—Mostly to visit familiar and important places in Edith’s early childhood (i.e., prior to her flight from Pomerania in 1945)
As told by Roy
On the trip were:
Pa (aka Manny)Ma (aka Edith, aka Sierra)Roy
Taking care of things at home:
* * *
May 23, Monday
Shuttle to LAX. Pa and the driver—a jovial, if unintelligent, man—converse about politics the whole way to LA. Sheesh.
Owing to the determination of some to follow directions, no matter how unreasonable, we left early for the airport (about 10:00 a.m.), and so we waited there for hours for our 2:55 p.m. flight.
At the Lufthansa gate, we discovered that Ma and Pa’s bags were too big to qualify as carry-ons, despite our diligence in learning the Lufthansa rules, etc.—one instance among many of the more general phenomenon of air travel obscurantism (which includes lack of clear directions at airports and systematic unclarity about the fate of luggage).
We departed on time and in good weather. The flight was uneventful.
Owing to the sardine can conditions in our 747, the flight to Frankfurt was grueling. We were glad when daylight returned and the hope of freedom flickered. (I had the window seat. Ma was sandwiched uncomfortably between Pa and me.)
May 24, Tuesday
We landed in Frankfurt at about 10:30 a.m., after our sleepless night on the plane. The weather was warm and humid. (I do not deal well with humidity; I tend to run hot. Annie calls me a “polar bear.”)
Tired, we attempted (a) to determine whether we needed to again check Ma and Pa’s luggage; (b) to locate the gate for our next flight, at 4:00 p.m.
We found our way to our departure gate despite the signs, maps, or people of Frankfurt Airport. Some airport employees were dismissive, unhelpful. We were pretty frustrated. Eventually, we had a lunch in a nice, open mall-like “bistro.”
The German version of Homeland Security was pretty obnoxious. We had had little trouble back in LA, but in Frankfurt we were treated rudely and were subjected to more rigorous examinations. Any failure to follow officers’ (sometimes unclear) instructions was met with surly barks and impatience. I still don’t know what they were asking of me. Sheesh, my German ain’t so hot, OK? It’s a little thing, but I felt somewhat battered, and I was not alone.
I would like to dump steer manure upon these people.
Lufthansa’s computer was down; the Lufthansa gate for our connecting flight was unmanned for several hours, but otherwise our time was uneventful, if boredom-inducing. Toward 4:00 p.m., we were loaded onto a mystery shuttle bus that wound its way to a commuter jet somewhere in Frankfurt Airport. The flight seemed very ad hoc. I saw a guy still turning screws on the plane. Eventually, we roared toward Gdansk; it was a mercifully brief and uneventful flight. The screws held.
At about 5:30 (Gdansk time), we arrived at Gdansk Airport amid gloomy, rainy, cold weather. The airport seemed small and rinky-dink. Surly female cops glared at us, suspecting something, I know not what.
We could not find our car rental guy, who was supposed to be standing near the information desk. After nearly an hour of efforts to gain information, advice, etc., we decided to hail a taxi but, just then, I noticed a young man holding a sign with “Bauer” written upon it. The young man, Peter, had been told by his employers in Warsaw to be at the airport “at noon.”
He was not told where to stand.
We started to feel that we had entered a third world country and that things would be rocky and unpredictable from here on out. (A false impression.)
Through light rain, we walked with Peter to a cheesy fenced-off parking area, which housed our shiny new Opel Vectra, a big car by European standards. I spoke with Peter, a student of mathematics at Warsaw U. He was, he said, training to become an actuarialist, something quite rare in Poland, he added. (I immediately thought of Edward G. Robinson in Double Indemnity. Peter was nothing like him.)
We climbed into the car and made our way amid the gloom vaguely in the direction of Gdansk (the former Danzig). (I think we saw a sign saying “Gdansk.” We drove toward it.)
There was much grumpiness. I drove, as always.
Driving in Poland, I soon discovered, was a bit challenging. That night, at least, Polish drivers seemed impatient, hostile, and somewhat reckless. It was somewhat like driving in Tijuana, where people often conduct themselves as though they have absolutely nothing to lose.
We somehow found our way to Gdansk and to what appeared to be its downtown area. Our chances of finding the Scandic Hotel seemed grim—it’s a big town—but we stayed on the main road and hoped for the best. Ma spotted the Scandic sign right away. Great!
We got our rooms; I parked the car in the parking structure adjoining the hotel (a circumstance that brought slight misadventures later). I took one or two pictures from Ma and Pa’s 2nd floor room of the impressive old buildings discernable across the street. But it was dark, and we were tired. We retired. Slept like logs.
Dissent the Blog, May 24
My European adventure
WELL, WE GOT HERE, and all is well.The flight—on Lufthansa—was grueling. We were OK for the first 2/3 or so, but the sardine can conditions (economy) and heat (I tend to run hot) got to us. Didn’t sleep a wink, and couldn’t move an inch. Plus I had too much stuff with me, what with my camera and laptop.But none of this triggered anxiety, which was a slight worry. I had pills for that, but they were in my pocket, and, qua sardine, there was no way I was gonna get to the bottom of that particular region. When I finally did, the pills seemed to have disappeared, and that never happens, man.
Essentially, I’m taking my folks on a kind of pilgrimage to my mother’s home, from which she was obliged to flee in 1945, ‘cause the Russians were coming. That part of Germany (Pomerania) is now in Poland—literally half way across the northern half of today’s Poland.--But getting back to the fiascos: my folks were kinda neurotic about some aspects of this trip, leading up to it. So they dithered endlessly about their baggage and its weight. (I was skeptical of every alleged factoid they uncovered about the Byzantine baggage rules.) The plan was to have only carry-on luggage—namely, one of those bags on wheels with an extendo-handle.Meanwhile, I didn’t pack until literally the night before departure. It all sort of came together pretty well, I thought.When it came time to board in LA, the Lufthansa people had no problem with my little bag, but they rejected my folks’ as too big, and so they were consigned to the lower baggage area (of our 747).But my folks did not freak.When we got to Frankfurt airport, we discovered that the notion of German efficiency and technological prowess is mostly a myth: we lost track of my folks’ bags, the departure gate for our next flight had somehow changed, Lufthansa’s computers suddenly went down, nobody manned the (alleged) correct departure gate for hours, and, as it turns out, Frankfurt is, like, the world’s most humid f*cking place—and, yes, I blame that on the Germans too.Everybody tolerated it, but not me. Perpetual flop-sweat.Luckily, we had hours to sort it all out, which we did. But not the sweat part.Eventually, we got on some bus, which took us to a regional jet, which turned out to be a smallish plane cleverly named the “Bombardier.” So, off we went, headed for Gdansk. We didn’t seem to bomb anything.When we arrived, we soon realized that Poland isn’t Germany. Everything’s pretty small-scale and half-assed here, and things just barely work. But that’s just a first impression. I may feel differently later today.They’ve got lots of cops in Poland, I guess, and they all look at you like they know you’re about to commit a crime. Many cops are female and attractive.We were supposed to be met by a guy at the information desk with our rental car, but that didn’t happen. I dragged my sweat-soaked carcass all over the little terminal, and I didn’t get anywhere. And then it started to rain. It was cold and rainy, I was exhausted (but nothing like my folks), and I was sweating like a pig.Just as we were about to procure a taxi, I noticed a young man standing in a corner with a sign that said “Bauer.” Sure enough, he was our guy. I said, “you were supposed to be at the information desk, dude—like an hour ago.”He was a nice kid and he quickly explained that he was not told about any of that, and all he knew was that he was supposed to be there at noon.It was 8:00 p.m.The kid—Peter—is studying math in Warsau (at some poly-technical institute, I guess) and he expected to become an actuary. “There are only 204 in Poland, and I expect to be number 205,” he told me. Nice kid.Eventually, we were on the road, and I was driving. We had no idea where our hotel—the Gdansk Scandic—was, and, as it turns out, it’s not like you can just stop at a gas station and ask some guy. But I figured that the Scandic was likely near the center of town, and so I followed the signs that pointed me to downtown Gdansk, which is maybe twenty miles from the airport. What with the rain, my father’s enfeebled state, and my mom’s pissed-off-itude, it was quite a joy ride, but, pretty soon, and after numerous pronouncements, miscommunications, and squabbles, we found ourselves in what appeared to be the heart of Gdansk.“There it is!” screamed my mom.“No, it’s not here,” peeved my dad.“Where’s what?”, I asked.“What is?!” said my dad.“Mom?”, I said.It was the Scandic.Now, you’d never guess that this could be a problem, but having seen the actual Scandic is no guarantee that you’ll ever actually get there. I had to do some fancy driving, stopping over trolley tracks (“Don’t stop here, we’ll be killed!” someone said) to make a U-turn, while endlessly looking out for the adventurous Polish pedestrians who seemed always to dart out from nowhere.“Where’s the entrance?” I asked.Eventually, I parked on the sidewalk in an alley along the Scandic—that seems to be how people park here: way up on the sidewalk, no matter how high the curb. And, sans jacket, wet with sweat and rain, I wandered around until I found the “entrance” of the hotel, which is somewhat obscure. It's like it's a secret location or something.I won’t go into the remaining misadventures (they gave me a room that was already occupied by two women, etc.), but we eventually got our rooms and freshened up. (The two ladies were nice.)Dinner at the Italian (I guess) restaurant attached to the hotel was quite good. We had trouble paying for it: they didn’t like dollars or Euros. You’re supposed to have Złoty, I guess. We eventually paid with a credit card. It was 130 somethings, I know not what. At that point, we didn't care.
