, I had no idea what I was talking about.  I think I cried myself to sleep that night with tears of joy.

Monday and Tuesday, I worked.  Wednesday, I told Paweł I would be by the Pinball Station to see him.  After hitting up 4 ATM machines to withdraw funds for 2 buses (6000 zł), I set off to walk to the museum…purse close by my side.  When I arrived there was a school group there so being a nice day, we headed out to the back patio to chat.  4 hours later, I was speechless.  What this man has organized by himself is truly amazing.  Here is his story…

If you’re like me, I never really gave much thought to bringing people from the border.  You send a bus, you pick people up, you bring them back…simple, right?  Not…In the early part of the war, there were easily 100 thousand people crossing the border on any given day.  There are border gates that everyone must pass through and be counted.  Some of these gates lead to cities that have train stations, some just lead to small towns or villages.  These people need to be moved to bigger cities because there are no facilities in many of these places to handle large numbers.  The other thing is all the regular daily train and bus service around and out of Poland can’t just stop.  You can’t send every bus and train to the border and leave the rest of the country in limbo.  Where are all these trains and buses going to come from to move this number of people?  Paweł started out going to the border in his private vehicle.  He decided he needed to find a way to get buses to the border.  After he solved the problem of getting buses, the logistics doesn’t stop there.  He got to know the police and volunteers in these border cities and for about the first 10 days traveled with the buses.  Now, he explained to me, he sends a bus, when the driver is about 30 minutes out from the border, he phones Paweł.  Paweł then phones a volunteer in one of the cities.  He finds out where the greatest need is and then calls the driver and tells him which city to go to.  Because males between 18 and 60 are obligated to remain in Ukraine, most of the passengers are women, children, the elderly, and a few pets.  He has a simple notebook he records each day for each bus.  For instance, he records each unit on the bus. (1 adult 2 children, etc.)

He also records their final or wished for final destination as this helps him determine if he drops them at the train station or orders Ubers to transport them to a shelter.  He also told me that in the beginning there wasn’t a day when he wasn’t brought to tears by something.  For example, at the border reception stations, the refugees are met and one of the things they are given is a sim card so they can contact someone that may still be in Ukraine.  He told me of a mother and daughter who arrived.  The first thing she did was call her husband.  A stranger answered…..that is how she, alone, with a small child in a strange country, found out her husband had been killed.

Working at the train station, I noticed that people were arriving with very few personal items.  Paweł explained.  People started out taking as much as they could, but as the war escalated and evacuation intensified trains, buses and cars were more concerned with moving people, not things.  Also, what might have normally been a 4-hour trip was now sometimes taking 4 days.  People started abandoning their belongings at the side of the road not being able to carry so much because they were walking or because it was more important to take people versus “things”.

I am going to pause here for a moment in Paweł’s story and ask you to ponder this question.  You must flee your home, your country, your life as you knew it because the bombs are closer each day, what are you taking in the one bag you will probably end up with?  This was a recurring question in my classes whenever we talked about the current situation in Poland.  No one could imagine having to put their life in a simple bag. What are you taking?

Paweł told me of one night that the bus was nearing the border and everywhere he called he heard the same thing, there are no refugees.  No one seemed to know why.  The bus driver said he could spend the night in the bus.  The next morning, refugees started arriving again.  Firstly, it had been cold overnight (upper teens, low 20’s) but more tragically, the Russians had been shooting at the trains.  They stopped the trains, and everyone took shelter through the night.  When they felt it was as safe as it would get, they continued their journey finally arriving at the border the next morning. There was also a rush at the border after humanitarian corridors were opened to evacuate cities. He told me of women in the border towns seeing mothers struggling with small children, would go across into Ukraine and carry their children into Poland for them.

I was stunned by his stories, his firsthand accounts.  As we are entering day 25 of the war, almost 2 million people have crossed into Poland.  Poland has said they will find a way to take everyone that needs refuge.  We are seeing a decrease in people arriving now, but there are many other needs, and this could change at any time.  For instance, there may be a need for transportation to the port in Gdynia, Poland as Sweden is transporting people from Poland to Sweden by boat.  There is also a need for large quantities of cleaning supplies at these shelters that are housing 1000s of refugees.  Toilet paper, soap, shampoo, personal hygiene items, blankets…think about it.  Within 3 weeks 2 million additional people need these supplies.  Where are they coming from?   There is a need for powdered milk which he can buy at cost if he purchases 1000 kilos (about 1 ton).  The Ukrainian army is requesting drones and they need medical supplies.  So while we will still be using funds for sponsoring buses from the border, because of your generosity we will be able to help fund several projects.

I am going to wrap this up here.  The last 3 weeks, but mostly this last week have been an emotional roller coaster.  My eyes were opened to things I never thought about.  Things I can’t imagine ever going through myself.  I have met people who have no idea what their future looks like.  I have also witnessed humanity and compassion that I thought didn’t exist anymore.

As Nelson Mandela said, “We can change the world and make it a better place.  It is in your hands to make a difference.”

Thank you for letting me tell my story.  My life, my heart, and my soul are forever changed.  Thank you for making a difference.

Teri, Barb, Dawn, Diana, Randy, Danny, Sandy, Michael, Marla, Celeste, Brenda, Wanda, Gail, Jan, Ann, Kay, Dan, Richard, Connie, the Boca Starbucks Group, Amy, Larry, Gloria, Lynn, Guy, Pat, Richard, Cathy, Sandy, Maureen, Henry, Sue, Jane, Dan, Margie, Lori, Nina, Carly, Susan, Janet, Mark, Frank, Andrea, Marilyn, Darlene, Margo, Cathy, Jeff, Judy, Marilyn, Jodi, Julia, Dennis, Ann Marie, Donita, Sean, Traci, Marcella, Linda, Nick, Rhonda, Bob, Kathy, Henry, Deb, Scott, Sharon, Bob, Sally, Lucy, Mary, Kary, John, Becky, Ann, Karen, Shane, Tom, Emily, Debbie, Bill, Bobbie, Clara, Rocky, Jan, Marilyn, Maribeth, Elaine, Wayne, Teri, Janice, Jayne, Joyce, Jan….I’m sure the list will grow.  Forgive me if I missed a name.  It has all been overwhelming.  Thank you for making a difference.

