Y’all, I had fun researching Poland. I think European countries have been my favorite this year while doing the Around the World in Fifty-Two Weeks series. There was so much about Poland that I couldn’t fit into the story because there’s simply not enough room. For instance did you know that in Poland courteous hand-kissing is still a common practice? How cool is that? Or that Poland shares its borders with no less than seven countries: Russia, Lithuania, Belarus, Slovakia, Ukraine, the Czech Republic, and Germany? Pretty neat, right?
Anyway, enough chatter! I hope y’all enjoy the twenty-first segment of my fictitious continuing story, Around the World in Fifty-Two Weeks. I’m already looking forward to finding out where we’ll travel next week…
Around the World in Fifty-Two Weeks
Week Twenty-One: Poland
Most of what I knew about the country came from reading Historical Fiction centering around WW2 and taking place in the Poland. Which, now that I think about it, that’s probably why I was so shocked to find a vibrant and seemingly happy world when I stepped out of the airport. In some tired corner of my brain I’d been imagining soldiers, concentration camps, sadness, and suffering. I was very thankful that wasn’t the case.
My family grew up with Jewish neighbors and their daughters were my best friends when I was a little girl. The father was forever singing the praise of the Poles, telling story after story of how they’d saved so many Jews during the Holocaust. Apparently he had relatives who had been hidden by them and never forgot it. When I grew up I researched it some, curious as to what exactly the Poles did to receive such praise.
It turns out the Poles represent the biggest number of people of any nationality to rescue Jews during WW2, saving around 450,000 of them. No wonder my neighbor sang their praises. Poland also holds the record of having the most people to have been awarded the title of “Righteous among the Nations” by the State of Israel, with over 6,130 people having received it.
The noteworthy works of the Poles didn’t come without a price though. I read one place that around 50,000 Poles were killed by the Nazis for saving Jews… Such a soberingly large number. WW2 was such a horrible and sad era of the world, and yet I hope it’s never forgotten. Remembering what happens when people turn a blind eye to evil is very important because what we don’t learn from we’re bound to repeat and I would hate to repeat that.
There were so many places I wanted to visit in Poland and the first night I was there I spread out a two inch stack of tourist info pamphlets out on the burgundy hotel bedcover. Warsaw was full of churches, palaces, history, and museums. Zakopane appeared to be a great place for outdoorsy types of adventures like skiing and exploring caves. The Balowieza Forest pamphlet promised European bison, parks, forests, and nature reserves. It also had beautiful pictures of lynx and other magnificent animals.
Gdansk looked delightfully calm with a harbor and breathtaking sunsets. A place called Jelenia Gora sported everything from castles and palaces, to churches and mountain biking, as well as things like theater. Seeing a play was something I had yet to do on my journey so far, and it was an inviting thought to stop by there.
Krakow pulled me in with professional photographs of Gothic architecture and lots of Jewish history. Poznan had a zoo, Swinoujscie had beaches, Kudowa-Zdroj had open air museums, and Polesie National Park had wetlands.
It seemed as if every new piece of literature I looked at a new world of possibilities opened up to me. There were so many different things to look at and explore and research. Poland was like a treasure chest just waiting to be discovered and I hardly knew where to start.
I decided to visit a couple of museums in Warsaw. The first one I went to was the Copernicus Science Centre and it promised that it was kid-friendly and interactive, that sounded like a good way to start the day. Overall I enjoyed the museum but from an article I read made it seem like the founders didn’t believe that science and the Bible go together, so that kinda bugged me. Oh well. My favorite part of the museum was Robothespian, a fully programmable humanoid robot who sang The Sound of Music to me. It’s weird to find a robot sweet, but Robothespian was sweet and I took a selfie with him.
After the Science Center I walked around doing some sightseeing and found a little sidewalk cafe to eat at. I ordered pizza because I’d been craving it for a couple of days. I was surprised when the pizza was served without sauce. Instead the waiter brought ketchup to the table for me to use as the sauce. Surprise, surprise. It was also then that I found out people traditionally ate the biggest meal of the day around 2 pm. I knew I wouldn’t be hungry for another meal in a few hours, but I decided to hold off on lunch during the rest of the week so I could be in sync with the culture.
Along with the pizza I drank some oranzada, which is sweet and carbonated and tastes like orange. I liked it a lot better than the pizza – it was cold and refreshing. According to the label on the bottle (it was served in a glass bottle), oranzada is pretty popular in Poland. It originated in France, then came to Poland in the 18th century.
After eating the pizza (which was good, but totally not what I’d expected), I indulged and had a couple of paczki, which are Polish doughnuts and one of the most traditional Polish desserts. They became popular around the time of King Augustus III of Poland who reigned in the early 18th century (I’m not sure which came first: the oranzada or the paczki). According to the waiter, paczki’s are most popular on the last Thursday before Ash Wednesday. He said that over 100 million paczki’s are eaten each year on just that one day. Craziness. It was no wonder though, because the doughnuts were really good.
After lunch I went to the Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but was pleasantly surprised. The museum covered over 4,000 square meters and the exhibits had English descriptions which made me happy. There was a huge amount of information regarding the Holocaust which was sobering. I wanted to rush through that part and dwell on the happier aspects instead (because there were plenty of happy displays, too), but I didn’t.
I found the display of photos taken in the Ghetto by members of the Nazi propaganda unit and the contrasting truth in the form of diary experts from an actual inhabitant of the Ghetto to be especially eye-opening. It’s scary how people can twist and turn the truth to make it into whatever they want.
For supper I had bigos, which is one of Poland’s traditional dishes and pretty well-liked by the Poles. It’s a stew made from Polish sauerkraut, fresh cabbage, different types of meat, prunes, dried mushrooms, onions, and spices. It’s cooked for several days and then served with potatoes and bread. I wish I could say I enjoyed it, but in reality it was one of my least favorite things I tried during the year so far and I could barely gag it down. I did though, and that night I celebrated the victory with a couple more paczki.
The next day I was off to explore the Bialowieza Forest, which was a several hour trip by train. The possibility of seeing a European bison was exciting and I could hardly wait.