I tried to write something for the blog last night, but it was hopeless. Kept falling asleep.Turns out my C-PAP machine (for sleep apnea) requires a new fuse to operate in these hinterlands (no, getting the adapter wasn’t enough), and so sleep is an iffy business. Don’t yet know what absurdities have befallen my folks over the night, but I’m sure I’ll soon find out. (No doubt they went out for coffee but then couldn’t make sense of the card-key and they’ve probably been out there for hours studying the card and the lint and who knows what.)So, so far, so good! [END]
May 25, Wednesday
In the morning, forgoing the free breakfast (a mistake, mine), we ventured by car into the world of Gdansk, but only after overcoming some slight confusion at the parking garage. (“Really? I must pay you each time I leave the structure? And it can only be Polish money?”)
We had planned to make Wednesday a day of rest and recovery, and that proved wise.
With no knowledge of the roads, and without a map, we headed south, traveling in mostly old urban areas of no particular charm.
As it turns out, the highly charming Old Town section of Gdansk was near our hotel but in the opposite direction.
We were sans clue.
As we drove southward, we came across a semi-quaint smallish town (Prusczc Gdansk) and we found a restaurant, after asking advice from the girl who worked at a coffee/cake shop; I got the sense that it was the only restaurant in town she new about. The restaurant, which was just down the street, was somewhat ritzy; we enjoyed a nice early lunch there. As I recall, all or some of us had Polish dumplings, stuffed with spinach.
Things were looking up.
Back at the hotel, we established our pattern of early activity followed by exhaustion and napping—and then a lazy dinner.
The hotel restaurant turned out to be quite good. Italian. Beer, wine. We commenced enjoying ourselves. (I battled the effects of beer—blunt poison, it seemed—throughout the trip; I was mostly a near teetotaler by the end, to Ma and Pa's obvious disappointment. They wanted to be bad, and they wanted me to join them.)
* * *
Dissent the Blog, May 25
Our Day of Rest
Been having a recuperative day here in Gdansk, which seems to be pronounced "GdAIngsk." Going to lunch was the big adventure. Did that a few miles south in a little town called Pruszcz (Praust) Gdański (pop. 23,000). They seem to pronounce it Proosht GdAINSK. Something like that. It was the site of the Praust concentration camp (for women) during the war.
This is the scene in the level below my hotel. Quaint, nice. So far, the food's been great. Even tried some Polish dumplings. Could do without the bacon, but otherwise great.[Photo]These old religious buildings are now occupied with Kentucky Fried Chicken (at right) and McDonalds (in the middle). I do believe that the building over to the left is something like a train station. Haven't visited these places yet. I'm thinking of getting a Happy Meal.My dad insists that Poland is "very Catholic," but I've seen no open religiosity at all.[Photo]Typical Gdansk street scene. Signs of Poland's "communist" era are everywhere, and they are generally negative—e.g., the seemingly indiscriminate placement of factories and other industrial construction. Many of these places seem simply to stand unoccupied, unmaintained, testaments to absurdity and ugliness. (But, photographically, they are often very attractive.)[Photo]Typical semi-rural scene along the main drag here (going south). Very green, lovely forests. Great old buildings, some of them simply falling apart from neglect. There's lots of that in this part of Poland. It's a beautiful place but one senses that the recovery from the era of Soviet domination continues. [END]
Dissent the Blog, May 25
Give Me the Name of This Street
You know what the funniest thing about Europe is? It's the little differences. I mean, they got the same shit over there that we got here, but it's just...it's just—there it's a little different.
[Photo of tub]Take the bathtubs. Here's a pic of my tub in my hotel room in Gdansk, Poland. It's hard to tell from the photo, but there's a big difference between the depth of the tub and the height of the tub wall—it's like a mile high—and so, when you step out of the tub, it's a big f*cking step, man. It could kill a guy. I'm serious. They oughta issue parachutes or something.
And what do short people do?[Photo]Here's the hallway outside my room. It's strictly from The Shining. It isn't just the look of the place; it's that nobody's ever outside their room. It's like I'm the only guy on the 2nd floor! I can hear 'em knocking around sometimes. But they never show!
—Yeah, I know. The hotel in the Shining was supposed to be in the U.S. Whatever.[Photo]This is the Polish potato dumpling thing I ate for lunch today. It was quite good (I skipped the bacon). Since I was raised on my mom's cooking, and since my mom's cooking is pretty close to the kind of cooking they do in northern Poland, I found it quite familiar. Very gooey and potato-y. These dumplings had a spinach filling, I think. I like to say the word: "dumpling, dumpling, dumpling."[Photo of money]These Poles have got złoty on the brain. I've got dollars and I've got Euros (see above), but Poles want nothing to do with 'em. It's złoty they want.
When I tried to leave my parking garage yesterday, the gate just wouldn't open, and that pissed off all the Poles behind me. (They like to use their horns, man.) So I managed to drive over to the nearby "buro," and I talked to the garage parking official there (a girl). She said I needed to pay up. "OK," I said. I tried to use my credit card. "No credit card," she announced. How about Euros? No. Dollars? No."Złoty," she said. "Polish money.""So you mean to tell me that I've got to come to you to give you złoty every time I leave this garage?""Thees ees true."
But I don't hold it against her. It's the system man.
[Photo of phone]I don't know if it's the Scandic Gdansk or it's just Poland, but the phones are mighty dodgy around here.Today, I tried to call someone to confirm a tour for tomorrow, and I couldn't get my hotel phone to accept the numbers I was typing in. So I went down to the desk, and the pretty girl there (they're all pretty) said I didn't need to use the prefix, 'cause I'm in Poland. So up I went to my room to try the number again, sans prefix.Nope.So I went downstairs to the gal at the desk (still pretty), and she tried to call for me. It didn't work."The phones," she said, cryptically.She tried another phone. Finally, she got through. She shoved the phone in my face. "Talk," she instructed.Tonight, we noticed that about a dozen seriously pretty girls—dressed to the nines—were hanging around the lobby area of the hotel. My dad pointed out the phenomenon. "Maybe it's a hooker convention," I suggested.But they looked a tad wholesome for that.I still don't know what that was all about. I'll do some investigating. But they do have lots of conventions and meetings and stuff here at the Scandic."They take pride in it," announced my mother.I just stared at her.[Photo of plug adaptors]It goes without saying, I suppose, that much of the world is fucked up. And here we see about 50% of the fuckery: weird-assed voltage around the world, including in Poland. I think I fried my C-PAP machine.[Photo of hotel card key]These card-keys suck. At least they do in Poland. I've had to replace mine twice. My folks had to change theirs too. Every time I go down to the desk and tell the gal or dude about the problem, they flash a quizzical expression, as though this never happens.I guess they're just being professional. No use revealing that you know what a shithole you're working in.
[Map of part of Gdansk]I'm actually having a wonderful time in Poland, and I really like the people.Still, I'm thinking of writing a letter of complaint to the Gdansk Picayune. These Poles need to know that their language is seriously fucked-up (although, admittedly, it sounds pretty good coming out of women).
Take this map of the harbor area of Gdansk: check out the names! Here's a quick list of some of 'em:
"Szopy"? "Główny"? "U Furty"? They've gotta be kidding!
I've been doing all of the driving on this trip, and that's not easy, 'cause these Poles are wild and quite possibly suicidal drivers. But sometimes you want to remember the name of a street, and so you tell everybody to look for that, 'cause you've got your hands full just trying to stay alive.
These Poles. They stick like a novel on every street sign. You wouldn't believe it. You look at one of these things, and then you see something like, "Gdańsk Główny Chlebnicka Dlugi Targ Koskiot pomeno-nicki."
Yeah, give me the name. [END]
* * *
May 26, Thursday
I do believe that we took breakfast at the hotel, and that turned out to be surprisingly good. We noted the fresh bread, the generous offerings of cheeses, meats, etc. (Mostly, these breakfasts were essentially simple bread and “Aufschnitt” affairs. Plus coffee or tea.)
Before our trip, we had arranged for a tri-city tour and so we met our tour guide, “Agnes” (i.e., Agnieszka Syroka), in the lobby. The day before, Roy had called her to confirm. She sounded oddly British to him, but, as it turns out, Poles are all taught British English. Agnes’s English was very good.
So, at about 9:00, we met with Agnes—a pretty redhead of age 31—and she drove us in her car, a VW sedan, vaguely northward, through the charmless old port area, leaving Old Town for later.
Almost immediately, we encountered the monument to fallen shipyard workers, an odd tower, topped with anchors, in the unattractive shipyard area. Agnes explained the decades-long and sometimes bloody movement to detach Poland from the Soviet block. She showed us the hideous buildings that are one physical part of the Soviet/Communist legacy, including one very long, snake-like apartment building, the longest in Poland. We began to note the phenomenon of buildings inexplicably left unpainted. They seemed to me to be covered in soot. I noted this to Agnes. “What is ‘soot’?”, she said.
But there were many beautiful older buildings as well.
Eventually, we made our way to charming coastal towns: Sopot and Gdynia.
At Sopot, we stopped at a park close to the shore. Agnes walked us to the “Grand Hotel” (formerly, the Kasino Hotel) and the beach, telling us of its famous inhabitants (Marlene Dietrich, Charles De Gaulle, Castro) since its opening in 1927.
We stopped to have a drink at the beach. We enjoyed that very much. The weather was nice, sunny; the company pleasant.