Why I Am Grateful for the Global Pandemic

Why I Am Grateful for the Global Pandemic

As the Thanksgiving season is upon us, it is time to consciously think about things we are grateful for.  Sure, we all go through the list of family, friends, a place to live, a job, food to eat, etc.  Now, before you jump down my neck and say, how can you be grateful for a global crisis that, according to Worldometer, has now affected over 250,000,000 people and has caused, along with other comorbidities, 5,000,000 plus deaths?”,  let me explain.

In a few short months, we will be two years into what started out as “two weeks to flatten the curve”.  Sometimes it is hard to wrap my head around the fact that two years have nearly passed and that I will have been living in Poland for two years and have received temporary residency.  My original plan, although I should probably say “my original thought” as I didn’t really have a solid plan, was to spend just over a year in Poland.

Then I wanted to return to Bali and my Balinese family for a special ceremony that was planned at the temple in Peliatan.  After a few months in Bali, possibly move on to a WorkAway in India, Kenya, or Tanzania and then consider a return to Poland.  A mere six weeks after I arrived in Poland, the world stopped turning.

As the pandemic progressed,  information from the State Department in the USA, encouraged American citizens abroad to return home.  Having a job and a flat, I chose to stay in Warsaw.  A choice in no way I regret and am thankful for.  Henry Rollins once said, “a great way to learn about your country is to leave it.”   Looking at my country, it seemed a bit chaotic.  Since this is somewhat of a gratitude post, I’m not going to address that here.   Other than working remotely, my life in Warsaw was copacetic.  Although, it was becoming obvious that “two weeks to flatten the curve” wasn’t happening.

Today, I started a one-on-one English lesson with a new student.  She asked me to “tell her my story”.  I’m sure she had no idea what she was getting herself into.  I finally ended my story explaining that because of the pandemic, I am still in Poland and have agreed to another school year and I have residency until 2024.  I guess she is a glutton for punishment, she then asked me to tell her my feelings about Warsaw and life in Poland.  Wait a minute, I’m supposed to be the teacher here, but her question made me think.  I didn’t need to think about how I felt about life in Poland, but it made me realize how much I came to appreciate Poland because of or maybe despite the pandemic.  Without further ado, reasons I am grateful for the pandemic.

Having visited Warsaw once before in 2014, I knew it would be a great home base for travel throughout Europe.  I pictured weekends in Paris, visiting family and friends in Germany, seeing Erwin in Norway, heading off to Finland or Sweden to see the Northern Lights, and picking up some new stamps in my passport along the way.  Of course, those plans were shattered when the pandemic hit, and Poland closed its borders.  I had a choice to sit at home or go out and explore my city. Although many things were closed, I started walking around my neighborhood.

This led to the discovery of remnants of the Mur Ghetto or Ghetto Wall.  The memorials show the outline of the former ghetto which in 1940 had a total length of about 18km.  There is a line on the sidewalk or street reading “mur getta”.  I learned that if you can read the words straight on, you are outside the ghetto and if they appear upside down, you are inside the ghetto.  Finding these memorials, I became curious as to what I didn’t know about Poland and WWII.  As I researched, I discovered more and more places I wanted to visit not only in Warsaw but all of Poland.

Not usually being one for historical fiction,  I was suddenly drawn to novels about Poland and WWII.  With the pandemic in full swing, I had plenty of time to up my reading habit.   Books like, “The Lilac Girls”, “The Zookeeper’s Wife”, “The Rabbit Girls”, and “The Book of Lost Names” piqued my interest in other places in Warsaw and other cities across Poland.

Although I love zoos and often visit them, after reading “The Zookeeper’s Wife” and learning how Jan and Antonina Zabinski began smuggling Jews and hiding them in empty cages and even in their villa, I knew my visit to the Warsaw Zoo would have me see it in a different light.  “The Lilac Girls” introduced me to Lublin, Poland, and the State Museum at Majdanek.

I had never heard of the Majdanek Concentration Camp and Lublin was only just over 2 hours by train from Warsaw.  It was an easy day trip and one spring day I caught the train and because of a book, I visited a place I may never have known about.

Walking my neighborhood, I found out I was a couple of blocks away from the Warsaw Uprising Museum.  The Warsaw Uprising broke out on Tuesday, August 1, 1944, at 17:00 PM.  The interactive museum is difficult to take in during just one visit.  Also near me is the Polin Museum.  The Museum is a modern institution of culture – “it is a historical museum which presents the 1000 years of Jewish life in the Polish lands.” Again, too much to wrap your head around during just one visit.  I live in the Wola District of Warsaw.

As I walked around my neighborhood, I noticed more and more markers on the street, signs on walls of buildings, and free-standing monuments.  With so much history of Jewish Poland right in my neighborhood, I also spent time wandering around the Jewish Cemetery which is just a few tram stops from my house.

The city had me intrigued and I started t look for unique things to do and see.  That’s how I discovered the Neon Museum and the Pinball Museum.  Places I probably wouldn’t have discovered were it not for the pandemic situation.  I also visited the Vodka Museum and the Stacja Muzeum (Train Museum).  While visiting the Stacja Muzeum, I learned of a narrow-gauge rail museum in a nearby city.  As restrictions around the country began to be eased, I started taking short day trips from Warsaw.  One was to the city of Sochaczew to the Narrow-Gauge Railway Museum which also offered a short train ride to the Kampinos Forest and a cookout.  I didn’t know Poland had lavender fields and one day found myself on a train to the city of Żyrardów.  From there I took an Uber to a Lawenda pod Skowronkami and came home with bouquets of fresh-picked lavender.  In Warsaw I was enjoying the many parks, wandering around Old Town, and life near the Vistula River.

