Friday, September 4, 2015

Auschwitz and Birkenau

I was looking forward to visiting these two camps in Poland and I'm glad I went. Both have been established as memorials to the millions of Jews and others who were killed by the Nazis in World War II. Walking through the narrow corridors of Auschwitz and seeing the grim reminders of the dead were memorable.

We heard about the overloaded trains arriving at Birkenau. The healthy men were selected to live a little longer than the women, children and old men who walked immediately to the gas chambers they were led to believe were showers after their long and crowded journey from all over Europe. We stood in the very spot at Birkenau where the selection process took place. We walked through the gas chamber and the crematorium.

My husband Art took these photos at Auschwitz. Those Jews killed thought they were simply being relocated when they got on the trains. They brought their most essential items from home. When the camp was liberated at the end of the war, the soldiers found the items.


Shoes of children


Medical devices

Household goods


One of my distant relatives?

Shoes of adults

Personal sundries

The "black wall". Prisoners considered enemies faced this wall and were shot in the head. The smaller wall was erected so the brick wall behind it would not be damaged by bullet holes. The shooting was done by SS officers and the bodies were removed by Jewish prisoners.

Auschwitz had been a military barracks prior to being a camp for prisoners. Birkenau, however, was built specifically as a death camp as the number of prisoners exceeded the capacity of Auschwitz.

Birkenau layout

Memorial plaque

The long walk to the crematorium, alongside prisoners' housing

 Remnants of housing

Sleeping structures for female prisoners -four to a pallet

I have some thoughts.
  • The number of people killed - Jews and otherwise - was enormous. But human beings have done terrible things to each other throughout history; the massacres during the Holocaust are not unique. I especially remember My Lai, in Vietnam. Art and I visited there in 2005. The number of people massacred by American soldiers is much smaller, but the memorial there is powerful and unforgettable. Here are three photos of that place.

  • The memorials at both Auschwitz and Birkenau are clean. Was that the case when they were full of death?
  • Visitors to the camps yesterday toured in groups of about 30. Everyone wore a headset to listen to their guide. So the memorials were quiet places except for the voices of the guides. Were they quiet when they were full of prisoners and the dying?
  • Art took many photos, but none of the gas chamber and crematorium ovens. I wanted to ask why but I didn't.
  • The prisoners arrived at Auschwitz and Birkenau by railroad car. People undoubtedly knew what was going on. How many said anything? If I know of a wrong that's happening and I don't say anything - out of fear or disinterest - am I participating in some way?
  • As we were walking to the bus, we were surrounded by teenagers wearing white shirts. They were visiting from Israel. One of our travel companions, Tom, commented that they are an "f*** you" to the Nazis - two generations later, the Jews survive.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

On the road to Pustevny - a history lesson

Our group traveled by bus today from Prague (largest city in the Czech Republic) to Pustevny (tiny place on the top of a mountain). It was 92 degrees yesterday in Prague. Today it is 52 and foggy in Pustevny. I love it! Most of the drive was through country that looks a lot like where we live, in the Pacific Northwest.

During the time of communism in Czechoslovakia there was a baby boom. To accommodate the growing population apartments were built. They were gray. Once communism was no longer the system, many of the buildings were painted.

During our drive, Katarina talked about the history of this area. It's over a thousand years of conquerors, brief periods of independence, then more invasions. The Nazis took over before World War II, and after the war Communism was put in place. It finally ended in 1989 with the Velvet Revolution. Katarina's parents are about my age; they were involved in the protests of the 1960s that culminated in the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Warsaw nations in 1968. I remember the events since the 60s only vaguely. You know, the "behind the Iron Curtain" stuff. 

Some of our group took a walk from our hotel. These are Art's shots:

During dinner we were entertained by a troupe of Czech musicians and dancers.

And here's our room for the night. Mind your head, Art!

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Our travel group tours in Prague

We've found good, inexpensive places to eat! Here's lunch from yesterday, at a pho place a couple of blocks from our hotel.

We've walked nine miles since yesterday afternoon with our Rick Steves travel group. Yesterday we explored Old Town and today we took the subway and a tram to visit New Town across the river. I took all kinds of pictures but most did not turn out because of the crowds. I'll post a few here anyway.

The first four were taken last night. After a walking tour through our neighborhood and Prague's colorful Old Town Square, we continued to the Josefov neighborhood and learned about the rich heritage and enduring troubles of Prague's Jews.  The group walked across the Charles Bridge to a restaurant in New Town. It's a memorable place, the bridge: street musicians; prostrate beggars; entwined couples; and statues. Plus tourist and locals enjoying the hot summer night.

