** POLAND  2010  -  Weeks  7~9 **

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CAMPING IN POLAND 2010 - SE Poland, Ukrainian border and City of Lublin:

Poland is a very big country, and leaving Ustrzyke Górne in the far SE corner, we had already completed 1,500 miles within the country; it felt like the trip's pivotal point. The scattered villages of this remote region were depopulated by the 1947 forced evacuations of Operation Vistula in the early communist period (see last edition). Many of the beautiful wooden churches built by the Boyk people were now either abandoned or converted from the original Orthodox or Uniate faith to Catholic usage by the Polish settlers implanted by the communists. Along the Wołosate valley, the wooden church at Smolnik classically told the tragic story: built in 1791 with its 3 pyramidal domes, it served the original Boyk village of Smolnik as an Orthodox-Uniate church (Photo 1 - Former Uniate wooden church at Smolnik); in 1947 the people were deported to the Soviet gulag, the village demolished and land handed over to a collective farm, and the church used as a hay barn. It was restored in the 1970s and handed over to the Catholics of the modern village. Only part of the original iconostasis, the screen bearing the holy icons which divides the sanctuary from the nave in an Orthodox church, survives together with some polychrome murals. Much effort had been devoted to restoring the wooden church which thankfully survived the destructive communist period; regrettably the congregation had not.

Click on 3 regions of the map for details of South-eastern Poland

The next wooden churches took some finding tucked away along a minor lane close to the post WW2 Ukrainian border at the villages of Michniowiec and Bystre, where storks were still in evidence perched on power poles (Photo 2 - Stork on power cables at Michniowiec). The church at Bystre with its 3 large onion-domes was totally abandoned after the 1947 deportations and now stood semi-derelict; it was indeed a sad sight (Photo 3 - abandoned wooden church at Bystre). The village of Krościenko near to the border-crossing into Ukraine had been home to a small community of exiled Greek communists who had fled their home country when the West-backed right wing government took over Greece after the brutal Civil War in 1949. This Greek diaspora had settled across many of the East European communists countries with one outpost here at Krościenko. By the village hall, a decaying monument in Greek and Polish commemorated a local hero of the KKE, the Greek communist faction (see left). We visited several more surviving wooden churches in the region including the oldest, dating from the early 18th century, at Rownia. Set on a hillock 200m from the road, this originally Uniate-Orthodox church was abandoned in 1951 and restored as a Catholic church in 1975. The squat church with its 3 cupolas was one of the most attractive we had seen (Photo 4 - 18th century Catholic wooden church at Rownia).

Sanok is an attractive town set on the River San, and home to the Autosan bus manufacturing plant whose distinctively shaped vehicles can be seen all over Poland. Its more cultural attractions include an excellent skansen where examples of SE Poland's traditional rural architecture have been gathered, and the Sanok Icon Museum. The skansen is set amid meadows on the north bank of the river and approached by a rickety bridge, and we spent a rewarding day examining the preserved examples of the different styles of rural architecture from the region's main ethnic groups, the Boyks, Lemkos and Polish peoples of the Carpathian foothills (Photo 5 - Lemko wooden farmstead buildings at Sanok skansen). As well as agricultural buildings, the skansen also includes wooden churches rescued from decay after abandonment from both the Orthodox faith (Photo 6 - Greek-Catholic wooden church at Sanok skansen) and Catholic religion (Photo 7 - Catholic wooden church at Sanok skansen) all beautifully preserved in a realistic rural setting.

We camped at the straightforward but hospitably welcoming Camping Biała Góra set on the hilltop above the skansen, where every car crossing the rickety bridge sounded like a drum roll. The next day we walked across to the town, pausing at the Orthodox cathedral where mass was being chanted, and visited the Icon Museum which is set in the town's 16th century Zamek (castle). The museum displays Poland's largest collection of Orthodox icons rescued from Lemko and Boyk village churches abandoned after the 1947 Vistula deportations. Most of the Orthodox icons are from the 16~17th centuries in traditional Eastern style and subject matter, with later ones showing the increasing influence of western Catholicism with the founding of the Greek-Catholic Uniate Church in 1595. Many showed the traditionally styled Orthodox Christ Pantocrator and Madonna with Child though a number showed other saints particularly St Nicholas customarily dressed in luxurious robes (Photos 8 & 9 - 17~18th century Pantocrator and Madonna icons at Sanok Icon Museum). It was a unique collection and particularly pleasing that non-flash photography was allowed.

