Chapter 4: Oskar Schindler, The Black Madonna and Homecoming
Since Thursday was to be the most physically exhausting day of the whole 'holiday', everyone made sure they had a full breakfast. The two small families were to spend the whole day walking around various parts of Krakow. The first call, after breakfast was to the booking agent where they had arranged their previous excursions. Anton booked six places on one of that afternoon's walking tours of the Jewish quarter and Oskar Schindler's factory. This also included admission to the Synagogue. This, of course, set a time frame for their lunch. Once they had booked their afternoon activities, they headed down to the river and strolled along the bank for a while before heading towards Wawel Castle. They arrived just as an English-speaking guide was assembling a group to walk around the buildings. Although they were not part of the group, they tagged along, staying within earshot of the guide. It did help that he had a particularly penetrating voice, so they could hear every word. He explained that the castle was commissioned by King Casimir III and was the largest castle in Poland. He also explained Krakow's role as the capital of the country. While guiding the group he also talked about the various different architectural styles displayed around the site, and the chequered history of the human occupation of Wawel Hill from the Middle Ages to the present day.
By the time the two families had finished following the tour group round Wawel Castle, midday was approaching. Once again Anton was asked to locate an eatery nearby where they could have lunch. This time he took them to a restaurant close to the castle and near to the assembly point for the walk around the Jewish Quarter. Since it was just on twelve o'clock when they arrived, they were quickly found a table for six.
Rich and Grace perused the menu, which had several tempting and substantial dishes on it.
"I know this is education, but we are on holiday." said Angela as she decided on one of the meat dishes.
Rich, completely independently chose the same dish. After a short while, the food arrived.
"Did you two co-ordinate your orders?" asked Kevin, "You're eating the same food as each other again."
"No." said Rich, "We just happened to order the same thing. You should try it. It's delicious."
"There does seem to be a connection developing between you two." commented Anton, "You've even ordered the same lunch."
"That was pure coincidence." said Angela. "I guess our tastes in food are very similar."
Once they had finished off the meal with desserts and coffee, and made themselves comfortable, it was nearly time to stroll towards the meeting place for the walking tour of Krakow's Jewish Quarter.
"I hope we can all still walk after that repast." commented Anton, "That place is good value, but the portions are not exactly small."
"I think this will be a stroll rather than a route march." said Rich, "After all, as you said when you booked it, it caters for all ages. I guess we'll be avoiding meat tomorrow, it being Friday."
"Also, we'll be having lunch at a place organised by the coach operator." said Kevin, "We'll be in Częstochowa this time tomorrow."
"I hope there's a good chippy there." said Rich, somewhat irreverently.
Angela smiled. She knew that Rich was joking.
"I don't think they go in for chip shops here." said Anton, smirking, "Fish and chips is a somewhat British thing."
They met their guide by the nearest part of the riverside to the Jewish quarter and walked into the area. As they were shown round, the guide explained the history of the Jews in Europe, up to the Nazi invasion with particular reference to Poland and Krakow. They then visited the factory, which, at the time of the German occupation was run by Oskar Schindler. The guide explained his part in employing Jews and protecting them from the SS. Although he was a member of the Nazi Party, he managed to save over 1,200 Jewish people from the concentration camps by the simple expedient of moving his entire workforce to a new factory in the Sudetenland, which was to become part of Czechoslovakia. As a result of this, the guide mentioned, he was honoured by the Jewish people and is the only member of the Nazi Party to be buried on Mount Zion in Jerusalem. The afternoon's activities concluded with a visit to one of the synagogues in that quarter of Krakow. Following a well-deserved dinner after all that walking, Rich, Angela and their parents spent the rest of the evening in a bar, quietly drinking and discussing what they had seen and heard that day, particularly the role of Oskar Schindler in the rescue of 1,200 Jews. Although the day had given them a lot to think about, they slept well in the knowledge that they had a couple of long coach journeys the next day.
The whole of Friday was taken up with the day excursion to Częstochowa. They were to see one of the most famous icons of Western Christianity, a picture of the Virgin Mary and the Child Jesus. After their breakfast, the two families assembled in the hotel foyer. Shortly, the coach arrived and collected them for the journey. They selected six seats in three pairs, with Angela's parents in front, Rich's at the back and the two young people in between. Once they were under way, and the guide had explained the day's timetable, the passengers were left to relax for the rest of the journey. As they approached Częstochowa, the guide started to describe the history of the icon, how it was believed to have been discovered by St Helena in the fourth century. He also mentioned that there is a story that it was created by St Luke himself on a cedar table top in our Lord's home. What was undisputed was that it was severely damaged by the Hussites in 1430 and that complete restoration proved impossible. A striking feature of the picture was the two scars the Hussites left on Our Lady's cheek, which could not be covered up because of the nature of the materials used in the original paintwork.