As summer was ending, I decided to take more than just day trips.  My first adventure took me to the city of Kętrzyn which was the city nearest to Gierłoż.  What caught my interest in Gierłoż?  By this time I had been in Poland for over 6 months, I was hungry for more and more information especially related to WWII.  As I was scrolling Facebook one day, I came across information about Hitler’s “Wolf’s Lair” or “Wilczy Szaniec”.  Hitler’s abandoned eastern front military headquarters during WWII and site of an assassination attempt is an eerie reminder of the atrocities of the Nazi regime.  Located in Gierłoż forest, I discovered I could stay on the grounds in a renovated WWII bunker and explore the grounds.  I spent a day and a half wandering the grounds where Hitler spent more than 800 days during the war.

Come October, I decided to spend a few days at the Polish seaside on the Baltic Sea.  I visited the tri-cities of Gdansk, Sopot, and Gdynia with a side trip by train to Hel Peninsula which is a 35-kilometer-long sand bar peninsula separating the Bay of Puck from the Baltic Sea.  At the end of the Peninsula is the town of Hel.  From Hel, I took a ferry back to Gdynia.  The tri-cities are connected to each other by an intercity train which makes going back and forth quite simple.  While in Gdansk I went to Westerplatte which was the site of the first clash between Poland and Germany thus the beginning of WWII.  In Sopot, I discovered the longest wooden pier in Europe and the famous “crooked house”.  Because of the pandemic, I was working remotely so it was great being able to travel and work at the same time.

The end of November brought thoughts of Christmas as Warsaw started to light up for the holidays.  I took a late afternoon trip to Wilanów and the Garden of Lights.  Wilanów is home to the Wilanów Palace often called the Polish Versailles and was the second home to various kings.  I toured the Palace and by the time I finished the gardens were lit with thousands of lights and many displays.  Old Town in Warsaw was brightly decorated and a great place to stroll while sipping a warm cup of grzane wino or mulled wine.

As December rolled in I decided to spend Christmas with friends, and we headed to the Tatra Mountains and the city of Zakopane.  It was perfect as we were hiking the mountain on Christmas morning and light snow began falling.  Christmas evening I took a sleigh ride around the city and to the base of the mountains at nightfall in that lightly falling snow.  It was magical.

After Christmas, the pandemic restrictions tightened up a bit.  Between that and the cold weather, I spent the first 3 months of the year mostly working and enjoying my city.  As soon as the weather broke and restrictions were lifted, I was ready to see more of this country I was now calling home.  Through my English classes and one of our lessons, I learned that many people in Poland make a Pilgrimage to the city of Częstochowa.  The city is known for the famous Pauline Monastery of Jasna Góra, which is the home of the Black Madonna painting, a shrine to the Virgin Mary.  Every year, millions of pilgrims from all over the world come to Częstochowa to see it.

 

I decided to pay a visit to Częstochowa and see the Black Madonna over Easter weekend.  Probably not one of my brightest decisions being there were still some restrictions and Poland being a very religious country, most everything was closed the entire weekend.  No matter, I made the best of it by walking around the Old Town which had some amazing sculptures and eating kebabs, pizza, and McDonald’s as those were about the only restaurants open.  I also visited the Jasna Góra twice.  The Black Madonna is only available for viewing during certain hours, but I did manage to get in to see it.  I was also able to be there for a part of Good Friday services.  The other thing about Częstochowa was the beautiful building murals. My main goal was to see the Black Madonna at the Jasna Góra and I accomplished that task.

The first weekend in June I headed for Kraków.  Kraków is home to the company I work for here in Poland, English Wizards.   I had a checklist of things I wanted to accomplish while in town.  I wanted to meet up with the people who had hired me (I was in China when I applied and everything was done by Skype), hang out in the Old Town, wander the streets of the Jewish Quarter, visit Auschwitz, see Wawel Castle, and go to the Wieliczka Salt Mine.  A lot to pack into a long weekend, but I’m happy to report that all items got ticked.  I spent the first evening bar hopping in the Kazimierz District with my fellow wizards and eating late night/early morning zapiekanki (Polish Pizza) at the Okrąglak.  My hotel was in Old Town, so I had plenty of opportunities to wander the streets and eat and drink at the cafes.  Making a visit to Auschwitz is an experience I will never forget.  The Wieliczka Salt Mine was fascinating and walking around the Jewish Quarter in the Kazimierz district was very educational.  I ended my long weekend with a BBQ at the English Wizard headquarters and got to meet many of my co-workers.  Three hours by train and I was back in Warsaw.  June flew by and before I knew it, it was time for my first trip out of Poland in 16 months.  I was off to spend the summer in Bulgaria at Z-Camp, a youth sports and language camp on the Black Sea.

 

 

 

 

 

 

How can I be thankful for a global pandemic?  I’m grateful for the opportunities it forced me to take.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s heart-wrenching when I think about friends and family who have suffered and even died due to the pandemic.  The divisions it has caused between friends and family are sad.  Yes, the big picture of the last nearly 2 years is often bleak, jobs and businesses were lost.  I am one of the fortunate ones who was able to work more because of the situation.  I also decided to take advantage of the city and country where I chose to stay during this crisis.  I know I saw more of Warsaw and Poland than I would have if the world hadn’t stopped turning and there is a good chance I wouldn’t even be in Poland right now.  I am grateful that my eyes have been opened to a beautiful country that I knew so little about.  I am more understanding of their horrific history, appreciative of their culture and traditions, grateful to my students who I now call friends, and in awe of the beautiful country, I am currently calling home.  I challenge everyone during this season of Thanksgiving to look back and find something to be grateful for.