Eventually, we drove to the 13th Century Oliva (Oliwa) Cathedral, which was impressively large and beautiful. We went inside for a kind of program, including an organ recital. Very impressive. Lots of kids on field trips, I guess, filled the pews. We enjoyed the heck out of ‘em, and so did Agnes.
That church was our high-point up to that time. It was very beautiful, especially inside.
We then drove generally back toward Gdansk on a freeway or highway. Then we headed for downtown Gdansk and the Old Town section.
We parked the car in a promising neighborhood, not far from the Scandic, and then we walked through an arched entrance into the very impressive “King’s Street” (Royal Route), which opened up before us like some enormous theme park. It is the center of Old Town. The weather was by then clear and bright, and the buildings and sculptures and view of the entire complex were dazzling. That street was like some crazy artificial Yosemite Valley, and the church towering at the far end, made odd-looking by green scaffolding, was like the distant falls that made the scene a grand painting, a perfect composition.
At a shop, Ma and Pa bought various items of amber jewelry. They seemed to have amber fever. Meanwhile, out in the square, I took pictures.
We exited the street and then continued along the canal (way cool); and then we entered yet another impressive street of wonderful buildings, shops, and restaurants. Agnes was very helpful throughout, providing historical and other factoids and tales. We grew to like her very much. (She is married and has one young son; her husband is an “economist” for a firm that does business with companies in Sweden.)
Agnes dropped us off at the Scandic. Eventually, we had another fine dinner at the hotel restaurant. “This ain’t too bad,” I thought. I was pleased with the many photos I had taken, especially in Old Town.
We eventually discovered that neither of our C-PAP machines (Pa and I suffer from sleep apnea) worked, owing to the fact that switching to European voltage blew their fuses. That was the theory, anyway. Now, I’m not so sure the theory is correct. Whatever.
Dissent the Blog, May 26
Seeing mostly old Danzig with the lovely Agnes
Today, we took the tri-city tour (in and around Danzig/Gdansk) with the lovely Agnes, a thirty-year-old Polish girl who has lived in the area her entire life. She remembers the "Communist time," when she was a little girl. She remembers, too, all the celebrations as the Soviets left, by degrees. They were finally gone by about 1991.She joked about how, unlike Californians, she doesn't have to worry about earthquakes, fires, etc. I said, "Yeah, just Germans and Russians." We laughed.[Photo]The weather was fine: I do believe it hit about 80 degrees F. As it turns out, the original Mr. Fahrenheit hailed from the city of Gdansk, and we came across a tribute to him.
[Photo]The end of the Soviet Empire really started with the successes of Solidarity, a non-Communist-controlled trade union, which managed to gain concessions from the ugly and oppressive Soviet puppets that controlled Poland. But quite a few protesters died along the way (first in 1970), and this is a monument to them.
[Photo]This, said Agnes, is the longest "and ugliest" building in Poland, built by the communists. She was careful—ever the professional—but it was plain that she had nothing but contempt for that lot.[Photo]We drove north, from Gdansk, to a magnificent church that housed an enormous pipe organ. Poland is one seriously green country. There are forests everywhere, and they are amazing. We probably picked the best time of the year to visit.
. . .[Photo]Yes, though the Gdansk area is near the Baltic, the beaches are beautiful, and, owing to a protective peninsula, the water is calm and relatively warm (by three degrees Celsius). At the height of the summer—several weeks away—bathers must arrive early to claim their patch of sand.[Photo]One finds old-fashioned striped cabanas at this particular beach, which is associated with the famous Grand Hotel.[Photo]And here is that hotel. DeGaulle, among others, stayed here. And movie stars: Marlene Dietrich, et al.[Photo]The architecture varies considerably from town to town. This apartment complex was mesmerizing. Poland has experienced a construction boom in recent years, which has kept its economy relatively healthy.[Photo]Yes, Poland has a Navy. And they're proud of it, too.[Photo]Eventually, we made our way back to Gdansk, and walked down King's Road in Old Town.[Photo]It's really quite spectacular. I was surprised by it all. The architecture is magnificent—and large. Originally, each narrow building was owned by a single family. Today, each floor is an apartment.[Photo]This region is the amber capitol of the world. My dad spent several hundred bucks here buying jewelry for mom.[Photo]The tower in the background is undergoing renovation.[Photo]Generally, the architecture in this part of the world is colorful.[Photo]An old building along the canal that leads to the bay.[Photo]Agnes and my folks, making their way through the many spectacular streets.[Photo]Another impressive church.[Photo]Gateway to the King's Road.[Photo]The atmosphere in these streets is fun. Lots of restaurants, bars, novelty shops, etc. Lots of tourists.[Photo]Much of this—though not the tower—was destroyed during the war and then later rebuilt.[Photo]I was mighty impressed. [END]
May 27, Friday
I should mention that nights were very short during our stay. It seemed to me that it was dark by about 10:00 p.m. and grew light by about 3:00 a.m. or earlier. This did not make getting a good night’s sleep easier.
Friday morning, we awoke early and enjoyed the Scandic’s fine breakfast.
We met again with Agnes (at about 9:00 a.m.), who was to take us south to the old Marbork Castle, an old base for the Teutonic knights, a religious order that had so much involvement in the early history of the area. The Castle was one or two hours to the southwest.
To get there, we drove through lowlands, which were originally unusable swamp lands that had been recovered by the Mennonites in the 19th Century—an enormous and impressive feat. (The Soviets ruthlessly banished the Mennonites after the war. They were too independent, I suppose, for that authoritarian crew.) She showed us the Mennonites’ distinctive and large farm houses in the various hamlets along the way. Some of these structures sported storks’ nests.
At one point, we stopped for soft drinks and encountered the phenomenon of cooler boxes that were not cold, a Polish motif. (We adjusted.) We had already encountered the phenomenon of Poles’ refusal to accept any but Polish money. (We had brought along much currency in the form of Euros, little of which we could spend until we reached Berlin. One painful process was our slow recognition of the means by which one acquired Polish money at “bank” machines. Confronted with Polish verbiage, one becomes a deer in headlights.)
Eventually, we got to the Marbork castle, which is a huge complex along a river.
Agnes gave us a full-on tour of the place, the center of which is a squarish castle surrounded by a moat. The middle is open.
The structure was very large and full of interesting rooms and hallways, including painted, ceilings, works of art, and medieval battle gear. We were especially impressed with some of the painted ceilings, which were extraordinary. We even inspected the medieval toilets, which caused us to be grateful to be born centuries later.
The charming Agnes explained it all. She seemed to run into several of her colleagues at the castle, her community of tour guides. (She had studied to be a teacher at the university, but she eventually switched to the tour guide biz owing to the freedom it afforded, I believe.)
Near the very end of our drive back to Gdansk, we experienced a flat tire, something with which Agnes had no experience whatsoever. We urged her to drive off onto the shoulder (and not park in the right lane of the freeway!). Manny, with Roy’s help, changed the tire quickly and efficiently. Agnes seemed impressed. Still bedazzled by our mechanical know-how, she dropped us off in front of the Scandic.
It was the end of our relationship with her. Roy gave her an enormous gratuity, though, ever the professional, she did not look at it. Off she went, our Agnes. We actually came to miss her.
Dissent the Blog, May 27
The Folks in Poland
[Photo]There've been requests for more shots of my folks, so here goes. This one shows my parents with the lovely and excellent Agnieszka Syroka, tour guide extraordinaire. Today, as we headed home—in Agnes' VW Golf—after our last "tour" together, a disturbing banging sound came from somewhere in or on her car. It soon became clear that we had had a flat tire. Me 'n' pop told her where to pull over—the little lady was fixin' to block the lane!—and, once on the shoulder, we changed that tire in no time. It was a nice way to end our relationship with this wonderful gal: helping her out. 'Cause, boy, was she ever clueless about tire changing. At one point, I asked, "where's your jack?"
"What's that?" she said.. . .We're in Danzig (Gdansk) now; tomorrow, we're headed for Kolberg, on the north coast [END]
Dissent the Blog, May 27
Within Marburg [Marbork] Castle, Poland
[Photo]Marburg is a full-on castle, first built by the Teutonic knights, who seemed to rule in this part of the world for quite some time. They were a religious order of the Roman Catholic Church, but they were also soldiers. Go figure.[Photo][Photo]After the Russian attacks/bombardment of 1945 (German troops defended within the castle), the church was largely destroyed, and it is the one area of the castle complex that remains unreconstructed. Shown above is the section that largely survived the attacks. Click on the graphic to enlarge it. [END]
* * *
May 28, Saturday
We enjoyed the Scandic’s breakfast and then headed out on the road for new adventures beyond Gdansk. Our plan was to follow the coast northward and then, after 100 or so kilometers, to take the main highway westward all the way to the resort town of Kohlberg (Kolobrzeg), on the Baltic coast. In general, we found that these road trips took far less time than we expected. We also found most of the Polish roads to be excellent. Especially as we made our way westward, we found that Polish highways are often lined with trees.
Also, as we headed west, the countryside was increasingly pretty, green, with rolling hills and occasional hamlets. On this drive, the usual travel anxieties slowly melted away. We encountered no difficulties. We gassed up without incident. We stopped for pics at a cemetery/church along the road. Our Opel Vectra was well up to the task of moving us along in comfort and style.
We arrived in Kohlberg/Kolobrzeg in early afternoon, and it seemed to be a pleasant and attractive town, though, as usual, traffic was busy and somewhat chaotic. Ad hoc detours are common on Polish roads, and they are not always carefully thought out. One can easily find oneself alone, losing the trail, as it were, not knowing which way to go.
