Birkenau (Auschwitz I)

Birkenau (Auschwitz I)

Today, (6/26/15). We went back to Birkenau and Auschwitz I. On the way, Alex shared another Eva story. Apparently, in the frames after the part of the liberation video that is usually shown, when you watch the end of it, Eva sticks her tongue out at the camera and laughs. Knowing Eva as we do, none of us are surprised.

When we arrived at Birkenau, we had the choice to go on the guided tour or explore on our own. I did a little of both. One of the things I had noticed is that for me, going on a tour is fascinating as far as the information you receive, but it doesn’t allow everything to really hit you.  Walking around with other people, rushing through exhibits, etc., isn’t conducive to reflection and understanding the gravity of the situation and this place.  I wanted to allow myself time and space to truly be impacted by what is here.  So, I opted to keep my headset on when I was with the group and wanted to hear what was being said, but also have the freedom to walk away when there was a shot I wanted or time I needed.

Szymon returned us to the barracks showing the living conditions of prisoners. 100_4484He shared that people in Birkenau considered Auschwitz a spa. Though people in Chelmno considered Birkenau a spa. It’s all in your perspective. Looking through the barracks, I was amazed to see a bird sitting at the window seemingly looking out. It sat for a minute, gazing out through the bars, then flapped its wings.  I was reminded of two things:  First, Mia Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.”  In it, she shares some of the horrors of her childhood and explained how much she was touched by beautiful things as an escape to the terrors around her.  Second,  I was reminded of an interview in Steven Spielberg’s Survivors of the Shoah.  A woman recalls her experience being on one of the cattle cars and peeking out of the top window and seeing birds fly by.  She remembered envying them their freedom.

Eva sitting at the ruins of her barracks

Eva sitting at the ruins of her barracks

After the barracks, I left the group to go around  a bit on my own. Eva was back at the foundation of her former barracks, and there was a small group around her as she again told about her days in the camp.  She pointed out the remains of the stove they used too cook “organized” (stolen) potatoes on (End of the bricks where the flowers are sitting in the picture).  The girls in the barrack used to take turns standing guard while one of them cooked.  It was only after the liberation a friend had told her, “How did you manage to not get caught?  Boiled potatoes have a smell.”  Eva was surprised, so she boiled a potato to see, and sure enough, the girl was right.  Eva speculated that it might be because Dr. Mengele admired people who were strong and resourceful.  He despised pathetic people, so perhaps he had told them to not interfere with those who had managed to acquire something to help themselves.  Another group member asked if Eva had ever seen the giants or dwarves Mengele kept.  She said she had seen both.  Mengele was trying to figure out what caused all kinds of genetic mutations in his quest to create the master race.  He also practiced different methods of sterilization on some of the twins and other subjects.

Eva speaking to Israeli Students

Eva speaking to Israeli Students

Then, it was time for our candle lighting at the Victims’ Memorial. When we arrived for the celebration, we found Eva sharing her story with a groups of Israeli students, all draped in Israeli flags. She challenged them to never be a bystander, to never give up, and about the power of forgiveness. As she shared her story, one sweet girl sat with years running down her cheeks. “It’s alright,” Eva said, “I made it. And you will too.”
Finally, Alex was able to drag her away, and we went to the monument. One by one, each of us lit a candle and shared who we were lighting it for. Eva lit hers in memory of her family, Alex in honor of the grandparents he had never known. It was an incredible time to hear which aspect of the Holocaust was memorable to whom.

Remembrance

Remembrance

Team members honored their own family members, members of resistance movements, those still surviving in countries affected by genocide, and those who sacrificed their lives for others. I lit mine in memory of Maurice Eisenstein’s family (a member of our Chabad community whose whole family perished in the Holocaust), the Ten Boom family and others like them who risked their lives to hide Jews and paid the ultimate price. After that, a rabbi with us led us in the mourner’s Kaddish. Definitely a moving time.