Thank you, Poland for making me feel like one of your own.

Credit for feature photo to Tomeyk_Krakow

What’s Gogh-ing On?

What’s Gogh-ing On?

Suffering from severe depression and poverty which led to his suicide at age 37, Vincent Willem van Gogh (1853 – 1890) posthumously became one of the most famous and influential figures in art history.  A Dutch post-impressionist painter, he created more than 2000 works in the last decade of his life, most of which date during his last two years.

Living in Paris in 2014/15, I took a day trip to the town of Auvers-sur-Oise where Van Gogh spent the last days of his life (May-July 1890).  On July 27th, although there were no witnesses it is believed he shot himself in the chest.  He died 30 hours later, on July 29th with his brother Theo by his side as he uttered his last words, “the sadness will last forever”.  Theo died the following January and was buried in Utrecht, Netherlands.  In 1914 his widow had his body exhumed and moved to Auvers-sur-Oise to be re-buried beside his brother.

While in Auvers, I visited the Musee de l’Absinthe and had a taste of the “green fairy”, the church from the painting Church at Auvers-sur-Oise, the home of Dr. Paul Gachet, and the graves of Theo and Vincent at the cemetery in Auvers.  I also visited Auberge Ravoux where on the upper floor you can view the room where Vincent Van Gogh died.  It has been restored to its original.

I have always been a fan of Van Gogh and especially The Starry Night which was painted during his stay in the St. Paul Asylum in Saint Remy.  So, when I saw there was going to be a Van Gogh Exhibition during the time I was going to be in Paris in May 2019, I immediately checked with my fellow travelers and bought tickets.  It was called Van Gogh: Starry Night and Dreamed Japan: Images of the Floating World and I was hooked.

I honestly didn’t know what to expect from the exhibition.  It was housed at Atelier des Lumieres (light workshop), a 19th century restored foundry, in the 11th arrondissement, with much of its industrial architecture, including metal structures, a cistern, a basin, and a high brick chimney, left intact.  Making use of 140 video projectors and 50 speakers, I was blown away, no pun intended.  After sitting through the show twice, I commented to my cousins that it was probably the most amazing exhibition I have ever seen.  The show consisted of 3 parts.  The first created by filmmaker Thomas Vanz was a short cosmic display depicting the birth of the universe accompanied by dreamlike music called Verse.

This was followed by Dreamed Japan: Images of a Floating World by Danny Rose Studio. Van Gogh was an avid collector of Japanese prints and they seemed to become an inspiration for some of his work.  Following these two shorts was Starry Night, the 35-minute main feature. More than anything, I think what made this so outstanding for me was the playlist.  It featured an eclectic mix which included Kozmic Blues by Janis Joplin, O Mio Bambino, Vivaldi’s Violin Concerto #2, Generique by Miles Davis, Mozart Recomposed during the Starry Night sequence, Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood by Nina Simone, and Brahms Concerto #2 in B Flat, to name a few.  The space, the music, the video….perfect.  I literally felt like I was in the paintings.  I told everyone I knew that was going to Paris that it was a “must-see” and at 14 euro ($16) a ticket a great value.

Recently, when I started seeing Van Gogh experiences advertised in cities across the globe,  I encouraged everyone to take the opportunity to see it.  One thing that shocked me, however, was the ticket prices in the USA, regardless, I still insisted it was a must-see.  When my roommate came home one night last week and asked if I saw that a Van Gogh Experience was opening in Warsaw on Friday, I went online that evening and bought a ticket (55 pln or $14) for opening day.  Friday arrived and I was excited to be headed to experience Van Gogh again.  I had one of the first ticket timeslots for the show.

The first thing I noticed upon entry was a large area, with high ceilings and some large screens placed throughout and hanging from the ceiling.  A massive space with some stools randomly scattered about.  Seeing photos and videos from various friends in the states who had seen the show, the spaces were very similar.   I immediately made comparisons to Paris, which while being a large space, had felt more intimate.  Okay, I know I am obsessed with Paris, it has my heart and everything there is perfect.  Well, if you know me, you know what I mean.  So maybe, just maybe,  I am being a bit partial.

So I cleared my thoughts, found a seat ( there were fewer than 20 people in the room), and got ready to be immersed.  The images were amazing although I felt like I was watching versus being one with them.  The music was, meh.  It just didn’t move me or draw me to the stories in the paintings.   The show lasted 30 minutes and I didn’t hear Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood, which was one of my favorites from the Paris show. Did I miss it?  I wanted to sit through it again to see if I was just being a Paris snob.  In all honesty, after two viewings, I just didn’t think it was as good.  Underwhelmed (is that a word), I took advantage of the beautiful weather and walked a bit before catching a bus to Old Town.  I say underwhelmed because I wasn’t disappointed.  It was, after all, a beautiful display of many of Van Gogh’s life works.  I still encourage everyone to take advantage of the opportunity if you can.  What I am disappointed in is what they are charging for tickets in the USA, but that’s all I’m going to say about that subject.

When I got home that evening, I found my photos/videos from The Starry Night in Paris.  No, I wasn’t being a Paris snob, the show was better.  So, what’s Gogh-ing on?  Time to GTS (Google That Shit).  Much to my surprise, I made a startling discovery.  There are currently four different, yes, you read that correctly, four different shows touring the world, and none are organized by Atelier des Lumieres which was responsible for Van Gogh: The Starry Night in Paris.  Probably why I didn’t hear Nina Simone at the Warsaw Exhibition which was called Van Gogh Multi-Sensory Exhibition.  The one currently in Cleveland Ohio is Immersive Van Gogh, I believe.  Other shows are called; Van Gogh Alive, Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience, and Beyond Van Gogh: An Immersive Experience.  Confusing, right?  It is no wonder I have heard conflicting stories about this one being different from that one, better than, etc.,  depending on what city one saw it.

