** POLAND  2010  -  Weeks 9~10 **

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CAMPING IN POLAND 2010  -  Warsaw, Treblinka, and Białowieźa National Park:

Our route northwards from Lublin towards the Polish capital brought us to the valley of the River Wisła (Vistula) at Kazimierz Dolny. The town and its castle had been founded by King Kazimierz the Great in the 14th century to develop the Wisła's grain and timber trade, part of his policy of rebuilding the Kingdom's economy. Kazimierz Dolny became a prosperous mercantile town, and much of the wealth was used to build the ornate burghers' houses which still line its Rynek (market square). It was these trading opportunities and King Kazimierz's proclamation of religious tolerance that attracted Jews to settle in the town at a time when they were being persecuted across the breadth of medieval Europe; over the next 5 centuries, the Jewish community grew to over 50% of the town's population. Just a handful survived WW2 leaving the town a half empty shell in the aftermath of the Holocaust.

Click on 2 regions of map for details of Warsaw and Eastern-Poland

Being so close to Warsaw, Kazimierz Dolny is these days a popular tourist attraction, thronged with summer visitors. The fast-flowing wide River Wisła is safely contained within high levées, with sandy islands hiding the river's far bank. Beautifully decorated merchants houses with elegantly ornamented façades line the Rynek, and the parish church rises high on the hillside forming an impressive backdrop (Photo 1 - Sculpture-fronted houses in Kazimierz Dolny Rynek). And behind stand the remains of Kazimierz's 14th century castle.

Attractive as the town's Renaissance inheritance is, a poignant reminder of more tragic recent history also deserved our attention before we moved on to Warsaw. During WW2, the German occupiers not only had exterminated Kazimierz Dolny's Jewish population but also totally destroyed the Jewish cemetery, ripping up the gravestones to use as paving slabs. In the 1980s, the tombstones were salvaged and reassembled at the site of the former cemetery to create a Wailing Wall monument pierced by a jagged crack symbolising the dismemberment of Kazimierz Dolny's Jewish community. Set on a hillside in a shady valley just outside the town, it is starkly moving tribute, seen unfortunately by few of the tourists who flock to Kazimierz Dolny (Photo 2 - Destroyed Jewish cemetery Memorial at Kazimierz Dolny).

Route 17 is a fast and hazardous road, cutting a straight course northwards towards Warsaw. Turning off down to the Wisła valley, we reached Camping Wok, a small, family-run campsite in the SE suburbs of the city. You really could not ask for a more hospitably helpful welcome: a ready-prepared information pack, city map and bus and tram routes, times and tickets. If only all city campsites were so thoughtful towards their guests - visit Camping Wok's website

The following morning we caught the #146 bus from close to the campsite for the 20 minute ride into the city; a couple of stops on the tram from Rondo Waszyngtona across the Wisła bridge, and we were standing, slightly bemused as always in a new city, ready to walk along to Warsaw's Old town. For a capital city, Warsaw was a late arrival on the European scene, founded as a royal residence by the 14th century princes of the Mazovian Duchy and later absorbed into the Polish Kingdom. After the 1469 Union of Poland and Lithuania, King Sigismund August moved the Polish capital from Kraków to Warsaw. WW2 however brought the city's total annihilation: the city's 450,000 Jewish population was crammed into the ghetto area of the inner city and then subjected to complete extermination in death camps like Treblinka. Then in August 1944, with the Red Army poised on the east bank of the Wisła, the whole city rose in rebellion against the German occupation in the Polish Home Army-led Warsaw Uprising. This was ruthlessly crushed and the entire city razed by the vengeful Germans, leaving 850,000 Warsaw civilians dead or missing. Following 'liberation' in early 1945, the city-scape of Warsaw resembled Hiroshima; Eisenhower described it as the most tragic sight he had ever seen. The long task of reconstruction was an incredible feat of national achievement and recovery by the Polish people, and the city population is now 1.7 million. Looking around now, it is difficult to conceive of the scale of wartime destruction inflicted on the city. What is missing however is the entire pre-war 450,000 strong Jewish community, lost forever in the gas chambers of Treblinka.

