We had not initially intended visiting the Ukraine, however a chance meeting at Fortress Boyen in the Masurian Lakes district in Northern Poland in October soon changed that!
We have developed a saying, a philosophy if you will ….. ‘Chance meetings provide wonderful opportunities /experiences’ …… and from these, most special friendships develope!
Such is the case when we met first Yuriy, then his wife Lena and a little later on the same day Volodymyr when we were in the Masurian Lakes district in north Poland back in October.
Yuriy and Lena invited us to visit them in Lviv in the Ukraine, and so warm was the invitation that we could not refuse. We obtained the Visas to visit the Ukraine before leaving Warsaw; the staff at the Ukraine Consul in Warsaw were so very friendly and helpful that it gave us a good feeling.
Ukraine visas in hand we set off on 13th April. It was a indeed bitter sweet parting from Warsaw, as we have come to see this very special and magnificent city as our second home, yet continue this wonderful journey we must!
We were to meet Yuriy at the Polish / Ukraine border just after midnight of the 15th, so that left us just over two more days to explore Poland. Lublin was our destination and also the Majdanek Concentration camp.
Storks are a frequent sight as we travel through the small villages, where they sit high up in their nests atop the poles with platforms provided by the local people.
To have a stork nest outside one’s home is deemed to bring good luck. Indeed storks are just another of Poland’s tourist attractions, with nearly three quarters of the country’s storks nesting in the north east region. These beautiful birds migrate thousands of miles from southern Africa each year to spend summer in the Polish countryside, where they nest and raise their young until it is time to leave again.
The stork season is from March (spring) to August (end of summer) and indeed we are told they are quite a tourist attraction in their own right. They are indeed a most elegant bird.
Once again, we travelled through some lovely villages, with quaint cottages and on some occasions cobbled roads. We even managed a ferry crossing across the Vistula river…… that is when we found the right ferry crossing point!
Our first stop was to be the 11th century village of Kazimierz Dolmy, situated on the east bank of the Vistula river. It is one of Poland’s official national historic monuments, and it’s greatest prosperity was in the 16th and 17th centuries when the Vistula river was the grain trade route. Imagine our delight when as we came close to the village, a guy in his horse and cart came along past us…. just charming.
Next stop was Lublin, the ninth largest city in Poland situated on the east bank of the Vistula river. The medieval city of Lublin dates back to the middle ages, and has been rebuilt many times following wars and epidemics. Interestingly though it was relatively untouched during WWII, so many of the old and beautiful buildings remain intact.
Before the Holocaust, there were about 45,000 Jews living and working in and around Lublin. Today, we are told there are less than 100. Because of the original buildings, some dating back to 14th century, Lublin is classified as one of Poland’s National Historic Monuments, that is it is an object of cultural heritage. Twice in it’s history Lublin was, for brief periods, the capital of Poland.
The day we visited, there was a group of young people in the street giving free hugs. What a lovely thing to see. They were travelling around Eastern Europe …. just giving hugs… should be more of it!!!
On the outskirts of Lublin is Majdanek extermination camp, which was initially a forced labour camp. Unlike other camps that were often concealed, this camp was in full view of, and in close proximity to the city of Lublin, with no barriers in between. Majdanek was in operation for less than three years, yet during that short time an estimated 150,000 people from all over Europe passed through, and approximately 80,000 people died or were murdered there. Yet again, after several hours of walking around Majdenak on this beautiful day of sunshine and blue skies,……we came away with very profound feelings.
The Mausoleum, the Monument Gate at the entrance to the Museum, and the Road of Homage and Remembrance that connects them create the Monument to Struggle and Martyrdom at Majdanek. Along the copula (on the domed roof of the Mausoleum) runs text reading “Our fate is a warning to you”, it is from Franciszek Fenikowski’s poem Requiem. The Mausoleum hold ashes of Majdanek prisoners. At the time of the camp’s existence, the ashes, mixed with compost, were used to fertilise fields supplying KL Lublin. (from a sign board at the museum)
Majdanek is the best example of a Holocaust death camp because the gas chambers and crematoria are intact. This is because the Soviet advance was so swift that the Germans did not have time to destroy it, as they did with so many others. Not all the prisoners were Jews, although the vast majority were, there were many Soviet POWs and political prisoners as well. Initially it was a camp only for men, but later women and children were also brought here.
Majdanek occupied approximately 270 hectares and was laid out in six compounds (fields) that were fenced by barbed wire, similar to Auschwitz. This allowed for prisoners to be separated into groups such as women and children, Russian POWs, Jews etc.
We saw a monument called the column of Three Eagles, that has quite a story. It was designed by Polish artist Albin Maria Boniecki, who was himself a survivor of Majdanek. Boniecki had been a member of the Polish underground and counterintelligence. When caught, he was sent to the infamous Pawiak prison, where he was subjected to torture and interrogation before being sent to Majdanek.
