Sunday, April 3, 2011

Nothing Says Ukraine Like a Long Train Ride...

The title says it all...and I couldn't wait for Heid to get a glimpse of Ukraine first-hand.

After spending a few days in the Western Ukraine city of L'viv, I wanted to head down to Simferopol, where I taught English for a spell. From there we could make a quick trip to the Black Sea, visit my former colleague Olga and just see the place I once called home. But, first a 24-hour train ride lay ahead.

I didn't even struggle a little bit when buying the tickets. However, when we boarded the next morning I soon realized that I neglected to make one important request: to have a cabin away from the bathroom. In fact, we were right next to the loo which, as previous experience has shown me, can lead to some unpleasant odors. Luckily, however, nobody was sharing our four-bed least not immediately.
After a few hours of chilling in our cabin and playing cards, we arrived in the town of Ternopil...and with that came our cabin mates, Nikolai and Victor. The two burly middle-aged Ukrainian men entered our compartment with a couple of small bags and a big suitcase, which they proceeded to try, unsuccessfully, to fit beneath the bench in numerous different ways. Finally the hoisted the massive thing into an overhead shelf. Shortly afterward came the obligatory introductions, where I explained my rudimentary knowledge of Russian, Nikolai tried some broken English, Victor explained he would only be speaking Ukrainian (as he has great pride in his homeland) and Heidi smiled and nodded.

Shortly thereafter Nikolai, from the bench the two men shared across from us (which would later serve as a single bed that evening), explained it was time for lunch. He grabbed a fully-packed duffle bag, unzipped it, and began emptying its contents onto our tiny shared table. First came the table mats, plastic silverware, napkins, toothpicks, cups and shot glasses (despite the fact that alcohol consumption is now forbidden in train compartments. That being said, this is Ukraine and such a rule is like outlawing gay men from a Cher concert. Who is going to enforce it? Certainly not Cher's publicist!)

Next came the liquids, which included a 2-liter bottle of sparkling water, four small bottles of beer and about 1.5 liters of samogon, or Ukrainian moonshine. Although vodka is probably the national drink of this country, samogon is what puts the hair on your chest and makes a boy a man...or an alcoholic. But all those drinks are worthless without some food...

From his, seemingly, endless bag Victor produced a bounty of edibles: a dozen hard-boiled eggs, bread, deer-liver pâté, salo (cured slabs of pork fat), pickles, a couple of different pickled beet salad spreads, and even a whole chicken (fully cooked, and still warm, as if he picked it up at the train station). I knew where this was headed, and my suspicions were confirmed when Victor set four plates and began spreading the pâté on four pieces of bread. I whispered to Heidi that our pathetic store-bought sandwich would stay in its bag, as we were about to get down Ukrain-style. While she prostested and asked me to do the same in Russian I explained that such efforts were futile.

In the tongue of his motherland Victor explained that we were guests of his country, in response to Heidi's feeble attempt at a "no thank you" with the wave of her hand. "Vceo domashnie," he proudly explained to me. In turn I quickly translated to Heidi that this grub was home-made and declining such an offer would be nearly insulting. Of course, if you accept ones food, you must also take his drink.

"No, daviete," Nikolai exclaimed as he raised his shot glass, moments after his business partner topped off the four shot glasses with the clear fire-liquid in the unassuming (re-purposed) water bottle. In suit, we all raised our plastic cups and clinked them together to a toast to us ("Za Nas!"). I showed Heidi that a pickle chaser helped with the burn and she grabbed one too.

For the next hour we had a long, and hearty, meal along with some good conversation. Nikolai had worked in Canada for six years and was anxious to try his hand at rusty English, while I was more than happy to speak to them in Russian, which is a close cousin to Ukrainian. Along with the food came a few more shots, and a glass of beer. (I merely pointed out that I hadn't seen honey beer in Ukraine before and, seconds later, the bottle was opened and a plastic cup full of the brew was in my grasp!)

After the meal we talked football (aka soccer): Dynamo Kiev was playing Italy that night and the guys were bummed they wouldn't be able to watch because they were on a train to Simferopol. A little later we all started to pick up reading materials and the compartment fell silent for some time.

At dinner Heidi and I snuck off to the restaurant car, for some peace and quiet. The guys were great but too much time in such a confined space with strangers can be taxing.

