Exactly 1 year ago today, I left on an airplane with the rest of my drama class on a 15 day trip to Poland. We saw the country, and we saw the theatre.
I took photos and wrote notes the entire time.
Over the course of the year, I’ve sporadically been putting those notes and photos online. I find it appropriate, if not entirely coincidental, that my last entry should be published exactly one year from the day of our departure.
You’ll notice in my entries that I switch sporadically between past-tense and present-tense. This is because half of the time, I’m quoting directly from my journal, and the other half, I’m quoting from memory. I know that’s a writing faux pas, but I’m not planning on fixing it. Sorry.
So, without further ado, here is the index to My Poland Journal:
We’re already an hour into the flight. Somehow, this plane isn’t giving me too much confidence.
The safety video (on a single screen at the front of the plane) kept flickering in and out, and I think I missed a lot of important information.
There were several instances where music would start to play for a few seconds in the cabin, and then abruptly stop.
Ryan and Jiv just noticed that there’s water dripping on them from above the overhead compartment.
My headphones don’t seem to work unless I hold them in.
And there’s masking tape holding part of the wall together.
A Lapse in Writing Cohesion
At this point in my journal, my writing really started to deteriorate. The timestamps have less and less meaning as I travel across time zones. I think my pen was starting to run out of ink, I was exhausted, and the boredom of the flight was starting to drive me nuts. I’ll do my best to translate the scrawl that ended my journal.
8:50PM (Poland Time)
No idea where we are, so no real clue on what the actual time is. Still, it’s pretty bright out. Looks like mid-afternoon outside. This is going to be the longest day of my life.
GET US OUT OF HERE30-Jun-2009 15:02, FUJIFILM FinePix A345, 2.8, 5.8mm, 0.476 sec, ISO 100
The minutes are crawling by. 3 or 4 more hours. Pen is starting to fail me.
11:45PM (Poland Time)
Still bright out. Spooky. About to get our second meal! Surprise: it’s a sandwich. And the Nutcracker Suite just came on in my headphones again. That’s 6 times in total now.
12:55AM (Poland Time)
Just filled out declaration card for Canada Customs. There are lots of confused people who don’t speak English on the plane. Lots of passengers standing up, and gesturing to one another frantically. Wish I could help, but I don’t speak Polish.
1 hour remaining. Can’t wait. Flying over Québec.
Got off the plane. Buzzed through customs. Luggage was late getting onto the carousel, but it eventually showed up. Said lots of goodbyes to people. Jiv’s family offered to drive me home, and I gratefully accepted.
Noticed plenty of garbage on the streets on the drive in – though I had imagined more.
Eventually showed up at my apartment in Toronto. Said goodbye to Jiv and his family.
Went inside. Fingers barely worked. Made contact with Em, the guys, and my family to let them know I was alive.
And then collapsed into bed. It was good to be home.
Today is our last full day in Poland. We’re leaving for Toronto tomorrow.
To be honest, I’m kind of glad. I like Poland just fine, but I really just want to go home now.
I slept in this morning, and then had a big breakfast of crépes with Jiv, Ryan, Reid, Yev and Alexi.
With my stomach full, I set off for one last solo-tour of the Wroclaw square. I went into some shops I hadn’t seen yet. I revisited some ones I was already familiar with. My pen was starting to run out (my journal is almost full!), so I bought a new one and am using it right now.
I sat in the square and listened to people speaking different languages. I enjoyed the weather. It’s a nice day today.
I’m back at the hostel. This place is in really good condition, and nicely decorated. The beds and bathrooms are pretty nice, and a dream compared to what we dealt with in Poznan. The staff (a family, I believe) seem a bit rude and resentful – like they really don’t enjoy running a hostel. I’m almost afraid to ask for the key at the front desk, as it’s usually accompanied by a rolling of eyes and some attitude.
Pro tip: hostels are a good place to donate old computers to. As somebody who has now been in a few hostels, I can’t stress how important basic Internet connectivity is. Just a thought.
I think I’m starting to get over my cold a little. I seem to be over the worst of it, anyhow. Others in the group are starting to get sick though – it’ll be good to get everyone home and rested.
We were going to see a Pina Bausch talk-back session today, but it was canceled due to sudden health problems (Pina Bausch unfortunately passed away on June 30th, a day after this entry was written).
Tomorrow is going to be a long day. We’re waking up at 6AM. Then, a 7 hour bus ride to Warsaw. After that, an 8-9 hour flight to Toronto. Both Yev and Jiv have offered me a ride from Pearson Airport back to my apartment – I’m grateful, and at this point I’ll climb into the first car I see.
I’m not sure what the best course of action is jet-lag-wise, so I’ll probably just try to stay awake for the entire trip home and see if that works.
When I get back, I’ll take a few days to rest. I’ll hang out with Em and the guys. I’ll write a few blog posts. I’ll upload photos. Then, I’ll be back to work on MarkUs (I wonder how Nelle and Severin are coming along?).
After hanging around the hostel for a bit, Alex and I left and walked around downtown. We chatting about the trip, and what we were going to do when we get home.
Eventually, we headed to the theatre to see a film recording of a Krystian Lupa play. I tried my best to enjoy it, but I really couldn’t get into it. Like I mentioned earlier, video recordings of plays often don’t work well at all for me.
I think I napped through a good chunk of the film. Eventually, it ended, and I caught up with Alexi and Yev as they were leaving the theatre.
And it was absolutely pouring out. Buckets. Torrents. Huge rainfall. I was scared to take out my camera for a photo in case I damaged it, so I can only describe it: lots of rain.
We went back to the hostel to rejoin the rest of the group, and then purchased tram tickets for the next (and final) theatre piece of the trip: The Temptation of Quiet Veronica.
