With a Rick Steves tour group in July, we traveled through six countries that were once behind the Iron Curtain.
We started with the “royal and prestigious Prague” of the Czech Republic, as Rick Steves puts it, then continued by bus to Poland (Krakow), Slovakia, Hungary (Budapest), Croatia and Slovenia. For much of recent history, the people of these regions suffered repression and oppression under the Nazis and the Soviets, so they – especially the Poles – have a strong connection with the people of the war-torn Ukraine.
Three of the countries we visited – Poland, Slovakia and Hungary – border Ukraine.
For me, history and history in the making were the most poignant and important in Poland. Besides Ukraine, Poland borders Germany, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Belarus, Lithuania and Russia (Kaliningrad).
Over the centuries, Poland has seen its political borders draw and redraw… and even disappear! From 1795 to 1918 Poland, as a country, ceased to exist. But the language, culture and faith of Poland have endured.
Throughout our 15-day tour, natural wonders – such as Croatia’s Plitvice Lakes National Park – and stunning architectural beauty – such as cathedrals and castles – abounded.
In a terrifying contrast, we visited the remains of the Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau, an hour and a half drive from Krakow. The vast Holocaust memorial is divided into two parts: Auschwitz I (the labor camp) and Birkenau (the death camp).
At least 1.1 million people perished at Auschwitz-Birkenau during World War II.
Our guide is married to a descendant of a Holocaust survivor. Sometimes she seemed to close her eyes as she spoke. I wondered if it was to help herself stay detached. It would be difficult for anyone to cross the camp several times a week. At the end of our long tour, I asked her why she had decided to be a guide. It was then that we learned of his family’s Holocaust story. She paused and added, “I didn’t choose to do this. But someone has to.
With his long view of history and close ties to the Russian Orthodox Church, Russian President Vladimir Putin believes his invasion of Ukraine is resurrecting what Ivan the Terrible, Russia’s first Tsar, began. Ivan was crowned Tsar and Grand Prince of All Russia in 1547. Telling you everything you need to know about world politics. On the way home I bought the book at Schipohl (Amsterdam airport) to read during our flights and layovers. It is timely and fascinating, and I highly recommend it.
Published in 2015 and updated in 2019, the book more or less predicted Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Furthermore, it provides insight into Putin’s other likely targets – based on Putin’s geography and megalomania, impacting more than Eastern Europe. For example, in the last chapter of the book, Russian movements in the Arctic are described and explained.
In Prague, as we were leaving the airport on July 7, one of the first things we noticed were the Ukrainian flags; we also saw plenty of them in Krakow, a beautiful and historic university town that was once the capital of Poland. Today, Warsaw is the capital of Poland.
I asked our guide in Krakow about Ukrainian refugees.
“Now is a very special time,” Tomasz told me on July 11. “I see Ukrainian flags hanging everywhere – one of the signs of the huge support Ukrainians receive in Poland.
“Since February 24, when the war broke out, we have welcomed more than 3.5 million refugees across the border, mostly women with young children fleeing the war. The population of Poland is 40 million. It increased by almost 10% almost overnight. And we still don’t have a single refugee camp. They are all with Polish families who have opened their hearts and also their homes. Everyone I know who has a spare room has hosted or is hosting someone.
Tomasz said his family had two spare rooms in their house and they had previously housed four families. Families coming from Ukraine follow different paths; some returned to Ukraine; but many have nowhere to return because their homes are gone. Some of these families go further to Western Europe where they have relatives “and some feel quite comfortable here and want to start a new life”.
Many national organizations and NGOs (non-governmental organizations) provide Ukrainians with assistance, such as food, clothing and information about people offering accommodation.
“About 40% (of Ukrainians) decide to stay here because they feel safe and connected and it is very easy for them to assimilate because the language is easy for them to learn and there is no big cultural differences,” Tomasz said.
Asked about the effect this is having on the Polish economy, he said “positive” because the Polish economy is growing “and needs labor; every store, every restaurant, they are looking for cooks, waiters, salespeople, etc.
Asked what Poles think of Russia, he replied: “We are afraid of Russia because it has always been unpredictable and we have had many, many problems on this side (border). Being part of NATO reassures us, but it’s not that we don’t think about it. We do.”
Tomasz is amazed and pleased with the international support the Poles have received in hosting the Ukrainians. While he was a tour guide, many people asked him how they could help him.
He said it was important to ensure that all money donated goes directly to local institutions. The one he recommends is Salam Lab, Peace Lab – salamlab.pl/en – founded in Poland.
Poland was under Soviet rule from the end of World War II until 1989. During this time the Soviets did all they could to discourage Poles from attending the Catholic Church and other activities nuns.
A native of Poland and a former resident of Krakow, Pope John Paul II occupied the Vatican during the era of Soviet rule over Poland. The first non-Italian pope in 455 years, he is one of four people credited with bringing down the Soviet Union. The other three are Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Mikhail Gorbachev.
According to author George Weigel, Pope John Paul II credited culture with propelling historical change, rather than politics and economics. Pope John Paul II, who has been declared a saint, said the heart of culture is religion.
Despite efforts to suppress it, the faith endured in Poland under Soviet rule. Today, Poland is one of the most religious countries in Europe. According to Tomasz, his nation is an example of “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”.