Then, we left Birkenau for lunch at Art Deco and then to Auschwitz I.

Wall Art from the Gypsy area

Wall Art from the Gypsy area

Here, we went to see the typical barracks. Then, we headed to the Museum dedicated to the memory of the gypsies.  This was another fascinating area.  One of the coolest things was the artwork on the wall.  There was a painting by a prisoner that was actually done on the wall and protected by glass, but there was also an art display by a prisoner whose art talent literally saved her life.  Additionally, it was fascinating to read the stories of a number of children who had escaped.  It may just be my imagination, but I could almost tell from the eyes of these children which ones would succeed.  They had a defiance and a determination that looked different than the others.  What courage it must have taken, just like little Eva, to have the will to survive that will help you do whatever it takes to stay alive.

Children's drawings from the camp (Yad Vashem exhibit)

Children’s drawings from the camp (Yad Vashem exhibit)

A difficult area to visit was the Yad Vashem exhibits.  This was an incredibly well-organized exhibit that really makes the experience real for those who visit.  One of the things nearly every member of our group mentioned was the room with children’s drawings.  A number of children drew images from the camp–some ghastly like hangings or shootings, some beautiful like hearts, stars of David, and a bird singing–ironic in light of my experience that morning.  Another one that touched me the most was the image of a little girl sitting alone on the train platform with a suitcase with the word Terezin, 1943, and a number on it (Possibly a relative’s prison number.)  Another was the image of abandoned toys.  It’s very interesting to view an atrocity though the eyes of a child.

Book of Names room

Book of Names room

Another area that was extremely moving was the book of names room.  In three languages, it states, “The names of the murdered are inscribed in this book as an eternal memorial.”   Then, it quotes Psalms 139:16, “And in your book, they all will be written.”  Like no other area, this room strikes you with the sheer mass of people who were murdered,  I took the opportunity to look up my friend Maurice’s family, as he had mentioned they had been wiped out during the Holocaust.  I thought I might find a relative or two.  There were two full pages (3 feet of type each!) with name after name of people with his last name.  It was horrifying to see the devastation of this one family.  Another team member had found that her family name had three pages.  It brought home the fact that the Holocaust truly wiped out entire family lines!

Sabbath service at the Galicia Jewish Museum

Sabbath service at the Galicia Jewish Museum

When we returned to the hotel, a group of us were scheduled to head into town for a musical Sabbath service.  So we caught a cab downtown for a little over $4.00 total for the four of us, and waited for the service to begin.  We had previously had dinner here, and it was a cool venue.  The group here is really a grassroots group trying to interest seekers and make traditions more palatable for a younger audience.  With my normal experience in Judaism being with Chabad, it was WAY different.  They had a female rabbi, played instruments throughout, and didn’t recite the normal prayers, though there were people who did it.  However, the music was well done, they had Siddurs available for the visitors, and Kiddish was sensitive (both wine and grape juice) with the most amazing hallah I have ever tasted.  Just not what I’m used to.

When we arrived at the hotel at 10:30 PM, Eva was just heading into the lobby.  She sat on her walker and shared with us–stories from her past (returning to their family home to find it abandoned and neglected.  She teared up discussing her mother and how it felt to realize by the tall weeds and neglected appearance that her parents were never coming back.  But, she soon changed to the humorous as well, laughing through the tale of her husband getting trapped in his new used car because he didn’t know how to get out without setting the alarm off.  We laughed and cried and just thoroughly enjoyed being in the presence of Eva Kor.  Finally, we headed back to our rooms, shocked to discover it was midnight, and we had spent an hour and a half sharing with her.  What an incredible time!

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The Wieliczka Salt Mine

The Wieliczka Salt Mine

This morning (6/24/15), we had the rare opportunity to visit the Wieliczka salt mine. It is an incredible experience, and one I recommend.  Ironically, I first heard of the Wieliczka Salt Mine in the eighth grade English book selected for me to teach.  The article was used for students to practice summarizing, but described in great detail the beauty of this mine.  Now, 13 years later, I get to see it in person.