Once the tour group had arrived in Częstochowa, they were taken into the precincts of the Jasna Góra monastery. They were escorted found the buildings with the guide describing monastic life. They eventually reached the basilica and joined the queue to view the Black Madonna icon. Silence was expected and no-one spoke above a whisper. When they eventually saw the icon, it was Rich, who made a comment.
"Those scars on the Virgin's cheek look almost like tear tracks." he whispered.
"Perhaps that's why they couldn't be repaired." whispered Angela, "That was remarkably perceptive of you."
After their visit to the Black Madonna shrine they enjoyed a light, late lunch at a local restaurant before joining the coach for their return journey to Krakow by a different route. On the coach, they discussed what they had seen in Częstochowa.
"I think that picture had quite an effect on you." said Angela, "You looked so thoughtful when you were looking at it and, apart from that comment about the tear tracks, you've been very quiet since."
"Yes, it did." said Rich, "That picture is at least 1,700 years old and may even date right back to the time of Christ. It's been through a lot in the intervening centuries. I'm not sure I believe the story about it being painted by St Luke himself, but that is a possibility."
"One of the stories about the scars is that they were made by a Hussite swordsman who was trying to destroy the picture," said Anton, "But he was struck dead before he could strike a third time."
"It seems the picture has almost supernatural powers." said Rich, "It certainly have me an unfamiliar feeling."
"That's a remarkable admission from someone who used to think he was following 'the music of the Devil'." said Angela.
"It is." said Rich, "Meeting you out here, has transformed me. My whole outlook on life seems to be changing."
"In what way?" asked Angela.
"Everything seems brighter somehow." said Rich, "I seem to be able to see a way ahead. I no longer regard next Monday's meeting with dread, and I feel I've found a genuine friend in you."
"Despite what happened when we first met?" remarked Angela.
"That's dead and buried in the past." said Rich, "We've forgiven each other. Neither of us is the person the other imagined them to be last October. We really prejudged each other, and were so wrong. You've shown yourself to be a sweet, gentle, accommodating, affectionate person, and you've not so much penetrated as demolished my defences."
"And you've turned out to be an interesting and intelligent young man, who thinks and feels deeply about things." said Angela, "What's so good, is that our cultural tastes seem to be very similar. Incidentally, you sent another postcard to Alo when we visited the Basilica of Divine Mercy. What did you say on it?"
"Only that my 'Angel of Death' had become my 'Angel of Life'." said Rich.
"That's so lovely!" said Angela, smiling, and kissed Rich's cheek, "It's becoming plain to me that I mean more to you than just an acquaintance, you've chanced to meet on holiday."
"You're a lot more to me than that." said Rich, "I really believe we've discovered each other. I know I shouldn't be asking this, but can I think of you as my girlfriend?"
"Of course you can," said Angela, "If your feelings are genuine and true. I was beginning to think along those lines about you before we left Nürnburg."
"Thank you!" said Rich, "It seems we feel the same way about each other. Incidentally, on another completely different subject, have you given any thought to what you're going to do after college?"
"If I get good 'A' levels," said Angela, "I'm hoping to go up to Cambridge University. And you?"
"I've already started the application process." said Rich, "It now depends on my results at the end of the year."
At this juncture, the coach halted for a while for a 'comfort stop'. Rich and Angela took advantage of the fact that the vehicle was stationary to stand up and seal their decision about their relationship with a proper kiss. Rich did feel slightly guilty about this PDA, but realised that, with the arrival in the group of Gavin, his relationship with Grace would probably be a lost cause anyway.
"It appears that you two have decided your future might lie with each other." said Anton, "I've no objections. You do appear to be a couple completely in tune with each other."
The group returned to the city of Krakow in the late afternoon. This left time for some packing before a fish dinner. They managed to order, with Anton's help something coming close to British 'fish and chips'. Thus fortified, they strolled round the centre of Krakow for a while Before, as on the previous evening, Anton found a reasonably quiet bar for their evening discussion over drinks. The day's 'pilgrimage' to Częstochowa had given Rich a lot of food for thought. He was quite quiet for the first part of the evening. This did not pass unnoticed.
"Are you okay?" asked Angela, "You've been very quiet since dinner."
"I was thinking." said Rich.
"What about?" asked Angela.
I was thinking about life, beliefs, religion and my own faith, or lack of it." said Rich.
"That's very deep." said Angela, "Have you come to any conclusions yet?"
"After growing up through a desert of unbelief and doubt, even dabbling in the Satanic side of things at times," said Rich, "I'm beginning to believe that, about 2,000 years ago, there was actually a man called Jesus, who set out the moral code and basis in faith that we call Christianity, and that he sacrificed his own life to save humanity. I'm also just beginning to believe that his conception was, to say the least, unusual, hence the devotion to his mother, Mary. I'm also coming to believe he was indeed God's own son."