THE TEMPTATION OF QUIET VERONICA (or KUSZENIE CICHEJ WERONIKI) directed by Krystian Lupa
Maybe it was the exhaustion. Maybe it was the fact that my body was starting to rebel against this trip. Maybe I’d just seen to much theatre these past two weeks.
Whatever the reason, I just could not keep my mind on the show. The only remarkable thing I can think of happened just as the play was beginning.
I’m sitting in between Ryan and Alex. The stage is still dark, and the audience is buzzing. Ryan looks at us and says, very seriously, “I swear to god, if I see one more naked person, I think I’m going to flip out.”
The house lights started to dim. The stage lights lit up. And guess what was standing there, spread-eagle in the middle of the stage?
You guessed it.
For the rest of the show, all I could really focus on was Ryan’s hand, gripping, white-knuckled, on to my knee.
This trip marks the end of an era for me. I’ve known the people I’m traveling with pretty intimately for about 4 years. We’ve acted together, studied together, sweated, presented, and complained together. It’s a tight group, and when this trip is over, it will signal the end of my time studying at the UCDP.
I awoke all stuffed up, miserable, and sore this morning. Really didn’t sleep well. I know I’ve been complaining a lot lately about this cold, but I’m actually pretty lucky that it hit me at the end of the trip, as opposed to the beginning.
After breakfast, we got on the bus and drove for 2.5 hours back to Wroclaw. Tried to nap on the bus, but no luck.
It’s good to be back in Wroclaw, and around relatively familiar surroundings – it’s probably the closest thing I could call to home out here. Compared to Poznan, Wroclaw fits me like a pair of comfy running shoes.
After unloading our stuff at the hostel, we went to go have dinner. Guess what we ate? Pirogies! I have to admit, I was getting a little sick of eating pirogies day in and day out, but I figured it’d be a long time before I had authentic Polish pirogies again, so I ate up.
I’m at a theatre, watching a talk session with Tadashi Suzuki, the famed Japanese theatre director/philosopher, and founder of the Suzuki Method of Actor Training (not to be confused with the training technique for music). So, what’s the Suzuki Method of Actor Training? Hard for me to say – I’ve never taken it. But my movement instructor learned Suzuki during a sabbatical, and my girlfriend Em ended up learning it in her class. From what I’d heard, it’s a lot of leg-work, feet-work, stomping, etc. Here’s a description of a Suzuki course to give you an idea:
Suzuki is a powerful physical training technique drawing from ballet, martial arts, Kabuki and other disciplines. Focusing on breath, the center and the lower body, with stomping, slow movement and explosive gestures, Suzuki brings attention to the voice and its connection to the body.
Anyhow, I’m watching him during this talk-back session, and it’s a pretty interesting interview process.
You see, I don’t believe Suzuki speaks English or Polish. The interviewer speaks both Japanese and Polish, but only Japanese to Suzuki. Suzuki responds in Japanese, which goes through his personal translator, who speaks it in Polish. A fourth guy on the edge then translates the Polish into English to give us poor Canadian sods an idea of what’s going on.
I must admit, I welcome the opportunity to zone out a bit while I wait for the English.
At the Suzuki talk28-Jun-2009 09:53, FUJIFILM FinePix A345, 4.7, 17.4mm, 0.37 sec, ISO 100
The talk seems to be centered around modern technology, and how Suzuki believes it is damaging our collecting ability to remember our history. Interesting, but I think I’ve heard that one before.
After the talk, I got up, realized I was exhausted, and headed back to the hostel for a short nap.
I woke up at 5:52PM with a start. The hostel was empty. I’m groggy, and I have the faint suspicion that something is wrong. Unable to fathom what it is, I put on my clothes and stretch.
And that’s when I notice my ticket for the next show: it’s supposed to start at 6PM.
I have a lightning fast consultation with the hostel computer for directions to the theatre, and then a quick chat with the hostel desk girl for advice on shortcuts, and then I hit the street. I sprint to the theatre at top speed.
And somehow, magically, I make it. I was lucky – the theatre was pretty close to our hostel. I enter the building and eventually find my comrades who had had no idea that I’d been sleeping when they’d left.
I didn’t even know what show I was seeing, until I looked at my ticket again…
FRAGMENTS By Samuel Beckett, Directed By Peter Brook
Wow! Samuel Beckett and Peter Brook! Now those are two names I definitely recognize. I had studied Brook in both highschool and University, and Beckett in the latter.
I even saw Peter Brook that night – I walked past him in the lobby. He was in the middle of a conversation with someone else, so I didn’t interrupt (I don’t even know what I would have said if I had…”you do great work”…?).
He’s shorter than I thought he’d be.
Anyhow, the show was absolutely awesome. I loved it, back to front.
Fragments is a series of shorts originally written by Samuel Beckett. The set was very sparse, containing only what was necessary. The costumes were simple. The acting was fantastic.
What was it? Well, pretty black comedy is what I saw. Gallows humour.
A one legged beggar and a blind beggar try to strike up a mutually beneficial relationship.
A lady in a rocking chair speaks hypnotic circles while waiting (and yearning) for death to take her.
Two men wake up in burlap sacks. One goes through his day, “worldweary and bemused”, with every possible obstacle in life causing him to groan and sigh. The other man goes through his day (and the same obstacles) with unbelievable energy and optimism. Both end up in the same place at the end. Classic Beckett, and wonderful clowning by the two actors.
Those were the three shorts that stood out for me, anyhow. I really enjoyed them.
After the show, we all rushed out to the opera theatre…we had another show to see.