Just beyond the Zamek, Sanok's delightful pedestrianised Rynek (market square) provided a range of good value lunch venues of which the Karszma with its shady terrace offered a traditional regional menu (Photo 10 - Pavement restaurants in Sanok's Rynek). The TIC at the corner of the Rynek was particularly helpful, dealing with our enquiries in a friendly and efficient manner in fluent English; if only staff in other TICs were as helpful as at Sanok.

Crossing the Góry Słonne Hills, we followed the San valley to Przemyśl and, after a long day, were looking forward to settling into the town's only campsite. But disaster: when we arrived at gone 7-00pm, the campsite no longer existed. We pulled into a car park to ask the attendant about other options. There followed one of those serendipitous encounters where the help we received was way beyond the call of duty: yes, he thought the campsite had closed, but would telephone and check for us, and even produced a list of hotels in case this would help. Our words of thanks in our limited Polish seemed inadequate for the help he had tried quite unbidden to give us. Another 30 kms drive braving the speed cameras brought us to Przeworsk and a rather pretentiously expensive but mediocre campsite, but at least it was open.

On from Jarosłow across the broad agricultural plain of the San valley where harvesters were busy at work, we reached Bełżec, a farming village some 12 kms from the modern Ukrainian border which would be an otherwise unremarkable place were it not for what happened here between 1942~43. The village's very remoteness and its links on the main eastern railway line with Lublin and L'wów commended Bełżec to the Germans as 1 of 4 sites for implementing Operation Reinhardt, named after Reinhart Heydrich, the assassinated author of the Endlösung der Judenfrage (Final Solution of the Jewish Question) - the total destruction of the entire 11 million European Jewish population. Under Operation Reinhardt, 4 camps were built in Eastern Poland at Bełżec, Treblinka, Majdanek and Sobibór, explicitly designed for one single purpose, the systematic and efficient mass murder of Jews transported by rail from the ghettos and the seizure of all Jewish property, valuables and belongings; even their hair and ashes were to be put to German economic usage. Responsibility for the camps' construction was assigned by Himmler to SS police leader Odilo Globocnik who had perfected the technology of mass murder using exhaust from diesel engines piped into gas chambers when between 1939~42, 70,000 handicapped people were murdered under the perverted German euthanasia programme. Operation Reinhardt marked the beginning of the most brutal phase of Jewish genocide. Previously concentration camps had been used for imprisonment of political opponents and for slave-labour; from now they were specifically designed solely as killing factories. The 4 Reinhardt camps murdered 1.5 million humans, and Jewish property valued at €500 million in today's worth was recycled into the German economy.

Between early 1942 and November 1943, 500,000 Jews were transported in railway cattle trucks to the unloading sidings at Bełżec. The tried and tested routine was to deceive the deportees that they were arriving at a transit camp; SS guards in white coats gave semblance of medical supervision to avoid uncontrollable panic; victims were forced to undress and their belongings and valuables taken, and women's hair shaved; they were then forcibly marched along a narrow path between barbed wire, crammed into gas chambers and the diesel engines switched on to deliver the lethal carbon monoxide; this suffocating death took around 20 minutes; bodies were either thrown into mass graves or later burnt in open pits to conceal evidence of mass murder; by this means, a train load of 3,000 humans beings could be efficiently 'processed' in 2 hours with systematic German thoroughness. When the death camps completed their evil business in late 1943, attempts were made to destroy all evidence of what had taken place here. Mass graves were exhumed and decomposing bodies burnt; camps were razed and Ukrainian guards settled on the site to give the impression of a farm. But local people were aware of the continuous one-way mass transportations; news of the extermination camps was passed to the Allies by the Polish Home Army, but nothing was done. After the war, some SS guards were tried for war crimes but most escaped justice. No apology is made for detailing here in matter of fact terms these inhuman facts of German systematic process of mass murder: we believe that no sensitivities should be spared to ensure that the world continues to remember the savagely barbarian crimes committed by Germans on fellow human beings.