A little after 9pm we were back in the car and reading, while bathroom smells seeped in through the wall and Victor sung along to Ukrainian pop music which blared from his cell phone, apparently unaware of our presence...or simply convinced that everyone else in the world longed to hear those tunes as well. Being too polite to say anything, Heidi and I sat in agony until a lady from the next compartment over came in around 11pm and politely implored him to turn the music off. Without even acknowledging her he shut it off and we were able to sleep, or at least rest.

You can certainly lay out on the bunks, but the tracks are often uneven, leading to a bumpy ride. Beyond that, after a day of consumption men are more likely to snore, and the two of them took their turns filling the void of the evening with loud inhalations. (I'm sure I participated as well.) Nonetheless, I did manage to get some sleep, albeit not the most restful of our year-long journey.

After sunrise, we all lay in our bunks, wide awake, until an hour or so before arriving in Simferopol. At that time we took turns washing up in the bathroom, folding our bedsheets and packing up our luggage. When we pulled up to the station, we both thanked the men for their hospitality, shook hands and headed our separate ways...

Reflections on Auschwitz & Schindler's Factory

Having traveled the last four months without the assistance of those nifty guidebooks, after the last one was pilfered, Heidi and I knew very little about Krakow's tourist those which loom heavy in the hearts of many the world over.

Just outside of Krakow is the town of Oświęcim, which Hitler converted into a place of imprisonment and extermination for Jews, Roma people, POWs, Polish intelligentsia and scores of others. I was drawn to the place and almost felt obligated to visit, not for the same reasons I was attracted to Iguacu Falls or the Parthenon, but because of something deeper. Perhaps it is the innate humanity within each of us which drew me to this place, to remember and pay homage to the victims of one of the most horrendous acts of genocide the world has ever known. Moreover, it was important to stand amongst those hallowed grounds to reflect that man, although inherently good (in my humble opinion), is also capable of such evil atrocities. After all Hitler, Himmler and all of the rest of those involved in these crimes against humanity were, indeed, human. As hard as it is to fathom, they had parents, and many went home to their children after, what they saw as, a hard day's work leading unknowing Jewish women and children into gas chambers which the victims believed to be disinfecting showers.

All told, it is estimated that approximately 1.5 million people were killed in the Auschwitz Death Camps in fewer than five years. Such a staggering figure is hard to truly grasp. Walking through Block 4 of the Auschwitz main camp one starts to get a small sense of the scale at which the murdering took place: huge piles of shoes, prosthetics and everyday items, such as brushes, pots and pans. Another room (which was closed during our visit) has just some of the 7 tons of human hair removed from the victims prior to extermination.

After being unloaded from crammed train cars the prisoners were sorted on site. With the wave of a finger an SS doctor would determine whether people were fit to work, or to be immediately sent to the gas chambers. About three-quarters of the people, including most women and children, were immediately sent to their deaths. Those that initially survived worked dreadfully long days, spending their evenings in cramped and unsanitary conditions, eating very little...about 20% of that recommended by nutritionists.

By the time the Red Army liberated the camp, in January 1945, the Nazis had destroyed all but one of the crematories, in an attempt to hide evidence of their crimes. Only the weakest prisoners remained when the Russians entered the camps, 7,500 in all. About 20,000 other prisoners were taken to a German concentration camp, on a forced march, when the Allied forces began closing in on the camp. (Many were liberated in April 1945 by the British.)

Needless to say, the visit was both powerful and solemn.

A couple of days later we visited the factory of Oscar Schindler, made famous by a Thomas Keneally book and Spielberg film.

A Nazi Party member and opportunistic businessman, Schindler came to Krakow shortly after the Germans took hold of the city. There he bought an old enamelware factory and used forced Jewish labour to make pots, pans and munitions. As the man witnessed atrocities, perpetrated by Nazi soldiers, he became increasingly protective of 'his' Jews, often regardless of personal risk or cost. All told, he is credited with saving the lives of 1,200 Jews who would have, otherwise, almost certainly have been sent to the death chambers.

The museum itself is a well-designed, albeit lengthy, group of displays, focusing on life in Krakow during the Nazi invasion. Of course, there were also displays about Schindler's factory and numerous videos with reflections from survivors of the nightmare. If you go, give yourself about three hours...and sneak in a snack!