What does all this mean?  It means the show I saw in Paris was one of the best exhibitions I have seen.  I was underwhelmed in Warsaw but still enjoyed it.  I am disappointed in ticket prices in the USA because no matter which show comes around your area, I think it is well worth seeing.  I think it would be great for kids to see, but with the cost of tickets, I’m sure there are many who can’t afford to take a family of four.

I think the man who said, “What am I in the eyes of most people — a nonentity, an eccentric, or an unpleasant person — somebody who has no position in society and will never have; in short, the lowest of the low.  All right, then — even if that were absolutely true, then I should one day like to show by my work what such an eccentric, such a nobody, has in his heart. That is my ambition, based less on resentment than on love in spite of everything, based more on a feeling of serenity than on passion. Though I am often in the depths of misery, there is still calmness, pure harmony and music inside me. I see paintings or drawings in the poorest cottages, in the dirtiest corners.  And my mind is driven towards these things with an irresistible momentum.”, would be pleased that the world is seeing what he had in his heart.

If anyone is interested, the 3 parts of the Starry Night show in Paris listed above are links to the YouTube videos of the 2019 Exhibition.  It is also this exhibition that was featured in an episode of Netflix’s “Emily in Paris”.  I have also linked the Spotify soundtrack from the Paris exhibition and I recommend the movie “At Eternity’s Gate”

Auschwitz-Birkenau “Arbeit Macht Frei” – Never Forget

Auschwitz-Birkenau “Arbeit Macht Frei” – Never Forget

 

Arbeit Macht Frei – work will set you free…

Imagine traveling for days with 60-80 people in each “wagon”… Imagine arriving at Auschwitz-Birkenau and being met by SS guards…Imagine being told to leave all your earthly belongings in a pile while you are escorted to a “shower”… Imagine being ordered to strip naked… Imagine that “shower” was a gas chamber…Imagine the fear…

For the hundreds of thousands of human beings, people, Jews, Poles, Hungarians, gypsies, Soviets, men, women, and children… they didn’t have to imagine. It was their reality…

For some, their “life” at Auschwitz-Birkenau…mere hours!

I read this quote and thought it was a good starting place. “Millions of people around the world know what Auschwitz was but it is basic that we retain in our minds and memories awareness that it is humans who decide whether such a tragedy will ever take place again. This is the work of humans, and it is humans alone who can prevent any such return.” Professor Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, a former Auschwitz prisoner.

Relocating to Poland, yes, I knew of Auschwitz and some of the other camps, but I didn’t realize the magnitude.  Sure, we tell ourselves we know of the horrors, but do we?  Between 1933 and 1945 Nazi Germany and its allies established more than 44,000 camps and other incarceration sites. These other sites also included the ghettos.  In March of 1933, the first concentration camp, Dachau, opened outside of Munich.  Dachau was primarily used for political prisoners.  It was liberated in April 1945 making it the longest-running camp in operation.

Since arriving in Poland in February of 2020, I have visited Auschwitz I, Auschwitz-Birkenau, and Majdanek. Although, I will dedicate this post solely to Auschwitz I and Auschwitz Birkenau and address Majdanek in a future post.

To most of the world, Auschwitz is probably the best-known symbol of the holocaust.  Although Auschwitz is often spoken about as if it is one camp, it is actually 3 separate camps; Auschwitz I (main camp), Auschwitz-Birkenau (concentration and extermination camp), and Auschwitz III-Monowitz (labor camp) also called Buna.  The original camp was opened in 1940 on the outskirts of the Polish town of Oświęcim.  The Germans changed the name of the city to “Auschwitz” and this also became the name of the camp.  The German name has led some to think the camp was in Germany, but it is in Poland approximately 75 km west of Krakow.  Its location put it at the center of German-occupied Europe.  Not only did the camp expand into 3 main camps, but also 40 sub-camps.  It is estimated that 1.1 million Jews were sent to Auschwitz alone and beginning in 1942 became the scene of the largest mass murder in human history.

Many of the men, the women, and the children of Jewish decent were sent directly after their arrival to their deaths in the Birkenau gas chambers. Their “life” at Auschwitz-Birkenau…..mere hours.

Most of us have seen pictures of Auschwitz and other camps, but nothing can prepare you for the reality of coming face to face with the entrance to Auschwitz I with the inscription Arbeit macht frei (work will make you free).  The guide, with his gentle, soft voice and sad undertone led us solemnly through the gate, and then we stopped at the rear of a building, the camp kitchen.  This, he told us, was where the camp orchestra played.  Nice touch, right?!…prisoners playing music is the first thing you see/hear upon coming to camp…NOT.  Of course, there was a more sinister use of the music which was played as the inmates left camp in the early morning and returned in the late evening from their labor.  As one inmate stated, “the coordination of the marching labor commandos to the inexorable rhythm of the music, which many inmates sensed only subliminally because of exhaustion and apathy.”  Another prisoner said, “we often returned from the field with a comrade’s corpse in our arms and had to march to the beat of the music with our left leg.”  The music was also played during public punishments and executions as a demonstration of unlimited SS power.  However, another prisoner, Franz Danimann, said that the Leonore Overture from Beethoven’s Fidelio which was performed by the official band during roll call in the summer of 1943, strengthened his will to survive.