This was a working salt mine until salt production stopped in 1964. Now, they just use the brine from the mine for bath salts and other beauty products.  When it was time for our tour, we were escorted to a miner elevator (claustrophobic–it was built for the miners, but is actually more like a 3x5x6 cage.  Still, an incredible experience!).  We descended several floors to start the tour.  In the normal tour, there are 800 steps, but a few of us were blessed to take the “handicapped tour” because of our knee problems (heart for me.) there were about 20 stairs. Additionally, in one area, we had a ramp of 100 meters with about a 30 degree incline.  We discussed the difference between the American definition of handicap accessible and that of other countries.

Salt Sculpture in the mine

Salt Sculpture in the mine

Down in the mine, it is a constant 57 degrees (constant 14 Celsius). They used oak or pine wood to reinforce the walls because they are hard woods.  The salt statue in the main chamber is from the Second World War. Inside the mine, there are 2,350 chambers with 240 km of corridors.  And, in 1978, UNESCO placed the Wieliczka salt mine on its list as a world heritage site. With its rich history, it’s easy to see why.

In the 18th century, kings owned the mine. At the time, it was a treasure.  Due to the lack of refrigeration, salt was valued for its preservative properties and its ability to mask the taste of that which had not been preserved well enough. In fact, In the 14th-15th century, it was more expensive than gold.  In one chamber, there is a statue of Johann Wolfgang van Goethe who had visited the mine (right). It was carved by miners just outside of the only chamber excavated with explosives. In addition to the amazing sculptures, in the lower levels of the mine, there is a Sanitarium for people with asthma or a spa to enjoy as the air is supposed to make you look two years younger.

Salt chapel--carved entirely out of salt

Salt chapel–carved entirely out of salt

The mine averages over one million visitors per year, and tourists started visiting after the First World War.  Our tour guide shared the legend of the patron saint of this mine. The Hungarian Princess Kinga knew that Poland was rich but had no salt. King Bela took her to a mine in Hungary. She threw her engagement ring down the shaft to claim it,  When she arrived in Poland, she asked miners to dig down deep.  According to legend, they found salt, and when they split it open, her engagement ring was inside, claiming the mine for herself.  She then became the Patron saint of miners.   Mining is dangerous, so miners prayed a lot in the chapel–and it’s incredible!  This chapel is floor to ceiling salt (Trust me, one of our tour members licked the floor…)  The amazing artistry is incredible, reproducing such greats as Da Vinci’s Last Supper,  other incidents in the life of Christ, a statue of Pope John Paul II, and a salt chandelier!  It is breathtaking!

Salt Crucifix from the chapel area

Salt Crucifix from the chapel area

There are three masses held in this chapel every year:  One at Christmas, one July 24 (Polish Independence Day), and the fourth of December, the day of St Barbara, the patron saint of miners.   This entire room was carved by three Polish miners who were also artists.  I can’t even imagine what it took to create a thing of such lasting beauty.

In addition to the caverns and chambers, the mine also boasts a restaurant and two bookstores where you can purchase a variety of salt and salt related items.

From the mine, we headed into town where we were able to spend time just walking around the market, having conversations with our group, buying souvenirs, and enjoying the horse drawn carriages and the variety of street performers always doing something on the streets of the square.

After an incredible dinner at Wesele on the square, we headed back to the hotel to hear one of our tour members share about his trip to North Korea three years ago.  I have included my notes from his lecture.  Please realize that this is North Korea as seen through his eyes.  His views may be accurate–they may not be.  With the current lack of information about North Korea, I appreciate the opportunity to learn, even if I take it with a grain of salt.  Most of it has already been discovered by the UN or other organizations.

