Sunday, December 4, 2016

Preserved! Kraków, Poland

Kraków is really a gem. It is the second largest and one of the oldest cities in Poland. As written in Wikipedia, "Kraków has traditionally been one of the leading centres of Polish academic, cultural, and artistic life and is one of Poland's most important economic hubs. It was the capital of the Crown of the Kingdom of Poland from 1038 to 1569; the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth from 1569 to 1795; the Free City of Kraków from 1815 to 1846; the Grand Duchy of Cracow from 1846 to 1918; and Kraków Voivodeship from the 14th century to 1998. It has been the capital of Lesser Poland Voivodeship since 1999."

For a tourist, one of the best features of Kraków is its authenticity. Many cities in Poland were terribly damaged in World War II. Some, like Warsaw, had to be largely rebuilt after the war. But Kraków was amazingly spared from serious damage. So when you look at the buildings in the rynek (Main Square) you are really seeing medieval buildings, not Old Town 1950. I want to share a few scenes from my 2016 trip. My wife and I were impressed in every way: friendly and hospitable people, great food, excellent prices, immaculate cleanliness, and amazing history.
Most visitors start their trip at the Rynek Główny, the grand Main Square. This is one of Europe's largest medieval market squares and possibly the best preserved and authentic, dating back to the 1300s. The city was destroyed by the Mongols in 1241, and the Main Square was rebuilt in 1257. The elegant hall in the center is the Cloth Hall, with the Town Hall Tower behind. I took this picture from the tower at the Church of Our Lady Assumed into Heaven (more commonly called St. Mary's Basilica). To reach the viewpoint, you need to buy a ticket and climb about 300 steps of the north (taller) tower. A fireman is on duty in the tower and blows a trumpet signal every hour, the Hejnał mariacki. At noon, the signal is broadcast by Polish radio around the world. The Trumpeter of Krakow, a 1929 historical novel by Eric P. Kelly, is based on the trumpeter and events surrounding a 1462 fire. History permeates everything in Poland.
Now let's switch to Tri-X film. This is the view of St. Mary's Basilica taken from the Town Hall Tower. During World War II, the Nazis planned to remake Kraków into a purely German city, which may be one reason it was mostly spared from massive destruction in 1944/1945. As part of their Germanification plan, they renamed the square Adolf Hitler-Platz.
Tourists love Kraków. This was a cheerful Italian group. We saw mostly European visitors along with some Chinese and Japanese groups, but very few Americans.
Summer is the time for musicians and entertainers. We heard that Christmas was also festive despite the cold. (This is a digital photograph.)
Food vendors sell all sorts of good locally-sourced foods. You can snack and skip dinner at a sit-down restaurant. We were surprised at the large number of ice cream stores.
The Jagiellonian University (Polish: Uniwersytet Jagielloński) was founded in 1364 by Casimir III the Great in 1364. In 1939, the Nazis sent 184 professors to concentration camps and closed the university for the rest of the war. Some illustrious alumni include Nicolaus Copernicus (the astronomer) and Saint Karol Wojtyła (John Paul II, Pope of the Catholic Church). As I said earlier, history permeates everyplace in Poland.
Cafes and historic town houses and offices line Mikolajska Street. The state of restoration/preservation was excellent.
Jewish traditions and culture are reviving in Kraków. Jewish residents played an important part in the society from the 1300s, and King Bolesław the Pious granted the Jews freedom to worship, trade, and travel via a royal charter. Most lived in the Kazimierz district of Kraków, which was a thriving economic and cultural hub until the Nazis invaded in 1939. As the war progressed, almost the entire Jewish community was sent to a ghetto and then on to concentration camps. Our tour guide told us that during the post-war Communist era, Jews were not specifically targeted or excluded, but very few returned to Kazimierz and worshiped openly. But in the last decade, Jewish families are returning, synagogues have reopened, and Kazimierz has become a popular site for tourists and scholars interested in the Jewish revival. The photograph shows the entrance to the Tempel Synagogue (Synagoga Tempel) on Miodowa Street, built 1860-1862 in Moorish Revival style.
Galeria LueLue, at Miodowa 22 in Kazimierz, had fascinating historical photographs, including ones taken during the war by German photographers.
Every visitor eventually visits the royal palaces, castle, and cathedral on Wawel Hill. This view is looking north towards the main town, with the towers of St. Mary's Basilica in the distance.
Southeast of town is the Cmentarz Podgorski. This is a Catholic cemetery still in use, but with many mid-century stones. Nearby is an old Jewish cemetery, but we were short on time and it started to rain, so we had to pass.