I rather enjoyed that. Ma and Pa were less amused.
Eventually, we sought our hotel, the sillily named Aquarius, and that brought us to one of our more unpleasant moments during our European adventure. Owing to the Polish love of one-way streets, their odd habit of putting up seemingly gratuitous and unhelpful signs, and the incomprehensibility (to us) of the Polish language, we had great trouble finding the hotel. I managed to purchase a street map, but that didn’t seem to help much. After perhaps an hour and a half of frustrating driving, we had a breakthrough: we found a road that, as per our map, promised to bring us to the Aquarius, and it did. Whew. “Let the sunshine in.”
The Aquarius turned out to be a place with special (European?) notions of healthful activity (saunas, mud-in-the-face, whatnot). It struck me as modern but New Agey. It was first-rate, despite hosting some group of twenty-somethings who found it necessary to occupy the hallways with little rock-and-roll start-up bands, which proceeded to blast their rudimentary performances into the air, for all residents to hear. I took a snap of the ersatz rock group just outside my door. I smiled. I was impressed with my own tolerance.
Breakfasts at the Aquarius turned out to be similar to what we encountered in Gdansk, though even better, I think. On this trip, breakfasts were always a highlight.
Dissent the Blog, May 28
Driving in Poland
This'll have to be quick. It's 7:30 in the a.m. and I'm in the lobby of the Hotel Aquarius, which is also a Spa, and nobody does "spa" like these gosh-darn Europeans, what with their love of healing waters, psychic enemas, and whatnot. The Aquarius has even got aroma therapy. And a big pool. I plan to stay away from all that. My mom is the sort to head straight for it, I think, but she won't, unless dad wants to join her.
Yesterday started out great but then got difficult. We left Danzig (Gdansk), finding our way (somehow) to the S6, which is more or less a freeway going north. And that brought us to the 6, which is a great highway that crosses the northwest part of Poland from east to west.Beautiful country! Incredibly green, lots of rolling hills with farms: canola, potatoes, leak (I think), and who knows what. Whereas much of the Danzig/Gdansk area was a mixture of charming old-Europe sights and sounds plus funky urban decay (and spectacular artifacts of Soviet idiocy), the rural zone along the 6 is essentially tidy, and endlessly charming. It's as if it were Germany.But hey! It was Germany until 1945. But the new highway is obviously Polish, and it's mostly first-rate.[Photo]Polish drivers include a hefty segment of angry lunatics. There's much riding of bumpers, crazy passing, blowing of horns, etc. The passing is the worst. Evidently, it is routine for Poles to drive way to the right to accomodate passers who flat don't manage to pass before the opposite traffic arrives! I kid you not. It's stunning to see, and I saw it a dozen times.Also, pedestrians seem to have abandoned any margin of safety of the kind that is routine in Orange County. I think they're lookin' for that special "centimeter of safety."Me, I'm lookin' for a few meters.When we got to Kolobrzegu (formerly Kolberg), we drove around for a while to check out the town, but then we tried finding the hotel. You wouldn't believe how hard it is for the likes of us to find anything in this linguistically god-forsaken land. (Just kidding.) We figured we'd just bump into the Aquarius (bad idea), but I got tired of that and bought a street map. (That was an adventure in itself.) Then the horror began. I could figure out where I was and where I needed to go, but any attempt to traverse that silly kilometer was thwarted by the Poles love of prolix and poorly situated signage, inexplicable road name changes, one-way streets (I became indifferent to that), and occasionally blockades (poles coming from out of the ground or whatnot). Also, I think the map is just wrong sometimes.Now, I love to drive where driving is crazy. And I don't mind driving in reverse to get out of tight dead ends and the like. But the hour and a half I spent going just a few kilometers was hell. All the while, my mom was making her earnest suggestions ("lets talk to a taxi driver") and my dad was endlessly saying, "which road are we looking for? I think I saw it!" (No.) (For the record, I did stop and ask seemingly knowledgeable people for directions, but they did not speak English (or German), and they just rattled off a bunch of Polish, which is as helpful as chewing rocks.)Anyway, we finally got here, though not before I started telling my mom "no, we're not gonna call a taxi" and my dad: "no, you've never seen that road."This place is pretty fabulous though. We're about to attempt breakfast (who knows?). Dinner last night was quite good.Gotta go!
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From Dissent the Blog
May 29, Sunday
After the fine breakfast, we took to the road, hoping to explore the coast to the west, which, of course, was the area of the Baltic with which Edith was slightly familiar from her early years. I managed to head east for thirty or forty kilometers before recognizing my error. (I wondered aloud how it was even possible to be thus confused.)
Whilst erroneously eastward, we stopped at a beach and enjoyed the pure white sands and lovely scenery, though the weather was by then getting gloomy. On the beach, we hunted a bit for amber. No luck, unless ugly reddish stones count.
As we traveled west, and upon examining our maps, we realized that we were not far from Wolin Island, the home of Edith’s mysterious mother who had died when Ma was one-year-old. Owing to an error in one of our maps, it appeared that we were not far from the town of Wolin, Edith’s mom’s birthplace.
We blundered into the isolated town of Kamień Pomorski (Kammin), which was surprisingly impressive. Despite its small size (fewer than 10,000 inhabitants), it was utterly charming and featured a massive and beautiful cathedral, which we stopped to examine. At the time—it was a Sunday morning—some sort of service was occurring, and so we kept our distance, as we noted the fine, sexy attire of some female congregants. Or at least I did.
We continued past that town, got lost, and again experienced some frustration, owing to the poor and seemingly erroneous or misleading signs on these Polish roads. With some effort, we did eventually find our way to a coastal town (Rewal) that was on our map, and we knew that, were we simply to head westward along the coast, we’d inevitably run into the island and town of “Wolin,” or so suggested our map.
In general, the Baltic coast is attractive, though the roads seem uninterested in providing panoramas or views of the water (another motif). It is surprising how little of the sea we actually saw during this trip.
Some of these little towns were very charming, but we generally stuck to our plan of finding Wolin, the alleged Baltic town, where we hoped to find gravestones of relatives on my mother’s side. But, despite our considerable efforts—driving back and forth and whatnot—the town did not materialize. We hoped to communicate with one of the natives, but, not for the first time, they tended not to seem to be open to conversation with the likes of us. Sometimes, when we asked questions, Poles dismissed us or (seemingly) feigned ignorance.
But, as we stood by our Open wondering where to go and what to do, one old gentleman seemed to take pity on us and, owing perhaps to our proximity (he happened to park right next to us), he ventured a conversation. The fellow was very familiar with the area and he spoke good German. We soon learned that there was no town of Wolin on the coast. Nope. The actual town was perhaps fifty kilometers to the south. (We of course knew that there was a “Wolin” there, but some of us thought that there were evidently two Wolins, and so why not check this one out?)
After a discussion with the midly friendly man—he had relatives in both Germany and America—we decided to head for the real Wolin, and so off we went, finding the necessary highway to the south. It was easy as pie.
We came across numerous hamlets or sub-hamlets on the sparsely populated island. In one such hamlet, I spotted a particularly impressive old brick building, and so we stopped there to take pictures. A stone or brick fence separated us from the farm, which included two or three buildings. After a few seconds, a young man rushed out of the farmhouse and ran towards us. As he approached, I told him that I was admiring his beautiful brick building, to which I gestured. But he did not listen; he was determined to shoo us away. He said something like, “You must not take pictures. You must go right now!” He was serious. I said OK, and off we went. Of course, I had already taken several pictures of the farm and the brick building. As we walked to our car, the young man seemed to angrily kick an object toward one of the two guard dogs tied up there, and he proceeded back into his house.
We could not think what we had done to inspire this behavior. I’m thinkin’ meth lab.
We soon arrived in tiny Wolin, which turned out to be small, verdant, and charming. Our hope was to find the cemetery—and, in particular, headstones mentioning Edith’s mother’s maiden name.
We drove along the town’s periphery and found our way to some lovely hills and forests near a lake. It was a stunningly beautiful place. We were directed (we thought) by a friendly resident (he was biking with his boy) to an old cemetery that turned out to be an ancient archaeological site.
We did find what appeared to be the town cemetery, and it was beautiful. But we could find no graves of people who died before 1945. Further, the cemetery was now entirely Roman Catholic. (The German residents had been largely Lutheran.) It was a bit puzzling and disappointing. What had happened to all of the old graves and headstones?
We headed back to Kohlberg/Kolobrzeg. Disappointment and our navigation struggles had taken a toll: none of us was in the best of moods. Grumpiness prevailed.