It was such a delight on a sunny morning to walk along pedestrianised Nowy Świat towards the University. During the WW2 occupation, the Germans closed Warsaw University, making any attempt at educational activity a capital offence such was their arrogant contempt for Polish culture; 1000s of Polish academics and students were murdered. Just before the University campus stands the Copernicus Memorial commemorating the Polish Renaissance polymath who had the effrontery to challenge Catholic doctrine of a geocentric universe by proposing that the earth along with other planets revolved around the sun. Across the square, the Church of the Holy Cross, wonderfully restored to its Baroque glory after total destruction during the 1944 Warsaw Uprising, contains Chopin's tomb; it actually holds only his heart since the 19th century Tsarist Russian occupiers refused to allow the rest of his body to be returned for burial in his home country (Photo 3 - Holy Cross Church and Copernicus Monument). Tucked away in a park, a sword-brandishing figure of Victory stands atop a plinth, appearing to direct traffic along the nearby underpass; this statue, the Warsaw Heroes' Monument, was a state tribute to the 1000s who died in the Uprising and its aftermath.

The heart of Warsaw's Old Town is Plac Zamkowy (Castle Square), bounded by the Royal Castle (Zamek Królewski). This symbol of Polish nationhood was dynamited by the Germans after the Uprising and after the war meticulously reconstructed (Photo 4 - Royal Castle (Zamek) in Warsaw Old Town). Standing at this glorious spot on a bright sunny morning, it was impossible to conceive of the scale of destruction of 66 years ago which left Warsaw and its Old Town in utter ruins. Around the Castle, horse-drawn carts plied for tourist trade, and just around the corner we found Warsaw's Cathedral of St John (Photo 5 - St John's Cathedral in Warsaw Old Town). Some of the most bitter fighting of the Uprising took place here, and a section of German tank track was embedded into the wall of the Cathedra's post-war reconstruction. A side chapel holds the tomb of Cardinal Wynszyński who was imprisoned for his opposition to the communist regime, and the Cathedral's Gothic interior now stands as a proud tribute to the city's post-war rebuilding. Just beyond, we stood at the corner of the Old Rynek, brimming with admiration at the scale of restoration necessary to recreate the 3 storey merchants' houses surrounding the market square, after the total destruction wrought by the Germans. The architectural work of restoration was aided by Canaletto paintings of early Warsaw rescued from the Zamek. Standing here now amid the street cafés bustling with tourists, it was hard to believe that the buildings were not original (Photo 6 - Restored Rynek Starego Miasto in Warsaw Old Town).

Continuing through the Barbakan of the restored city walls, we walked along ulica Freta to find no 16, the house where Marie Skłodowska-Curie was born in 1867 into a wealthy and scientifically inclined family. She moved to Paris to study at the Sorbonne, married fellow researcher Pierre Curie and devoted her life's work to the study of radioactivity. After Curie's death, she was awarded his Chair and went on to win Nobel Prizes for her discovery and isolation of Polonium (named after her native country) and Radium. She died in 1934 of leukaemia brought on by constant exposure to radioactivity during the course of her work. The house at 16 ulica Freta now contains a museum to Mme Skłodowska-Curie, illustrating her life and work. Photos of her in the company of leading scientists and politicians showed her achievement in breaking into the male-dominated academic world of the early 20th century (Photo 7 - Birthplace of Marie Skłodowska-Curie in Warsaw).

At plac Krasińskich, the square is filled with a controversial statuary group commissioned by the communist authorities as a Monument to the Warsaw Uprising, marking the spot where on 1 August 1944 the Polish Home Army (AK) launched their assault on the Germans. The memorial represents AK soldiers emerging from the Warsaw sewers in the brave but forlorn attempt to dislodge the heavily armed Germans. Fearful of the news that in Lublin the Soviets had imprisoned Home Army members in Majdanek, the AK launched the Uprising before the Soviets reached Warsaw in a vain attempt to assert Polish independence. In fact the Red Army tanks idled across the river waiting for the Uprising to be crushed so that Stalin could take over a defeated country. The German reprisals were savage:1000s were killed in the street fighting and afterwards the city was blasted into oblivion (Photo 8 - Monument to 1944 Home Army-led Warsaw Uprising).