Leaving the site of the camp orchestra we moved to the barracks.  Auschwitz I originally consisted of 22 brick buildings, eight of which were 2-story.  A second story was added to the others later and an additional 8 new ones built.  I visited on a warm sunny day in June (2021).  As I looked around, I saw nice brick buildings, green grass, flowers, and trees. It almost looked like an apartment complex.  The guide, in his quiet voice, reminded us that the camp did not look like this when it was a “camp”.  With the number of people confined to this space, trampling to and from the work fields, standing for hours during the role, and general moving about, there wouldn’t have been grass.  It would have been dirt and mud and many of the trees were planted later. He told us to picture it on a grey day in November and malnourished people without proper outer garments milling about.

Next, he led us to a building. Upon entering we are met by a sign that read, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” George Santayana

In the first room, we entered there was no photography permitted.  Behind the glass wall, out of the nearly 8 tons that were found when Auschwitz was liberated, is 4000 pounds of human hair shaved from the heads of prisoners before they were sent to the gas chamber.  It is here you really start to feel the human element. As you look at the hundreds of pieces of braided hair still intact, you start to picture faces, you imagine what it would have felt like to have your hair lobbed off “because of lice”.  You try to picture the woman with the long braid, what color were her eyes? But all you can picture is a woman with fear in her eyes still not realizing these were her last moments on earth.

Next, you walk into a room, and behind that glass wall are pairs of children’s shoes…not just 10 or 20 pairs but 100s or 1000s…then comes the room filled with the shoes of adults.  110,000 pairs of shoes were found after the camp was liberated.  You see a glass wall behind which are some of the 88 pounds of eyeglasses left behind.  Then there are the 246 prayer shawls and the 12,000 pots and pans brought to the camp by people who thought they would be resettled.  Finally, behind a glass wall, the 100s of empty canisters of Zyklon B.  Zyklon B was the trade name of a cyanide-based pesticide invented in Germany in the early 1920s.  It consisted of hydrogen cyanide, as well as a cautionary eye irritant.  Our guide told us 1 canister contained enough pellets to kill 1000 people.  Imagine…this is just one building at one camp.

It is difficult just reading about the horrors of Auschwitz, but coming face to face with portraits of the men and women in striped uniforms lining the corridor as we entered Barracks 6, the prisoners barrack, is haunting.  Looking into their eyes, seeing their nationality, their date of birth, and date of death you realize not one of these faces looking back at you survived Auschwitz.

From the prisoners’ barracks, we slowly and silently made our way to Barracks 11, the Camp Jail and  Death Wall. Walking to the entrance of Barrack 11 the first thing you notice is a fenced-in courtyard and a wall we would later learn was the Death Wall.

It was here that the SS shot several thousand prisoners between 1941 and 1944.  The SS also shot more than 5000 “police prisoners” at the death wall.  Executions by shooting and hanging took place in the side yard at the “death wall” where so-called “punishment by the post” and flogging was also inflicted. The total number of prisoners brought to the camp for execution from outside the camp is not known.  As we walked through the building we were told the Germans held court here.  We saw the living conditions in the “regular” cells and then were told the horrors of the basement.

The basement had starvation cells, dark cells, cells with no fresh air, and standing cells which held 4 prisoners for 3 to 10 days with only room for them to stand. The first trials of mass killing of people with Zyklon B were held in the basement.  Finally, exiting the building you walk past the death wall.

It is hard to comprehend what took place at that wall when the guide tells you to take notice of the Barrack across the courtyard with the blackened windows, Block 10.  It was here that German gynecologist, Professor Carl Clauberg, carried out criminal sterilization experiments on women prisoners.

As we are slowly making our way back through the camp, I can’t comprehend that I have seen only 3 buildings out of 30 and this is only one camp out of more than 44,000 camps and incarceration sites.  I struggle to put my thoughts and feelings into words.  Even if I can’t find the words, deep inside I will never forget how I felt.  We continued our walk, past the kitchen and the site of the camp orchestra. It was also here that roll call took place and also the public hangings on the multiple gallows while the camp orchestra played.

As we were finishing our tour of Auschwitz I, our guide led us toward what looked like a small hill.  Before the war, it was a Polish Army ammunition bunker.  As soon as I entered the first barren room, I knew something more evil had taken place here.  Then I saw the ovens….

The largest room was designated as a morgue to hold the bodies of murdered prisoners.  Crematorium furnaces capable of reducing 340 corpses to ashes per day were installed in the adjacent room. From the autumn of 1941 to the beginning of December 1942 the morgue served as a gas chamber.  The yard outside, surrounded by a concrete fence served as an undressing room.  SS men used Zyklon B to kill thousands of Jews and several large groups of Soviet prisoners of war here.  For the most part, the building has been preserved in its original condition.  When the gas chambers in Birkenau were operating, the furnaces and chimney here were dismantled.

With the construction of the higher capacity crematorium at Birkenau, 4,576 corpses could be burned per day in the 5 crematoria.

“You are in a building where the SS murdered thousands of people. Please maintain silence here:  remember their suffering and show respect for their memory”  Signage in the gas chamber/crematorium.

After finishing the Auschwitz I tour, I was numb.  I was thankful for some time to regroup before we went to Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Maybe even more chilling than the Arbeit Macht Frei sign at the entrance to Auschwitz I is the entrance to Birkenau also known as the “Gate of Death.”

Leaving Auschwitz I, we had a short drive to Auschwitz-Birkenau.  Arriving at Birkenau, you are left off some distance from the camp and given instructions to walk along a road to the entrance of the camp and our guide would meet us there.  It seemed strange that we were left off so far from the entrance…. Until, as you are walking along the railroad tracks, you see the brick structure which was the main SS guardhouse, and you follow the rail to the gate through which the trains with wagons stuffed full of people passed. For many who passed through this gate, not knowing that it was their last day on earth…. then you understand the unimaginable.

Our guide led us through the entrance gate, and we paused.  Spread out in front of us 432 acres of land, 300+ buildings mostly wooden barracks, some brick barracks, and the remnants of barracks, we stared at what was the largest center for the extermination of Jews.  Our guide asked us to walk silently along the tracks until we came to “the ramp”.  The trains stopped at the ramp or unloading platform that was the central point in the camp.

