Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Auschwitz Concentration Camp ~ Poland

Auschwitz . . . that dark word that calls to mind the horrific deeds done to the Jews and eventually extermination that we all learned about during the years of WW2.  Auschwitz . . . the largest of all concentration camps and whose main goal was focused on extermination of the Jewish race.  Auschwitz . . . the pain, sorrow and evil that we word encompasses . . . it was a trip I was determined to make while living in Germany and one I did not look forward to.

I had been warned to be prepared . . . "it is painful" they said . . . nothing could have prepared me for what I saw before my eyes and what I heard and read about the dreadful place . . .

(Cell "blocks" in Auschwitz I camp)
Mostly Auschwitz is seen as just an extermination camp, however it consisted of Auschwitz I (the original camp and prison originally constructed to hold Polish political prisoners), Auschwitz II–Birkenau (a combination concentration / extermination camp with a railroad running through the center and complete with four gas chambers/crematoriums), Auschwitz III–Monowitz (a labor camp to staff an IG Farben factory), and 45 satellite camps.  Auschwitz I contained a series of buildings to hold prisoners as well as facilitate human experimentation.  It was here that we learned of the sole purpose of one block was to experiment with making women sterile.  Mostly the subjects were tortured with inhumane experimentation with the final result of death.  In other blocks experimentation was done on children, mainly twins.  There was a hospital which meant sure death if one were to find him or herself there, a "death wall" were executions took place, dark prison cells were prisoners were left in the dark for weeks on end, starvation cells where they were left to starve to death and standing cells were there was only enough room for the prisoner to stand.  Were were told of hangings, of manual labor with little to eat and shown pictures of emaciated prisoners.

It was here in this camp (Auschwitz I) where the Holocaust Memorial and Museum are now held.  The gates to the camp reads Arbeit macht frei ("Work brings freedom").  It was in Auschwitz I, in one of the cell "blocks", that I stood before piles and piles of human hair with tears swimming in my eyes.  The hair was collected and used to make a certain type of fabric for soldiers socks as well as other useful items. It was here that I saw a room full of discarded shoes, children and adults alike . . .glasses . . toothbrush and shaving materials . . . human possessions.  Many of the victims were told that they were only being moved to a different location and therefore brought their few belongings with them only to have them stripped from them and sent back to the Germans.  It was here where the one surviving gas chamber and crematorium are located.  The chamber was dark and
quite out of respect for it's victims.  There was a single vase of flowers in the room for a memorial.  Several cut outs in the ceiling were proof of where the Zyklon B was dropped to the death of those inside.  In the adjacent room were two furnaces to burn the bodies. Unbelievable . . . it felt as if I were just kicked in the stomach . . . my heart was aching . . . how in the world could this have happened and only 70 years ago!
 (the luggage of hundreds of thousands of victims)

(electric fences surrounding Auschwitz I . . . we were told may people in both Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau would choose to end their lives by jumping into the electric fences than to go on with the torture they were being put through)

We next made our way to Auschwitz II-Birkenau, the largest of the camps and located very close to Auschwitz I.  Here is where the majority of the extermination of the Jews took place with the railroad running straight through the camp for easy access.  There were four gas chambers/crematorium held at this camp.  These were destroyed by the Nazi's on there way out of Auschwitz in an attempt to hide the crimes that were done here.  We were able to see the remains of these sites as well as some of the brick buildings set up for the women prisoners.  The men's barracks were mostly made of wood and therefore destroyed in the last 70 years but a few had been rebuilt in order for visitors to view the living conditions.  The size of the camp astounded me . . . so many buildings . . . so much barbed wire . . so much death . . .
 (train tracks through the center of Auschwitz II-Birkenau)
(memorial to the victims at Auschwitz II-Birkenau)

It is difficult to tell the exact amount of lives that Auschwitz claimed as there were not accurate ledgers near the end of the war.  Prisoners and victims no longer had their names or numbers taken down in registers, mass graves were ordered to be uncovered and the bodies burned as well as documents destroyed.  The best estimation that has been established over the years is that Auschwitz claimed approximately 1.1 million lives.  Approximately 1 in 6 Jews that died during the Holocaust took place in Auschwitz.  Other victims of this camp included non-Jewish Poles, Soviet POW's as well as 31,000 to 36,000 people from other nations.

(map of the many places throughout Europe that prisoners and victims were brought from to Auschwitz)

It was a difficult visit, yet I believe a very important one.  As George Santayana put it "The one who does not remember history is bound to live through it again."  Clayton and I bought two books at the camp site that recall the memories of two victims of Auschwitz who made it through the Holocaust and went on to record their stories.  I am currently reading Hope is the Last to Die by Halina Birenbaum and would definately recommend it.  Halina was an 11 year old Polish Jew who spent the occupation in the Warsaw Ghetto and in the concentration camps at Majdanek, Auschwitz, Ravensbruck and Neustad-Glewe where she was freed in 1945 at the age of 15 years old.  That anyone should have to go through what this little girl went through blows my mind.  The other book that was highly recommended by our tour guide is This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen written by Tadeusz Borowski.