NEFÉS by Pina Bausch
Wow! Another name I recognize! From what I know about her (which, admittedly isn’t much) Bausch’s name is synonymous with incredible and original choreography in modern dance.
And that’s what we saw. Incredible dance. Incredibly choreographed, and incredibly executed.
I won’t lie – I’m a sucker for contemporary dance. I lapped this show right up.
This, despite a partially obstructed view (the old opera theatre was gold and gorgeously ornate, but had some unfortunately placed pillars).
I can’t even begin to describe the dancing. This clip is the best I can do:
Anyhow, thumbs up. Here’s a shot of the curtain call:
My journal for this day starts with an entry at 10AM, recapping what happened the night before. The next entry is at 1:55PM. I’d have to conclude from this that it was a slow morning – probably just eating breakfast, checking email, and chatting with the others.
Apparently, tickets for the Guerilla Walk (an event that both Tamara and Peter praised endlessly last night) are sold out. We’ve been put on the standby list though, so we’ll see if we can get lucky there.
I’m feeling pretty tired and incoherent. Again, the bunks in this hostel aren’t very comfortable. Not sure what I want to do today…
I’m in the Poznan square with Linn, Yev and Alexi. We’re feeding pigeons.
My throat is still really sore, but Tara and Tom gave me some Robatussin, Alexi gave me some Polish cold medication, and Yev gave me some vitamin C. And I’m constantly munching on Halls.
Hopefully it’s not a lethal combination.
I’m with Yev and Alexi, and we just watched a film called “Attempt of a Portrait of Jerzy Grotowski”. Pretty interesting. Next is another (rare) film on Grotowski, which demonstrates some of his rehearsal techniques.
I found a YouTube clip of the video:
The actor demonstrating it is ripped, and moves his body really violently…he’s snapping his neck around all over the place (see 4:00 onward). It looks uncomfortable, but I guess he knows what he’s doing.
We’re going to watch a bit of it, and then leave to try to do the Guerilla Walk thing.
After watching a bit of the second Grotowski film, Yev, Alexi and I made a break for it and headed to the meeting place for the Guerilla Walk.
I wasn’t entirely sure what this Guerilla Walk thing was…Peter and Tamara had been (intentionally?) vague about it – saying that we just had to do it.
When we got there, we found out that some folks who had reserved tickets couldn’t make it – so we, the standbys, got the tickets. Thank you drama gods!
We got into a lineup, and noticed that a bunch of other folks from the UCDP had also made it in. We got closer and closer to the end of the line, and when we got there, a person asked for our passports. Apparently, we would be getting a headphone set for listening to our tour guides (like at Auschwitz), and they wanted our passports as deposits.
Hm. As a cautious traveler, this set off warning bells. I had been instructed from the get-go to not let my passport get out of sight, and that Canadian passports are particularly valuable on the black market. But, I watched my comrades fork over their Canadian passports for their headsets, and I eventually did the same.
So, I got my wireless headphones, and waited in the designated area for the “walk” to begin.
This might have been my favourite part about our trip to Poland. I’ll do my best to describe it.
The tour group was about…I’d guess, 50 people. All of us had wireless headphones on.
There were two tour guides. One was decked out with an impressive portable DJ-ing rig and broadcasting system (large antenna out of his backpack). The other guide had headphones similar to ours, but with a microphone to speak to us. There was also some support guys walking around with spare batteries for our headphones in case we started to run low. There was a camera guy filming us.
The banter between the two tour guides was absolutely hilarious. It was something like morning-radio-show banter, mixed with highly-skilled freestyle rap.
Our guides then took us on adventures in the city. We walked through a town hall (?…seemed like some sort of administrative building…) that Hitler had once visited, and listened to Chaplin imitating him from The Great Dictator. We were then led out of the “bowels” of the building on to the street.
And already, we were putty in their hands. The guides were very skilled at making us all feel like a mob that was cooler than anyone else around us who wasn’t wearing headphones. A strange feeling of invincibility seemed to sweep through us as we marched along, invading various parts of the city.
We would periodically stop to watch our tour guides complete some kind of “mission”. For example, they would do some “Guerilla planting”, and plant a flower at a city park. Other times, they’d climb up a portable ladder to second-story apartments and say hello to the people inside. If they found a lady, they’d ask for a lock of her hair.
They would chat with interesting people they found on the street, and give them a microphone so we could hear what they were saying.
And the entire time, there was a cool hip-hop back-beat, and periodic freestyle rapping from the DJ. The entire tour group would dance sporadically. I’m sure we looked silly or strange to people without headphones walking around us…but we just didn’t care.
Eventually, our guides led us inside of a building. We walked up a flight of steps, and through some dark passageways. There was a lot of us, and it was getting cramped. Our destination was a darkroom, and it was pitch black. All of us, all of the tour group, was in pitch black. And then suddenly, beer was being passed around, our tour-guide lit up his neon suit, and we were having an impromptu “darkroom disco”. Most of the music was Michael Jackson. And it was awesome. We danced, blindly. We held hands with silent strangers that we couldn’t see. Whooping and hollering in the dark. Very cool experience.
We eventually left the darkroom disco. The beer had really loosened up the tour group, and we were all getting pretty silly and dancy. We waited for a streetcar, and danced until it finally showed up.
There were a few other missions after the darkroom disco…we put up some QR Codes around the city, saying things like “Something from nothing”, or “I love you”.
We gathered at a public, indoor swimming pool, stood around it, and sang a song about amoebas.
But why just tell you about it, when I can show you? They filmed the whole thing. I pop up a few times in the video, along with my comrades. This will give you a good idea of what we were doing.
After the tour, and after we’d calmed down a bit (the whole experience had really pumped us up), Jiv and I had an interesting conversation about the meaning of the piece.