This spot was the destination for trains carrying more than a half-million Jewish deportees to Auschwitz. Most of the new arrivals were classified by SS doctors as unfit for labor and murdered that same day in nearby gas chambers.

Placed at the ramp in 2009, the Wagon is a reminder of the conditions in which the people were brought to the camps. It is also a symbol of the Holocaust as it took place in Auschwitz.

We continued walking to the end of the railroad platform.  Here between the ruins of the gas chamber and crematoriums, which were blown up in January 1945 by the SS, 800 meters (.5 miles) from the main gate, stands the monument to the victims of Auschwitz…the nearly 1 million Jews – men, women, and children – and the prisoners of other nationalities who either died or were murdered in the camp.  Not far from the ruins, there is a pond…one of the places where human ashes were strewn.

As we made our way back, we stopped in one of the brick barracks, part of the women’s camp.  Left mostly as it was, we were shown the living conditions of the camp.  Designed for 700 people, containing 60 3 tier bunks. Each of the 180 sleeping places had a nominal capacity of 4 people (in practice, 6 or 7). Prisoners slept on straw scattered on the boards of the bunk without pillows. The lower bunk was often a dirt or brick floor. Several people shared a single blanket and many of the small stoves to heat the interior were for show or insufficient to heat the interiors. The sickest were always on the bottom and between the odor of sweat, the excrement, and vomit dripping from above, they had little chance of survival.  The barracks were usually lice and rat-infested also.

As we made our way out of the camp, I paused at the entrance gate to the women’s camp.  Like at Auschwitz I, the camp orchestra played marches while the women were going to work and then returning to camp. As I paused, I tried to imagine what it was like…I couldn’t, as it is incomprehensible.  Even after hearing the stories and seeing the evidence, it is nearly impossible to imagine the atrocities.  Nothing can prepare you for a visit to Auschwitz.

Throughout both camps are actual photographs showing life at Auschwitz.  Photos of the people on the ramp, including images of the SS carrying out selections on the new arrivals.  Images of people going to the gas chambers or awaiting death, as well as the sorting of things that belonged to the murdered.  After the liberation of the camp over 200 photographs, which the SS didn’t destroy, taken at Birkenau were found, along with about 39,000 negatives of newly arrived prisoners.   I was physically and emotionally drained when I returned to Krakow that evening.

The site of the former camps was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979.  I have only touched on what I saw and what I felt on this day.  It was overwhelming and something I will never forget. I would like to end with something I read in a booklet I purchased, Auschwitz-Birkenau the Past and the Present as I think it has a powerful message.

“In keeping with the act passed by the Polish Parliament in 1947, the task of the museum was to safeguard the former camp, its buildings, and environs.  To gather evidence and materials concerning German atrocities committed at Auschwitz, to subject them to scientific scrutiny, and to make them publicly available.

Despite this, there is still much debate amongst former prisoners, museum experts, conservationists, historians, teachers, and the mass media on how to organize, manage and develop the museum.

Even before the museum was opened, people wondered whether it should limit itself to reconstructing history, or rather explaining and clarifying the principal mechanisms underlying the criminal system.  Views on the matter differed radically:  some believed that the site should be plowed over, others demanded that every single object be retained and protected.

The very word “museum” is also a topic for debate.  Not everyone accepts the name “Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum”.  Some believe that the former camp is a cemetery, others that it is a place of memory, a monument, others still regard it as a memorial institute, research, and education center on those who were killed.  The museum, in fact, fulfills all of these functions, as they do not cancel out, but rather complement one another.”

“Auschwitz is forever a painful expression of the world’s bad conscience.  The remains of the Nazi death camp remind us of the darkest moments of human history.”  Donations can be made via the website www.auschwitz.org

I commend the people of Poland and the administration of the museum as one of the basic activities of the center involves cooperation with young people and teachers from Poland and abroad.

Using Jakdojade Mobile App For Warsaw Public Transportation

Using Jakdojade Mobile App For Warsaw Public Transportation

Warsaw or Warszawa in Polish is the capital and largest city in Poland.  It sits on the Vistula River in the east-central part of the country with a population of about 1.8 million residents. If you take into consideration the greater metropolitan area, it comes in at 3.1 million people.

The first time I came to Warsaw was for 3 cold grey days in November 2014.  Knowing little about Poland and even less about Warsaw, I booked a hotel that was on the outskirts of the city about 15 km from the center.  So how do I get to the city?  I knew I wanted to go to Old Town but knew little else.  I don’t think I had a clue about Uber, let alone an app.  I don’t recall much English being spoken, but somehow, I managed to find out I could go to a bus stop near the gas station next to my hotel.  I made it into the city and exited the bus near the Palace of Culture and Science.  I honestly don’t remember how I got around other than I used public transportation.  Not speaking Polish, I somehow figured it out, got around the city, and made it back to my hotel each night.

February 3, 2020, I arrive in Warsaw for a second time having committed to working for English Wizards teaching, you guessed it… English.  This time for a bit longer than 3 days.  Actually, I had no idea how long I would be staying…18 months was my guess at the time.  Who knew a global pandemic would stop the world and that I would love Poland and decide to stay for an indeterminate time? With a bit more luggage than my last visit of three days and armed with a smartphone and the Uber app a car quickly pulled up and whisked me away to my temporary Airbnb digs in the Warsaw suburb of Ursus.  Walking distance from my flat I was able to stock up on the “bare necessities of life” (sung in your best Baloo voice).  I would be in my temporary residence for 3 weeks which would give me time to firm up a job offer and find a flat to rent long-term.  I had a job interview for a language school that first week.