Continuing into the area of the modern city that had once been part of the Warsaw Ghetto where in appalling conditions the Germans had imprisoned the entire Jewish population, we found the Ghetto Heroes Monument (Pomnik Bohaterów Getta), set up in 1948 and ironically built using the Swedish granite blocks ordered by Hitler for a monument to his victory over Poland. The stark monument recalls to moving effect the desperate courage of the Jewish resistance fighters in the Ghetto Uprising of 1942, and the hopelessness of the 1000s who afterwards were deported by rail for extermination at Treblinka (Photo 9 - Monument to Warsaw Ghetto Uprising Heroes). The overcrowding, starvation, and epidemics in the Warsaw Ghetto, the deportations to the death camps, the desperation of the Ghetto Uprising and razing of the ghetto are all grimly portrayed in Roman Polański's (himself a survivor of the Kraków Ghetto) film of Władysław Szpilman's wartime memoir The Pianist. The monument is now set amid an area of apartments and office blocks where the Warsaw Ghetto had once stood, with trams trundling through the modern streets (Photo 10 - Modern apartment blocks on site of Warsaw ghetto). A Path of Remembrance recalling individuals involved in the Ghetto Uprising leads to another white marble monument at the Umschlagplatz where in 1942~3 Jews from the ghetto were herded into cattle trucks bound for their mass murder at Treblinka The monument's inner walls are lined with Jewish forenames, symbolising the 450,000 deported from here to the death camps (Photo 11 - Umschlagplatz memorial to Warsaw Jews deported for extermination at Treblinka).

We soon found that with our day-rover ticket, valid on all public transport, the Warsaw trams network provided the most convenient means of travelling around the city (Photo 12 - Trams make quickest transport around the streets of Warsaw). We hopped on and off trams to return to Centrum to see the Pałac Kultury i Nauki (Palace of Culture and Sciences), not that you could miss it since this art deco mausoleum to Stalinist ideology, completed in 1955 and officially dubbed An unshakeable monument to Polish~Soviet friendship, is visible as a landmark right across the city. From the tram stop at plac Defilad, we walked across to the enormous skyscraper (Photo 13 - Stalinist-era Palace of Culture and Sciences). Many Warsovians insist that the best views of Warsaw are from the Palace's 30th floor terrace, the only viewpoint from which the monstrosity is not itself visible. But with its sinister elegance and sheer monumental scale, it's debatable whether the building is any more unattractive than the lack-lustre glass and concrete modern office blocks which now surround it making up the new 21st century Warsaw city-scape. If you learn no other Polish word, it's at least worth knowing that emeryci means pensioner since seniors are often entitled to reduced entry resulting in worthwhile savings. We paid for our emeryci tickets to ride the elevator up to the Place's 30th floor for the panoramic views across the city (Photo 14 - Panorama over Warsaw from Palace of Culture terrace), before catching the tram back across the river for the bus ride back to Camping Wok in the outer suburbs.

The following morning we returned to the city in time for the Sunday morning changing of the guards ceremony at Warsaw's Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The tomb, inscribed with lists of battles in which Polish troops had fought, was in process of renovation with temporary covering. The new troop of guards marched across the square for the ceremony with their characteristic step and salute, the officer wearing the Polish four-cornered military cap, and took up their position by the tomb for the guards to change (Photo 15 - Changing of the Guards at Tomb of Unknown Warrior).

With the number of tourists in Warsaw, lunching out is inevitably a expensive luxury, but we had a recommendation for one of the few places in the capital where traditional Polish food was served at sensible prices. We found Bar Krokiecik in ulica Zgoda, well away from popular tourist haunts and enjoyed a truly delicious meal. Behind the looming Palace of Culture, we searched among the grubby back streets and apartment blocks of ulica Złota and Sienna for the reported sections of former ghetto wall preserved as a monument to the sufferings of 1942~3. We tried every corner, every yard and every entry but with no success. But later that afternoon, we did find by chance another restored section of ghetto wall, and set in the pavement, a bronze plaque-line marking the route of the infamous wall which imprisoned the Warsaw Jews before their shipment to death at Treblinka (Photo 16 - Restored section of Warsaw ghetto wall). The Germans set up 2 ghettoes and this was the site of the Small Ghetto. Nearby the intersection of ulica Żelazna and Chłodna marked the crossing point into the Large Ghetto where Jews queued to pass from one area to the other as described so vividly in Władysław Szpilman's The Pianist. Other than one apartment block which gave the appearance of surviving from pre-war days, the surroundings of today of course bore no resemblance to the time of the desperately overcrowded ghetto. It was however an evocative moment standing at this spot and the ghosts of 1943 seemed to whisper all around us.