The square photographs (click to enlarge) were taken on Kodak Tri-X film with a Rolleiflex 3.5E camera with Xenotar lens. I scanned the 6×6 negatives with a Minolta Scan Multi scanner at 2820 dpi and cleaned with Pixelmator software. I resized for this article with ACDSee pro software.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Preserved! Staying at the Pałac Żelazno, Kłodzko, Poland

During my 2016 trip to Poland, we needed a room near the southwestern town of Kłodzko. It was a long drive there, and we wanted to visit a castle in Kłodzko in the morning. I booked via Easyjet's web page and by chance found a place called Pałac Żelazno at a reasonable price. OK, no problem.
Following the GPS unit, we drove some distance south of Kłodzko through woods and rich agricultural fields, turned and drove through a monumental gate, and there it was. It was a palace, not a chain hotel. Poland is full of neat surprises like this!
We checked in and were booked in a room on the second floor. The next  morning, I started exploring. The great rooms are just amazing. They survived the Great Depression, World War II, and 50 years of Communism?
The solarium on the south side was cheerful and sunny. It had some massive radiators to maintain heat during the winter. Our proprietor told us they use coal in the furnace (and a lot of it). I wanted to see the basement, but it was off-limits.
Wandering through some hallways, I found a stairwell that led upwards. All of a sudden, I was in the 1970s. Pałac Żelazno must have been a rest and relaxation hotel for workers during the Communist era, and the rooms in the attic had been decorated in Communist-moderne style.
The carpeting had a design that looked like old-fashioned TV sets. The brocade was gold. Some of the rooms had sinks, with lavatory was down the hall. What kinds of fun and games went on here when factory workers came on holiday? Recall that in the pre-World War II era, the servants would have lived under the roof (think of the intrigue and activity in the attic in Downton Abbey).
The palac has a tower on the south side (see the first photograph). On the ground floor, there was a gorgeous, sunny, cheerful round room with yellow plaster. Very nice. But what was above?
I snuck (sneaked?) through a doorway and up some curvy stairs. Hmmm, a fixer-upper room with some air conditioners. Note the 1960s lamp fixture.
Finally, the garrett (from an old French word guerite, meaning "watchtower" or "sentry box."). I looked for Rapunzel, but she was not there. I suppose her prince already took her away.
The former stables were out back. They needed a bit of restoration, but the massive tile roof looked sound. Did the Communist administration pay for that?

Palac Żelazno has its own web page where you can book a room for your stay. I'm impressed that they can cover maintenance and utilities. And I am glad the Communist authorities maintained the place in the post-war era. In the West, it likely would have been demolished on purely economic grounds. But the Poles have done a fantastic job preserving their historical culture. As I wrote above, Poland is full of surprises like this.

Photographs taken with a Fuji X-E1 digital camera with 18-55mm and 14 mm Fuji lenses.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

The Heart of Evil: Birkenau Extermination Camp, Poland

In my previous article, I wrote about the Auschwitz I camp in Oświęcim, Poland. After visiting the brick buildings and museum at Auschwitz I, visitors are taken by bus a few kilometers away to a second, and much larger, camp.

According to auschwitz.org:
The second part was the Birkenau camp (which held over 90,000 prisoners in 1944), also known as "Auschwitz II" This was the largest part of the Auschwitz complex. The Nazis began building it in 1941 on the site of the village of Brzezinka, three kilometers from Oswiecim. The Polish civilian population was evicted and their houses confiscated and demolished. The greater part of the apparatus of mass extermination was built in Birkenau and the majority of the victims were murdered here.
Various sub-camps were also built, but many of these have been demolished.
Birkenau was the largest of the more than 40 camps and sub-camps that made up the Auschwitz complex. During its three years of operation, it had a range of functions. When construction began in October 1941, it was supposed to be a camp for 125 thousand prisoners of war. It opened as a branch of Auschwitz in March 1942, and served at the same time as a center for the extermination of the Jews. In its final phase, from 1944, it also became a place where prisoners were concentrated before being transferred to labor in German industry in the depths of the Third Reich.
The endless rows of electrified barbed wire fencing reinforce the horror and enormity of the site. The railroad tracks in the first photograph show where trains with prisoners packed into box cars were unloaded. The women, children, and elderly were separated and almost immediately marched off to the gas chambers. Their possessions and clothing were sorted by slave workers. The victims were gassed and then inspected by other slave workers. They removed gold from their teeth. Then the bodies were loaded by more slave workers into ovens (crematoria).
Today, few of the wood barracks remain standing. When Soviet troops approached western Poland in December 1944/January 1945, the SS sent remaining prisoners west on forced marched, during which thousands died. Then they burned the wood barracks and blasted the gas chambers and crematoria. Stark chimneys are all that is left of the barracks, while the gas chambers have been left as piles of brick and rubble.