Just beyond Bełżec railway station, the 2004 memorial can be seen spread across the hillside where the extermination camp once stood. You approach the camp by crossing the very rail sidings where transported Jews arrived for extermination (Photo 11 - Railway sidings transported 500,000 Jews to their death at Bełżec). The memorial takes the form of piled grey clinker covering the area of the former camp, symbolising a mass grave of the 500,000 who were murdered here (Photo 12 - Symbolic mass graves memorial at Bełżec). A white path surrounding the 'mass grave' is inscribed with the names of towns and cities from which Jews were deported to their death at Bełżec, giving an emotionally charged personal feel since the list included so many of the places we had visited, including Narol where we had stopped for lunch that day and Zamośź where we should camp that night. There were places in Czech Republic like České Budĕjovice, Poprad, Plzeň, Pardubice where we had spent time last year. We walked around viewing these familiar names with an overwhelming feeling of sorrow and seething anger; surviving trees stood as silent witnesses to the murderous events of 1942~43. This stark and sombre memorial very effectively conveyed the sense of utter evil of what had been so systematically contrived and committed here by barbarous Germans - never to be forgotten or forgiven.

Another 40 kms brought us north to Zamośź to camp at Duet Camping, just 15 minutes walk from the town's attractive central Rynek (market square). Zamośź had been founded by the enlightened Renaissance Chancellor Jan Zamoyski. The Polish 16th century aristocratic ruling classes were obsessed by Italianate designs and a Paduan architect was commissioned to create a model town with a wide piazza-style centre and surrounded by solid defence ramparts which withstood 17th century attacks. The town prospered as a trading centre, attracting a sizeable Jewish population. Somehow Zamośź survived WW2 damage, but as with all other Polish towns and cities, its entire Jewish community and many of its Polish citizens were eliminated in the death camps; all that now remains of the once thriving Jewish communities are their neglected and decaying cemeteries with no one now left to care for them. The Germans erased surrounding villages and implanted German settlers to create an Aryan bulwark against what was seen as contamination by Jewish and Slavic untermenschen. Zamośź's Rynek is still dominated by Zamoyski's Italianate town hall and surrounded by the pastel-coloured frontages of wealthy Renaissance merchants' houses (Photo 13 - Renaissance Rynek and town hall at Zamośź); it's a delightful place to sit under the sun umbrellas and enjoy a glass or 2 of the excellent local beer, Zwierzyniec brewed at the village close to what was Zamoyski's country estate.

Resuming our journey across flat agricultural countryside, we approached Hrubieszów, Poland's most easterly town. The road on from here runs parallel with the shallow, meandering River Bug which forms the Ukrainian frontier, creating a small salient of Poland projecting into Ukraine. The marshy river flats clearly provide ideal feeding grounds for storks since every village we passed through had several occupied nests, and down in the flooded meadows flocks of heron and storks stood feeding. The lane ended at Zosin, Poland's most easterly settlement, and just beyond, the sign indicated the Granica Państwa (national border) where traffic queued for the tediously lengthy process of negotiating the crossing into Ukraine; we turned safely back into Poland to drive north through remote border villages. The busy Route 12, rutted by constant Ukrainian and Polish trucks, leads to Chełm, another modest and unassuming eastern Polish town with a helpful TIC, long history and delightful Rynek. Needing somewhere to camp near to Włodawa, we found by chance a small agroturist run by an enterprising Pole who had spent several years driving trucks in USA to earn money to bring up his family back home. He was one of those 'nothing was a problem' characters who bemoaned those not prepared to work to improve their lot, and provided a welcome place to camp behind the family home.