Dissent the Blog, May 29
"You must not take pictures"
Anybody with half a brain can see that Pomerania—once the eastern extreme of Germany; since 1945 the northwestern section of Poland—is haunted.Today, we took an excursion from the seaside resort town of Kolobrzeg along the coast to Wolin, a small town at the south end of the island by that name.My mother’s mother was from Wolin. Little is known about her. She died tragically in 1934, when my mother was a year old, in Stettin, south of Wolin. Her husband, my mother’s father, himself died tragically five years later, also in Stettin.This morning, on our way west in our Opel, we came across a small town with a magnificent church. I walked clear around the enormous building, attempting to keep a low profile, for dozens of parishioners surrounded it, owing to some sort of ceremony. I walked about the town, too. It was beautiful; evidently, the buildings were untouched by the war and the notorious Russian advance/German retreat of 1945.[Photo]Owing to an error on one of our maps, we at first went to a town way up on the Baltic coast. There, we met an old Pole near a graveyard who explained our error and directed us south to the real Wolin. We thanked him, and off we went. (He had family in Chicago, he said. But he had lost track of them.)On our way south, I happened upon a remarkable old building that seemed to serve as a farmhouse. (See top photo; click on it.) Oddly, it was guarded by two tied-up dogs, though only one of them barked. “Hello Pup,” I kept saying to the barking dog, who didn't seem angry. I took some pictures.After a few seconds, a young man of perhaps seventeen bolted from the nearby farmhouse (the building at left). He ran straight up to me. I said, “I was just admiring your beautiful building.”But he did not listen. In broken English, he said something like, “You must not take pictures.”“I mustn’t take pictures?”“No, you must not take pictures of this. You must stop now. Now go.”“OK,” I said.. . .[Photo]About a half hour later, we were in Wolin, which is a small town with a large church. We drove about. The town is situated next to some wonderful forested hills. I drove toward them. We were looking for the “old graveyard,” hoping to see gravestones of my grandmother or of any of her family, the Sternkes.I spoke with one man who spoke neither German nor English. I gestured, using a digging motion, and he seemed to grasp what we were looking for. He headed us toward a hill in the beautiful forested area, but that turned out to be an archeological dig for medieval tombs. No one was around.Eventually, I happened upon a marvelous cemetery surrounded by an old fence. It was open. Once inside, we looked for older gravestones, but, though some seemed very old, those were illegible. All of the others dated to burials after 1945. The names were all Polish, none German. It was, of course, a Catholic cemetery (virtually all Poles are Catholic; most of the earlier Germans were Lutheran).I tried to find someone who could answer my questions: were there any pre-45 gravestones? Was there an old Jewish cemetery? (It has been suggested—but perhaps it has also been debunked—that my grandmother was Jewish. Not sure.) But no one we met spoke good enough English or German to communicate with us, and time was running out.We headed back to Kolobrzeg.The countryside of old West Pomerania is spectacularly beautiful. It is very green, sparsely populated, and peppered with thick, beautiful forests. Spectacular forests, full of light and shadow.It is impossible to look at them and not think of spirits. [END]
May 30, Monday
After a fine breakfast, we headed for the road again, this time south to Bad Polzin (Połczyn-Zdrój), a small town of perhaps 10,000, near Bärwalde, Edith’s hometown. (She was taken to live there by her Aunt Marthe when, in 1939, her father died in a work-related accident in Stettin, where Edith’s family lived.) The trip did not take long, and the scenery was impressive—increasingly so as we neared our destination.
Bad Polzin is an old health resort town (“Bad” means bath) built around three mineral springs; it is therefore large enough to support hotels. As we planned our trip, we thought we would use Bad Polzin as our base and travel from there to Bärwalde and environs.
Our hotel, the Marta, was one of several well-established “health” hotels very near or in the town’s massive and meticulously cared for city park, along side which sat the old hospital. When Edith was nine or ten, she had a bout of appendicitis, and that required that she stay, first, for two weeks at the Polzin hospital; then, after a few weeks in Bärwalde, she returned to the hospital for an emergency appendectomy. She remained a month longer during recovery. She was very lucky to survive the episode. (Oddly, her sister underwent an appendectomy literally at the same time.)
During Ma’s recovery, she took walks around the park. She had memories of those walks and she recognized the park. If anything, she said, the park was better cared for in the old days.
During our stay in the Marta, the place was filled with a busload of elderly German vacationers who managed to give the place the look and feel of an old-age home. Otherwise, however, the Marta was nice, though a bit spartan. Roy had got off to a bad start at the Marta. Upon our arrival in the lobby, Roy stood at the reception desk on behalf of the trio. The receptionist seemed to ignore him for a solid fifteen minutes, preferring to deal with various trivial matters. In a rare show of peevitude, Roy glared at the woman grumpily. (Luckily, this led to no further issues.)
Breakfasts at the Marta were similar to what we had already encountered, but the Marta offered much less variety. Further, there was a new hazard: that the horde of hungry German oldsters might consume everything before we arrived, as they almost did one morning. Breakfast at the Marta was a dicey business. At the Marta, one occasionally sensed that customers were viewed as addled patients. During our breakfasts, we actually seemed to be monitored by nurse-like staff. Creepy, man.
Since we had arrived early at the Marta, we decided to go ahead and venture southeast to Bärwalde (Barwice). The general area of Bad Polzi is beautiful: rolling hills and lush trees and pastures. The narrow roads wind lazily through it all.
Nevertheless, our Bärwalde sojourn was a bummer. We rolled into town on its main street, which is dominated by the towering church. We briefly entered it. But Edith could not locate the old school that was situated behind the church. Though almost all of the original buildings at the center of town were intact, the place nevertheless seemed unfamiliar.
We made our way down the road toward her former home, but of course it no longer existed. We did spot her old barn and the old brick structure that had stood next to it—against which Edith and her little friends would play, bouncing balls. We drove around the little village but were annoyed by impatient motorists and some residents who stared with suspicion when they saw us looking at individual buildings.
We drove to the old railroad station—it was abandoned and derelict—and we sought the place where Oma Lose’s house and lumber yard once stood. But there was no sign of any of that, and much of the land was now overgrown.
Ma was disheartened by these scenes and episodes.
We stopped at the old town cemetery, but we could find no graves of those deceased before 1945. This seemed generally true of the former German Pomerania: there were no old graves, only graves of Poles, all Roman Catholic, who had died since 1945. When we raised questions about this (for instance to an old German gent back at the Marta), we were reminded of the European practice of recycling grave sites every twenty or so years. But it did seem that there was more to the story than that. Where are all the old gravestones? How could there be no sign of the many who had lived here previously?
We headed back to Bad Polzin, where we rested before seeking a restaurant for dinner. For reasons unknown to us, few restaurants in the Old Town area adjacent to the hotel/park were open. We had planned to go to a pizza place, but, despite a note of the door indicating that it would open at 8:00 p.m., the place was closed when we arrived at that time. We tried another restaurant just around the corner, and we did encounter some hospitality there, perhaps because we were the only customers for the night. (We often encountered businesses that seemed to operate just barely.)
The owner made us a questionable pizza pie, but it was edible, and the beer was good and the waitress was friendly. We had a good time.
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Dissent the Blog, May 30
South of Polzin: beautiful countryside
This morning, we headed south/southeast toward Polzin, just a few kilometers from my mother's home town of Bärwalde, in Pommern--now in the northwest corner of Poland.
[Photo]The countryside continues to be beautiful. This is a typical road scene (just north of Polzin).[Photo]No, really, this is what it looks like, mile after mile (er, kilometer after kilometer). And the towns are seriously quaint.We're staying at the Hotel Marta Spa, which is very European. Some of the staff dress as nurses. The food is very, um, healthy. I'll show you more when I have time later. Looks great. All is well. [END]
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Dissent the Blog, May 30
It’s good; it’s over (Bärwalde)
[Photo]Bad Polzin, Pommern, in 1902. In those days, the town was German. It seemed to specialize in sanitariums. Still does.[Photo]Here's a pic of the Hotel Marta Spa in Bad Polzin (nowadays, Połczyn Zdrój) in West Pommern (northwestern Poland). It's very European, very quaint. Near the park, which is fabulous.
[Photo]When my mother was ten (in 1943), she suffered some sort of appendicitis. She was taken to the hospital in Bad Polzin, where she received various treatments for two weeks or so. Then she was sent home, but, after a few weeks, she took a turn for the worse and was brought again to the hospital, where surgery was performed, removing her appendix. (Oddly, her sister, Ilsa, came down with the same problem and received surgery at the same time.) Mom remembers recuperating in the hospital and occasionally walking through the well-known park nearby.
That park was fabulous then and it is fabulous now. I don't think I've ever seen a nicer park. Everything is blooming, and the smell is overpowering.[Photo]18 kilometers from Bad Polzin is my mom's actual hometown of Bärwalde. Today, we took mom to this town that she hasn't seen since 1945, when she, her "mother," and her sister escaped from the Russian advance. All they took was what they could carry in a child's wagon.
I'm afraid that, today, she found things to be disturbingly different than they had been. Her home had been destroyed. Some of her relatives' homes were unrecognizable.She couldn't find any of her relatives at the cemetery. Not her beloved step-father, no one. Evidently, a photo of her had been etched onto his gravestone. But none of the old German graves remained."Well, now I know that the town of my childhood no longer exists," she said. "It's good. It's over."
[Photo]We returned to Bad Polzin for dinner. The downtown area is very old, very quaint. Not many restaurants, though.[Photo]We went to a restaurant that was happy to have any customers at all, even German/Americans. The cook made a special pizza for us. Nice people. [END]
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May 31, Tuesday
In the morning, after breakfast, I decided to take some time to take pictures in a more deliberate fashion—I generally took pictures while driving—and so I strolled through the town, starting with the old hospital near the park and then continuing in the Old Town area, which, in my view, was very quaint and attractive. (Edith and Manny seemed less impressed than me by Bad Polzin.) The town sported the usual looming cathedral, but I was impressed too by the narrow streets and quaint buildings and the way it was all concentrated in one town center. It was a kind of Teutonic Mayberry.
Tuesday seemed to be largely a day of rest for us. Travel is always taxing, but there were other elements of this trip that made it more so.
