September 30, 2018

Auschwitz: The Hardest Post We Have Ever Written

by Steve and Rosemary

If you have been following this blog, you know that we like to write about the fun we are having and the interesting sights we get to see. This is not one of those posts. Before reading this, please be aware that some of the things discussed and shown might be very disturbing to read. They were certainly disturbing for us to see in person. Some of these are pictures that we took, and some are copies of photos taken at the time.

During World War II, the Nazis made a conscious effort to exterminate certain classes of people who they felt "contaminated" Germany and the rest of Europe. In order to do so, they set up a number of concentration camps where millions of people were murdered and their bodies either buried in mass graves or cremated.

About 90 minutes outside of Krakow, Auschwitz is one of the most infamous of these camps, where over 1.1 million people died. The camp is now a museum both to honor the dead and to remind people of the atrocities that took place there. The memorial's mission statement is "Remembrance – Awareness – Responsibility".

At the entrance to the camp is a sign that translates to "Work sets you free", an attempt by the Nazis to make the prisoners believe that they would be working towards their freedom. Nothing, of course, could have been further from the truth. Only death would set them free.

"Arbeit macht frei"

Immediately past the gate are barbed wire fences that have been electrified to prevent escapes.

As a deterrent, the corpses of those killed trying to escape were put on display for the other prisoners to see. Sometimes, those who tried to revolt or escape were hanged in a public area.

The buildings here were originally army barracks. If you didn't know what happened here, the place would seem normal and peaceful.

Every morning, the prisoners were marched out for inspection, while an orchestra made up of fellow prisoners played. The music helped the prisoners keep in step, making it easier for the guards to count them.

Although the extermination of Jews is well known, there were other groups targeted by the Nazi regime as well. Otto Thierack, Minister of Justice for the Third Reich, said, "We must free the German nation of Poles, Russians, Jews and Gypsies." The Nazis deported about 1.3 million people to Auschwitz, among them:

     1,100,000 Jews
        140,000 Poles
          23,000 Gypsies
          15,000 Soviet prisoners
          25,000 prisoners from other ethnic groups

The Nazis considered these people "subhumans," worthwhile only as disposable slave labor, if that.

Much of what we know about the concentration camps comes from the Nazis' own documentation of events; they kept meticulous records and took many photos. They were intent on documenting everything they did, because at some point Hitler wanted to set up a museum about the extermination of the Jewish race.

Upon being deported from their home countries, the prisoners were often told that they would be moved into new homes. They were instructed to bring with them their most valued possessions and to mark their suitcases with their names so that they could retrieve their things at a later date. Thousands of suitcases and many tons of personal possessions were found in the camps after the war, and are now displayed at the memorial.

Suitcases brought by the prisoners, with their names and addresses for "future retrieval".
Upon arrival at the camp, the prisoners were sorted by gender, age and the ability to work. The handicapped were immediately put to death, but the evidence of their existence remains.

Crutches and artificial limbs of the prisoners.
The Nazis stored the prisoners' property in a huge warehouse. Everything had potential value, whether it could be redistributed, sold, or recycled in some way. In addition to eyeglasses and shoes, there were all the other things the prisoners had imagined they would be able to use: combs, shaving brushes, tools, kitchenware, clothes, toys.

Note the small shoes of children at the bottom of the photo.
Upon liberating the camp, the Russians found over two tons of human hair from the shaved heads of murdered women and children, which the Nazis used to make into clothing. There is a huge room filled with hair, in braids, ponytails, and curls, various colors, sometimes streaked with gray. Out of respect for the deceased, photos of the hair - their only physical remains - are not permitted. It is heartbreaking to see.

The Nazis took photos of the prisoners who were assigned to work, and recorded their dates of birth, dates they were sent to the camp, and dates of death. The halls of one of the buildings are lined with these photos, men on one side and women on the other. We were struck by the picture of a woman who, for some reason, seemed to be smiling. Perhaps she still believed that hard work would set her free. With the ever-increasing number of people pouring into the camp, the Nazis decided that photography was too expensive, and they started tattooing the prisoners.

Did she still have hope?
The SS shot thousands of political prisoners against a wall between two buildings. Although torn down by the guards before the camp was liberated, it was reconstructed after the war and made into a memorial.

It is disheartening to know that many doctors were enthusiastic Nazis. Both men and women were used as subjects of medical experiments, which often led to death or severe health problems. Doctors were often the ones who selected new arrivals for work or death.