Our reason for visiting this corner of Poland where the Polish, Ukrainian and Belarusian borders meet was to visit the 2nd of the notorious Reinhardt extermination camps near to the farming hamlet of Sobibór. This location suited the Germans' evil intentions perfectly: buried deep in the birch and pine forests, its very remoteness would help conceal the crimes against humanity to be committed here; it was served by a railway line with sidings by which to deliver the Jewish victims from eastern Poland but also from France and Holland. In May 1942, mass gassing began at Sobibór using exhaust fumes from static diesel engines. At the railway sidings, prisoners were forced from the cattle trucks which had brought them here, stripped, shaved of their hair and hastened along the barbed wire corridor which led to the gas chambers. The killing process continued until October 1943, and an estimated 250,000 were murdered at Sobibór. The camp was manned by just 30 German SS officers and 200 Ukrainian guards, killing people in batches of 1,200. In October 1943 in an uprising of Jewish prisoners, 300 managed to escape, but many were shot or killed in the surrounding minefields; 50 of the escapees managed to survive the war and later emigrated to USA or Israel. The memorial site of the camp takes some finding hidden along an unsurfaced road through the forests, eventually leading to the surviving railway sidings (Photo 14 - Railway sidings at Sobibór extermination camp). A small museum describes in horrific detail the history of the camp and lists the names and photos of both the German and Ukrainian guards responsible for the crimes committed here. One of the names is that of Iwan (John) Demjanjuk, the Ukrainian guard known for his sadistic brutality as Ivan the Terrible, and extradited in 2009 from USA to stand trial in Germany. A court in 2011 found Demjanjuk, now aged 91, guilty of complicity in the murder of 28,000 Jews at Sobibor and sentenced him to 5 years imprisonment; he was freed pending appeal! The sense of injustice is heightened by the fact that, despite the clear knowledge of names and faces, few of those responsible for the Sobibór crimes have ever been brought to justice. To contribute to public awareness, Demjanjuk's wartime portrait displayed in the Sobibór museum is reproduced here (see right).

The memorial site of the extermination camp had been laid out on the 60th anniversary of the uprising with a grant from the Dutch government whose citizens constituted the 2nd largest number of Jews murdered at Sobibór. A pathway follows the route trodden by victims from the railway sidings along the track which, with their perverted humour, the SS had labelled the Himmelstrasse (Road to Heaven) leading to the gas chambers. This path was lined with moving plaques donated by families in memory of relatives murdered at Sobibór, giving grievously personalised identity to the otherwise anonymous 1000s of victims who had trodden this path to their death. What was missing was any reassuring sense of justice that those responsible had themselves ever faced trial and punishment. The path led past the now empty site of the gas chambers where only the silent forest and smell of pines survived as witness to the crimes committed here. The memorial concludes at a huge cinerary mound: Photo 15 shows the size of heap formed from the cremated ashes of the 250,000 people murdered at Sobibór.

Driving back to Włodawa, we paused in the silence of the birch forests to contemplate the implications for humanity of what had happened at camps like Sobibór and again reflected with anger that so many of those responsible lived out the rest of their lives unmolested when their names and faces were known to the civilised world (Photo 16 - Birch forests near Sobibór). The entire Włodawa Jewish population had of course perished at Sobibór, and today a museum in the former synagogue tells their story. In the Rynek, a huge Soviet era memorial stands; we wondered what destruction the Red Army had inflicted in 'liberating' the town in 1944. Before leaving the following morning, we drove along the lane which ends at the unbridged River Bug, the border with Belarus: no border control, no guard post, nothing other than the red and white Polish border post. Belarus seemed an unwelcoming and xenophobic place (Photo 17 - River Bug forming the Polish~ Belarusian border at Włodawa).