If you are planning a trip to Krakow and Auschwitz I would suggest taking the tour with one of the many tourist info shops throughout Krakow.  We were originally going to drive ourselves there since we had a rental car and just pay to get into the museum.  I am glad we went with the tour company as it was only about $30 and included the transportation there and a guide for both Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II.  Our guide was very knowledgeable and passionate about the subject.  There were about 30 of us to one group but we were provided with headsets allowing us to hear what was said though we were in different rooms or parts of a cell "block". 

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Berlin, Germany

Berlin . . . who hasn't heard of Berlin??  Such a famous city full of history, art and uniqueness.  When we first moved to Germany Clayton and I had decided visiting Berlin was a MUST!!  After the first year went by and we hadn't fit Berlin into the traveling schedule we decided to set an official date for the tour.  Looking at our schedules we had decided to do Berlin in March . . . March 14th-16th to be exact!  I hit our Lonely Planet's Germany book as a resource as well as my buddy Ann who lived in Berlin for some 13 years.  We decided to drive as I didn't want to leave my car down at the train station for three days and I think the gas ended up being about the same price as train tickets anyway.  After a slight mishap on the hotel, that goodness I got that worked out and got my 300 euro back, we booked a couple nights at the Holiday Inn Express which was within walking distance to several underground stations and had a pretty good rate!

Our first evening in Berlin found us walking all the way from our hotel to the downtown sector and the Topography of Terror.  It actually wasn't too terrible of a walk . . . but we decided to go with the underground trains the rest of our stay.  The remnant of the wall running along the Topography of Terror museum is the longest stretch of the outer wall that was never demolished. The Topography of Terror is a small museum on the site where the buildings of the Nazi headquarters for the Gestapo and the SS were located during the Nazi regime. The buildings were largely destroyed by allied bombings in 1945 and were further demolished after the war.  Throughout our stay in Berlin we happened upon several sections of the wall where we least expected them.  I badly wanted a "chunk" to take home and actually found some for sale at a tourist shop close to Checkpoint Charlie . . . they wanted quite a bit of money for these little tiny fragments so I decided to get one cheaper.  Clayton was able to dislodge a crumbling piece about the size of a quarter . . . it was falling apart.  We later found a different tourist store on the outskirts of town where I was able to get a reasonable sized "chunk" for a fair price.  Even came with a certificate of authenticity :-)  I guess we will never know the difference if it isn't real anyway . . .
We  found out the hard way that the "thing to do" is to urinate on sections of the wall . . . I decided to squeeze myself in between two sections of the wall to get a really cool picture.  As Clayton was adjusting my camera I smelled something sour . . . I leaned into the wall in front of me to get a better smell . . . URINE!!  Nasty urine smell greeted my nostrils!!  Later we encountered two of the male species walking up to segments of the wall in broad daylight, unzipping their garments and urinating on the wall . . . is this really what is suppose to be happening??
As I am sitting at the computer writing this blog post I just realized that we never saw the East Side Gallery . . . the most famous section of the wall and covered in paintings.  Sigh . . . I guess we will just have to take another trip back . . .
For those of you who are not too familiar with the significance of the Berlin Wall (I really didn't know much about it so I did some research before I went) basically it was put in place by the Soviets after WW2.  Berlin was divided between the Russians, French, British and United States.  The west side of Berlin was under the Allied control while the east side was under the Soviet reign (the German Democratic Republic).  The Wall served to prevent the massive emigration and defection that marked Germany and the communist Eastern Bloc during the post-World War II period. It came to symbolize the "Iron Curtain" that separated Western Europe and the Eastern Bloc during the Cold War. Before the construction of the wall over 3.5 million people had fled East Berlin into West Berlin and from there throughout western Europe  . . . thus the wall was built.  Those trying to escape from East Berlin into West Berlin after the construction of the wall were shot . . . 5,000 attempted the escape, 100 were killed in the process . . .
The wall was brought down in 1990 and paved the way for the reunification of Germany.

Our next stop was Checkpoint Charlie . . . it was a tourist trap.  There was a little shack set up in the middle of the road with some dressed up officers out in front that would charge you for a picture.  That is all.  The original shack is actually in one of the museums in Berlin . . . this was not the original but it did symbolize what was there.  It was the crossing point from West Berlin into East Berlin during the Cold War.  Here we found trinkets, post cards, expensive rubble from the wall.  We also found a neat little photo booth from which we obtained our own little souvenir from Berlin :-) Our photo booth experience was the best part of Checkpoint Charlie.

We also ate the first decent Chinese meal in the last year a half . . . . it was delightful!  We happened upon Peking Ente while walking back to our hotel on the first night.  "Should we try it??" we thought.  After being disappointed time and again with the Chinese food in Germany, do we need another disappointment?? . . . but I was really, really craving Chinese food . . . and we wanted a good meal . . . in we went.  Oh! What delight was the wanton soup! The pork friend rice!!  The spicy chicken with veggies!  It did not disappoint . . . we were only sad that the only good Chinese restaurant so far in Germany is 5.5 hours away . . .