While it could simply be viewed as a fun tour, Jiv noted certain patterns in its design and content. Patterns like the amoeba song, the Hitler speech, the blind darkroom dance. He said that it was an interesting study in mob mentality – and that it really only takes a charismatic, likable leader (our tour guides), and direct 1-way communication (the headsets) to create a mob. We had become a benign, dancing, adventuring mob. But violent, dangerous mobs could be created in the same way. I think Jiv is right.
After the Guerilla Walk, we grabbed some food (we were starving), and then went to go see Caligula.
Caligula was being performed outdoors. It was becoming a chilly night – I hoped the actors would be warm enough.
As an interesting aside: outside of the theatre space, there was a monument to the Polish men and women who had worked on cracking the Enigma cipher:
I studied that for a bit, and then we went inside to see the show.
CALIGULA by Tomaž Pandur
Here’s the description of the show from the Malta! Festival website (though it looks like they just pumped the Polish version through Google Translate):
Caligula is a spectacle based on the Albert Camus’ drama but that spectacle suggests a different look at a history of Rome third emperor. It’s the story about the clash great ideas with the narrow-mindedness of the world and about the price that has to be paid by those who strive for perfection. This is the story about little people distroying, with the stubborness, everything that made them aware of their triviality – Caligula was brutally murdered and – what’s worst – he was slandered for ages. Pandula teared the shroud of the lies weaved by the Swetonius, duplicated later by historians and writers, and tells his own version of life and tragical Caligula’s end – the great visioner.
With his theatrical manifesto Caligula proclaims: ” Exciting illusion of the truth, the most beautiful spectacle in the world, the perfect place for the acts of God in the Earth, wonderful and attraction uncompared with anything, the thunder and lightning, destiny in the triumphal march… it’s the art of drama… people make mistakes because they do not believe enought in theatre.” This way the Caligula life became a living theatre, the journey without limits to the galaxy of everything what is invisible and unaware. The crowned poet with the divine clairvoyance of a hermit.
Hm. Not the clearest description I’ve ever heard. I’ll do my best to tell you what I saw.
Remember how I hoped that the actors would be warm?
Well, guess what? The actors performed the entire time wearing next to nothing. In water. It wasn’t just a wet stage…it was…like, half a foot of water that the actors were standing and performing in. I was freezing just watching them.
So, this was another take on the story of Caligula, the third Roman emperor.
And it was visually stunning. I already told you about the flooded outdoor stage, but the rest of the set was this series of gray towers that looked like stone. The towers would silently rearrange themselves in order to change the scenery. The precision and expertise in the transitions was absolutely fantastic. A marvel. It was magic.
Once again, I think a lot of the story was lost in translation for me. Plus, it was outdoors, and the actors weren’t mic’d (mic’ing would have been a nightmare in all of that water). So hearing was a bit difficult.
There were certain points in the show that really caught my attention, visually. The reflection of the water was used liberally to create some neat rippling effects on the set pieces. Some additional “magic” was done with the set pieces – a stone tower would glide in front of an actor, and after it had passed, two more actors had joined the first. Neat things like that.
So, visually, this show was stunning. I also give full kudos to the actors for working in the freezing cold, naked, in water. I can’t say much for the story or plot. Still, an interesting show.
Here are some super blurry photos of the cast bowing:
Those big blocks were mobile. It was magical.27-Jun-2009 18:53, FUJIFILM FinePix A345, 2.81, 5.8mm, 0.5 sec, ISO 177
After the show, we all went back to the hostel. As usual, reactions to Caligula were mixed. Eventually, I landed on my lumpy mattress to try sleeping again. We’d be heading back to Wroclaw the next morning.
Just had breakfast – cocoa puffs again, and the strange Poland milk. The bunks last night weren’t too pleasant, and I half-jokingly recall hearing distant gunfire through our windows last night.
Probably just my imagination.
Tamara is handing out tickets for the shows: La Menzogna and Caligula. She also tells us that it’s going to be hot and humid for the next few days. Oh well, at least there isn’t a garbage strike to stink it up.
Just got my official program for the Malta! Festival. Wow! Lots of big names in this festival – and not just theatre, but bands too!
Nine Inch Nails! Jane’s Addiction! Snow Patrol! Radiohead! Unfortunately, we’re not saying long enough to see Radiohead or Jane’s, and we’ve already missed NIN – but Snow Patrol is on tonight. I’ll bet that the tickets for them will have been sold out far in advance, but it still might be worth checking out.
Just finished eating a nice, simple, spaghetti and tortellini meal at a pasta bar.
The owner was kind enough to let me pet her.26-Jun-2009 08:35, FUJIFILM FinePix A345, 2.8, 5.8mm, 0.012 sec, ISO 64
My throat is getting worse. Bleh. I think I’m going to go back to the hostel and take a nap.
Just woke up from my nap. Skipped this Guerilla Walk thing that we had the option of doing today. Not sure what that is, but Tamara and Peter are raving about it. Anyhow, glad I took the nap. I’m feeling a bit better.
Just had some, you guessed it, pirogies! Pretty good – very filling!
Our next stop is our first show in Poznan, called La Menzogna. The theatre is a 20 minute hike from the hostel.
The cigarette smoke from the crowd outside the theatre isn’t helping my throat much. Cough cough cough.
LA MENZOGNA by PIPPO DELBONO
The theatre space was cavernous – it reminded me of either a large gymnasium, or a small aircraft hanger. There were bleachers, and cushions on the ground in front of the bleachers to face the stage.
Initially, I sat on the cushions but eventually decided to migrate to the bleachers – it was going to be a long show, and I’d need the back support.
As usual, I’m a bit at a loss to describe this show.