Route 82 cuts a straight westward course through the forests leading towards Lublin, which has only one campsite, Camping Graf Marina, in the city's SW outskirts; it's a much neglected, sad and sorry place which makes no effort to provide information for city visits, and is certainly no credit to eastern Poland's principal city. Despite being only mid-August, darkness was now falling earlier by 8-00pm and there was a real feeling of approaching autumn with the ground having a thick covering of fallen leaves.

Along with Kraków and Warsaw, Lublin had been one of the major Jewish centres in Poland, and after independence in 1918, Jews had figured prominently in the city's social, political and commercial life, their numbers forming 50% of Lublin's population. After the 1939 German invasion, the entire Jewish population was immediately confined to the Lublin ghetto. In 1941, a huge concentration camp was built at Majdanek in the city suburbs, initially as a forced-labour camp housing 150,000 Polish political prisoners and Russian POWs, and the following year, it became the focal point of Operation Reinhardt to eliminate the entire Jewish population. In 1942, 43,000 Jews from the Lublin ghetto were murdered at Majdanek either in the gas chambers or by execution, 18,000 of them in a single day. Majdanek was the largest forced-labour and extermination camp in occupied Europe, sited just 4 kms from the city centre, and 250,000 are estimated to have been murdered there. The camp was 'liberated' by the Red Army in July 1944 and immediately taken over by the Soviet NKVD secret police to imprison members of the Polish Home Army opposed to Soviet occupation of Poland.

Parts of the former Majdanek forced-labour/extermination camp have been preserved as a memorial museum, and the first impression on visiting is the overwhelming size of the site which extends 1km from end to end. You are greeted at the entrance by a monstrous 1960s monumental 'sculpture' entitled Gateway to Hell (Photo 18 - Memorial at Majdanek). Along the length of the site, you pass barbed wire fencing, watch-towers and some of the surviving wooden barrack huts, and at the far end you reach a domed mausoleum shaped like a concrete flying saucer which covers a memorial mound of ashes gathered together after the war from the cremated remains of victims (Photo 19 - Symbolic mass grave of 250,000 victims at Majdanek). The inscription translates as Let our fate be a warning to you. Beyond a watch-tower and barbed wire fencing stands crematorium building where a line of 5 ovens with Germanic efficiency rendered 250,000 victims to ashes (Photo 20 - Crematorium at Majdanek extermination camp). We walked through this building, totally bemused at the incomprehensible scale of inhumanity in this place. It is with no salacious intent whatsoever that we reproduce these photos, but again to remind the world what German ingenuity devised in WW2 to further their barbaric intentions.

Some of the surviving huts are set out as an exhibition on the history and operation of Majdanek and the fate of its prisoners, with moving displays of personal belongings, camp striped clothing, the mechanics of killing and bureaucracy which obsessed the Germans whose records now provide evidence of their crimes. Over the 2 years of the camp's operation, 730 kg (12 tons) of human hair shaved from victims was dispatched to German textile manufacturers for weaving into fabric and victims' cremated ashes were sent to SS farms as fertiliser, such was the German sense of value of human lives. The film showed at the visitor centre was starkly frank but omitted any mention of the fact of the immediate switch to Red Army repressive usage as a prison camp for Poles opposing the Soviet take-over before their transfer to gulags. For more on Majdanek and the other Reinhardt death camps, visit the Majdanek Museum web site: Majdanek Extermination Camp Museum

The terminus for the #1 bus into Lublin city centre is 10 minutes' walk from Graf Marina Camping. The bus dropped us right by the Kraków Gate, the medieval entrance to the old town and iconic Lublin landmark (Photo 21 - Kraków Gate entrance to Lublin old town). Opposite the Gate, the pedestrianised Krakówskie Prsedmieście leads to Plac Litewski, a large park where in 1569 the Lithuanian nobles are said to have encamped when here to sign the Union of Lublin under which Poland and Lithuania merged into the Commonwealth of the 2 nations forming the largest state in medieval Europe under the last of the Jagełłonian kings, Sigismund August. An obelisk in the square erected in 1826 commemorates the Union with a gilded relief showing figures representing the 2 states shaking hands.

