We returned last night around 9:30 on Monday night from our (unexpectedly extended) trip to Poland and Ukraine.
The train ride from Chisinau to Warsaw was around 36 hours and left at 8:00 on Friday. Our little car was made up of five passengers (including us and the attendant) as we piggy-backed across Ukraine and Poland. Thus, we of course had a cabin to ourselves and made the best of it by passing the time with Phase 10 and books (Tim has become quite the bookworm, getting anxious for a bookstore when he has nothing to read. Although, he only likes to read in Romanian) Our car was hooked up to several different trains, and we spent four hours in a town in Ukraine where we got to walk around for a kind of short layover. We spent most of that time walking around a cemetery, checking out their market, and trying to figure out what the name of the town was. We eventually figured out we were in Vokzal by walking around the bus station and looking at what city most of the buses had in common. Tim’s ability to read the Cyrillic alphabet helped us greatly in this endeavor and getting around Ukraine in general.
We only spent a day and a half in Warsaw. It was beautiful, but there was not a lot open since it was Easter weekend. Oh my gosh, Polish people love their exact change. One bus driver actually threw up his hands when we tried to give hime 20 zloti for a four zloti bus ride! We saw the only remaining pieces of the wall that surrounded the Jewish ghetto during the Nazi occupation. It was in an apartment complex, but the doorman was nice enough to let us in. How strange to live there! There was also a really beautiful park and park benches that played Chopin.
Monday we took a short train ride from Warsaw to Krakow. We spent most of Monday settling into our hostel, eating kebabs, and checking out the city square. The main square has some amazing architecture and a small market known as the Cloth Hall. Every hour, there is a straggling bugle that is played in honor of a bugle player who was shot in the throat while he was playing. It’s a great place to admire the city and people watch over some street food.
Tuesday, we climbed Wawel hill to check out the castle and the cathedral. In the afternoon, we visited the Galicia museum in Kazimierz, the Jewish district that dates back to the 13th century. This museum was a photography exhibit that traces the Jewish traditions in the Galicia region before, during, and after the Holocaust. I feel like we learned a lot about Jewish culture and how empty Eastern Europe is with just a fraction of this vibrant cultural and ethnic community left. We joined a free walking tour (I know, so touristy, but it’s better than staring at buildings and not understanding their meaning) and our tour guide was so informative. A lot of the scenes from Schindler’s List were filmed in this area. Krakow used to be home to 60,000 – 70,000 Jewish people. 2,000 Krakovian Jews survived the war, and now there are 97 people living in Kazimierz with a median age of 68. I think those numbers really make you think about what a gulf the Nazis created through the Holocaust. From there, our tour walked to Krakow’s Jewish ghetto, and we saw the factory that Oscar Schindler ran and employed the people forced to live in the ghetto.
Wednesday we traveled to and toured Auschwitz and Auschwitz-Birkenau. I was on the fence about whether or not this was appropriate, but we decided it was important to see it for ourselves. If everyone made this trip, I would like to think there would be a lot more compassion in the world and more people would become active against crimes of genocide committed around the world. We decided not to take any pictures because it is considered the largest cemetery in the world based on the ashes scattered there, and it seemed disrespectful. I would suggest that you go there if you have the opportunity, because it really brings the Holocaust into perspective and helps you understand the true gravity of the situation. I know we all realize what a horrible thing it was, but … you just have to go to understand. We were both very quiet the entire time, but there are two things that I think I will always remember. The first is walking into one of the rooms that was part of the museum. One of the walls was a glass case completely filled with two tons of dark brown, human hair. When the Soviets liberated the camp, they found seven tons of this hair in storage. The Nazis were shaving the heads of everyone who came through the camp and using human hair to create fabric for bags and clothing. The second thing I cannot get out of my head is standing on the platform where the trains were brought in and seeing barracks as far as my eyes could see. Each barrack (it was more like a shed) was packed with 400 people at the time. The number of people that this adds up to is just astonishing, and this is where were workers were held (not the women and children the Nazis murdered immediately). This was a very difficult morning, but I think the experience was very important for both of us.
Thursday, we traveled from Krakow to Lviv, Ukraine. There are only night buses and night trains across the border, so we took a train to the border, walked across, and took a bus the rest of the way to Lviv. Lviv has a deep Polish and Jewish history, and now it is the cultural capital of Ukraine. It also boasts some beautiful architecture and adorable cobblestone streets. We climbed to the top of castle hill and got a great view of the city. We even met some really cool Polish people we were sharing a room with, the hostel staff at the Kosmonaut was really friendly, and there were Peace Corps Ukraine volunteers staying there on their way to running a 10k. It was an interesting city, and our stay was extended a few days because there were no tickets out of the city until Sunday (we had wanted to leave Friday afternoon). So, we tried to make the best of it by taking the time to relax, read, and lay around in the sunshine. When the lady at the ticket booth yells something vaguely similar to “No tickets” and speaks no English, what else can you do? Anyway, it was nice to relax those last few days but we were so ready to be home by Sunday when we got on the train.
We were also excited to return home so that we had a common language with people. I assumed the train attendant on the way home spoke Romanian, but she would just give us a funny look whenever we tried to speak to her. At borders, she would always ask the other passengers to help us if they spoke English. About halfway through the trip, she said something in Russian about my legs being cold because I was wearing a dress. I responded in Romanian that I was fine, but I appreciated her thoughtfulness. She was so impressed with this simple phrase she ran up and down the train telling the other passengers how well I spoke Romanian. Lol. If she was that impressed with my Romanian, I think she would have passed out if she knew how well Tim speaks.
Overall, the trip was informative, interesting, not too expensive, and completely exhausting. Unfortunately, because of our delay getting home, we missed Memorial Easter, which we were looking forward to. We will be sure to stick around for the Easter holidays next year though. I hope you all had an excellent Easter and enjoyed your respective spring breaks or vacations. I don’t have the pictures of the trip uploaded yet, but I’ll have Tim put them up on Facebook and Flickr tomorrow.