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Dissent the Blog, May 31
Walking through Połczyn Zdrój this morning
[Photo]“Park Zdrojowy “[Photo]The old hospital is very near the park. This zone seems in between park and hospital.We appear to be experiencing wonderful, albeit hot and humid, weather[Photo]A part of the old hospital where my mother spent many weeks as a 9 and 10-year-old.I cannot get her to speculate where her hospital room was located. Dang.[Photo]Another part of the building[Photo]So many of these little towns have magnificent churches[Photo]Downtown hustle and bustle on Tuesday morning.
• Połczyn-Zdrój (Polish name)
• Bad Polzin (German name, some time after WWI)
• Bad = “bath”• The town has warm mineral springs, which have been exploited in sanatoriums allegedly to cure rheumatism.• In 1905 the town had a population of 5,046 predominantly Protestant inhabitants (36 Catholics. 110 Jews), which in the year of 1925 had grown to 5,960 persons.• Before World War I, the town was known as Polzin. It acquired the name Bad Polzin between the two World Wars.• In March 1945 the region was occupied by the Red Army, and after the end of World War II it was put under Polish administration. The inhabitants were expelled by the Poles.• Today, the population has grown to about 8,600• Its famous park is called “Park Zdrojowy” [END]
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Dissent the Blog, May 31
Once a train station (Jewish friends in Bärwalde)
For Edith, 1934
When, in1934, my mother, Edith, was christened, a Jewish friend of the family was present and gave her the above hand-made cloth. ("ES" stands for Edith Schultz.)When Edith and her Aunt Marthe fled the Russians in 1945, they could take very little with them, but they did take this. When mom emigrated to Canada in 1951, she again took it with her.[Photo]An abandoned train station in Bärwalde (Barwice): the last time my mother saw her "Jewish friends" was here[Photo]Mom's "mother" (actually, her Aunt Marthe) ran a business, as became necessary when her husband (my mom's stepfather) died in 1941.Marthe had many good friends in town who were Jewish—evidently in the garment industry. My mother remembers some of these friends well.[Photo]This old house was perhaps the home of mom's doctor—likely Jewish.[Photo]Yesterday: wandering through the graveyard, finding no familiar names.[Photo]Yesterday: a random gravestone[Photo]My mother and her Aunt Marthe at mom's father's grave, c. 1941[Photo]Mom's Bärwalde home, during the war. It was destroyed during the Russian advance[Photo]Edith this morning in Bad Polzin, Pommeria[Photo]My father this morning [END]
June 1, Wednesday
After our usual spartan breakfast at the Marta, we took to the road for the big city to the west: Szczecin (formerly Stettin). The drive was uneventful. Edith served as navigator, and she plotted a shortcut that turned out to be not-so-short owing to unexpected road construction. Nevertheless, we arrived in Stettin in no time at all and again, sans map, found our way to the center of town. For the usual reasons, we had difficulty finding our hotel, the Atrium. But we had gained enough experience with Polish roads to avoid errors, and we did manage to find it in a reasonable period.
Stettin was once a great city; it is still very large and contains many large buildings. But the phenomenon of otherwise impressive buildings left unpainted was more concentrated in Stettin’s large downtown area, and it left an impression of dinginess and mild dilapidation.
Driving in Poland is interesting in several ways. One curious feature of Polish motoring is the “centrum,” a kind of circular intersection of roads illustrated by the Orange Plaza in the city of Orange. In Poland, these centrum things are everywhere, including in the cities, and they seemed to me to make driving and navigation more dangerous and difficult (but who knows). Our hotel was not far—perhaps a kilometer—from one of these centrum things, near the edge of the busy and relatively vast town area.
Once again, we found that the hotel restaurant was good. We had lunch (pizza!) and then retired to our rooms. We returned there for dinner, which was quite good.
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Dissent the Blog, June 1
Stettin (i.e., Szczecin)
[Photo]Well, we’ve made our way west, and we have now arrived at the Hotel Atrium in my mother’s birthplace: Stettin—now Szczecin.My mother was born here in this harbor town in 1933. Mom's mother died here in 1934—and that’s when mom was taken east to live with her Aunt Marthe in Bärwalde.Her father, who owned a small trucking company, died in Stettin in 1938.My mother, who was eleven or twelve when the war ended (in 1945), had made several trips to Stettin and remembers the “big city” well. But she hasn't been back here since 1944 or so.Strictly speaking, she last laid eyes on Stettin in 1945, when she fled westward on rail flatcars. Her group's train made it through the Stettin station, despite strafing. (The engineer was a Polish prisoner who was instrumental in keeping everyone alive.)The next train was not so lucky. Everyone on board was killed by Russian planes.* * * * *The Polish name, "Szczecin," is pronounced something like this: SHTECH'-eena, with the “e” of shtech somewhere between a soft e and a hard i. Closer to the hard i (to my ears). So it's more SCHTIGHCH'-eena.
The German name, “Stettin,” is pronounced shtettEEN, more or lessAccording to Wikipedia:
Szczecin … is the capital city of the West Pomeranian Voivodeship in Poland. It is the country's seventh-largest city and the largest seaport in Poland on the Baltic Sea. As of June 2009 the population was 406,427.Szczecin is located on the Oder River, south of the Szczecin Lagoon and the Bay of Pomerania. The city is situated along the southwestern shore of Dąbie Lake, on both sides of the Oder and on several large islands between the western and eastern branches of the river.…The city's beginnings were as an 8th century Slavic Pomeranian stronghold. Over the course of its history it has been a part of Poland, existed as an independent Duchy, was ruled by Sweden, Denmark, Brandenburg-Prussia, was part of the Holy Roman Empire, German Empire, Weimar Republic and the Third Reich. It was the residence of the Griffin Dynasty from the 12th until the 17th century.While the city was ruled by Nazi Germany the Jews, Poles and Rroma were subjected to repression and finally during World War II classified as untermenschen with their fate being slavery and extermination. After Germany was defeated by the Allies in 1945, Szczecin was awarded to the People's Republic of Poland. The city was emptied of its German inhabitants, who either fled before the advancing Soviet Army or were expelled by the Polish government. Poles resettled and rebuilt the war damaged city, which became capital of the new Szczecin Voivodeship. It played an important role in the anti-communist uprisings of 1970 and the rise of Solidarity trade union in the 1980s. [END]
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June 2, Thursday
The breakfasts at the Atrium were a vast improvement over the Marta’s. The Atrium has an atmosphere of old world elegance. The dining room is beautiful. The décor throughout the hotel is dominated by marvelous dark woods and the rooms and furnishings manage a gemütlichkeit. The service is quite good too.
After breakfast, we met our tour guide, Marek Karczewski, at the hotel lobby. He was (we reckoned) about ten years younger than Edith and Manny (i.e., he was in his late sixties). He had been displaced from his distant Polish home, with his mother, when he was perhaps two or three years old. The Russians told his people simply to take one of the homes in Stettin, and so they inhabited an impressive home in one of the old, established neighborhoods. Later, his family was forced out of that home by authorities. Though he never actually said so, he clearly took a dim view of what the Soviets had done to him and to his countrymen.
He explained to us that he had worked in the fishing industry for many years, and this took him all over the world, including Canada and even the United States (New York), where he had an opportunity to immigrate. (He did not take it because his family depended on him.)
Eventually, he was laid off—we heard many tales of unemployment during the “Communist time” while we were in Poland. He became a tour guide and eventually retired, though he seemed to need to continue to do touring work on occasion. He was pretty good at it, I think.
A tall and good-looking man, Marek was not particularly friendly or charming, but he quickly grew on us in the course of our four hours with him. He seemed to take an interest in us and, at one point, he went out of his way to connect us with a woman (another Agnes) who explained how to go about taking a train to Berlin.
At first, Marek took us to a grand park with the predictable monumental Soviet-era sculptures of eagles and such.
That was worth seeing, but I explained to him that we were especially keen to visit the street that Edith new from her childhood, Rosengarten Strasse. Marek, despite his familiarity with Stettin (Szczecin), had not heard of it. He evidently assumed that we were referring to a well-known park, featuring roses and exotic plants, that had flourished in the last decades of old Stettin but that had fallen into disrepair and neglect after the war. Very recently, an attempt had been made to reconstruct the park and bring it back to its former glory.
So he took us there.
Again, it was worth seeing, but it was not near the old neighborhood that Edith remembered (which was by the harbor), and so that seemed to be the end of our quest for Rosengarten Strasse.
He then took us to an area along the Oder River overlooking the harbor. It’s a beautiful spot. Perched at its top is the old Museum—a spectacularly beautiful building—and the Hakenterrasse (terrace) above the river. Very impressive. I happily took pictures.
Next, we visited the Pomeranian Dukes Castle, which had been beautifully restored.
We also visited the smallish Old Town area, near the harbor, which, despite its scale, is impressive—the kind of place, near the water, that one might want to explore in the evening.
Perhaps most impressive was the Cathedral Church of St. Jacob, which is truly enormous and exquisite, with vibrant stained-glass windows, huge ceilings, fascinating chapels, and whatnot. The Poles are, of course, Roman Catholic, and they are in the habit of referring to “our Pope,” namely Pope John Paul II, a Pole, who died in 2005. This particular church included artifacts of John Paul’s visits and accomplishments. It included a chapel somehow regarding Solidarity, the Polish trade union.