The prisoners selected for death were told they could take showers and delouse themselves, in order to lull them into compliance. After a long, miserable journey in cattle cars, getting clean sounded like a good idea. Many of them had brought their own soap and towels. They were led into airtight rooms where poisoned gas was dropped from vents in the ceiling. Afterwards, their bodies were taken to the crematorium for disposal.

The SS Kommandant of the camp was Rudolf Hoess, a man called the worst mass murderer in history, responsible for the deaths of over 2.5 million people in his career. Hoess and his family lived in a house at Auschwitz, just yards from the crematorium. Mrs. Hoess furnished her home with possessions stolen from the prisoners. It is hard to imagine the mindset of Hoess, his wife and children, living so close to where thousands of people were killed every day.

At Auschwitz, 700 prisoners could be killed at a time and their bodies cremated. But the prisoners were arriving faster than they could be killed, so Hoess, a master of organization, established a second, larger camp at Birkenau, three kilometers from Auschwitz. Called Auschwitz II, it had the capability to kill 2,000 people at a time in a matter of minutes. Burning the bodies took longer, and at times there were more victims than the crematoriums could handle, so they were burned in open pits.

Prisoners were brought to Birkenau by train, the tracks leading right into the camp so as not to arouse suspicions among the local townspeople. But, as Hoess noted in his writings after the war, the stench of death was obvious to those living near the camp. Here, the cars were unloaded and the prisoners sorted, depending on whether they could work. If not, they would be put to death immediately. Workers didn't survive long; they lived in horrific conditions and were fed starvation rations. Sometimes the authorities were in too much of a hurry to sort people, and just killed everyone.

Prisoners being sorted. Note that the men are on one side and the women and children are on the other. Usually the women and children met death immediately upon entering the camp.

The sorting area between the tracks today.
Here are pictures of the victims about to be led to "the showers". After they were murdered, their bodies were stripped of jewelry, gold teeth, and hair.

Note that there are only women and children in these photos.
Here, the gas chambers and crematoriums were much larger and more numerous than at Auschwitz I. There are remains of some of the structures at Birkenau. As the war was ending and Allied forces were getting closer, the guards tried to destroy the evidence of what they had done.

Part of the walls of the gas chamber.
Above and below are the crumbling remains of the some of the crematoriums.

If there was anything positive to be seen here, it was the gallows in Auschwitz where Rudolf Hoess was hanged after being found guilty of war crimes.

All Polish schoolchildren are required to take field trips to Auschwitz. This should be a requirement for everyone on the planet.

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September 26, 2018


by Rosemary

We rented a car and drove from Warsaw to Krakow. The flat Polish countryside looked a lot like Nebraska, but with more trees.

Krakow was perhaps the roughest city we've visited so far. Here, we were shortchanged, a restaurant tried to cheat us, we were menaced by street punks, and we got caught in the open in a fierce rainstorm that left us completely drenched. Because of divided roads with few outlets, one-way streets, wild traffic circles, and extremely aggressive drivers, navigating by car was a challenge.

Despite all that, we enjoyed exploring the city and visiting its historic sites.

Looking north across the Vistula River toward the castle area.

Tadeusz Kościuszko was a Polish engineer and military hero who served as an officer in the Continental Army during the American Revolution. He designed the defenses at West Point. His statue stands outside the castle grounds.

Inside the castle wall is a statue of Poland's favorite pope, John Paul II.

In the center of the castle complex we can still see the foundations of two Gothic churches that were destroyed when the Austrian Empire conquered this area in the 1800s. The red brick building is a former hospital, now used for administrative offices.

In Old Town, a huge monument commemorates the battle of Grunwald in 1410, when Polish and Lithuanian forces defeated the Teutonic knights. The monument is often seen as symbolizing Poland's spirit in its many struggles against foreign invaders.

The Florian Gate was one of the entry points of the old city wall. On one side of the tower is the crowned eagle, the historic symbol of the Polish people. On the other side is a bas-relief of St. Florian.

The eagle appears in many locations throughout the city, on walls and buildings, and is sometimes incorporated into statues and other artworks.

At the Cloth Hall, once a marketplace for fabric, the eagle is perched atop one of the jolly sculptures on the roof.

Most statues just get pigeons on their heads.

In the main market square, there is a grand monument to Adam Mickiewicz, considered Poland's greatest writer. The eagle at the base of the statue seems particularly aggressive.

A very different animal is portrayed in this sculpture, which memorializes Dzok the Dog, who loyally waited for his deceased master to return.

Who's a good boy?

In the nearby park is this tribute to Jan Matejko, one of Poland's best-known artists, relaxing in a picture frame. The statue, by Jan Tutaj, was unveiled in 2013 next to the path where Matejko used to walk every day.