In this same part of the city, the Muzeum Powstania Warszawskiego commemorating the 1944 Warsaw Uprising had been established in a former tramway power station building, on the 60th anniversary of the Uprising in 2004. Soviet negative attitudes to the Uprising and the part played by the Polish Home Army made it impossible to set up the museum during the communists period. Given the circumstances of the Uprising, the museum is a brave attempt, with commentaries in Polish and English, to portray the horrors of German occupation, the background prompting the Uprising, and the destruction of any semblance of normal life. The ambivalent lack of support for the Uprising from the Red Army poised just across the river showed Stalin's cynical intention to allow the Polish Home Army to be crushed preventing any assertion of Polish independence. Stalin's propaganda machine denigrated the Uprising as misguided and the Home Army as led by German supported fascists. What however was even more shameful was the way the British and American governments and press naively fell hook, line and sinker for Stalin's lies, denying any support or credence to the Uprising and belittling it as an irrelevant distraction to the main war effort. Immediately after the Soviet 'liberation' of Warsaw, the Moscow-backed Committee for National Liberation immediately set about forming the communist regime, dominating every aspect of life in Poland and deporting patriotic members of the Home Army to the gulag. The Poles were left isolated and abandoned by their so-called Western allies yet again. The Warsaw Uprising Museum is certainly not a cosy tourist option; if you want a relaxing and conscience-free visit to Warsaw, stick to the regular tourist traps. But if you want fully to understand how the West left Poland in the lurch in its crucial hour of need, then the Uprising Museum with its challenging message is a must.

As you walk around much of Warsaw, it feels as if whole areas are filled with building sites, despite the impressive scale of restoration that has already taken place. All around however the skyline is dominated by modern, mostly formless and aesthetically unpleasing modern glass and concrete monstrosities. Whole areas of surviving pre-war Warsaw are being cleared away; it felt as if the scale of destruction wrought by Germans in 1942~44 was being brought to completion by 21st century developers. History stood no chance in the face of bulldozers and concrete pourers. But wandering among the ubiquitous building sites, we found one surviving street from the old Warsaw Ghetto, perhaps the only piece of pre-war Warsaw to have survived both the ravages of Germans and the assault of modern developers: ulica Próźna still stands (just), gaunt and scaffolded but still proudly showing its mellow brickwork, the semi-derelict upper storeys lit by the afternoon sun, but at least still surviving. Perhaps they will be converted to des-res yuppie flats (Photo 17 - Ulica Próźna, the last surviving pre-war street in Warsaw).

Just around the corner, on the side of another old building, a plaque recalled that this was the spot of a last stand by a company of the Home Army on 20 September 1944. The flowers and wreathes on the pavement below reminded us that yesterday had been the 66th anniversary of that event in the tragic Warsaw Uprising, and clearly still commemorated. We felt very humble.

We had spent a wearying but immeasurably fulfilling 2 days exploring both the regularly visited but also more obscure parts of Poland's capital city, and were full of admiration at the staggering level of restoration achieved. At the same time however, we were saddened by the faceless 21st century developments which now seemed to be rendering the city back to the level of devastation left by the barbarous Germans in 1944.

Leaving Warsaw, we drove NE across agricultural countryside to camp at the modest little town of Węgrow; tomorrow we had a gruelling day ahead. Turning northwards at Sokołow-Podlaski on a minor road which narrowed into a rough concrete single-track lane probably dating back to German wartime occupation, pine and birch woods closed around us; a side lane led across the railway tracks to the site of what was the worst of the German extermination camps - Treblinka, a name resounding to the death knell of 800,000 human beings murdered here by Germans between 1941 and 1943.

