Poland: History, herring and homemade Wodka

Why was I voluntarily going to a gray, cold, post-Communist country with questionable legislation regarding its role in the Holocaust? Exploring history motivated the trip, but it will be the people, the sensory delights and the easy elegance that will bring me back.

Poland revealed its beauty slowly. It was overcast and cold as I arrived in Warsaw. After checking in to my hotel, I walked to the nearby Bambino Milk Bar, a traditional Communist-era fast-food cafeteria, where a gray glaze covered the walls and the patrons’ skin, and matched the oil-laden soggy pierogis and the butter-drenched potato soup. The meal cost about three dollars — I would have paid thirty for someone else to eat it. Capitalism may have its issues but at least it tastes better.

On first look, the urban design in Warsaw was as unremarkable as my initial taxi ride was terrifying — our cab driver managed to text with his left hand and watch videos with his right eye in heavy traffic while attempting to set a new speed record. Seat belts aren’t really a thing here but the aging vehicles do seem to obey traffic lights in this very clean metropolis. The city could be anywhere, it is nondescript modern with a splash of Shanghai as evidenced by the Samsung skyscraper with adverts projected along its tall spine. I wasn’t admiring much about the local architecture until I went to the Warsaw Uprising Museum, which explained that during the Nazi occupation, and particularly in retaliation for the brave, but doomed 1944 rebellion, the Germans destroyed 80 percent of the capital’s buildings. After the war, the Soviets, with their keen design sense, rebuilt the city. That Warsaw today boasts bustling businesses and eateries full of life is fairly remarkable.

Our very sleek hotel was the previous home of the (now outlawed) Communist Party, and its restaurant columns still feature Soviet stars and hammer & sickle carvings. Just a few doors down is the popular Israeli vegetarian restaurant “Tel Aviv”, and directly across the street is the equally active bar “Beirut.” In a fairly bland looking city with a homogeneous appearing population, the diversity of dining options was impressive. I was starting to feel at home.

“The food is great and it’s free,” a Polish returnee told me. It’s true. The exchange rate is very favorable for Americans. Had I done my homework, I would have anticipated that my evenings would be spent consuming Michelin stars at way below U.S. market rates. The milk bar became a distant memory as we indulged in artful tasting menus delivered by engaging wait staff who helped us pronounce the consonant-salad describing our dinner.

Let’s just say that Polish spelling has an abundance of Y’s, Z’s and J’s which makes me think that a “delikatezy” is where you go to pinch the cheeks of a cute pickle. “Czekolada” is where you get… chocolate of course. And my favorite – “Alkohole.”

You can’t help but feel impressed by Poland’s renewed vibrancy. It suffered partitions in 1772, 1793 and 1795 by Russia, Prussia, and finally Austria. From 1795 until 1918, there was so little land left that no truly independent Polish state existed. The Second Polish Republic lasted less than two decades, from the end of WWI until 1939.

The museums here are detailed, interactive and graphic. As explained in the well-respected POLIN (Museum of the History of Polish Jews), Polish history has been intertwined with the Jewish story for centuries. At one point, one third of Poland was Jewish (that’s a bigger percentage than the number of Jews in the Big Apple). Under multiple Polish administrations, the regulations for Jews were relatively favorable compared to other parts of the world. They were bankers and intellectuals and members of the court. Various royals turned to Jewish financiers as money lending wasn’t appealing for Catholics because they were forbidden to charge interest.

While more welcoming than other regions, it wasn’t paradise and over the years Poland had its share of horrific anti-Semitic violence, sometimes for extended periods. Nevertheless, on balance Jewish life flourished — by 1939 over three million Jews called Poland home. But then it ended. Six million Polish citizens (3 million Jews and 3 million non-Jews) perished during the Nazi occupation.

Krakow intertwines history and modern energy with flair. Arriving by train is disorienting. You are delivered directly into a massive chrome and glass mall that is harder to exit than the sprawling duty free in Dubai’s airport. In search of an actual street, I first had to navigate a Mecca of western brands interspersed with domestic chains. Finally we emerge. Fresh air! And a walled medieval city center awash in gorgeous colors.

