Tuesday, May 12, 2015

US-Poland Relations

Another highlight of the trip was meeting with an officer from the US Consulate in Krakow.

Before and during this trip, we've talked a lot about the important economic ties between the US and Poland; this visit gave us a chance to learn more about the significant - especially now - political ties between the two countries.

The consulate serves several purposes in Krakow.  It's in charge of all services to US citizens living in and visiting Poland, and is in charge of issuing visas for southern Poland.  While other EU citizens have a travel visa waiver to the US, due to a confluence of circumstances, Poles are not issued a waiver.  Instead, Poles must apply for travel visas and undergo an interview process.  Approximately 95% of requests are granted, but this must reach 97% for the country to be granted an automatic waiver.  We met several Poles throughout the week that said they refused to travel to the US until this waiver is granted.

Particularly interesting at the moment is the US-Poland relationship in light of the situation in Russia.  With its location on the map, Poland has historically been a battleground between the great powers of Germany and Russia.  Poles today are vehemently anti-Russian, and are concerned about Russian aggression in the Ukraine.  Poland must rely on organizations like NATO and individual allies like the US to make sure it is able to maintain a strong front against any potential future Russian action.


Monday, May 11, 2015

Radio Krakow

Friday, May 8th, was take your Fordham graduate student to work day (Poland style).  Our group traveled around Krakow to various media companies to discover how technology and media play an increasingly integral part of business.  Among the companies visited, Radio Krakow (RK) was the most insightful as to where Poland could be headed with regards to media in the future. 

In the States, radio seems to be dying.  Streaming music options like Spotify and Pandora, on-demand podcasts, and iTunes music downloads are dominating the space.  Radio Krakow is, however, dominate among quality media outlets of Poland.  There are, of course, other stations and outlets that play pop music with more popularity but this government/public funded organization is living its mission and doing it well.  The reason Radio Krakow exists is produce content according to their four standards:  1) Opinion Forming 2) Nearness 3) Usefulness 4) Quality.  Think Poland version of NPR and you have Radio Krakow.  They are marching lock and step with the people of the historical city they support and the reason, in my brief exposure to the company, does not have much to do with the modern facility or extensive upgrades to their recording studio.  It has to do with their people.   

We were fortunate to have their CEO and Editor in Chief, Marcin Pulit, give us a thorough snapshot into the company operations and then a tour of the facility. He broke down how RK operates, where their money comes from, how their content is organized and analyzed, and what the future may hold.  It was interesting that he used what we refer to as a vanity metric, Facebook likes/fans, as an indicator of their reach and popularity.  I initially scoffed at the 54k number he threw out (for comparison:  NYC NPR at 55k, NPR national at 4.3M) but digging deeper, that number indicated one thing to me - Facebook is the most popular social network in Poland and Marcin knows it.  Granted RK is publicly supported and salaries are set, but their leadership knows that eyeballs and users mean more revenue and more success.  

Even more impressive and interesting was Marcin's stance on visiting the United States.  Unlike the 80% of students that want to leave Poland to work or study abroad after graduation (with a fairly universal desire to visit the States) Marcin adamantly stated he was not going to come to the US unless the visa rules were adjusted.  That stance and an acute knowledge of his company's operations, its employees, and its consumers, garnered one thing from this proud USA citizen:  respect.  Not that he or Radio Krakow needs it.  

Here's to opinion forming, local, useful, and quality content.  Something US news and media institutions should strive to emulate.   

Check out Radio Krakow.

Na zdrowie!

One Retrospective on Our Journey to Krakow

I preface this post by apologizing if it in any way comes off as sentimental. 

I think everyone on the study tour went in with different expectations. Seeking new knowledge. Exploring a new world and culture.  Eating good food. Making new friends.

And I think all of us came away with more than that throughout our one week journey.