We ended the “tour” by going to the old train station, where Marek found a colleague—a young woman named Agnes—who explained how to purchase tickets and take the train to Berlin, as we were planning to do the next day. Ma remembered the train station. The last time she saw it, she was fleeing with her Aunt Marthe and sister to the West as the Russians advanced (in 1945). The trains were filled with refugees. She witnessed the train behind hers explode and burn upon being strafed or bombed by Russian aircraft. (Before that, she had also spent time walking through the rubble of the city. It was quite horrible, she says.)
Our tour of Stettin was certainly interesting, and there was much of worth and beauty to see. But there was something hollow about it all. Most of the things we saw, however impressive, were restorations of structures badly damaged or destroyed in 1944 and 1945. Stettin had once been a venerable and important town, full of history and tradition. All of that had been quickly erased at the end of the war and then in the years after it. The entire German population was either killed or expelled. Poles who had had their own homes taken from them hundreds of kilometers to the east were told by the Soviets that Stettin, mostly rubble, was now theirs. (Marek explained to us that a group of Germans were retained by the Soviets to help restore the city’s infrastructure, but even they were expelled [?] once they had accomplished that task.)
Whatever was truly grand about Stettin has not survived. I do not mean this as a criticism of the Poles, who were not the architects of this sad history. The city is like an old man suffering complete amnesia, knowing nothing about its past, but looking roughly as it always has. History, in Szczecin, goes back only about sixty-five years, and it is something largely unpleasant and regrettable (though perhaps things are now finally changing).
Stettin, that venerable German town, now exists only in memories and photographs. It is gone.
* * *
Dissent the Blog, June 2
My morning in Szczecin (Stettin)
[Photo]On "Chobry Seabank," near the Oder River[Photo]This is the Old Town Hay Market, near the harbor. My mother's father had a trucking business that would have taken him here many times. (Podzamcze)[Photo]The interior of the Archdiocese Basilica of St. James, built between 1250-1300 on the site of an older church.[Photo]Looking to the ceiling[Photo]This workers union is revered in Poland[Photo]I believe that this is part of the complex of the Pomeranian Dukes' Castle[Photo]My mother was keen to see the "Rosengarten" district, where she was born, but our tour guide, despite having lived in and around the city since 1946 (he's about 69), had no notion what "Rosengarten" could be, aside from an actual "rose garden" park—which, in fact, seems to have no connection to this district or street.I did a little research and I think I have established that there once was a Rose Garden Strasse in the city (see above); and it is now called Podgórna. Evidently, most of its buildings were destroyed at the end of the war (along with most of Stettin), but the street remains, with a new name.[Photo]By my reckoning, the "Victory Palace" is nearby. (It is now called the "Red Town Hall.")[Photo]Aha! I found this 1910 map of Stettin which clearly shows a Rosengarten Strasse (see green) precisely where the present Podgorna St. is found. Tomorrow, I'll take my mom there. [END]
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Rosengarten Strasse, 1910
June 3, Friday
On Thursday, I had done some internet research regarding Rosengarten Strasse, and I had discovered that Rosengarten Strasse was now Podgórna St. It was located near the harbor and the Bahnhof (train station).
Friday morning, after a fine breakfast at the Atrium, we went out to our Opel and found that it had a flat tire. So we once again launched into mechanic mode. We had it changed in no time.
We then drove to the area near the train station and worked our way north. My thinking was that we were bound to run across Podgórna, the former Rosengarten Strasse. It wasn’t easy, but we did eventually find it, a small and unassuming street that curved up the hill from the harbor.
Most of the old street and district had been destroyed, of course, and so there were some blank places where tall, narrow buildings once stood, squeezed closely together in the traditional manner. But it seemed that several of the remaining buildings were from the Stettin times. (It was only later that I collected old photos of Rosengarten Strasse and compared them to my contemporary photos. That seemed to verify that, indeed, some structures had survived.)
Edith sought her old address (i.e., the address of the aunt she would visit for a month each year in Stettin), and it did seem that that building or one very near it, had survived. But she could not quite pin it down. Was she looking at her aunt’s old address or not?
In the old days, the neighborhood, though lively, had been somewhat rundown and poor. It was dominated by Jews and, at the street level, comprised numerous small shops and businesses. (See old photos.) The street no longer had that communitarian character, but Ma did seem to recognize it to some degree. I do think she was glad she could visit old Rosengarten Strasse. But, in truth, little of it had survived.
That night, we surrendered our Opel, hoping that Paul, our car rental guy, would not notice the various scratches and whatnot that the car had collected during the previous week and a half. He didn’t.
Dissent the Blog, June 3
The fading ghost of Rosengarten Straße[Photo]
Like an amnesiac with permanent brain damage, Szczecin/Stettin refuses to be what it once was. My mother only remembers the great city before (and during) the massive Soviet bombings of 1944-5. And here she is, 66 years later, trying to make sense of this complex stranger before her.
On this trip, she had hoped especially to see Rosengarten, a street near the harbor where she was born (in 1933) and where she visited family many times.
Yesterday, our tour guide, an elderly Pole, seemed to have no idea what "Rosengarten" referred to, which is entirely understandable, since 65% of the city was destroyed, and virtually the entire German population either fled (in some instances, twice), was killed, or died of starvation. Under the direction of the Soviets, the city was repopulated with people from central Poland—and many Ukrainians and Poles who had been forced out of their homelands by the Soviets.After the war, there was an active program to eliminate all traces of German culture in Szczecin. In recent years, however, the city has tried to restore the grandeur and culture that once was: the churches, the parks, the public buildings, etc.* * * * *[Photo]After a little detective work, I discovered that Rosengarten Straße is now known as Podgórna Street. So, today, we visited it. We found that many of the structures of little Rosengarten Straße had been destroyed—or have been otherwise eliminated—though we did find several surviving structures. (See pics.)
My mother said that she has always had a strong sense of what Rosengarten looked and felt like—"like those movie scenes of old New York, with the tall narrow buildings, narrow streets, and shops and delicatessens and endless hectic activity," she says. It was a small, steep street. A special street."It was a little run down and somewhat poor; it was largely a Jewish neighborhood with many small Jewish businesses, and it was a real community."She loved it.Today, after walking up and down the little street for ten or fifteen minutes, she decided that there was no doubt that Podgórna was indeed Rosengarten. She remembered her family's old address and she seemed to find that, more or less. Still, the surviving buildings had changed dramatically. And there were new buildings that were nothing like the old ones.And the people—well, they really have no connection at all to anyone who lived here 66 or 70 years ago. Those people are all gone, owing to one horror or another.And there's no trace of them here.[Photo]Looking up to the top of Rosengarten; there are two churches nearby[Photo]A shop halfway up Rosengarten Straße; that's mom in the doorway[Photo]As the street descends toward the harbor, it becomes darker, dingier. It seems to peter out into nothing[Photo]Nearby: a plaque on a wall where a synagogue once stood. It is obscure, hard to get to[Photo]A little closer.[Photo]Before Kristallnacht: Stettin synagogue [END]
* * *
June 4, Saturday
On this morning, we took a cab ride to the train station, where we encountered unhelpful railroad personnel. The lady who sold us our tickets was absurdly rude and made no attempt to help us to the precise location to catch our train. We eventually found what seemed to be the right spot along the tracks, and we waited. (Pa had talked to a guy who blew him off; later, the guy came around and indicated that we were in the right place.)
Off we went.
The ride on the old diesel train was pleasant. We viewed the scenery along the way and noted the differences between Poland and Germany. (Since Poland is part of the EU, no formalities or procedures are entailed in crossing from Poland to Germany.)
We stopped at a German town named Angermünde—or, rather, we stood on the tracks there in the middle of nowhere. Soon, our connecting train came along. It was electric and modern.
Not long after, we were in the Berlin train station, which was impressive. We were out of there in no time and immediately encountered a cabby who took us into his care. We were about twenty minutes from the “Quality” Hotel in the Tagel district of Berlin. The cabby, who was about my age (and quite fit), talked our ears off, offering unsolicited philosophical musings about rudeness and whatnot. He was quite a character.
When we arrived at the Quality Hotel, they were not yet ready for us, so we walked a hundred yards or so to a pleasant Croatian restaurant for lunch. The owner made us wonderful salads, with smoked salmon.
When we finally got our rooms, we rested and studied maps and such. We planned a tour of the city for the next day.
The hotel restaurant was quite good. My meal—salmon on a bed of risotto—was excellent.