"Wow!" exclaimed Angela, "You really have been thinking. No wonder you've been so quiet. I was beginning to think I'd upset you somehow."
"It's nothing like that." said Rich, "You haven't upset me, but you have upturned my whole attitude to life. You, no doubt, remember me saying, when we were on the coach, that everything seemed brighter somehow."
"I do remember that." said Angela.
"I'm starting to really believe that the 'brightness' could be the light of Christ showing me the way ahead." said Rich.
"What have you two suddenly started talking about?" asked Anton. "You've both been so quiet since we arrived in this bar."
"I believe Rich has had a 'road to Damascus' moment." said Angela, "He's been thinking very deeply about what he's seen in and around Krakow, particularly the "Black Madonna' icon that we saw today."
"That's wonderful!" interjected Kevin, "We've been worried about his beliefs, or lack of them, ever since he started deafening himself with that heavy metal music. Grace persuaded him that metal music wasn't the whole world, but that left him adrift with very little to believe in. I think Grace's influence was both good and bad for him. Incidentally, Richard, how are things with Grace?"
"If I hadn't found such a true companion in Angela," said Rich, "That would have been rather a sore subject. Let's put it this way. Grace has struck up a very close friendship with a new guy from Cardiff. I have no doubt that he's been capitalising on that friendship in my absence."
"What makes you think that?" asked Kevin.
"All the while I was hung over and semi-conscious in the plane back from Morocco," said Rich, "Gavin, that's the new guy, was engaged in a heart-to-heart conversation with Grace. It's clear that she has a calming effect on him, and finds him attractive. I'm seeing them on Monday, and I expect we'll be explaining our new relationships to each other. If I hadn't found Angela, I would have been dreading the meeting."
Rich gave Angela a tender cuddle. They looked into each other's eyes, kissed and smiled.
"I guess that's for the best." said Kevin, "So, what began as a somewhat abrasive meeting last October, has developed, over the last couple of weeks, into a probable future relationship. That can only be good."
"I think you've impressed my dad." said Rich, "I can see a bright future for us if all goes as hoped on Monday."
"When you meet with Grace on Monday," said Angela, "Would you like me to come?"
"Of course!" said Rich, "I expect Grace will be with Gavin, also Alo and Mini will be there."
"What will they be there for?" asked Angela.
"To try to mediate between us if things go 'pear shaped'." said Rich.
"Is that likely?" asked Angela.
"Not now that I've got such a good thing going with you." said Rich, "As I said earlier, I see a bright future for us and I don't dread the meeting any more. Right now, I'm feeling really happy and totally at peace with the world."
With this, the group left the bar and headed back to their hotel for their last night in Poland. In the morning, after breakfast, they finished packing and checked out. They were allocated a safe place to leave their luggage.
They spent the remainder of the morning having a last look around central Krakow. They visited one or two of the smaller Catholic Churches in the city before Anton found a restaurant where they could enjoy lunch. After this it was time to collect their bags and arrange a minibus taxi to take them all to the airport.
Before they left the UK, Rich had arranged for Alo to pick them up. Once they reached the gate. He texted Alo to confirm the expected on-time departure of the flight. He also asked how many people could be seated in the vehicle. On receiving the reply, that there were three seats across the front and another four in the back, he offered a lift to their home for Angela and her parents, since, fortuitously they lived only about a quarter of a mile from Rich's home. Alo confirmed that he would be happy to take them.
The flight back to Bristol was uneventful. Angela and Rich spent most of it in deep conversation about what they had learned about each other, only pausing to have a look downwards at the ground when there was a break in the clouds.
Once they had passed through the formalities of Passport Control, baggage reclaim and customs, Rich and Angela led the way, as Rich would definitely recognise the tall ginger headed figure of Alo. As they emerged into the arrival funnel, the pair were glancing around, looking into each other's eyes, and grinning like Cheshire cats. Alo saw them before they saw him. He intercepted them.
"Wow!" exclaimed Alo, "You two really do look like a couple. When did you meet each other?"
"On the first Tuesday in Nürnburg." said Rich, "We've really got to know each other since then. We think of ourselves as a couple now."
By this time, the two pairs of parents had caught up with their offspring and the group of seven were led by Alo out to the car park to board his van. Rich and Angela sat in the front, while their parents made themselves comfortable in the seats Alo had installed in the back of the vehicle. On the way, Alo updated Rich and Angela on the state of the developing friendship between Gavin and Grace. As he explained the situation, it became abundantly clear that a permanent change of partners had taken place. Grace was now Gavin's girlfriend and, on present showing, Alo commented, it looked as if Angela was now Rich's girlfriend. Thus, a chance meeting following a joking remark about a plastic duck had changed the course of four lives.