New Knowledge? We took courses at the Jagellonian University, one of the premiere institutions in all of Europe and experienced a variety of teaching styles from professors of different eras. We were even challenged by one professor to explore the abstract dimensions of knowledge, something that many of us seldom experience. We saw how the public radio works and that the decision on culture comes down to one man. We explored a massive commercial newspaper and saw it cling to an era that us Americans have already abandoned. We even learned that not all Catholic publications are in love with the Vatican's decisions and claims.

And on one day we managed to watch the bureaucratic process unfold in its numerous facets. I would even wager that some of us even picked up a few phrases in a language many probably never dreamt of exploring.

New World? We immersed ourselves in a culture that in some areas displays the splendor and romance of a medieval city and in others the rigidity and homogeneity of communism. We walked up a historic castle and managed a panoramic view of this wondrous city. We saw a fire-breathing dragon. We saw a trumpeter perform a mysterious unfinished work from the top of a church. We saw how churches in this incredibly Catholic nation put our own American cathedrals to shame with their often overwhelming sense of splendor and might. We saw how the Polish value their McDonald's more than we do, with a bathroom more luxurious than those of high-end American restaurants.

And of course we stepped foot into Auschwitz, the ultimate machine of murder that left every one of us on the brink of anger and frustration. It was an experience that I repeated described as "harrowing" to those who asked for my perspective and even as of this writing, it continues to reveal itself as painful and simply confusing - how can it be possible that humans could do something so perverse and horrifying; I feel that even those words cannot express the magnitude of this blight on human history.

Eating New Food? We certainly saw how pork could be cooked in a variety of manners. We ate food in a variety of restaurants, from the more upscale Miad Molina and historic (and four-floor) Wierzynek. We now know that Piorgi is plural and Piorg is the singular; we also know that they can exist with spinach, cheese, potato, pork, chicken... We ran into a culture that probably likes ice cream more than we do (and sure knows how to create serve it in spectacular ways). We even learned that Polish version of Ketchup is closer to our version of Marinara sauce.

Making new friends? When all is said and done, our connections to other people is what keeps our experiences alive. In each of us, we have shared an instant and it is through our continued interactions that they remain alive and well. We may not be in Krakow any longer (and some may never return), but we all come away with strong ties to that area through our relationships with the students and people that we met. We will all on some level remember vodka shared, failed attempts to engage in salsa, snoring and sleeping on a bus ride home from Auschwitz (at least I will since I was awake) and a climactic evening of dancing to 80's and 90's music in a former communist bar after a night of eating in a wide range of restaurants. It would not be too far-fetched to state that during our time our group and the Polish students bonded like a family.

The bubble we all lived in for a week has burst and our journey Krakow will slowly but surely fade into memory. But it will be a memory that will linger yet for times to come. 

Sunday, May 10, 2015

"Nothing is better, nothing is worse, it's just different..."

Thursday May 7th, 2015

I believe that to me the zenith of this trip was the conference about Radio Legislation in Poland. Having had the experience of my earlier development in Europe, I had thought, so far, that the European Union had become an amalgamation of diverse –and yet similar- nations but, I was about to find out that I was wrong. I attended this conference with many expectations; the first and most important one was: how consensus is made in countries with such wounded history such as Poland. For my delight, we took the tram from the Hotel to The Jagellionian University Campus. Fordham Students dressed accordingly to the occasion for we were advised that high-rank personalities would attend. At first I thought I had arrived to the wrong location. I have never seen such display of Mercedes Benz, BMWs, Volvos and Bodyguards in such a small parking lot. It was more like a high-end car expo. As soon as I opened the door to enter the university facilities I realised that the conference that I was about to attend was not uncle Joe being interviewed by communication students; it was easier to pass the security line at the Latin Billboard Awards that getting close to the table where coffee break was set, not because cookies had been a gift from the Queen of England, but because Mr. Minister of Culture of Poland was having coffee there.