Still not familiar with the public transportation system, I took an Uber to my interview.  I was offered a job in the office that day. Next step finding a flat in the city center as I would be teaching Business English at several companies in Central Warsaw.  I decided I better ask about public transportation.  Even though Uber is reasonably priced, it can add up rather quickly.  I got the best piece of advice before I left the office that day…download an app called Jakdojade –  https://jakdojade.pl/lista-miast

Jakdojade is a public transportation app that provides detailed directions and transport options for most cities in Poland. I have used the free version for almost a year and a half and haven’t felt the need to upgrade to the paid version.  The paid version has no ads.  So, how do you use it?  Since it is a mobile app, you will need an Android,

 

Windows or iOS smartphone and an active data connection.  After downloading the app, you will need to create a profile and set up a payment method(s).  There are options to put funds in a wallet, use BLIK (through my local bank), google pay, or add a card.  I have all 4 options set up.  Now let’s go somewhere….

Open the app…it will ask you, Where are we starting? and Where are we going? You can choose the current location or physically enter a starting point.  Then enter where you want to go.  There is also an option to choose from on the map.  After putting in the starting and ending points there are some other options available.  You can change the time if you are looking for a future departure or if you prefer a certain mode (bus, tram, metro or train) you can select those now.

I’m usually looking for something at the current time and although my favorite mode is the tram, I leave all options open and usually choose the quickest and the one that has the least walking to and from the stops. Now you will most likely see an ad and below that an arrow.  Touch the arrow and you will be shown available options. Once you choose the option that best suits you, you will see a schedule of stops on the way to your destination and if you have to change trams or bus to tram, etc. It also tells you how soon the departure is.  Next, you will choose Buy Ticket.  It will also show you the price of the ticket because depending on your destination you could need a 20-minute ticket or a 75-minute ticket (there is no in-between). You will be asked if you want to validate the ticket.  Only do this if you are already on the bus/tram. In Warsaw, it has recently been changed so you must validate the ticket when you board the vehicle.  This is done by scanning a QR code inside the tram/bus.  This can be tricky and has caused complaints from users.  If you don’t scan in a certain amount of time, the application locks you out for a few minutes.  QR Codes are often placed high and above the handrails that you hold on to.  Yes, I have been locked out and have just waited until it unlocked and then re-scanned.  I keep my fingers crossed the transportation police don’t decide to board and check tickets while I’m locked out.

Once onboard, you will also find signage showing the entire route and you can follow the stops.  There is usually an announcement (in Polish) telling you the current and next stop. On the main page when you open the app, along the bottom is Trip, Schedules, and Tickets.  It defaults to trip which is where you can enter starting and ending points.  You can also view schedules that take you to a page and you will choose, tram, bus, metro, or train and then the route number you would like to view and it will show you all the stops from start to finish.

Finally, if you know your route, you can just press tickets and you will have the option to purchase 20 minutes, 75 minutes, 90 minutes, one day (zone 1 or 1&2), three days (again with zones), weekend and group tickets.  Warsaw transportation has two zones.  Most likely you will only need zone 1 which covers Warsaw and several municipalities.  Zone 2 consists of towns and villages outside of Warsaw.  When you choose the ticket option in the app, it will also show if you have any previously purchased and unused tickets.  If you do, you will have the option to validate them here.

If you use the app to purchase a ticket to use the metro, you will be given a code in the app to scan before entering the metro station at the turnstile.  Also, if you aren’t traveling alone, you have the option to buy multiple tickets at once.

It’s really not as complicated as it might sound.  If you haven’t set up any payment options or choose not to use mobile payments, the app is still great for checking routes and getting directions.  If you just use it for directions, tickets can be purchased at machines located all around the city and in the vehicles themselves. These will need to be validated after boarding. I will cover how to purchase these tickets and also the Warsaw Card (for long-term usage 1-3 months) in a future post.

I have found Warsaw transportation to be very user-friendly and quite convenient.  I mostly use the Jakdojade app during the winter months when I am not out and about as much.  In the nicer weather, I use my Warsaw Card and usually purchase 1 month at a time.  Once in a while, I can’t get a mobile signal and need to purchase a ticket at the machine or onboard.  My personal favorite are the trams.

In the summer months on weekends, they even run the historical trams on a “tourist route” (line 36).  If you choose you can leave me here as I am just going to tell you some useless but interesting information on Warsaw Trams.

The Warsaw tram network is a 132-kilometer (82 mi) tram system serving a third of Warsaw and serving half the city’s population. It is one of the largest in Europe operating over 750 cars. The history of tram transport in Warsaw dates to 1866 when a 6-kilometer (3.7 mi) long horsecar line was built to transport goods and passengers. In 1899 the entire tram system consisted of 30 kilometers (19 mi) of tracks with 234 tram cars and 654 horses operating 17 lines. By 1903, plans were drafted to convert the system to electric trams, which was done by 1908. On August 1, 1944, with the outbreak of the Warsaw Uprising, the use of trams was suspended and the cars were used to build barricades.

In 1965, Warsaw saw the introduction of two-car trains and in 1977 three-car trains were added to line 36.  On June 23, 2005, the city launched the first water trams on the Vistula.  This summer the first 2 new trams will be arriving from the Republic of Korea with an additional 121 arriving between the beginning of 2022 and April of 2023.

Women have been working on the Warsaw Trams for 76 years. They were employed for the first time as conductors in 1942 when the men were taken to work by the occupiers. After the war, in 1949, the first course for a tram driver was organized. Since then, the employment of women in the Warsaw Trams has increased. Of the 1,400 tram drivers, 294 are women. There are 36 women in traffic supervision. The entire company employs 748 women, which is approximately one-fifth of all employees.

If you made it this far, thanks for humoring me and my fascination with the trams in Warsaw.  If you find yourself intrigued, you can read more about the trams here: https://tw.waw.pl/