Wednesday, May 10, 2006

To Kraków through Częstochowa and Oświęcim

We left for Kraków this morning. Most of the way down you see only big fields, isolated bales of hay, and steeples randomly peeping out from tree clusters. I spent a third of the ride reading, a third staring out the window imagining the stories of the people living in these little villages, and another third practicing that wonderful Polish tongue twister from the beginning of Brzechawa's poem:

W Szczebrzeszynie chrząszcz brzmi w trzcinie.

("In the town of Szczebrzeszynie a beetle buzzes in the reed.", in English this might be approximated "f shtchebzheshinye hshonshtch bzhmi f tshtsinye") On our way to Kraków, we had two places to stop: Częstochowa, and Oświęcim.

Częstochowa seems like a quaint city, but I can't be sure — we only stopped to see Jasna Góra, the monastery housing the famous Black Madonna. Częstochowa is called the "holiest city in Poland" due to this icon, which was supposedly painted by the apostle Luke. Plenty of pilgrims come to visit, sometimes climbing the hill on their hands and knees. Fortunately, we bypassed that part and took the bus straight to the parking lot. The monastery is really beautiful, tiles, brick and cement on the outside, and grand ornamentation on the inside. Some of the walls still bear the marks of various attacks on the monastery (which the monks, and the "miraculous powers" of the icon have successfully defended against time after time). Walking around inside one of the cathedrals, the first thing to grab my attention was a painting of a very modern looking man — in what appeared to be his pajamas, holding a wooden rosary and looking upwards towards a bright light. It seemed rather odd, so I wrote his name down for later: Maximilian Kolbe.

After being led through various hallways and corridors, we were about to enter the main room where the Black Madonna was kept. As we entered, you could hear the chants of an unidentifiable choir — I didn't notice a director, just people singing. Then there were all the children in dresses and suits for first communion. That's when I realized we entered from the front — the icon was behind us. I didn't have any divine revelations or miraculous healings, but it is a pretty painting.

The sister showing us around took us through a few more rooms, then upstairs to the treasury. That's where I learned to read the "no cameras" signs more carefully (the armed guard kept his eye on me the rest of the time). The monastery has a surprising amount of unique jewelry and other valuables... one piece in specific stuck with me: Jesus on the cross, with a skull and crossbones at his feet. Only recently did I learn that this is a reference to the tradition that Jesus was crucified on the site of Adam's tomb, and not simply symbolic of Christ's victory over sin.

Leaving the city, we stopped by a little restaurant on the outskirts. I'm guessing it had a capacity of forty people, and we were the only guests. Great food — the typical starter "salad" (various shredded vegetables), great bread, żurek and some meat and noodles I can't quite remember.

50 km from Kraków is Oświęcim, better known as Auschwitz. Once I noticed the architecture start to change, I stopped taking pictures for the day. What can you say? Walking around Auschwitz, you can still hear the birds chirp... I was reminded of Vonnegut: "Poo-tee-weet". Then Zosima's older brother from The Brother's Karamazov:

" must know that verily each of us is guilty before everyone, for everyone and everything. I do not know how to explain it to you, but I feel it so strongly that it pains me. And how could we have lived before, getting angry, and not knowing anything?"

It's true. I'm simultaneously overwhelmed by anguish for our condition, and joy for the hope of our redemption. And in the midst of the hatred, there is hope: as we walked by the various rooms for different means of death (starvation, suffocation, etc.), our guide stopped at one and told us a story.

Imagine that you are a prisoner here, working day in and day out, surrounded by death. Now, imagine that another prisoner has escaped. In order to keep this from happening, the Nazis execute ten prisoners for every escapee. Now imagine you are amongst a crowd of thousands, while they select their ten prisoners. Then something unexpected happens — a man offers to give up his life in exchange for one of the men that was selected, so he can have a chance at being reunited with his wife and young children. Surprised, the Nazis oblige. Of course, they can't say that they starved him to death, so they write on his death certificate: "Maximilian Kolbe, died from a heart attack."

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