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
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 marches, 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.

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 were 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 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 and racial superiority rears its ugly head again. Is the United States descending into this kind of tribalism?

The square photographs were taken on Kodak Tri-X 400 film with a Rolleiflex 3.5E with 75mm f/3.5 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 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
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, Poland

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 with a 75mm f/3.5 Schneider Xenotar lens. 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 medium format film scanner. I cleaned spots and lint with Pixelmator software on a Mac Mini computer.

Update March 2017:  During World War II, photographer Henryk Ross took photographers in and around the Jewish Ghetto at great risk to his life. He buried the negatives in the ground in 1944 to try to preserve them. A Washington Post article describes an exhibit of Ross's photographs at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Massachusetts.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Abandoned Textile Mills of Łódź

As I wrote in my previous article, Łódź, Poland, was once home to immense textile mills, making the city a major industrial center in the late 1800s and early 20th century. The city fell into major decline during the Great Depression and in World War II. During the communist era, the mills continued to function with captive markets in the Eastern Block. But the industry collapsed after the 1989-1990 fall of Communism because the industrial base had not been modernized and became uncompetitive in the international market. But the mill buildings remain. As of 2016, many have been redeveloped into technology centers, loft apartments, or malls. Some have been demolished, and some remain empty and semi-abandoned. Ten years ago, Łódź must have been an urban spelunker's paradise. But now, only a few of the unused mills seem accessible, although I am sure the local urban explorers know the interesting spots to visit.
This is an example of one of the former mills, this one visible from Ulica Przędzalniana. Some of these factory complexes extended for a kilometer. This building is unused, but just to its right (north), another factory had been converted into apartments. (By the way, we had fantastic weather in Poland. I used a polarizing filter to enhance the blue sky.)
This place off Księdza Biskupa Wincentego Tymienieckiego is beyond fixing. Many Polish names are like this - rather difficult for this foreigner to pronounce. Notice the quality of the brickwork. We learned that most of eastern Europe used brick for its industrial and monumental architecture. In western Europe, cathedrals were made of stone, but in eastern Europe, they were usually fantastic brick edifices. The quality of the craftsmanship was amazing. Even in the sewers of Łódź (great underground tour), the brickwork looked like artists embellished it to be visually perfect, even though only the sewer workers would ever see it. Remembers the sewer employees in the 1948 Orson Welles film, "The Third Man?" Similar teams of underground experts worked beneath Łódź. Regardless, that was the era when they built infrastructure to last and were proud of their work - in USA, we could sure use this philosophy.
We drove through a gate to visit this site, but a guard expelled us. No fun here.
This old factory, also off Księdza Biskupa Wincentego Tymienieckiego, may have been undergoing some sort of restoration or conversion.
Finally, across the side street from the previous factory, I found one with a pathway through the undergrowth. Aha, urban spelunkers have been here.
Notice how the original builders used reinforcing rods attached to iron rosettes to hold the walls together.
The stairs and halls were a bit intimidating, but they were reinforced concrete and still massive.
Amazing workrooms with concrete pillars. Three floors were reinforced like this, obviously designed to hold heavy machinery.
The urban artists have been at work.
The rooms in the tower would make fantastic loft apartments.
Anatewka Restaurant
All right, I couldn't resist. When you are done exploring abandoned factories, visit a pastry shop and have an espresso and pastry. After a few minutes digesting, take in a superb meal at Anatewka, which features classic eastern European Jewish cuisine. Yes, modern Poland is like this.

Click any photograph to expand it. These are digital images from my Fujifilm X-E1 digital camera with the Fuji 18-55mm and 14mm lenses.

Addendum: If you are interested in sewers, the web page has an interesting discussion of sanitary sewer construction and culture in eastern Europe. You better be interested. That is where your stuff goes when you flush the loo.