He began his talk explaining the ideology of North Korea.  He compared it to a religion of Kim family worship. These men are held in such regard that there are a variety of myths surrounding them such as rainbows appeared at their births or they don’t have to use the bathroom.

He got to visit North Korea because they invite a group of Harvard grad students to visit, and he wanted to attend.  He explained in this ideology that the government has absolute control over information. People are taught that their first loyalty is to state. Children will even spy on their own families, just like in Nazi times.  He had written his thesis on North Korean prison camps.

After explaining that the Kims have been In charge of 20 million people for 60 years, he delved into previous history. Before WWII, Korea was colonized by Japan. Japan tried to get rid of Korean culture. Then, after World War II, it was split into two parts:  one controlled by the Allies, one by the Communists. Both sides put in puppet government. So, the Koreans came from a unified people–one people group. The politics were imposed not chosen. North Korea had been controlled by the USSR, so when Communism fell, they needed new benefactor. They chose China, another close Communist nation, but they never had the relationship with China they had with Russia.

So, what is life like for a North Korean?  He asked us to remember they controlled what he got to see. First, he commented that they had a hard time feeding the group. The food they received was either inadequate or sub par. At end of trip, all members had mouth sores and were weak. After first experiencing inadequate nutrition, the feeling is intense. Then, it subsides. At the peak of their hunger season (day 2-3), they went to restaurant. Their minder told the group North Korea was paradise on earth.  In the middle of making the statement, the lights went out. It was a rolling black out.

He also reminded us that, depending on what you do with interacting with locals, you won’t end up in jail, but they will. We talked about the Holocaust prisoners strong sense of familial responsibility–it’s the same In North Korea. There are three classes in Society. Your class determined food, information, ability to be in government, etc. The three classes are: those loyal to Kim’s, people who were wavering, or people determined to be disloyal. Because of this, there is such a culture of fear. They don’t want to be sent north.

There is a dual function of the prison camps: Get rid of people they don’t like permanently and inspire so much fear that everyone wants to obey. These aren’t death camps like Auschwitz. If your cousin does something, your entire family may get sent. When you arrive, you’re told you’re scum, and you will work for the regime until you die. They call it being plucked up by roots.  You have to eliminate the whole family to get rid of the root of disloyalty.  Estimated numbers in the camps were 150,000-200,000. Most of the information we have comes from people who escaped. There’s a story of one man who was born in camps because “good” prisoners may be allowed to have sex with other prisoners. Like the Nazis, guards are told prisoners aren’t people. Starvation is rampant. It’s so bad there were people searching through dung to find undigested kernels of corn to eat. There are extensive rapes and forced abortion. Guards also use people for live target practice or lock them in cells where they can’t stand or stretch. Survivors say there are no pictures, but if you want to see, look at Holocaust.

So, what can we do? How do we make sure we’re not just the same as those who knew the Holocaust was happening and did nothing about it.  First, we can raise awareness, especially with people in power. But, the question remains:  What do you do to make people across the world care? Our speaker’s suggestions?  North Korea is dependent on China to feed their people. Why does China support North Korea? His speculation is for China, It is better to have Korea divided than united and leaning toward the US. China has a lot to be proud of and to offer the world. They also want to save face with the world. When things get too bad in North Korea now, China turns off oil for 24 hours–they yank the proverbial chain. We need to ask China to use their leverage to bring change.

Still, the question is far from easy.  What would North Korea do with all those people if the camps closed? He doesn’t know.  But the US government isn’t the one to raise pressure. We need advocates. We can’t throw our arms up and saw there’s nothing we can do.

Another interesting thing he shared was that everywhere they went they saw actors. They were allowed to visit a maternity hospital named for the Kims. On the trip, they had a neonatal doctor from the US. After touring the hospital and seeing all the mothers and babies, he said none of the babies were newborn, and none of mothers had just given birth.  It was all an act.  Also, they went to a library to see people typing on computers. When they walked by screens, they were all off.
They also came across a wedding in park that they “happened” upon. Every building had pictures of Kim’s. People have been sent to camps for not respecting the portraits.