I was amazed as well on how everyone had their place defined in the audience. Important people –such as Ministers and their group- were seated in the first row; Professors and University Guests were seated between the second and the third row; Fordham Students were seated at the fourth row and the rest of mortals were seated in the back of the room.

The event started 11 minutes passed the official time. High Hierarchy needed extra time to settle down and stopped talking about official and essential topics concerning business matters, family, holidays and lunch after the conference.

I will divide the presentation in 3 parts. The first one consisted of professors explaining in very elegant, eloquent and subtle ways the cultural nuances between the Polish and American Public Media System. Such Professors were only missing a cup of tea and some candles to have a sophisticated and yet, academic and scholar "soiree"; therefore, I called the first part “Downton Abbey”. Mister Minister dominated the second part; his tone-imposed respect for it was a consolidation of a dominant personality with marinated experience in the field of Polish Public Media. His ideas of licensing fees and ways to collect them are good; Gonzalez Camarena would be so happy to implement them, we just need to go back in time and I am sure all these ideas would work. Thus, I called the second part “Back to the Polish Future”. I am sure that Michael J. Fox would be happy to take Mister Minister to the past to implement such archaic ideas. Finally, my favourite part arrived I called it “Jurassic Polish Park”. A Professor from Ukraine gave a very short- yet controversial presentation- on how the Media Public System is doomed there. The state-controlled structure only allows 3 minutes of commercials for every hour of broadcasting. A media professor from the University gave a presentation full of arcane and blurry messages. Just like when the T-rex in Jurassic Park ate the goat, nobody saw it but it was a brutal truth. Interestingly, that fact unleashed the wrath of the Gods; students were providing opinions and challenging the system; radio personalities were also expressing their concerns about the future of traditional public media. I was amused, the conference went from Downton Abbey to Jurassic Polish Park in no time. I wanted to ask something to Mister Minister but I could not for time was up. The main conclusion was: We –Polish System- do not want to change; and although new generations are raising their voices, we [Polish System] believe that this scheme could be sustainable for a long time. I am not judging the latter statement; it’s just the perception that I got.

Once the conference was terminated, we proceed for lunch with the majority of the members of the conference. The meal offered was a gastronomic subjective experience embedded in an erudite and political environment.

In the evening we had dinner with 2 host students from the University. I had the chance to interact with Cuba. His understanding of America –as a continent- is very elevated but not necessarily accurate. We discussed how history defined the course of history of North and South America and how developing countries i.e. Brazil, Mexico and Chile are becoming big players in this game that we call Capitalism.

I ended my day listening to music from the 80’s involved in a reflective state of melancholy for I was standing in the main square of a City that had seen many changes through history, and I just happened to be there contemplating the stars the same way Nicolas Copernicus was in a distant night in the past.

A Day of Contrasts

Saturday was a day full of contrasts, and for most of us it was also our last full day in Krakow.

The day started very early as we made our way to the Auschwitz concentration camps in the morning. As a Jewish woman growing up in Argentina and in New York, I have not only experienced three terrorist attacks against my people, but I have also studied the holocaust in depth. While I expected to be sensitive at the camp, I was not ready for the overwhelming emotion I felt. However, what surprised me the most was the incredible support I received from my classmates. It would have been a very different experience without them.

After returning to Krakow in the afternoon and exploring some more ordinary part of town during a long walk, we dressed in our finest clothes and headed to Wierzynek for a goodbye dinner. Wierzynek is the oldest restaurant in Poland and dates back to medieval times. On the walls we can see original weapons from that time, and the restaurant exudes the glamour of the city’s aristocratic past. We indulged in typical Polish food that included pea soup, and a red and white dessert. I was fortunate enough to sit near the Dean of the Jagiellonian University and converse about Polish culture and history, which provided me with an even greater insight into this wonderful country.

