Saturday, May 28, 2016

A Thousand Years in One Day

Imagine a semester-long course packed into one day. . . . Thank goodness we started out with an ample Hotel Metropol breakfast, complete with all the coffee we could drink!  Promptly at 9 a.m. we met our tour guide Ewa (pronounced eh-va) and shortly after we boarded our air-conditioned Mercedes-Benz bus (wow!).  Driving slowly through the city,
heroic fighters
we got our first daylight view of Warsaw.   Ewa pointed out the significant buildings, old and new, including Poland’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.   By 10 a.m. we were at the Warsaw Ghetto Fighters Monument.  


The Monument is in front of the new Polin: Museum of the History of Polish Jews.  The museum is right on top of what used to be the Warsaw Ghetto jail.  During the years 1940-1943, 450,000 Jews from different parts of Poland were kept there.  They were horribly oppressed, starved, executed, and deported “to the East.”  When they discovered that the destination was  to the Treblinka extermination camps, the Jews who were still in the Ghetto launched a revolt, knowing they would die while fighting Nazi soldiers.   Our Polin Museum guide Anna told us, “The Warsaw Ghetto is where Jews died, but this museum shows how Jews lived.”

There's a unicorn in
our synagogue!
For the next two hours she led us through 1000 years of Jewish history in Poland. The seven museum galleries describe the cultural, economic, and political activities of Jews all over Poland from the medieval era to the present.  There was so much to see and hear and do!  We saw artifacts like coins and swords, title pages of religious books and descriptions of their contents, paintings, and an awesome reconstruction of a painted synagogue. In the 19th century gallery, we reenacted a Jewish wedding ceremony (a hearty “Mazel tov!” to Adam and Ada).  Each of us was assigned to focus on a specific time period and report on an item, and you can see the fruits of our research on a tab in this blog.

By the time we left the museum, we appreciated the bravery of Jan Karski, a member of the Polish Resistance.  He managed to get smuggled in and out of the Warsaw Ghetto and Belzec extermination camp in order to report the atrocities to the world and implore the Allies to stop the Holocaust.   

We resumed our bus tour and went to Old Town.  In fact, Old Town is actually not so old.  Utterly destroyed in WWII, the residential and business edifices were reconstructed in the 1950s to match the pre-war facades.

A mermaid wielding a
sword and shield, Warsaw's
city symbol
We were amazed, and it finally felt like we were in Europe: an expansive town square surrounded by charming buildings filled with cobble stone streets, a Roma with a parrot, outdoor cafes with umbrellas (yes, serving Polish food!), and accordion-playing panhandlers.

Our appetites gravitated toward new tastes.  The gelato was amazing with flavors like strawberry, chocolate, raspberry, mint, mango, coffee, and caramel – all swirled in a precarious tower above the waffle cone.  It cooled us off on the hot, humid, Polish weather.

Presidential Palace
Back in our bus, we were shown the newly rebuilt but also old-and-elegant looking national buildings: the Presidential Palace, the Sejm (Parliament), the National Opera House, the National Theater, and the National Library with odd colored Pegasi (plural of Pegasus) on its lawn.

Then Ewa took us to the fancy neighborhood which hadn’t been bombed during WWII because Nazi headquarters were there. We saw elegant old buildings that house the embassies for the U.S., Canada, New Zealand, Bulgaria, and Romania.   The Chinese Embassy is not there, but in the area of the former Warsaw Ghetto (stay tuned tomorrow for the hidden treasure under the Chinese Embassy).

The bus dropped us off near our group dinner meal featuring an authentic traditional Polish menu.   

Polish nobleman presiding
over our group dinner

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