* * *
Dissent the Blog, June 4
"I know everything," said the Teutonic cabby
[Photo]Days are wacky in Stettin: daylight lasts till something like 10:00 p.m. And, as my parents might say, “the crag of dawn” is 3:30 a.m. or thereabouts. Night offers little darkness.This morning, I managed to sleep until about 6:45, which is good because we needed an early breakfast to make it to the train station in time for our ride to Berlin.Our taxi guy arrived at 8:00. The fellow seemed to speak a language with which I am unfamiliar, for it evidently involves only the briefest of sharp ejaculations. When not spurting such verbiage, he hummed along with the radio.As we left the hotel, he gestured as if to say, “OK, Bud, where to?” “Train,” I said.He did not understand.Absurdly, I said, “choo-choo” while making like a piston with my arm. Suddenly, he burst into something, I know not what, and off we went in his old Mercedes. I was glad when we seemed to head to the station. We got there fast.The lady from whom we purchased our train tickets was hilariously curt and rude. My mom was horrified, but I was amused. I kept smiling at her and asking her questions just to mess with her. “Where do we stand?” I said. She looked at me with contempt. “Where is ze TOILETTE?” I asked. She finally slammed her little window.Our train was headed to Berlin by way of a town named Angermünde—a mound of anger, I guess.Ah, Angermünde turned out to be mound-less and anger-less too. There, we disembarked our noisy, stinky diesel monstrosity in favor of a relatively smooth electric train. My folks cleverly brought us once again to within inches of the restroom near where people stow their bicycles. The fold-out seats in the toilet zone were hard and uncomfortable, unlike the seats on the rest of the train. But my parents are German, and so they simply sat on those shitty seats and stoically stared forward. And here I am right next to them.Right now, it sounds like teenagers (?) are playing grab-ass up at the front of the train, where seats are comfortable. I’m almost inspired to go and look. I could do with some wild youthful nudity or horseplay. Or just a comfortable seat.With us here in the car from hell is an aging footballer (with an odd red lastic ball and good humor), a father and son (with bikes), a kindly old woman, and a nondescript old gentleman.At the last stop, we picked up various passengers, including a surly woman in her late 20s who refuses to sit down in the only remaining seat, which happens to be next to mine.I’ve opened two vents in our hellhole, and the air is almost good. There is much perfume in Poland; I am hoping that the Germans apply the stuff less liberally. So far, so good.The train appears to be traveling very quickly. Occasionally, we pass a train zipping in the opposite direction, producing brief red violence, like a flashback to some bloody, swirling hell. No one responds. It is routine.My dad insists on speaking with me, which is unfortunate, for my particular hearing problem is most pronounced in settings such as this one: the non-stop background roar. I learned long ago that it is easier to pretend to understand rather than to shout out an explanation of one’s deafness.“Yes, yes. Of course, absolutely.”In seemingly no time at all, we’ve arrived at Berlin’s main station, and now people are queuing up with their bikes and backpacks. Germans are an orderly people. Everyone is patient, polite. Then the door opens, and all is movement.Wow, the station is impressive. Tubular plexiglass elevators! Efficient escalators! We were out of the building in two minutes, where taxis awaited. I stared at them all.A tall, bald, energetic man came up to me and said, “do you wish a taxi?”“Taxi? Yes." I fumbled for the address. "Do you know....”He cut me off. He said, “I know everything.” He immediately led me to his late-model Mercedes taxi. I motioned to my parents to follow. They immediately responded. We were all being very German.
He ordered us to leave our bags on the ground behind the taxi. “Go now and sit in the car,” he ordered. OK. He seemed to insist on handling the “baggage,” what there was of it, by himself. A point of pride? Efficiency?I sat in front. My folks sat in back. Alluding to a family tradition, and before our cabby entered the car, I announced, “We go now.” During his later years, my grandfather, Otto, could be very direct. He would visit all day and then suddenly stand up and declare, “I go now,” and, sure enough, he’d just go.
So, a few years ago, finding it necessary to expedite movement whenever someone in my family circle sought to depart the company, I would simply declare, “I go now,” and then I'd herd everyone out the door. The practice clicked. It is firmly established.Our driver soon filled his seat and asked me where we wanted to go. I showed him the address on a slip of paper.“Ah, yes, I know that hotel. Our ride will be cheap. Under 20 Euros!” Off we went.Then the talk began. It turns out that our driver was familiar with my mother’s last home in Germany (south of Hamburg) and also my father’s region, which is near Stuttgart. He blathered about dialects. He asked us endless questions. He offered opinions about the Poles. He philosophized. On he went, in his odd, friendly clumsy German way. I could tell that my parents were amused. This was odd, but it was much better than Polish indifference and surliness.He got us to the hotel in no time at all. I paid him and off he went. Later, I spotted him driving by, his head still bald.Our hotel is no great shakes. There’s no air conditioning, and it’s hot and humid.We went to lunch, just down the street, at a Croatian restaurant. We had terrific salads with smoked salmon and bread. We drank too much.We staggered to our rooms.I think I like Berlin.UPDATE: just got back from the hotel restaurant. Man, the food was great! Service excellent. I'm really starting to like this place. [END]
June 5, Sunday
For some reason, the hotel restaurant was overflowing with visitors on this particular morning. Like many things that happened on our trip, it was an odd fact that was left unexplained.
We took a taxi to Alexanderplatz and then sought the starting point of the bus tour. Owing to special circumstances—extra traffic that day because of some celebration—our tour would be incomplete, but we could return on Monday and experience the whole thing.
What we did see of the city that day was marvelous. Berlin is an amazing city, full of impressive buildings, monuments, and shopping areas. It’s really too much to take in all at once. In a sense, the bus tour, which featured high double-decker buses, was an absurdity, like an hour flight through the cosmos. You really see nothing.
At one point, we encountered a group of thirty or so musicians playing horns, which we greatly enjoyed. We checked out some shops, which revealed Berlin’s, ahem, tolerance and sense of humor.
We were dazzled by Berlin’s cosmopolitan quality.
We used a city bus to return home. That was a bit of an adventure.
That evening, the hotel restaurant was closed (it was Sunday), and so we walked a block or so down the street to a neighborhood restaurant, which turned out to be quite good. We could see that most or all of the customers were people in the neighborhood—who were perfectly comfortable there. The restaurant was also physically charming. The food was excellent. Beer and wine flowed.
June 6, Monday
Breakfast was good. We had our usual coffee and Brot and Aufschnitt. Plus orange juice.
Again, employing a taxi, we headed for the bus tour, this time at the stop before Alexanderplatz. Our bus was even more open on top, and it afforded a better view. The weather was quite fine—it must be said that we were very lucky, weatherwise, during our European adventure.
Our bus seemed to take a different route, though we did see some of the same things we had seen the day before. I greatly enjoyed this tour. I laid back and seemed to fly through the city. And what a city!
At one point, we stopped somewhere for lunch, and we came across what appeared to be a nice Italian restaurant that spilled out onto the sidewalk. We had a fine lunch and, across the street, we spotted a group of street musicians who played only horns. They were loud and wonderful. We were much dazzled by their unfamiliar music.
I do believe we caught a taxi home. In the course of our time in Berlin, we encountered some interesting cabbies: a young Turkish girl with “Cleopatra” makeup; a young Nigerian girl who told us about her recent drama with a coworker; a Frenchman who preferred who hated to work in France; and of course our first driver, whose enthusiasm for talk and bold forwardness seemed like a breath of fresh air after the unfriendliness of the Poles (with some notable exceptions).
That night, we went to the hotel restaurant and decided to sit in the outside courtyard. We drank and ate a wonderful meal, but the weather deteriorated throughout, starting with light sprinkles. We sought to ignore it all. In the end, our waiter found it necessary to run to us with an umbrella (we were under large table umbrellas). He asked, “Do you wish to continue out here?”
“Yes,” we said. And so did the two other parties.
But the weather grew worse. Lightning, thunder and heavy rain. It simply became absurd to sit in the middle of it all. We headed inside. We got into a conversation with the waiter—a Spaniard? Italian?—and a twenty-something customer who seemed to be a footballer.
“You are from California?”
We all felt that the last day of our European holiday was a very good one.
* * *
Edith and Manny in Berlin
Dissent the Blog, June 6
The folks on their last day in Berlin
[Photo of famous Berlin tower]Edith declared that she had ridden to the top of this thing as a little girl. "Don't think so," said Manny.Later, I discovered that the dang thing was built by the Commies back in 1968, so there's no way.But my mom hangs tough.[Photo]Here we are with our cute Nigerian-German cabby[Photo]At an Italian restaurant in one of Berlin's many cool spots. Listened to a cool band, too.Mom insisted on ordering a fancy chocolate desert. It arrived as a big mouse head with mouse ears made of crackers. Mom grabbed one of Mickey's ears and ate it."You're eating Mickey's ear!" I protested."Don't worry. Mickey's dead," said mom. She ate the whole damned thing. [END]
* * *
June 7, Tuesday
Again, those among us who were determined to follow all instructions pressed for an early taxi to the Berlin Airport. They pushed for 3:00 a.m. I negotiated them down to 6:30 a.m. or so. Sheesh.
The weather was good, and we plunged into the sky in our 757-200 without a hitch.
First stop: New Jersey.
The Trenton airport turned out to be pretty decent; we had no trouble catching our connecting fight to LA.
We got to LA on time, but we then experienced a snafu: our shuttle was nowhere to be found. I called the service, and they informed me that the had come to the airport to pick us up at 12:40—about five or six hours earlier. And we were a no-show.
I was not involved in securing the shuttle service, and so I simply pressed to have them pick us up now.
To make a long story short, it was hours before a shuttle finally arrived. We were pretty grumpy by the time we finally headed for home, at about 10:00 p.m.
* * *
“Dissent the Blog” posts from Europe:
• Dispatches from the air (May 24)• My European Adventure (May 24)• Our Day of Rest (May 25)• Give Me the Name of this Street (May 25)• The Folks in Poland (May 27)• Within Marburg Castle, Poland (May 27)• Driving in Poland (May 28)• “You must not take pictures” (May 29)• South to Polzin: beautiful countryside (May 30)• It’s good; it’s over (Bärwalde) (May 30)• Walking through Połczyn Zdrój this morning (May 31)• Stettin (i.e., Szczecin) (June 1)• My morning in Szczecin (Stettin) (June 2)• The fading ghost of Rosengarten Straße (June 3)• “I know everything,” said the Teutonic cabby (June 4)• A Sunday in Berlin (June 5)• The folks on their last day in Berlin (June 6)• Back (June 8)• Loose ends (June 10)
Edith, at her father's grave, c. 1939