In spite of the crowds, we felt completely safe. Our guide Katerina Svobododa told us that there are no dangerous neighborhoods, but to be careful of pickpockets.

Today we took public transportation (the metro subway and tram) to the Prague Castle. Originally used by kings, the complex has been expanded over the centuries in varying architectural styles. It is now used by the Czech president.

I admit I am already "all churched out."

This activity was a real temptation but we successfully resisted it.

We rode Segways several years ago in downtown Seattle. They're easy to ride, and fun. Not sure how it would all work out on cobblestones, though. Art says, "Probably better than thin-soled shoes."

And here is today's lunch. Art ordered a salad with shrimp and I had ricotta-stuffed ravioli.

Prague is a beautiful, interesting, historical city. I commented to Katarina that when I was younger, "Eastern Europe" was behind the Iron Curtain and I didn't know much about it. Like "darkest Africa" - it was there, but out of sight. We're lucky to be seeing it now.

Monday, August 31, 2015

A day on our own in Prague

We arrived here two days before our tour group meets up to make sure we've recovered from jet lag before we have to listen to instructions from our guide. So today we wandered in Old Town Prague. I thought we were going to explore the Jewish Quarter, but when we saw the ticket line and the hourlong wait, we decided to walk around town instead. We made our way to the Vitava River, which runs through Prague. We found some shade under a tree (heat wave - high of 91 today) and watched the boats.

Art loves using maps to figure out where we are and where we're going. He got us to a gelato shop a few blocks from our hotel. If you had a late breakfast and it's time for a light lunch, gelato is a good choice! I was too busy indulging to take a picture of my coffee gelato.

Three hours later we took another walk and found a delightful Italian restaurant. Dinner? Fabulous tomato soup and a goat cheese and strawberry salad to share.

Here in Prague, there are little restaurants on just about every block in Old Town. If you go for a walk - even a short one - you'll find something to eat. The ground floors of the buildings are commercial establishments and the upper ones are lodging. What a walkable city!

In addition to being the map reader, Art is the keeper of the money. He's currently carrying dollars, euros and Czech korunas. A koruna is worth about an American nickel and Art has both coins and currency and he appears to know what he is doing when he is paying - doesn't have to translate (20 to 1). He says he doesn't have to worry about it. He just pays them what they want! When we leave the Czech Republic on Wednesday he will exchange the remaining korunas for euros - the currency used in Poland, the next country we'll visit.

I note with satisfaction that tap water is safe to drink here - on our last three international forays (Turkey 2009, Ecuador 2012 and Kenya 2013), that wasn't the case. Love it!

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Getting to Prague

Our travel day was surprisingly easy. Our friend Lillian gave us a ride to the airport. Check in and security were a breeze. The British Airways flight left on time at 2:00 p.m. We ate dinner within an hour and breakfast about six hours later. At London Heathrow we were loaded into buses rather than ascending a jetway; apparently all the gates were full of other planes at Terminal 5. Walked down a hall at Terminal 5, descended a flight of stairs and were loaded onto another bus for Terminal 3. For all the departures, the gate assignment isn't announced until 20 minutes before boarding, so passengers wait in a retail/restaurant area. What a good revenue-generating idea!

The flight to Prague took about an hour and a half. Green countryside with rolling hills and scattered villages with red tile roofs on the houses. The taxi drive to our hotel in Old Town Prague took 20 minutes. A beautiful drive into the city, very clean.

Here's Hastal Hotel, our home for the first four nights. It's a Rick Steves recommendation and where our group will meet up in two days.

We unpacked and took a two-hour nap, then roused ourselves for a walk to find dinner. Lots of sidewalk cafes with varying types of food. We ended up at a Czech place. We asked for water and it arrived in a carafe with two empty glasses and one filled with ice! A first for us.

I ordered pork and Art's choice was beef goulash and dumplings. We split our orders and shared.

I heard several languages being spoken around me, none recognizable. Fortunately, the servers all spoke English. I learned my first Czech word: thank you is Dekuji (dyeh-kwee). Our server grinned when I finally got it right. I'll put it on a post-it note and carry it around with me. A little effort goes a long way with words, I've found.

Here we are at dinner, not even looking too jet lagged. 

We have managed to stay up until 8:30 (it's now 11:30 a.m. in Seattle, where we live).  Except for our two-hour nap this afternoon, we've been awake for 27 hours.