The monument can be found in ‘Field III’ of the camp. Boniecki made sculptures from whatever he could find as a way to encourage and provide some small pleasure for his fellow prisoners. This explanation was near the monument. ‘Designed by Maria Albin Boniecki, it was erected by Polish political prisoners on the camp authorities order in the spring of 1943. Germans conceived it as a decoration of Field III. It was the first monument to the victims of Majdanek as some ashes form the camp crematorium were secretly placed inside the base’.
On one terrible day in November 1943, in an operation called ‘Erntfest’ (Harvest Festival), more than 18000 Jews were shot by special SS units and police. Music was played over loud speakers to drown out the sounds of gunfire and mass murder. It was the largest single day, single location killing during the Holocaust.
There were 12 bus loads of Jewish students from several schools in Israel also visiting. All wearing white hoodies, with a logo special to each school and carrying their special blue and white flags. Some groups had ceremonies near the Mausoleum. They played guitars, sang songs and said words that whilst we did not understand them, were said with so much feeling that in a way, we did understand! Some of the students were visibly moved to tears, so profound are the feelings that this sacred place conveyed. At one point, we spoke with some of the students, their next destination was Kraków and Auchwitz….. What an emotional journey they are on.
We arrived at the Polish / Ukraine border with what we thought was a 4 hour wait until midnight when we could pass the checkpoints into the Ukraine, because Visa entry was for the 16th. Then we realised that the Ukraine was 1 hour ahead…. BONUS.. Only 3 hours to go, so settled in with a coffee and to do some notes, sort photos etc..
Whilst sitting there a terrific character came up and started talking to us. He no English…. We little Polish, but communicate we did with first class sign language! It was hilarious! He had two of the best shiners ever and a very cute little black puppy waiting so patiently for him outside. We even had time for a pic before we left… Never to meet again most likely, but another memorable encounter.
Going through the checkpoints was yet another experience for our memory banks! We went through one guard post, then another where all documents were checked. Yeah.. We thought….. we are in! WRONG!! There were 4 more checkpoints to go through, 3 of which checked all our documents. All this took about an hour, so it was around 1am that we met our dear friend Yuriy and son Hlib. It was raining a little by this time, but we did not care as we were now in the Ukraine with Yuriy leading us to the hotel in Lviv that he had so very kindly arranged for us. Lviv is only around 70 km from the Polish border, so it did not take long.
Saturday 16/4/16 – Lviv
It was a little after 2am when we arrived at the hotel, and we received a very warm welcome indeed from the staff at the Hotel. Bike safely garaged, we said goodnight to Yuriy and Hlib, but not before they gave us a ‘care package’ of home made soup (thanks Lena), some buns, juice and a local vodka.. YUM!
Yuriy and Lena arrived at the hotel promptly at 11am the next morning, and off we set on foot, to see Lviv with our personal guides. We walked almost 15km looking at this beautiful city. It is quite a hilly city, full of history, beautiful buildings and parks. We walked up to the highest point, Lviv High Castle or Castle hill, it is just over 400 metres above sea level. The city covers an area of 182 km² and has a population of around 800,000 people.
Yuriy and Lena treated us to a superb lunch of traditional Ukraine foods (chosen by Yuriy) before we headed to a very special coffee shop for some after lunch coffee and cake. The shop was located in an area where the artists and poets met during communist times. The thick, black, most flavoursome coffee is made with a very old machine and method, where the coffee is warmed in a small copper pot by being moved slowly around in the hot, black sand. Most delicious.
From the coffee shop we went to a local market! Me in seventh heaven as we looked at the many stalls where women were stitching the linens with traditional cross stitch patterns. They were so quick, so neat and so colourful.
Next stop was a park that had traditional houses from various Ukranian regions. They were all of wood, so heavy and so beautifully reconstructed. Some had living exhibitions such as music and bread making that we were welcomed to participate in.
From here we went to Lena and Yuri’s home for dinner, and to meet their other 2 children Katya and Volodya …. and also their rascally Schnowzer ..Joy! It was only 96 steps up to their apartment, but after our almost 15km day of walking, well……. that was a piece of cake!
Lena had prepared traditional Ukraine food for us for dinner which was all new to us and so very enjoyable. We passed a few very special hours with them, sharing stories and much laughter and friendship. We are indeed so very lucky to have met such wonderful people that we now treasure as dear friends.
The next blog will continue our most special, wonderful and enlightening visit to the Ukraine starting in the city of Truskavets, which lies in a beautiful little valley at the foot of the Carpathian mountains.
Our initial impressions of the Ukraine are that the people are very warm and friendly, and they have made two Aussies so very far from home feel incredibly welcome and safe. The pride and patriotism of the people is absolutely heart warming and can only make one smile and feel a little emotional. One word for the Ukraine is ‘COME’….. Come and see for yourself its beauty and the people who love it so. It has certainly captured us