The next day we found ourselves at the Berlin Zoo (and as stated before we ended up riding the underground train system everywhere this day . . . it was only about 6 euros per person for the day pass . . not bad).  The Berlin Zoo is the oldest and best known zoo in Germany, opening it's gates back in 1844.  With over 1,500 species and just about 20,500 animals it is said that the Berlin Zoo is the most comprehensive collection of species in the world . . . and only cost about 20 euros per person for both the Zoo and Aquarium entrance fees.  The first living thing I saw upon entering the zoo through the lion gate was the Indian Rhinoceros, or Rhinoceros Unicornis.  I felt like a child . . . watching Land Before Time . . only in real life!!  This thing looked like a dinosaur!!  It had big plates of skin covering it's body . . . and a large horn!!  I had only seen my first Rhinoceros the year before in the Frankfurt Zoo and it definitely did not look like this one!  Clayton had to pry me away after many exclamations of "oh my!!" and "this is amazing!"  He reminded me we had much more to see in just a few hours of time. We ended up spending most of our day at the Berlin Zoo . . . so many fascinating creatures that I had never seen in real life before!  We watched hippos playing in the water, hands on experience in the petting zoo, polar bears pacing, an arctic wolf pack running, an Asiatic Black Bear up close and personal and lions eating their nightly meal. They had
orangutans, a massive gorilla flexing his muscles and every type of large cat you can imagine.  There is also a three story aquarium attached to the zoo complex that we enjoyed thoroughly!  I seriously could have stayed there the entire day!!  If you love animals and you are visiting Berlin then the Zoo is a must!  (it is always a little sad though knowing that these animals do not belong in captivity . . . but it is also the only way that many of us will ever see them in real life . . . and the zoo was very well maintained with large areas for the animals . . . quite different than the Frankfurt zoo)

The Brandenburg Gate . . . a must see in Berlin (and frankly it is a little hard to miss it).  The Brandenburg Gate, built in the 18th century, was once one of 18 entrance gates into the city.  It was badly damaged during WW2 and was only recently restored in 2000-2002.  During the years of the cold wall the Brandenburg Gate was isolated and inaccessible being so close to the Berlin Wall.  The gate itself is beautiful and is crowned with the winged goddess of victory riding a chariot borne by four horses.  We ended up seeing the gate at dusk, middle of the day and at dusk once again.
(Brandenburg Gate)

The Holocaust Memorial, downtown Berlin, is dedicated to the Jewish victims murdered during the Holocaust.  There are 2,711 concrete slabs of various heights arranged over 19,000 square meters to "produce and uneasy, confusing atmosphere, and the whole sculpture aims to represent a supposedly ordered system that has lost touch with human reason."
(Holocaust Memorial)

Our last day in Berlin found us cold, wind blown and traveling through some unsavory parts of town.  We first headed down to the flea market at Mauerpark in the Prenzlauer Berg District.  According to my book about Berlin from Lonely Planet and several websites this flea market was supposedly packed with tourists and Berliners bargaining for the best antiques and furniture . . and it was only on Sunday's!  I was so excited!  The closer we got to the flea market, however, I noticed more and more people headed in the opposite direct and empty handed.  I found out why.  The "flea market" consisted of two small rows of vendors selling junk . . . and I usually find at least one little gem in the midst of junk . . . it was JUNK!  (it very well could have been the weather that kept the good ones at home . . . maybe . . )
We then headed down to Museum Island were five of the big museums of Berlin are located.  We really only wanted to see one in particular, the Pergamon museum.  One of the Docs I work with suggested this museum and according to my handy dandy Lonely Planet book the museum was described as "the one museum in Berlin that should not be missed.  A feast of classical Greek, Babylonia, Roman, Islamic and Middle Eastern art and architecture, it will amaze and enlighten you."  What we missed in the book was the part that said "note that some sections may be closed while the museum is undergoing renovation of the next five years."  Those sections happened to be the three major collections . . . we were pretty bummed.  The Pergamon Altar from 165 B.C. is located here as well as the Ishtar Gate from Babylon during the reign of King Nebuchadnezzar II (604-562 BC).  I am pretty sure they were a part of the closed sections . . . and
the line was ridiculous!  We skipped the museum and instead did a little visit to the Berliner Dom.  The Berliner Dom is a neo-Renaissance Cathedral built in 1905.  It also serves as a museum and concert hall including a crypt were dozens of royals are buried in elaborate tombs.  It was indeed beautiful!

We had some time left in Berlin . . but considering the weather (miserable) and the 5.5 hour drive ahead of us we decided to hit the road.  It was a super fun trip though and I wouldn't mind going back and seeing some of the sites we couldn't make it to . . the Pergamon museum, Schloss Charlottenburg, Reichstag building and the East Side Gallery of the Berlin Wall to name a few.