The original forced-labour camp was set up at Treblinka in 1941 to intern 2,000 Polish political prisoners who worked in gravel pits or irrigation schemes on the nearby River Bug. In the next 2 years, some 20,000 prisoners were murdered in the forced-labour camp, through overwork, exhaustion, starvation, disease and brutality, or simply executed for the sheer sadistic hell of it. A second camp, Treblinka II, was added in 1942 as the 4th of the Operation Reinhardt extermination camps. Before this, around a half million Jews had been murdered by Einsatzgruppen, mobile killing squads, in the occupied territories of Eastern Europe. It became evident that this system could not cope with the extermination of the millions of Jews concentrated in the ghettoes. Treblinka and the other Reinhardt killing factories were set up specifically to achieve rapid and efficient mass murder of Jews from the Polish ghettoes and other occupied countries. Treblinka II was operational by July 1942 and in the next 15 months, over 400,000 Jews were transported crammed into freight trains from the Warsaw Ghetto to be murdered at Treblinka.

The camp was operated by a small squad of 30 German and Austrian SS, aided by 120 Ukrainian guards. Squads of Jewish prisoners were used for menial tasks like removing bodies from gas chambers, cleaning out railway trucks of human detritus and sifting through cremated ashes, before they themselves were murdered. A siding led from the railway line into the camp, disguised as a station platform to deceive new arrivals into believing that this was a transit camp to avoid uncontrollable panic. From the cattle trucks, victims were forced to strip (Polish winter temperatures drop to -20°C) and any infirm were segregated for immediate shooting. Women's hair was shaved, possessions taken and victims forced along a barbed-wire lined path to the gas chambers to die a slow death by suffocation from diesel fumes. Bodies were burned in open pits or buried in mass graves. This tried and tested process could with Germanic efficiency murder 3,000 persons in 2 hours. Again no apology is given for repeating such unpalatable truths: the world needs constant reminder of the systematic and deliberate war crimes committed by Germans during WW2, lest we forget.

In August 1943, a group of Jewish prisoners organised a revolt; 600 prisoners escaped of whom 40 survived the war, and serious damage was done to the camp infrastructure. Remaining prisoners were shot, all the remains from mass graves exhumed and burnt, and the site razed and disguised as a farm to hide traces of the mass murders. The ruse failed: when the Red Army overran the area in 1944, the war correspondent Vasily Grossman, himself a Jew who later became a banned dissident writer, investigated what had happened here and wrote up the details in his article A Hell Called Treblinka which was used in the Nuremberg war crime trails. The gruelling account of Treblinka's discovery can be read today in Grossman's memoires A Writer at War (see left). Few of those responsible for the crimes committed at Treblinka were ever brought to justice. The Austrian commandant Franz Stangl escaped to Brazil in 1951 where he lived openly registered as an Austrian citizen. Despite official knowledge of his involvement at Treblinka, a warrant for his arrest was only issued in 1961; it took a further 6 years to track him down for extradition to West Germany to stand trial for mass murder. Despite the usual plea of 'simply obeying orders', he was sentenced to life imprisonment, dying in prison a year later. 800,000 human beings were murdered at Treblinka; responsibility rests eternally with the German nation.

No traces of the original camp survive, but in 1963 the communist authorities in Poland set up monuments to mark the features of Treblinka. A series of concrete slabs symbolically traces the course of the railway siding which brought deportees to the unloading ramp (Photo 18 - Symbolic railway sidings at site of Treblinka). Most poignantly, a massed area of stones inscribed with the names of towns, cities and countries from which victims were transported represents a commemorative graveyard. In the centre stands a stone monolithic memorial and behind this, an horrific black symbolic cremation pit where Germans burnt the bodies of the 1000s they had so systematically murdered (Photo 19 - Treblinka extermination camp memorial to the 800,000 victims). The memorial stones stretched away into the distance as we walked among them in grieving, angry silence. We stood trying with difficulty to plunge our imagination back to 1943~4 on this spot, and to picture families separated on the unloading ramp to be marched away to the gas chambers. Despite fittingly gloomy wet weather on the day of our visit, it was difficult to get any real feeling of the inhuman horrors committed here; the surrounding, now silent dark forests have kept their secrets well, but the memories of Treblinka will stay with us for ever.