First off, I went in (and came out) not really knowing what it was talking about or trying to say.
And that’s not only because it wasn’t in English.
Months later, with the help of the Internet, I am able to tell you what they were trying to do:
In December 2007, on Thyssen Krupp’s steel factory in Turin, a fire takes the lives of seven factory workers. From this tragic work accident, Pippo Delbono draws a theatrical, political and spiritual journey, in the line of his work, which combines theatre, dance, music and poetry, producing a unique stage language, which has brought him recognition from all over Europe. Delbono’s theatre is contaminated by life, raising questions he wants to share with the spectators, and a place of encounter and reflection on the nature of human being. La Menzogna aims to question human life’s dignity of and its place among our society.
As usual, reactions from my comrades were mixed. I found the whole thing rather silly. I believe the main character was supposed to be some sort of frightening ringmaster. He did “edgy” things like coming into the audience, waving a lead pipe around, and snapping pictures of us…invading our space. I found him rather boring and impotent.
And then there was the nudity. At this point in the trip, I’d seen a lot of nudity on stage – both male, and female.
And you know what? I get it. I see what you did there. You got all vulnerable for me. Thanks.
The lead character got all naked, and it was almost as if he was saying to me, “Look! Look how vulnerable I just became for you! Look at what I’m giving you! BASK IN IT!”.
And…again, I just thought it was silly. And it had so much promise! The set was absolutely gorgeous. Ah well. A disappointment. I’d certainly choose it over Cleansed or Medea, though.
After the show, we walked back towards the hostel. We stopped by a restaurant for a late dinner – it was Peter’s last night with us (he would be taking a train to Warsaw at 6AM the next morning and flying back to Toronto to prepare the Playhouse for the Fringe festival), so we all hung out with him to say our farewells.
The whole time, my throat was getting worse and worse. The restaurant was engulfed in cigarette smoke.
I eventually left, and went back to the hostel to sleep.
It seems like we just got to Krakow, and now we’re leaving again. We’re taking a 7 hour bus ride today to Poznan for the 2009 Malta Festival.
Originally, the plan was to wake up around 8:30AM this morning and go on a walking tour of Krakow. But when 8:30AM rolled around, and people started getting up, my throat was absolutely killing me. I was getting sick. It wasn’t a surprise – Ryan and Jiv had been sick the night before, and all of the second-hand cigarette smoke I was inhaling probably wasn’t helping either.
So I thought it’d be best if I sacrificed seeing more of Krakow for my health. I went back to bed.
I woke up just after 11AM. It turns out that Una and Linn opted out too, and now we’re sitting outside of the hostel at the first floor restaurant. We’re about to get breakfast, and then it’s 7 hours to Poznan.
Still sitting outside the restaurant. We’re really taking it easy this morning…I had a “Polish Breakfast” (bread, ham, cheese, scrambled eggs), orange juice, and a lemon sorbet for my throat. It looks like either Linn or Una got pirogies:
Yes, I do say! How about them colonies, wot?25-Jun-2009 07:33, FUJIFILM FinePix A345, 4.7, 17.4mm, 0.008 sec, ISO 64
And then we were off!
3:00PM – On the Bus to Poznan
We’re on our way to Poznan. We left about 40 minutes ago. I’m trying to read Guns, Germs and Steel. Even by itself, it’s a pretty hard book to read. Now try doing it on a bumpy bus with people talking all over the place. Not exactly ideal. I found myself rereading paragraphs over and over again without really absorbing anything. Eventually I gave up and just looked at the countryside.
You can barely see them in the second shot, but there are wind turbines in the background. Wind turbines seem to be pretty common out here. It’d probably be more common in Southern Ontario if we didn’t have the Hydro system to rely on.
Still en route to Poznan. Apparently another hour and a half to go. We’ve driven through a pretty brutal thunder/rain storm. Rain flooded an entire section of the street, but our bus driver, Pan (Mr.) Stephan, just plowed right on through it.
Now the sun is setting, and it’s overcast, but at least the rain has stopped. We’re all getting pretty stir-crazy in the bus. We’ve all been reading, sleeping, playing word games, making jokes, telling stories… this long trip has reminded us of how brutal our flight home will be (20+ hours!!). We also joked about the garbage strike (which was still on at that point).
We’ve been eating chips, popcorn, and other junkfood from gas stations and rest stops along the way. I feel pretty trashy. Everybody is restless.
We’ve arrived at the hostel. Feeling like trash. We couldn’t find the place at first, and then found out we had to walk down a sketchy alleyway to get there.
To top it off, between us and the door was a veritable lake of foul smelling liquid. We grit our teeth, and Tamara visibly shuddered as we walked through our personal oasis of filth to the hostel door.
This hostel really doesn’t feel secure at all. And the shower doesn’t drain. And the bathroom door doesn’t close properly. The beds aren’t comfy. A whole host of complaints. Our long journey probably didn’t help our mood.
And I was hungry. So after dumping my stuff at the hostel, I walked back through the putrid lake, and found an all-night grocery. I got some fruit, some yogurt, and some soup. I showered (most unpleasant, with the soapy water not draining), and then I went to sleep on my lumpy mattress on the creaky bunkbed in the sketchy hostel.
My notes for the day end there, but I imagine I eventually headed back to the hostel and went to sleep.
It turns out that my notes for the next day start with a recap on what happened the night before. So I can fill in a few blanks here.
Back to the Hostel
I got back to the hostel and found it mostly empty. Most of the others must have been out doing something else. Chantelle was there in the common room though, and we filled each other in on what we’d done that day.
After that, we brewed some tea, and played a version of Scrabble where we can make up words, so long as we can define them in a funny way. It was good times. As we were playing, more people started to come back and fill up the common room.