From http://www.pbs.org/auschwitz/40-45/liberation/:
As the Soviet army approached and the end of the war came closer the vast majority of Auschwitz prisoners were marched west by the Nazis, into Germany. Those few thousand remaining were thought too ill to travel, and were left behind to be shot by the SS. In the confusion that followed the abandonment of the camp, the SS left them alive. The prisoners were found by Soviet forces when they liberated Auschwitz on January 27, 1945. 
Vasily Gromadsky, a Russian officer with the 60th Army liberating Auschwitz recalls what happened. 
"They [the prisoners] began rushing towards us, in a big crowd. They were weeping, embracing us and kissing us. I felt a grievance on behalf of mankind that these fascists had made such a mockery of us. It roused me and all the soldiers to go and quickly destroy them and send them to hell."
A couple of buildings still stand. Tens of prisoners slept on these bleak benches in filth and sickness.
Some primitive latrine buildings had been built to reduce disease. The former gas chambers were piles of brick, which I did not photograph. The ovens were also destroyed by the fleeing Nazis just before Soviet troops arrived. A replica of one oven has been built, but I did not photograph it. It is amazing to me that as the Nazi 1000-year Reich collapsed, the Nazi authorities tried to cover up the physical evidence of their atrocities, as if that would be possible considering the magnitude of their industrial-scale concentration and death camps.

Dear Readers, please remember that these horrors were created by the same urbane and sophisticated society that previously brought us Martin Luther, Goethe, Schiller, Beethoven, and Bach. The camps demonstrated depths of depravity previously unimagined in cultured and civilized Europe. But evil lives very close below the surface of most societies. Government-sponsored and societal-approved brutality is insidious because ordinary people begin to believe that atrocities imposed on others is "normal" or quite all right. Consider how we treated African-Americans as late as the 1960s in the American South. It was "OK" to lynch blacks. And most people cannot or will not fight against the prevailing norms in their society - they just want to fit in. Considering the despicable hate talk we heard during the 2016 election in USA, remember the lessons of Auschwitz when you hear calls to imprison or deport Muslims and Mexicans, or when the specter of anti-semitism rears its ugly head again.

The square photographs were taken on Kodak Tri-X film with a Rolleiflex 3.5E with Xenotar lens. I developed the film in HC110 developer at dilution B for 4:30 minutes. I scanned the negatives with a Minolta Scan Multi medium-format scanner (approx. 2000 vintage). Click any picture to enlarge it to 2,400 pixels wide.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

The Heart of Darkness: Auschwitz Concentration Camp, Poland

A visit to the Auschwitz and Birkenau Memorial Museum is profoundly disturbing. The former Nazi concentration and extermination camps demonstrate the incredible hatred and cruelty that men can bestow on their fellow humans under state-sponsored and state-rewarded social and political conditions. At these camps, the industrial-scale killing machine resulted in the deaths of more than a million Jews, as well as hundreds of thousands of Poles, Roma (gypsies), and Russian prisoners of war. Readers interested in the history should study the educational and historical material at the official auschwitz.org web page.

The camps are in the small town of Oświęcim, Poland, about 20 miles west of Krakow. My wife and I visited in August of 2016. The site is crowded, and you need to reserve your visit time online weeks in advance, although there are usually openings available early morning for drop-ins. Tours are given in many languages.
Originally, the first concentration camp was established in 1940 in the town of Auschwitz (the German name in the 1930s). Initially, this was a work camp, where slave labor toiled at industries set up near the perimeter by German companies. The site had been a Polish army base built in the early 20th century, and the sturdy brick barracks were already suitable to house prisoners. Today, most of the buildings still stand and house exhibits. The tour initially takes you through the site in about an hour. The site looks deceptively peaceful today.
Each building or block housed hundreds of prisoners. These were all young-middle age men, as far as I know. Women, children, and older men were weeded out at the railroad reception area and killed quickly.
The barracks are grim inside. The men were worked with minimal food, inadequate clothing, minimal heat, and no medical care. As they died, they were replaced with more men from the never-ending trains. According to auschwitz.org:
The blocks were designed to hold about 700 prisoners each after the second stories were added, but in practice they housed up to 1,200. 
During the first several months, the prisoners’ rooms had neither beds nor any other furniture. Prisoners slept on straw-stuffed mattresses laid on the floor. After reveille in the morning, they piled the mattresses in a corner of the room. The rooms were so overcrowded that prisoners could sleep only on their sides, in three rows. Three-tiered bunks began appearing gradually in the rooms from February 1941. Theoretically designed for three prisoners, they in fact accommodated more. Aside from the beds, the furniture in each block included a dozen or more wooden wardrobes, several tables, and several score stools. Coal-fired tile stoves provided the heating.
The concrete fence posts with electrified barbed wire and guard towers are a constant reminder that this was a brutal prison facility. The tour next takes you by bus to the second, and much larger camp, also known as Birkenau. I will show photographs in the next article.

