The Daily Quotidian

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The famous "Arbeit Mact Frei" sign. It's surprisingly undersized. I had imagined both the sign and the main Auschwitz camp to be bigger than they are.

The famous "Arbeit Mact Frei" sign. It's surprisingly undersized. I had imagined both the sign and the main Auschwitz camp to be bigger than they are.

Some barracks and  the electrified barbed wire at Auschwitz

Some barracks and the electrified barbed wire at Auschwitz.

Yesterday I took a day trip to Auschwitz–Oświęcim in Polish–which is about 100km away from Krakow. If some crazy compulsion has made you go to Poland, you should definitely see Auschwitz. I did the English guided tour. The tour guide didn’t say anything spectacular or anything that I didn’t know, but having a tour guide was a big virtue because it forces you to pay attention to everything. All told, the tour was four hours of walking around and seeing.


The only major qualm I have about the tour is that the guide and the text on the walls emphasized that Birkenau was the major death site (Birkenau is part of the Auschwitz complex-3km away from the main Auschwitz campus).

The barbed wire and rows of barracks at Birkenau.

The barbed wire and field where barracks once stood at Birkenau.

The ruins of the largest crematorium used in the Holocaust.

The ruins of the largest crematorium used in the Holocaust.

The blown-up crematoria (blown up by the Nazis as they were fleeing) are still just a big pile of brick and  rubble.


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July 24, 2008 at 8:13 am

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Warszawa: A Defence

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This weekend I went to Warsaw to visit a graduate school friend. Going in, my expectations were low: all I had heard about Poland was that Krakow was old and beautiful and Warsaw was gray and ugly.


Warsaw was a totally wonderful surprise. The entire city was leveled (well, dynamited actually) during World War II by the Nazis as punishment for the Warsaw Uprising. So the entire “Old City” and “New City” have been rebuilt to pre-war specifications since then.

I suppose that I assumed that since after World War II Poland became the Sovietized “People’s Republic of Poland” that the city would look like some brutal concrete monstrosity.

Wrong again!

To be sure, there are a good number of Soviet-era buildings in the city. But even these have their charms. The Palace of Culture and Science is one of several Stalin-era “palaces” (there are other similar buildings in Moscow). It’s the tallest building in Poland and the first building you are likely to notice when you get out of
Warsaw’s central train station. To Poles, the building probably symbolizes Russian domination. To everyone else, the building’s symbolism isn’t all that much different as the building virtually screams out “hey, look who is in charge here!” Of course, the Russians aren’t in charge now, and the building now houses a multiplex cinema, some radio and TV channels, as well as exhibition spaces. Anyway, my point is that this building–at least from a non-Polish perspective–is visually appealing, imposing, and socially and historically complex.

Despite the efforts of a post 1989 Poland to reorient (or, perhaps, de-Orient) the city toward the west, other traces of Sovietiana can be seen throughout Warsaw. There are friezes in the Soviet Realist style on the sides of some hulking buildings. Really it’s quite ironic to see these sculptures on the sides of buildings that now house western banks.

That baby comrade is ripped!

As you can see, I’m not really sure how to align these two photos properly and parallel to each other.

Anyway, right now I’m overstating the influence of Russia on today’s Poland. The city looks western European in most places, and basically American in other places, which is probably some metaphor for a geopolitical reality.

Written by dailyquotidian

July 21, 2008 at 10:49 am

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Greetings from Krakow.

Yesterday I spent a few hours wandering around the Wawel Castle. (Pronunciation guide:  in Polish, the “w” makes the sound of the “v” in English, so the castle is pronounced “Vaa-vel.) As the sign says, it is the supreme monument to the Polish nation.

Before it was a supreme monument, it was a basically a royal city situated on a hill above the rest of Krakow.  Within the walls of the Wawel complex there is a palace with royal apartments and state rooms. A huge Cathedralthat rivals any in France or Italy in sheer gilded decadence. Underneath the Cathedral there are the tombs of a lot of famous Poles, including every Polish monarch, as well as more modern Polish heroes like Jozef Pilsudski.

Once inside the Cathedral, visitors with steady legs can ascend the belltower. I have been told by more seasoned travelers that this is kind of stupid, but I liked it. The tower is narrow and the stairs are rickety and wooden and the bells are immense. The point of climbing to the top is not to get awesome views of the city (though those are to be had as well), but its to see the Zygmunt Bell. This bell was crafted in the 16th century supposedly from the armor of an army the Poles had defeated. The bell is not rung anymore except on extremely special occasions, and when that happens it takes 10 men to ring it.

To control crowds, there are only a set number of tickets available to some parts of the Wawel complex during the day. I was one of the last twenty to get tickets to the state rooms, and tickets to the private apartments were already sold out. The state rooms were pretty spectactular, though under-explained. The placards–in Polish and in English–didn’t really give visitors a sense of when certain pieces were acquired and why. For instance, I was especially confused about the addition of “first half of twentieth century” Persian rugs that were on every floor. Anyway, much of the castle is in an Italian Renassiance style since a 16h century Polish king commissioned the Italian architect Giovanni Trevano and the painter Tomasso Dolabella to carry out a restoration of the castle. There is also a large collection of Dutch art. My favorite room was the “Envoys Room,” which used to hold sessions of the “Lower House.” The ceiling of this room , which dates to the mid 16th century, has thirty wood-engraved  heads staring down to the floor.

Unfortunately, there is no photography allowed in the interior of any of Wawel, so I can only leave you with links to the wikipedia pages above which have some pictures.

This afternoon we are off to Warsaw to visit a friend and to see the funeral of Bronislaw Geremek, who was important in the Solidarity movement.

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July 18, 2008 at 8:27 am

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