Back through the Kraków Gate, you enter the compact Rynek, now filled by the oversized Old Town Hall, an unremarkable 18th century Neo-classical pile. Far more impressive are the sgraffito-decorated burghers' houses surrounding the square where we sat for a beer to admire the attractive setting (Photo 22 - Sgraffito-decorated houses in Lublin Rynek). A cobbled lane leads down to the Grodska Gate, traditionally the northern entrance to the medieval old town and symbolic divide between Christian Lublin and the Jewish quarter. Beyond the Gate, a bridge leads up to Lublin Zamek (castle). The original 14th century fortress built by King Kazimierz the Great was destroyed in the wars of the 17th century and replaced under the 19th century Russian Tsarist occupation by the present castle to imprison Polish nationalists from the 1830 insurrections; the post-WW1 Polish government used it to imprison communists, the Germans in WW2 used it as a place of execution for Poles and Jews, and during the communist era, it was used to imprison political opponents of the regime. This was a sorry recent history for a building that in 1569 had witnessed what was perhaps Poland's crowning moment with the signing here of the Union with Lithuania. The castle now houses Lublin's museum and art gallery, not it must be said the most inspiring of collections, apart from one worthy exhibit: the monumental painting by Jan Matejko, created in 1969 to mark the 300th anniversary of the Commonwealth of Poland and Lithuania, portrays King Sigismund August presiding imperiously over the Lithuanian nobles as they swear allegiance to the Union of Lublin treaty. What the red- coated cardinal on the left is indicating with his 'tone it down, boys' gesture is any one's guess (Photo 23 - 1569 Union of Lublin monumental painting by Jan Matejko).

The other feature of the castle worthy of a visit is the Chapel of the Holy Trinity, a remarkable piece of medieval artwork. In 1416~18, King Władisław II Jagiełło commissioned Orthodox artists to line all the royal chapel's interior surfaces with frescoes, created in the Russian-Byzantine style combining the great Eastern and Western thematic traditions of religious art. The frescoes are composed of panels, each created in a single day, coloured with pigmented minerals rubbed into the wet plaster before this base of the painting dried. The frescoes decayed over the centuries, and when the castle became a prison in the 19th century, they were covered over with rendering. Discovered by accident in the 1890s, they have been subjected to years of unsuccessful restoration attempts, only finally achieved by proper environmental control in 1995. The frescoes covering the chapel's walls, ceilings and columns follow the principles of Byzantine iconography with panels showing God the Father, the life of Christ and the Virgin Mary, and saints and archangels. One panel shows Władisław Jagiełło kneeling before the Virgin, and a dedicatory inscription in Cyrillic records the date of completion as St Lawrence's Day 1428 by the master painter Andrej. A detailed English language commentary gave details of the many panels, and again non-flash photography was allowed (Photo 23 - Medieval frescoes in Holy Trinity Chapel).

This had been an artistically rewarding couple of weeks touring the wooden churches of SE Poland, but feelings were inevitably dominated by the overwhelming sense of incomprehensible inhumanity we had witnessed at the Reinhardt extermination camps and the sense of outrage that so few of those responsible had ever been brought to justice. Next week we move on to spend time in Poland's capital city, totally rebuilt after the savage destruction wrought by the retreating Germans in 1944 after the brutal suppression of the Polish Home Army's Warsaw Uprising and the earlier total extermination of the city's Jewish population. We shall then visit the memorial site of perhaps the most destructive of the Reinhardt extermination camps Treblinka where the Germans murdered 800,000 human beings, and conclude the next phase of the trip in the primeval forests of Eastern Poland's puszcza native home of the European bison, once hunted to extinction and now successfully reintroduced and flourishing in their wild natural habitat. It's going to be another fulfilling couple of weeks so join us again shortly.

   Sheila and Paul

   Published:  3 September 2010    

Next edition to be published in 2 weeks or so


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Prelude No 7 from 9 Preludes op 1 (1900)

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