While I am on a plane on the way home, I am taking a moment to reflect on this trip. Our group was a very diverse one, with individuals from different countries, various backgrounds and vastly different life experiences. We had the fortune to get to know a city and its people in a way no ordinary tourist would have. I would like to think we all learned from one another and created long-lasting friendships. I am very grateful for these past few days and as we move on with our lives, some of us graduating in a week, this trip will stay with me forever as one of the best experiences of my time at Fordham. Thank you, Krakow, and Thank you, Professor Bozena!

A Journey To The Past

Six days of study tour in Krakow gives me the feeling of traveling back to late Middle Ages in Poland. The well-preserved historical sites showed Krakow a truly historic city. As one of the only Polish cities not to be destroyed by the Nazis during the Second World War, Krakow still retains much of its charm and character from hundreds of years ago. The city just has that great historic feeling that is hard to describe, and in Krakow there lies great glimpses of history at every turn.

The Wawel Castle, a Gothic castle built in the 14th century. From the 14th century through to World War II, from a glory royal palace to Nazi headquarters, the castle witnessed the important historical moments.

The Old Market Square dates back to the 13th century and is the largest medieval town square in Europe. From the ancient trade to tourist sightseeing now, the market is the pillar of city’s prosperity

The Jewish Quarter, built in the 15th century and over the centuries remained an important Jewish landmark in Poland. This place suffered a lot during the World War II, but it’s still stand today showing a very authentic atmosphere of what it was like during the war.

And as a student, the most impressive place for me is The Jagiellonian University. The oldest college of the Polish was rebuilt by the end of the 15th century as a splendid late-Gothic edifice around a vast courtyard with surrounding arcades and a well of 1517 in the center. In the university, there is a hidden gem, Collegium Maius, the oldest building of the university now become a museum. It’s like a time capsule brought me to the past that how importance of this place in advancing the education in Poland. 500 years ago the professors not only worked but also lived within the walls of the University. We were taken through stately rooms, rooms that are still used today for special occasions, and some private rooms where the professors lived. Hundreds of portraits of professors and benefactors looked upon us from the walls while we walked around admiring the furniture and the precious objects and instruments, all presented in a pleasing way, and with bilingual labels.

Then another door swung open leading to a series of smaller rooms with the university’s collection of scientific instruments, one subject per room: physics, geography, chemistry, alchemy, astronomy, optics and many others. Ancient instruments are certainly also works of art. Through those old scientific instruments, I can picture how students there strive to explore and to make breakthrough in any of these field. Like Copernicus, the star student of this school, I think his study in Jagiellonian University played an important role in his development of critical theories. Several alumni also have donated rewards to the school that has been so important in their education including the Nobel Prize, Olympic Gold Medal, as well as an Oscar Award winner. Those prizes become part of the honor of the university itself. 

Those places remained their own historical glory, and now those also become a part of my memories.

Any tour will come to an end, as long as the memory will be there forever.

The Jagiellonian University

The Entrance of Collegium Maius

 Lecture Hall

Astrology Instruments

One of professors' room in 17th century


 A Glimpse of Jewish Quarter

Saturday, May 9, 2015

There Was Just No Way to Prepare.

Growing up Jewish in LA in the 60s and 70s, I was exposed fairly regularly to accounts of the Holocaust. I had heard stories of survival from relatives of survivors. In college I studied about Raoul Wallenberg and read Elie Weisel. I watched Schindler’s list, Life is Beautiful and The Pianist. I have visited Holocaust museums in New York, Washington DC and Israel. And yet apparently none of this sufficiently prepared me for today’s experience at Auschwitz. 

I have been to landmarks of brutality before. I have visited Vietnam, Pearl Harbor and of course the 9/11 site. But this experience is a monument to hate and brutality like no other. One of my classmates asked me what was the most powerful part of the tour. Many were moved by the unending piles of glasses, hair, shoes (children’s especially) and suitcases. Others stood aghast at the methods of torture like the standing room or the hanging posts. Certainly no one was unaffected by the stack of Zyklon B cans and the chambers in which they were emptied. All of that in a way made the crematoriums seem kind by comparison, a simple method of washing away the torment and torture of these poor souls who were selected for death merely because they were born Jewish.