I had some jam on bread as a snack, and talked with Peter, Alex, Tara, and Tom about politics (mainly US foreign policy). Somehow, Sonia convinced me to put some cheese on my jam sandwich. I noted in my journal that I didn’t think it added much in the way of good flavouring.
It turns out that Chantelle and I hadn’t been the only ones in the hostel – Ryan and Jiv had been there sleeping. They were both feeling pretty sick. There was some kind of illness going around, and my throat was starting to get sore, too.
It’s been about 5 – 6 months since my last Poland entry. There are a myriad of excuses for this: tough school year, busy Xmas holiday, relentless work load…
But I have to say I’ve kind of been avoiding writing this one on purpose. Why?
Well, for starters, I don’t have any photos. Long story short, before we got off the bus at Auschwitz, we were told there was no photography, so I left my camera on the bus. Then it turned out that there was no photography in the buildings, so I missed out on getting some snaps outside.
I’ve been able to get my hands on some photos. A big thanks to Alex Rubin and Anj Mulligan for letting me use theirs. I’m not entirely sure how using someone else’s photos will affect my narrative, but we’ll see.
The other reason I’ve been avoiding this one is because I wrote so damn much about it. 39 pages from my journal were devoted to this day.
Why so much? Well, to be honest, it was a pretty emotionally charged day. A lot of people were crying during the tour. My reaction was just to write down everything I could see and hear, as fast as I could. I hope I got everything right. Please correct me if I’ve gotten something wrong.
Anyhow, enough stalling. Here we go.
June 24, 7:45AM
It was an early morning. I showered, shaved, sent some email, and then hung out in the kitchen/common area with Yev, eating some cocoa-puffs while she boiled water for tea.
The breakfast lady was in a foul mood that morning. She stormed in to the kitchen and started rearranging things with a violent efficiency, clicking her heels. Yev and I were silent. Finally, I said “Dzien dobry” (good morning) to break the tension.
Wow. That was the last straw, I guess. The breakfast lady flew into a huge Polish rant as she stormed around us. We couldn’t understand a word, but she was clearly upset.
Yev said she reminded her of one of her Soviet schoolmasters.
I didn’t wait to see how the fury played out. I got out of there. Yev stayed behind.
Yev later told me that, after making a sandwich (which the breakfast lady saw her do), she made a super-quick pit-stop at the washroom, only to come back and find that her sandwich had been thrown in the garbage. Presumably by the breakfast lady.
We boarded the bus and were en route.
It was a tense morning. Tamara told us that the Auschwitz trip was optional, and so a few of us had stayed back. The bus ride was unusually quiet.
I think everybody was preparing themselves.
I wasn’t allowed to bring my camera (or so I thought), so I left it on the bus.
After getting off the bus, we read a multi-lingual sign that set the behavioural tone for the rest of the tour:
Througout the world, Auschwitz has become a symbol of terror, genocide, and the Holocaust. The German forces occupying Poland during the Second World War established a concentration camp, on the outskirts of the town of Oswiecim. In 1940, the Germans called the town Auschwitz and that is the name by which the camp was known. Over the next years it was expanded into three main camps: Auschwitz I, Auschwitz II-Birkenau, and Auschwitz III-Monowitz and more than forty subcamps.
The first people to be brought to Auschwitz as prisoners and murdered here were Poles. They were followed by Soviet prisoners of war, Gypsies and deporters of many other nationalities. Beginning in 1942, however, Auschwitz became the settling for the most massive murder campaign in history, when the Nazis put into operation their plan to destroy the entire Jewish population of Europe. The great majority of Jews who were deported to Auschwitz – men, women, and children – were sent immediately upon arrival to death in the gas chambers of Birkenau.
When the SS realised that the end of war was near, they attempted to remove the evidence of the atrocities committed here. They dismantled the gas chambers, crematoria, and other buildings, burned documents, and evacuated all those prisoners who could walk to the interior of Germany. Those who were not evacuated were liberated by the Red Army on January 27, 1945.
On July 2, 1947, the Polish Parliament established the State Museum of Oswiecim – Brzezinka on the sites of the former camps at Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau. In 1979, these camps were formally recognized by UNESCO by their inclusion on its World Heritage List.
PLEASE BEHAVE APPROPRIATELY RESPECTING THE MEMORY OF THOSE WHO SUFFERED AND DIED HERE.
Next to this was a map of the compound. Again, no photos, so something like this will have to do.
Looking at the map, my eyes were drawn to the familiar word “Canada”. It turns out that, when new arrivals came to the camps, their belongings were stripped from them and sent to a special area of the camp called Canada for sorting and searching. It was called Canada, because at the time, Canada was considered the land of plenty. Here’s Wikipedia’s take on it.
Near the signs were, of all things, gift and souvenir shops, called the “informatory”. Postcards, books, videos, photos… seemed a bit in bad taste. After seeing the gift shops, I noticed all of the smiling tourists around me, and I found that quite macabre.
It was particularly disturbing because of how quiet it was. There were also “keep silence” signs all over the place. So yeah, it was quiet. Really quiet.
As we approached the entrance, we heard birds chirping. It was overcast – the grass was still wet from the morning dew.
As we were reading the signs, Tamara had gone off to get the tour guide. On her way back, her face was covered in tears. She’d visited Auschwitz for a tour several times before, and firmly stated to us that she couldn’t bring herself to do it again. So she went off to go wait in the bus. It was an ominous moment.
All of the tour guides were dressed in black. Ours was no exception. After a brief, quiet hello, she gave us each a set of earphones and receiver. This is how she would communicate with us during the tour. This way, she wouldn’t have to yell for us all to hear her. Instead, the tour became very personal, and she was able to speak softly to each of us individually. I wrote in my journal that her voice was incredibly soft, caring, and soothing – and that she reminded me more of a nurse than a tour guide. I really think part of her job was to soothe, as well as to educate.