Someone asked what does China get out of North Korea? Apparently, there is long history among the countries there. People believe if armies are coming to attack China, they’ll go through Korea. Having the buffer zone is good for them.  Also, the two countries fought together against Japan in WWII. He feels that in China, there is a diversity of opinion: Some ask why are we in this? Others say we are brothers in arms, loyal to the end.  Another group asks at what point do we break ties?  Having North Korea, though, also deflects resources and interest to something else when China needs it to.

As to the future, he shares he thinks North Korea was better under Kim il Sung. He really was a war hero. Under Kin Jong Il, things got worse. People hoped things were going to change with the new regime. But he thinks Kim Jong Un is being the most brutal, executing even his own family. Everyone’s hoping for reform. China did it successfully.  Maybe Korea can too.  For past 60 years, people have been predicting the collapse of North Korea, and yet it holds on. He does not think solution is military. There is a pessimism in the region. Most of the region doesn’t want to take on the issues associated with thousands of refugees and their health problems, etc. feels like leaders think it will be over soon so haven’t tried.
He recommends reading The Hidden Gulag by David Hawk.  It contains testimonies of people in the camps.

Finally, he shared a few stark details.  The kids are malnourished, so South Koreans are on average are 5-6 inches taller, despite being from the same heritage. He saw schools and orphanages where the kids were malnourished with rashes. He didn’t see a single old person in North Korea. People had also converted cars to run on steam for when there’s no gas.  He stated that people have same clothes and haircuts. The number one thing studied in school is the wisdom of the leaders. This is all people know. Only ruling elite are allowed outside education. There is smuggling out of North Korea, but they’re clamping down on it. One final story he told was when they had been in North Korea for six days.  Suddenly, a noise broke into their sub-consciences, and everyone on the team stopped.   It was the sound of a bird. They had seen and heard no birds or squirrels in the whole time they’d been there. When 1/5 of country died, they ate them all.

The first step is being informed.  Now, we have the opportunity to be an advocate.

End of the street used in Schindler's List

End of the street used in Schindler’s List

The CANDLES Museum hosts an annual tour of Auschwitz with Holocaust Survivor Eva Kor.  This year, I am lucky enough to attend.

We left Chicago on June 20 and arrived in a rainy Kraków about 2:30 PM.  After unloading at the Radisson Blu, we headed out for a stroll around the city.  During two separate tours, we took in the Old Market Square and the Jewish quarter, but the real fun would begin today (6/22/15).

Our first stop was just outside of the Jewish area of Kazimierz.  It was named for Kazimierz the Great who welcomed the Jews and established Kraków in 1335 to be named after himself.  Kazimierz (Casimir III) himself is an interesting piece of history.  In addition to founding the Kraków Academy, he supposedly had two Jewish lovers in addition to his four wives.  Because he divorced and remarried and had all daughters, he had no legitimate heirs, causing Poland to start electing their kings.  (I didn’t even know that was possible.)

The Jews experienced a great deal of religious freedom here until 1494, when a fire destroyed a large part of Kraków.  The Jews would be blamed for it, and Jan I Olbracht would move 1400 Jews to the Bawol  district.

Oskar Schindler's House

Oskar Schindler’s House with the red flowers

Eventually, there were 78,000 Jews moved to eastern part of Poland. By the end of 1800, they could move anywhere. In Hitler’s time, Kraków became the capital of occupied Poland, which is the reason it was not destroyed. On March 3, 1941, Nazis set up a small ghetto in Kraków. They divided this area into two parts.  The first part contained workers (those who were young and fit enough to carry out hard labor.)  The second part consisted of the young, the old, and the infirm.  It is this part that will be liquidated.

Many Jews worked for Schindler, who moved his Catholics to other jobs when he realized what was going on and moved to help as many Jews as possible. He would eventually save 1,200.