Of course, there is a big Gothic church. St. Mary's Basilica was built in the 1300s, on the foundation of an even older church that had been destroyed during a Mongol invasion. Inside, it is elaborately decorated.

The huge, complex altarpiece was carved by German Sculptor Veit Stoss. He and his team worked on it for twelve years, finishing in 1489.

Unfortunately, crime follows tourists everywhere, even into church.

According to legend, when the Mongols invaded, the watchman in the church tower blew his bugle to sound the alarm, but an arrow pierced his throat before he could finish. Today, in his memory, buglers play a tune from the tower several times a day, always ending mid-tune. Unlike the original watchman, they all survive the performance and are able to wave to the appreciative crowd below.

About ten miles outside of Krakow is the Wieliczka Salt Mine, a very popular tourist attraction. Deep underground, it consists of a lot of long, dark, salty tunnels and pits. Its claim to fame is that it contains a number of sculptures, carved out of salt by the miners. Everything down here is made of salt. The floor tiles are salt, the decorations are salt, even the chandeliers are salt. The mine includes the world's largest - and saltiest - underground church.

"Please pass the salt."

Before leaving Krakow, we visited one more place, which will be described in detail in our next post.

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September 22, 2018

Warsaw: A New "Old" Town

by Steve W

Upon leaving Prague, we continued to Warsaw, Poland's capital and largest city. As with much of Poland, the history of Warsaw is complicated, made even more so by the events of World War II. Since becoming the capital in 1596, Warsaw has seen wave upon wave of foreign rulers and invaders. But after World War I, things seemed to settle down as Poland became an independent nation. While we were there, Warsaw was celebrating the 100th anniversary of Poland's independence.

But that didn't last long, as World War II brought the occupation by Nazi Germany and the havoc that came with it. Poles were persecuted unmercifully by the Nazis: not only the Jews, but non-Jews as well. At the beginning of the War, Warsaw's population was about 40% Jewish. They were forced into a ghetto under unbearable conditions, then transported to concentration camps for execution. Although they tried to resist, they were overwhelmed by the number of German troops. Towards the end of the war, the citizens of Warsaw also tried to overthrow their invaders, and were slaughtered as well. Nearly 800,000 residents were dead out of a population of about 1.2 million. Today, the city is predominately Catholic, with only about 5% of the people Jewish.

There are memorials in many parts of town remembering those who fought and those who died fighting, including the Museum of the History of Polish Jews.

On the "Royal Walk", there was an art installation commemorating the work of Janusz Korczak, who looked after 200-300 orphans as they went to the the death camps, where he died with them.

The train tracks symbolize how the Jews were transported into the camps.
As the war was ending, and the Russians were approaching to liberate the city, Hitler ordered that Warsaw be destroyed, and the city was literally leveled, with only a few buildings still standing after the Nazis left. Most of present-day Warsaw was built after WW II, first by the Communists, then by the Polish government after the Communists were overthrown. So even though there is an "Old Town" in Warsaw, it is relatively new and built on the ruins of the old city.

As such, Warsaw's landscape is a mixture of buildings that look old (but are not) and some more modern architecture. One of the most striking buildings in the city is the Palace of Culture and Science, commissioned by Stalin before his death to compete with the local Catholic churches. Based on the tower in the middle of the building, which can be seen for miles and is the tallest structure in Poland, the locals sometimes call it "Stalin's Penis", based upon their hatred of the building as an ugly symbol of Communism. But at night, when softly lit, the look changes into something softer than the harsh lines of the building in daylight.

Both photos taken from our room on the 38th floor of the Intercontinental Hotel.

This office skyscraper has a series of unusual angles to it.

One of the buildings has an old fashioned Coca-Cola sign that lights up at night.

In Old Town, the buildings were designed to replicate the style of the town that had been destroyed by the Nazis.

Even though they look like Old World structures and have details found on the originals, the buildings are relatively new, having been built since the late 1940's.

As our musical friends will know, Warsaw was the birthplace of Frederic Chopin. In places around the city, there are benches with audio chips that will play a piece by Chopin if you press "play"

Although he is mostly buried in Paris, his heart is located in the Holy Cross Church in Warsaw, pursuant to his wishes.

During the Warsaw Uprising, there were children who assisted in the resistance movement. As a result, there is a statue called The Little Insurgent, which includes a picture of one of the children, recognizing their efforts.

Note that this person dies at the age of 12.
Despite its troubled history, or maybe because of it, Warsaw is a beautiful city and we enjoyed visiting it. The mixture of "old world" and modern structures offers many great sights to see.

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