The buildings of Auschwitz I were military barracks, originally constructed by and for the Polish army. In the late 1930′s, Poland had been invaded, split up, and annexed to the Nazis and the Soviets. So technically, Poland ceased to exist. The Nazis saw the barracks in their new territory as “very convenient” for housing the growing number of Polish prisoners, especially considering the railroad junctions that led to it. The Nazis set up shop, and the land and buildings became Auschwitz I.
The camp orchestra, composed entirely of prisoners, would play lively German marches as the prisoners were led into the camp. It was humiliating and dehumanizing. This also made it easier for the guards to count and keep the prisoners in step.
The men and women were then separated, and sent to different barracks. There would be 800-1000 prisoners assigned per barrack, which only had 2 stories. The prisoners in Auschwitz I were cramped to the extreme.
The one who does not remember history is bound to live through it again.
Auschwitz was almost in the center of occupied Europe. With the already-established railroad system, the Nazis were able to send over 1,000,000 prisoners to Auschwitz. The majority of those prisoners were Jewish.
It didn’t start out that way, but at some point during 1942-1943, Auschwitz became an extermination camp.
A sign on the wall broke down the prisoners as follows:
1,300,000 sent to Auschwitz
140,000 – 150,000 Poles
23,000 – Roma / Gipsy’s
15,000 – Soviet Prisoners
25,000 – Other
A large, glass, transparent urn in the barracks held human ashes in rememberence.
During the original invasion of Poland, the Nazis focused on capturing/executing as many Polish monks, priests, lawyers, leaders, and educated people as possible. This was their method of “destroying” Poland’s culture and identity. After an uprising in Warsaw, 13,000 Poles were sent to Auschwitz I as punishment.
Many photos were taken at Auschwitz by the SS for their own use. Those black and white photos lined the walls of the museum. We weren’t allowed to take photographs, so I can’t show them to you, but I can describe some of them. Imagine black and white, blurry photos of extremely thin, extremely gaunt, bald people, wearing prisoner garb. Imagine seeing photos of them digging graves for themselves, or jumping to a particular height for a guard’s amusement, or running at top speed in a big circle “just because”, so the guards could watch.
SS “doctors” were always present at prisoner arrival to “conduct selections” on who could work and who could be executed immediately. There were photos on the wall of women, children, and old people, being sent to their death. They look calm, because they didn’t know.
The Jews who weren’t executed immediately were put to work. Some were sent to Auschwitz III, which was a work and manufacturing camp. Prisoners were forced to make things there for the Nazis.
Other prisoners became Sonderkommandos, which means they assisted in the execution of other prisoners. Sonderkommandos would work in the crematoriums and gas chambers, and were forced to witness and commit various horrible atrocities against other prisoners.
Gassing of prisoners took place underground. A single gas chamber would have 2000 prisoners crammed inside of it at one time. Prisoners who entered the gas chambers were told that they were taking showers. Fake faucets in the ceilings and walls helped sell the illusion.
After the doors were shut, crystals of Cyclone B were dropped in through openings in the ceiling. After 20 minutes, all were dead. Sonderkommandos would then go in and carry the bodies to the crematorium.
Before the bodies were cremated, Sonderkommandos had to cut off the hair from the women. The hair was packed into bags, and sent elsewhere to be turned into hair-cloth and other textiles. The ashes of the prisoners were used as fertilizer. Everything was reused.
At one point, we entered a room in the museum, where behind a large pane of glass, we saw mounds of human hair that had been found at the camp. Massive quantities of dead prisoners hair.
This was the point in the tour that most people started to lose it. Lots of tears. Lots of crying. I kept scribbling.
Any belongings or valuables brought by the prisoners into the camp were sent to the camps called Canada I and Canada II for processing. The plunder ended up being part of the evidence that was used to prove the atrocities that had happened at the camp. Like the piles of hair, we saw piles of glasses, piles of shoes, piles of Jewish prayer shawls, combs, brushes, suitcases, clothing, prosthetics, crutches, pottery, bowls, cutlery… everything was sorted. The quantity was simply horrifying.
In my journal, I noted that the lighting in the barracks was quite muted, but that the exhibits (the hair, combs, etc) were under bright flourescents. It was really macabre – like seeing a body at a morgue.
The next part of the exhibit was even more horrifying. It turns out that 20% of the victims of the camp had been children (90% Jewish). There was a room, absolutely packed to the brim, with children’s shoes. So many shoes.
And that’s the thing – I noted this in my journal: it’s not just the atrocity itself, but the sheer size of the atrocity that is so horrifying. The piles of shoes and the hair really gave us a sense of that size.
Of the prisoners that weren’t immediately executed, 50% were Jewish. Many were Polish. All were treated like property.
There were some prisoners who were given some of the responsibilities of the guards – for example, being in charge of work units. These prisoners were always German criminals.
The prisoners were deprived of all of their human characteristics. No names. Just numbers. Photos were originally used for identification, but this was eventually changed to tattoos because a prisoner’s appearence would change too much.
The Nazis were meticulous record-keepers. Prisoner IDs were linked to prisoner files that held details such as education, age, and history.
Hunger was rampant among the prisoners. There wasn’t nearly enough food for all of them.
One sign we saw gave us a breakdown of the daily life of a prisoner. I couldn’t get it all down, but the pattern was obvious: prisoners were slowly killed with work. They were punished and beaten. Most lasted less than a year.
All non-Jewish children became prisoners. These children were also often subject to horrific “scientific” experiments by Dr. Josef Mengele.
