I realize it has been almost 4 days since I last posted…my apologies! I have hopped and skipped from Gdansk to Warsaw to Prague, winding my way through the diverse historical sites and cities of Poland and the Czech Republic.
Let’s start with the Middle Ages, taking a chronological tour of just some of the highlights. On Tuesday I visited Malbork Castle, formerly known as Magdeburg, which is just an hour east of Gdansk. As a history teacher, I figured I knew a lot about European history, especially Eastern Europe after specializing in this region for my undergraduate degree. Was I ever humbled this week on how little I actually know! Starting with Malbork. This is the largest brick castle in the world. Absolutely immense. It was never taken forcibly. And it’s no wonder when you begin to walk through line after line of defensive walls and gates. I walked through at least 3 gates and two lines of moats and ramparts to reach the outer courtyard, and that’s not including all the various defensive walls and moats still be excavated outside the main castle complex! The castle was built by a group of crusading knights, around which numerous legends swirl – the Teutonic Knights. They were essentially fighting monks, a monastic order that grew up out of the crusades to defend Christians in the Holy Land. They would take the vows of poverty, obedience, and chastity that all monks take and devoted themselves to serving Christ. However, with the end of the Crusades, they found themselves very much unemployed. So when the royal family of Poland invited them to their region to help convert pagans, the knights set up camp in northern Poland and built Malbork. However, the knights turned out to be a pebble in the shoe of the Poles, causing all sorts of mischief and mayhem, beginning to terrorize and kill Poles along with the pagans. So Poland and Lithuania’s royal families united by marriage and worked to slowly push the knights out.
The castle is fascinating to poke around in – gorgeous vaulted architecture, monastic complexes where the knights would sleep and eat, and all the daily living of castle life, such as a giant kitchen and “toilets” in the towers, which emptied right into the moat (medieval sanitation). All seems so peaceful today, filled with children on school trips, but really these knights were brutal, killing people and razing villages if they refused to convert to Christianity.
In Warsaw, we fast forward to World War II. I happened, by lucky circumstance, to meet a wonderful gentleman from Israel named Ade. He and his wife were staying at my hostel and we shared his freshly brewed Turkish coffee at breakfast. (Turkish coffee is very strong and my favorite coffee experience so far – fine coffee grounds in the bottom of the glass, boiling water poured over the grounds, allow the grounds to settle into a thick sludge in the bottom, and drink the strong brew on top.) Ade’s father was a Jewish Polish citizen, fleeing Warsaw during WW2 and returning after the war. Ade’s mother took him as a child to live in Israel, but his father remained in Warsaw until his death. Ade gave me a personal tour of the former Jewish ghetto, which was razed to the ground by the Nazis after the Jewish Ghetto uprising in 1943. I have never been so honored in my life. He pointed out the very few surviving buildings and explained how the ghetto was laid out. We stood before a very sacred bunker, which was once the basement of a building and is now a grassy hill with a memorial on top. During the uprising, this was command central for the Jewish resistence. Over a hundred men are buried here from when the Nazis bombed the bunker. Like the other memorials in the ghetto, candles and flowers cover the bunker. I saw so much that tears at your soul. The spot where a train station once stood, used to deport the Jews to Treblinka. The Jewish hospital where the entire hospital staff poisoned the patients and themselves to avoid being sent to the camps. (It is now a school and the boisterous sounds of band class were spilling out of the windows.)
Warsaw humbled me yet again on how little I know of the history of this region. At the newly built (2004) Warsaw Uprising Museum, I learned all about how the Polish citizens of the city rose up against the Germans in Aug-Sep 1944. I knew that the Home Army was the largest resistence movement of World War II. I also knew that the Soviet Army stood by across the river while the Germans destroyed the uprising, because Stalin did not want the uprising to succeed – he wanted a Communist government in Poland, not the return of the government-in-exile from London. What I did not realize is that during the brief weeks of the uprising, the Home Army was successful enough that Warsaw set up its own government with a President, newspapers began printing again, and even shops and cafes were open for bustling business. Today the Home Army is revered by the Varsovians – the symbol of the P in the shape of an anchor is even graffitied around the city.
Now jump backwards to the 1890s. Prague is a crucible of Art Nouveau architecture. Almost every block of the Jewish Quarter has a brilliant example of the playful nature of this period. Undulating balconies, frolicking sprites and angels, intricate and colorful mosaics. A stunning example is the Municipal House. Last night I had the opportunity to attend a concert of the Prague Symphony Orchestra there. It is a beautiful building, especially inside. The concert hall is intimate and grand all at once. Every seat is a good seat and the architecture is sumptuous. Romantic little lanterns hang from the box seats. Tiled mosaics on the walls. An oval stained glass dome dominates from above. I spent just as much time looking at the building as I did listening to the music! (Which was superb.)
On a note not related to architecture – I sampled an alcoholic substance today called absinthe. It is outlawed in the States, and was popular in the 1890s for its hallucinogenic properties. (See the musical Moulin Rouge for the green fairy scene to understand…) I actually tried a sample in the local department store! Just a tiny drop was enough to knock me over – yoowza! It packs a punch. Enough for a lifetime, thank you!
Now back into the streets of Prague….a menagerie of architectural periods…maybe it’s time to visit the Gothic St. Vitus Cathedral…