Our guide also shared with us that the Nazis killed 57% of professors and 37% of doctors. 187 professors sent to Sachsenhausen and Dachau. There is also a plaque in the courtyard dedicated to 30 non-Jews executed who were executed. Our tour guide Marta’s grandfather was slotted as one of the ones to be executed but escaped his execution because he spoke perfect German. In this case, truth is definitely stranger than fiction.  He simply walked up to a guard and asked where train station was.  Because of his flawless German, the guard bought it, and he got away. His advice to Marta is “Know language of your friend and the language of your enemy.”

Isaac's Synagogue

Isaac’s Synagogue

From there, we visited the Isaac Synagogue. Legend (1001 Arabian Nights) has it that Isaac had a dream of a treasure in Prague.  He went to Prague in search of the treasure.  Eventually, he met an officer with whom he shared his dream.  Apparently, the officer had a dream of a treasure in the house of Isaac the son of Jacob.  Isaac went home and took apart his oven where he found a treasure.  He used the money to build a synagogue.  The moral of the story is something along the lines of the grass is not greener on the other side–treasure is in your own home.  During WWII, this building was used as a stable and warehouse.  Eventually, it would be an art center. Now, it’s a Chabad Lubavitch (which is cool for me since I attend Chabad at home.)

Krakow Ghetto Deportation area.  Empty Chairs Monument

Kraków Ghetto Deportation area. Empty Chairs Monument

We then went to the deportation area of the Kraków Ghetto.  The Kraków Ghetto is the smallest ghetto, while the Warsaw Ghetto is largest. Before the ghetto was established, 3,000 Jews lived in the area that would become the ghetto.  The largest amount in the ghetto was 20,000 in an 18 block area.  Because there were 68,000 Jews of Kraków killed, the Empty Chair Monument has 68 chairs to represent the 68,000 Jews executed here when ghetto was liquidated (Note:  Other places say 70 chairs.  I didn’t count.)  There are two meanings they used chairs for the monument according to our tour guide.  The first is that since Jews were often moved, they were told to bring their belongings.  Because of that, chairs, tables, and wardrobes littered the area.  The second meaning is to symbolize waiting to be exterminated, an idea reinforced by the Nazi’s who apparently made the ghetto wall in the shape of Jewish tombstones.

Dr.

Dr. Pankiewicz’s Pharmacy

Another cool story from the Bohaterow Ghetto is the story of Dr. Tadeusz Pankiewicz.  He was the only non Jewish person to operate a business inside the ghetto.  He was allowed to keep his pharmacy as a service, but I doubt the Nazi’s know just how much of a service he performed. Observing what went on with the Jews from his spot just outside the square, he decided to help the Jews.  In addition to medical care to ease the suffering, he provided tranquilizers to  help Jewish children sleep through Gestapo raids.   He also provided Jews with hair dye needed to change their appearance and help them get out of the ghetto.  Additionally, his store served as a meeting place for other resisters, and a cover for Jews trying to escape.  He truly was a remarkable man, and he has been honored by the Yad Vashem..

On our way to the Plaszow Concentration Camp, we learned that there were 9,000 working concentration camps. Originally, this camp held 2,000, but when the Bohaterow ghetto was liquidated, it swelled to 8,000. The built a gas chamber and crematorium there, but they were never used. In Schindler’s List, they made it in the construction phase because the camp was destroyed. Another inconsistency is that the camp is on the hill while Amongothe’s house is on the bottom.

Plaszow Concentration Camp Memorial

Plaszow Concentration Camp Memorial

In the Camp, there is nothing left of the original buildings. All that remains is a series of monuments.  In addition to the large one pictured here, there is a small monument to the Hungarians who perished at Auschwitz (almost half a million towards the end of the war when they came from Hungary immediately to the gas chambers) because this camp was on the way to Auschwitz. There’s also a monument to Polish policemen, many of whom were also executed.