Among other things, Mengele apparently wanted to find ways of creating twins and triplets, so that German “Aryans” could reproduce quickly.
Other atrocities were performed by Dr. Carl Clauberg who tortured Jewish women, in an attempt at finding ways of sterilizing them.
Prisoners, often naked, were shot in the back of their heads. It is estimated that 10,000 prisoners were shot at this wall. There were also posts were prisoners could have their arms strung up behind them for hours, as torture, and as punishment.
There were also starvation cells. In one of those cells, Saint Maximilian Kolbe was starved to death with 9 other men.
Eventually, we entered a building where the first experimental mass killings took place. There were suffocation cells. There were cells where prisoners were forced to stand all night. Pretty horrific.
The “camp hospital” existed for propaganda, to keep the purpose of the extermination camp a secret. The hospital was really the “crematorium waiting room”, since selections would often happen there.
Roll call was also used as prisoner punishment. If a prisoner escaped, or it was suspected that a prisoner had escaped, the remaining prisoners would be punished. They’d be lined up and counted outside of their barracks, again and again. Sometimes they’d be out there for 20 hours straight.
Only 144 prisoners successfully escaped Auschwitz. Captured escapees were tortured for information on their escape, and then executed.
Crematorium I was originally an ammo bunker. The crematorium was dark…stone…dusty…gritty. It was all so much monstrous efficiency.
The first part of the tour was over. We handed back our headsets and took a 10 minute break.
I wrote that the sun was warm, and that some of us were hungry.
We just got a small snack. We’re all sitting outside. Everybody is quiet. Some of us are eating. Some of us are drinking coffee. Some of us are smoking. Some of us are crying. It’s pretty rough. It’s hard to be an optimist here – hard to feel good, anyhow. Just…devestated.
We’re late. Our 10 minute break went on too long, and we’re late getting back on the bus. We’re heading to the next camp.
The bus really has never been so quiet. But what do we say to one another? This is no place for joking around…no place for making quips. What’s the first thing you say?
There are storm clouds in the distance.
It’s a 3km drive to the next camp. Tamara says that there are no exhibits…just the barracks and other buildings, the railroad tracks, and the gas chambers.
We’re here. I recognize where I am – I think I had seen it in Schindler’s List.
The barracks reminded me of stables for horses. Wooden bunks, and a single stone oven for heating. At least 400 people per barrack. No toilets inside. No washrooms. Just buckets and ditches in the ground, and barrels of water outside.
There were “toilets” outside, which were really just holes in the ground with wood frames built over them.
Members of the prison resistance would meet by the ditches/toilets, since the guards would never go near them (due to the smell, and disease).
In November, 1944, Heinrich Himmler ordered the crematoria destroyed before the Red Army could reach the camp. Nazi soldiers began destroying the evidence of what had happened at the camp, starting with the gas chambers.
In January, 1945, with the Red Army getting closer, SS command ordered that all prisoners at Auschwitz be executed. This order was never carried out. Instead, the camp was evacuated, and the prisoners were sent on death marches to another camp in Wodzisław Śląski. Prisoners who were too sick or weak to march were left behind. Those 7,500 prisoners were still there when the Red Army came to liberate them.
According to Wikipedia:
Approximately 20,000 Auschwitz prisoners made it to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany, where they were liberated by the British in April 1945.
Some of the buildings and ruins in Auschwitz II are sinking, and the museum is working hard to restore them.
Just past the last gas chamber is a large stone monument. Large, Easter Island-like heads and monoliths.
At the base of the monument are numerous plaques, all in different languages. Here’s the English one:
Just got off the phone with Em. Told her all about Auschwitz. Missing her a lot. I decided to try to make myself feel better by getting some lemon sorbet. It’s a pretty good deal at 4z. I found Alexi and Yev drinking coffee in the square, and joined them while I finished my cone.
I think Yev borrowed my camera and took these photos:
And I think I hear a dulcimer being played somewhere.
The street I strolled down is called Florianska. At some earlier point, I had gotten the urge to check out some of the local music scene, and the girl at the hostel told me to walk down this street. She said there was an indie rock bar around here called The Lizard, but I haven’t found it yet. And I’m slowly approaching the end of the street.
The square seems pretty busy for a Wednesday night. I imagine the place gets absolutely packed on weekends.
It’s a whole spectrum of age groups out this evening. I’m also hearing a variety of languages. Polish, English, and German for starters. Italian too. Mostly white people. One or two exceptions. Some rollerbladers.
An ambulance raced by, driving through the crowded square. As it passed, I heard a trumpet playing a tune from the top of the cathedral, and then abruptly stop.
The three men playing on the accordions are still there, and now that crowd is starting to move. I guess the cathedral was acting like some big meeting point for a tour group. The accordion players are doing the William Tell Overture again – they seem to have a repetoire of about 5 songs.
My notes for the day end there, but I imagine I eventually headed back to the hostel and went to sleep.
My research proposal is going through ethics review, in order to make sure that I’m not going to blow things up (or hurt anybody if I do)
While my paperwork is reviewed, I’m refining my procedure and apparatus. Better and better.
I’ve been accepted into Google Summer of Code this year – I’ll be working on Review Board. Details about my project will be the subject of an upcoming post, which I will toss up shortly.
I may or may not be co-directing a radio play. I’ll let you know.
The MarkUs team is about to release version 0.7, and a fresh batch of Summer students will soon be here at UofT to work on it!
I have not forgotten about the UCDPtrip to Poland. I still have to tell you what we saw and did at Auschwitz. Cripes – it’s almost a year since I returned, and I’m only half-way through the whole story. And there’s a ton more to tell. Coming soon.