I connected strongly with them at the train stop in Birkenau. Standing near the tracks having passed through the large brick gate under the guard tower. This was the place where I empathetically felt the horror. I could barely imagine what it felt like to have just survived being packed into a rail car standing with 100 other people. (The actual car looked so much smaller than in any film I had seen.) I could feel the fright by the thought of arriving in this place. It's not scary like in the films. It's bright and green and there are birds chirping, yet now being lined up with uncertainty. Not knowing the future. Work? Death? The future of loved ones? I realized there and then that the choice made by the Nazi Dr. of sending someone to the gas chamber may actually have been a relief over condemnation to hard labor, starvation, rats, exhaustion and dysentery as was so called “life” in the crowded and austere barracks.

The raw emotions were overwhelming. The strongest was hate. I don't know how I can ever look a German in the eye with kindness in my heart, particularly one over the age of 80.

Then anger. I am frustrated that the commandant of Auschwitz was only hanged for his crimes. He got off easy. Perhaps he should have been slowly tortured in a standing only cell and starved to death while rats chewed on his extremities.

Then cynicism. A very small number of the thousands of Nazis involved in these hate crimes were ever punished or persecuted. However too many others even outside Germany were complicit. If this is what humanity does to itself with thought and technology, then why should anyone care about the race as a whole. Is there really good in most people?

Lastly sadness. Standing in the barracks I could feel albeit faintly the emotions of the women and man crammed 6 to a bunk, three bunks high, languishing in filth and disease and death and hopelessness.

What made this experience so astounding was not just the reality of seeing it in person. It wasn’t the aura of the souls in the space or the connection to my Jewish brethren. No, the power of Auschwitz lies in its efficiency. It's the horror of a real live existence of a systematic factory of energy extrusion and death designed and built for the sole purpose of eradication of innocent people. You can not possibly fathom it until you see it in all its cruel glory.

We Americans are guilty. We exploited the Native Americans for land. We displaced Africans to exploit for labor. We corralled Japanese in World War II, and dropped the atomic bomb, twice, killing innocents. We should indeed seek pardon and reparations for our sins. Often our reasons were not well justified. But Hitler’s final solution was not about land, resources, war, or even greed. This machination was effectively created to wipe this race of people off the planet as it’s primary goal. Extracting their riches and labor was simply a beneficial bi-product to the Third Reich. It was only here at Auschwitz staring at this incredible death factory that I could truly understand the power and energy of an intelligent and collective society using their natural gifts for evil.

I have often wondered how I would have fared in the Holocaust. It’s easy to think I might have resisted and joined the underground. Or perhaps hide or escape with help from friends. Or maybe choosing to survive I would have sacrificed my dignity and loyalty accepting a capo position. Without knowing my age, capabilities or social status, I believed there is truly no way to ascertain how I would have ended up by liberation in 1945… until today.

The German solution for the Jews was so incredibly efficient, so well planned, so strongly supported by so much of world society that left unstopped by geo-political hubris they would have surely finished what they started. The Nazis indiscriminately killed more than 3,000,000 of Poland’s Jews, over 90 percent. They killed more than 6,000,000 Jews overall decimating the Jewish population of Europe. The question of how I would have fared is simple. I would have died at the hands of the Nazis. If I had been one of the blessed, that man in jackboots would have simply pointed to me as I got off that train and it all would have been over reasonably quickly.

I am not one who easily gives up hope or tends to linger on the negative. There were some bright spots in today’s trip. First, it was relieving to see full crowds at Auschwitz today. I hope this museum is crowded every day for centuries to come. Second was the timing of the visit. Had the class gone at the beginning of the trip it would have set a hard tone for the week. But this Fordham group has bonded over the last several days. And it meant a lot to experience this sore on society’s body with good friends who show genuine love and concern for those around them.