Amongothe's House

Amongothe’s House

After exploring the area around the monuments, a number of us chose to walk down to Amongoethe’s house.  There is apparently a guard balcony in back, but it doesn’t look like sniper stand or anything you could use as such.  While I have yet to see Schindler’s List (a number of us are planning a movie night on our trip), one thing that I wanted to be sure to share is that Amongothe’s house was recently bought by an architectural firm who is planning to turn it into offices.  This may be one of the last times to see it like this.

Basilica of the Virgin Mary

Basilica of the Virgin Mary

From the camp, after lunch on our own in the city, we headed to the Basilica of the Virgin Mary.  This spot boasts the two highest towers in the city.As such, they logically became the watch tower. There also was a bugler who played different melodies to warn, assemble, or celebrate.  Legend has it that during the Tartar invasion, the man playing the warning melody was shot in throat mid-song. Because of this, a bugler will play the same melody every hour on the hour 4 times in the cardinal directions, stopping at the same spot as the man who was killed. It is an amazing sight to behold.

We then went inside to see the amazing decoration of St. Mary’s.  Built over twelve years from 1477-1489, this church has incredible splendor that is a sight to behold.  For a mere $1.33, you can take pictures inside (identified by the special photography sticker.)

Interior of St. Mary's

Interior of St. Mary’s

St. Mary’s boasts the oldest stain glass window in Poland. Additionally, the panels on the wall were considered the wordless Bible–a way to provide the uneducated with an understanding of the Bible.  This alter had been found by the Germans who sent it to northern Poland.  After the war, it would be returned.

Pope John Paul II's House

Pope John Paul II’s House

Along the way to the Wawel Royal Castle, we also saw the oldest church in Kraków.  We the saw the oldest street in Kraków where Pope John Paul II lived when he was the Bishop of Poland (in the yellow house.)

We ended our time at the Wawel Castle, built by Kazimierz (Casimir the Great) who was the last king in a 400 year dynasty.)  Our tour guide shared some incredibly interesting stories with us.  Because Kasimierz had no legitimate heir, the Polish and Hungarian kings agreed whoever died first, the other would be king of both countries. The Polish king died first.  Not wanting to leave his kingdom, the Hungarian King gained permission for his ten year old daughter to become king of Poland (Yes, not Queen..). After 200 years of the second dynasty, one of the kings ordered tapestries to be made. 138 survived because they were sent to Canada during the war, and Canada kindly returned them.  This tapestries took one man eighteen years to create or eighteen men one year. Many tapestries are on display on site.

Wawel Castle at night

Wawel Castle at night

When that dynasty ended, the king was elected by Parliament:  first French, Hungarian, then Swedish. The Swedish king moved the capital from Kraków to Warsaw to be closer to Sweden. During the war with Sweden, more Polish citizens were destroyed than during the Nazi regime.  A queen would eventually defeat them.  Surrounded by Russia, Prussia, and Austria-Hungary, it wasn’t long before they divided Poland between them starting in 1772. It became an Independent country on Nov. 11,1919. One interesting thing to see is the empty coffin of the first Bishop of Kraków who became the first Polish saint after being beheaded. (The Crusaders also occupied Poland because there were lots of pagans here, being the last non-religious country in Europe). In front of the tomb is a sculpture of a Bible with pages moving, representing the Bible with pages blowing from Pope John Paul II’s burial.  On the Sculpted Bible is a vial containing the blood of Pope John Paul II.  Other fun facts include the crowning of the royal family in front of crucifix and the fact that they were buried here until 1500. There are monuments to a number of kings inside.  Two of the castles on this site burned. This one is third. It also boasts a tournament courtyard where knights used to joust.  And, it is the biggest Renaissance castle in Europe, making its money from salt mine.

We finished our day with an incredible dinner at Hawelka, before a group of us decided to go for a walk along the river at night.  Indeed, it has been a Monumental day!