Before continuing our journey eastwards, we paused at the modern farming village that is for ever sadly tarnished with the dreadful name of Treblinka (Photo 20 - Modern village of Treblinka near site of WW2 extermination camp). Those who have been here will recall the flimsy bridge which used to cross the River Bug at this point. This has now been demolished and a new more trustworthy bridge is in process of construction.

We followed the River Bug eastwards, our destination being Hajnówka, a town close to the Belarusian border with a market where you can buy anything from Kilner jars to galoshes and compressors; it's now an important centre of Eastern Poland's Belarusian minority with a large modern Orthodox church. Our reason however for coming out here was to spend time in the Białowieźa National Park. The extensive woodlands around the village of Białowieźa (pronounced Bia-wovi-azha) form the last surviving major tract of ancient primeval forest (puszcza) left in Europe, spanning the Belarusian border. The forest owes its survival to having been for centuries the private hunting grounds of Lithuanian and Polish royalty and, after the partition of Poland, of Russian Tsars, which protected the forests from indiscriminate timber-felling. Once Poland regained its independence in 1918, the Białowieźa forests were declared Poland's first national park to protect the area's other unique natural feature as the home of the last of the European wild bison herds which had been hunted almost to extinction. The bison (Żubr in Polish, which is also the name of one of Poland's national beers brewed in nearby Białystok) had been successfully re-introduced to the puszcza; the huge animals are now breeding again and roam freely in the reserve areas of the forests.

A 15 km drive through the dense primeval forest brought us to Białowieźa, to stay at the small, delightfully welcoming Camping U Michala. Out here in the depths of the puszcza, it felt like camping at the end of the world, a feeling heightened by the increasingly autumnal weather which was bringing down the birch leaves in flurries. Our first day at Białowieźa was spent on the Narrow Gauge Forest Railway (Leśne Kolejki Wąskotorowe), an 11km surviving stretch of a network of railways built by the German occupiers in WW1. The lines were used by logging companies for many years to transport timber; when this became more economical by lorry, part of the narrow gauge forest railway was preserved running between Hajnówka and the tiny woodland settlement of Topiło. Immediately leaving the station at the edge of town, the little train plunges into the dense puszcza forest, cutting a straight course along a causeway above the marshy forest floor (Photo 21 - Białowieźa Narrow Gauge Forest Railway). Never before have we experienced woodland so dense, with branches brushing against the side of the train; a mix of pine and deciduous birch, beech oak and hornbeam. Out at remote Topiło, the presence of 2 border police reminded us that the Belarusian border was only some 500m away in the dense forest, a decidedly inhospitable place.

Our second day was spent walking the way-marked trails of the Białowieźa puszcza, where we hoped to see some of the wild bison in the reserves. In miserably wet weather, wearing full water-proofs, we set off with misty rain dripping from the forest canopy (Photo 22 - Walking in the Białowieźa primeval forest). The later part of the walk on the Żebra Żubr path crossed the soggy forest floor on boarded walkways, slippery and gloomy in the wet weather (Photo 23 - Wet day's walking in the Białowieźa primeval puszcza). The climax of the walk however was when we reached the reserve: there grazing quietly in a large enclosure was a herd of the wild bison, cows, calves and a huge bull, a magnificent beast with the classic bison humped back, and quite undisturbed by Paul's red gortex (Photo 24 - European Bison (Żubr) in the Białowieźa National Park). In pouring rain, we plodged back to Białowieźa village and treated ourselves to Żubr beers to celebrate, waiting for the rain to stop.

The next couple of weeks entail lengthy travels, along the Belarusian border to the NE corner of Poland to experience the Augustów Canal built linking a series of lakes to transport timber. We shall then take advantage of EU open Schengen borders to cross into Lithuania for an exploratory visit to its capital city, Vilnius, once part of greater Poland, as a prelude to a full trip to the Baltic Republics next year. Join us again then.

   Sheila and Paul

   Published: 24 September 2010    

Next edition to be published in 2 weeks


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Mazurka Op 6 No 1 in F Sharp Minor

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