The Old Town square is a lively 14-acre oasis. The Kazimierz section (the former Jewish neighborhood) is now home to fashionable shops and restaurants. Its cobblestone streets are lined with synagogues and super cool drinking establishments. Across the river in Podgórze (the former Jewish ghetto during the war) is Schindler’s factory and the contemporary art museum.

Quickly my preferred hangout became Ambasada Sledzia, which translates into “Herring Embassy.” Here you can feast on all different tastes and colors of that slippery fish, including Thai flavored, banana curry and mango. The vodka is equally varied and many are homemade. We were introduced to Żubrówka, or bison grass vodka, so called for the greenish blade in the bottle which has been seasoned by bisons who irrigated the soil. Turns out this treat is illegal in America; something about protected bison and the liquid containing a natural blood thinner. All I can say is that after a few shots the sky doesn’t seem so dull any more. Polish tapas (aka herring and vodka bars) are hipster havens, and I’m convinced that Williamsburg and maybe even Manhattan’s Upper West Side could easily support such an establishment. Anyone want to invest with me? And yes, they play “build me up buttercup,” “everyone knows she’s windy” and “hey hey, goodbye” on the jukebox. By contrast, the coffee bars with baroque fittings play Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra; go figure.

Kraków echoes Prague’s festival feel without feeling forced. It’s a modest, more contained community than Berlin. In Warsaw, the old town was destroyed and reconstructed. Krakow is amazingly intact.

It’s odd to see flyers promoting “top attractions” that include visits to Auschwitz and Birkenau. Equally curious are the pop-up plastic tents in the town square that house several tables and a gas fire for warmth so you can eat “outside.” To me they recalled the gas chambers. I declined the option.

What I did say yes to was a tour of the camps. They, of course, defy description. In Auschwitz, everything is sorted so neatly. There were piles of shoes: black and brown leather boots, some stylish wedges and high heels in gold, red and purple— a portion of the 55,000 pairs found when the camp was liberated. There were massive display cases of human hair, collections of brushes and razors, and all sorts of household goods hauled with great pain so people could maintain their dignity even when being deported. Missing from the chilling exhibits were the wedding bands and precious metal crowns removed by the “dentists” before taking poisoned prisoners to the crematorium. How far to the sky would a tower of Jewish gold reach? What about the furniture and belongings left behind? How many miles of warehouses would that take to store? But all of that had been shipped elsewhere. The effectiveness of the “final solution” is documented by pictures lining the halls, cataloguing the arrival and death dates of deportees, often mere weeks apart. Such a precise and orderly operation. So much thought went into making sure detainees were amenable to taking showers (handing out soap, telling people to remember the number of the peg where clothes were left, and suggesting that shoes be tied together so it would be easier to find the pairs). After traveling for days crammed against dying bodies in a windowless box car without toilets, I can imagine one didn’t need much convincing to clean up. There were few photos capturing daily life in the camps relative to what we saw in the Warsaw museum. I suspect it’s because the opposition pictures were displayed in town while the images at the camps were those taken by the SS.

Our tour made clear that liquidating humans on such an enormous scale presented quite a disposal problem. What do to with all those bodies?! I couldn’t even contemplate. The brutality and scale of Auschwitz and Birkenau was overwhelming. I wore a sweater and heavy coat, a hood and a hat, gloves and two pairs of socks, and even though it was a relatively mild winter day, still I was freezing. There’s no way to get comfortable on the camp grounds. There’s no way to make sense of what we saw.

And then I left. Back in the hotel I submerged myself in a hot bath, but the stains of the day didn’t dissolve. I don’t really want them to. Poland pushed me to reflect deeply, to assess my own ignorance and its consequences. I found myself inventorying my courage and resiliency; asking “what would I do if?”

Visiting Poland is emotionally draining and invigorating. It may not feature on many bucket lists, but that might be a mistake.