The square photographs were taken with Kodak Tri-X 400 black and white film in a Rolleiflex 3.5E twin lens reflex camera. Film development: Kodak HC-110 dilution "B", 4:45 at 68° F. I cleaned spots and lint with Pixelmator software on a Mac Mini and resized to 2400 pixels for this blog. Click any picture to enlarge it. One photograph, that of the hallway, is digital from a Fuji X-E1 camera.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Where Old Trams Retire: Depot No. 5, Wroclaw, Poland

In the western industrial suburbs of Wroclaw, Poland, at Legnicka 65, there is a walled complex of early-20th century workshops. I read on the internet that these were tram workshops and saw some photographs of abandoned trams. Well, for an urban decay fan, that was too good to resist. I was not sure if access would be possible, but a gate was open and we drove in. At another gate, a fellow was directing trams into a side track, after which they would move back out to the street, but otherwise, the place was quiet.
And there were plenty of old tram cars rusting away.
I walked behind some buildings, and there were more old trams. Neat place! (These are digital photographs from a Fuji X-E1 camera.)
The old shops were well-built structures with a lot of character and a lot of peeling lead paint. I walked around one corner, and there was a fellow and his lady friend grilling sausages, at 10:00 am. They seemed mildly surprised to see me, and then went back to their sausages.
At least one building is now used as an acrobatics studio.
One building still contained chassis and pieces of tram cars, but no one was inside that I could see.
But another building has become an art studio for welded art, like the moose (?) in the picture above. I assume the sausage-grilling couple were artists. Regardless, if you visit Wroclaw, the Depot no. 5 is a fun place to visit.

Here is an academic article on urban archaeology at the site by Dawid Kobiałka of Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznan, Poland, with some excellent black and white photography.

The square photographs with film grain were taken on Kodak Tri-X film with a Rolleiflex 3.5E camera with Xenotar lens. I developed the film in Kodak HC-110 developer and scanned the negatives with a Minolta Multi Scan medium format scanner. Click any picture to expand it.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Tragic Memories: the Jewish Cemetery of Łódź

Cmentarz Żydowski is north of downtown Łódź, near where the Jewish Ghetto was located in World War II. The cemetery has a long history. As summarized in the Jewish Łódź Cemetery web page:
The Cemetery at the Bracka Street in Lodz was established in 1892. About 160 000 people are buried there. Today the Cemetery has an area of 39,6 hectare. In more than 100 years of the history of the Cemetery many meritorious for our city and its history people like known rabbis, fabricants, physicians, politicians, social activists etc were buried at this Cemetery. Their tombstones often show high class of stone and metal craftworks. 
Also here are buried victims of one of the most tragic events in the history of the mankind - Holocaust.  On the part of the Cemetery called “Ghetto Field” some 43 000 victims from the Ghetto Lodz, who died from hunger and consumption, are buried there. On their graves seldom we can see a matzeva. To keep the memory about them, the Foundation cleaned this area in the years 2004 - 2009.  In spite of other works on the Cemetery, Ghetto Field was the most important and crucial to restore so, that the few still living descendants of the persons buried there, could put the matzeva on the graves of their love ones, and the Ghetto Field would receive the character of the military cemetery, as it in fact is.
The entrance on Bracka Street is a bit hard to find, but a GPS will direct you there. We overlapped with a holocaust remembrance event, during which two busloads to visitors rolled up soon after we arrived. A sign said, "No Photography," but the bus visitors were all using digital cameras and video equipment.
The cemetery was largely undamaged in World War II, which is unusual in Poland. And during the Communist era, it was mostly neglected. So the site today has largely returned to forest. Huge trees draped with vines cover much of the site, making it resemble the fanciful paintings of ruined classical temples being overcome by nature (known as capriccio), which were popular in the 1800s.
Many of the monuments are still upright, but thousands have fallen, the victims of tree roots or collapsing coffins beneath. Some stones have been cleaned by relatives, but many more are lichen- and mold-encrusted. But the artistic quality of the stone carving still shines through.
The cemetery goes on and on. You could spend hours exploring. In some area, volunteers have cleared underbrush within the last few years, but other areas are thickets of brush and tree saplings.

Do visit and spend some time contemplating one of the profound tragedies of the 20th century, the Holocaust.

The square photographs were taken with Kodak Tri-X 400 black and white film in a Rolleiflex 3.5E twin lens reflex camera. Film development: Kodak HC-110 dilution "B", 4:45 at 68° F. The exposure range from the dark undergrowth to the sunny sky was at the limit of the Tri-X to record, and I had to modify the tone curve when I scanned the negatives with a Minolta ScanMulti scanner. I cleaned spots and lint with Pixelmator software on a Mac Mini.