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Auschwitz

July 15th, 2009 Comments off

I was struck by the looks in their eyes, captured in the photographs of the men and women who were kidnapped and taken to the SS’s concentration camps to die or be worked to death.

Much can be written about Auschwitz and its sister — and larger — concentration camp at Birkenau, a couple of miles away. But it was the photos of the victims, taken just as they were being processed in, that may be the most haunting.

The tour of the two camps seemed surreal, because it is difficult to comprehend the enormity of the murders even after having been there. Maybe even harder, now that we have been there. The thousands of pairs of baby shoes. The rooms of women’s hair, sheared to make soldiers for blankets. The suitcases that bore the victims’ names so, if luggage and its owner was separated on their train ride to a new future, as they thought, they could be reunited. Now they read like tombstones without the interred bodies. A name, a birthdate, no death date.  

There is much to reflect but the photos were what I studied the longest. Some were the eyes of despair. Resignation. Some looked stunned, bewildered. Some looked defiant and angry. 

We were not allowed to take photos of these exhibits. I don’t know that I would have wanted to. The images will stay with me.

A day of transition

July 13th, 2009 Comments off

We began our Monday returning to one of the old districts of Prague, called “lesser town” because it is below “Castle Town.” We walked across the historic, 650-year-old St. Charles Bridge to reach this part of Prague, which now is very commercial.

Caricature artists, musicians, photographers and a few jewelry makers hawk their wares along the bridge, and the town is filled with little retail outlets — chief among them, jewelers selling all things garnet, plus the requisite crystal stores.

Daughter heard from travel writer Samantha Brown about a wonderful rooftop restaurant at the Aria Hotel that affords a beautiful view of parts of Prague. We found the hotel and went upstairs to the roof, and the view was quite special — not a sweeping vista of the entire city, but a stunning one of the neighborhood.

We were on the road for Poland, and for a campground outside the gates of Auschwitz, by 2 p.m. It took us about 6 hours, along major highways and through small towns where we had to slow for hay wagons and farmers returning home in their huge combines.

From the highway, it looked like several towns had clusters of huge apartment buildings, strung along in a line, and we’re not sure what to make of them.  Their equivalent to publich housing projects?

At one point, Miss GPS must have had a hangover from too much pilsner because she didn’t know where we were, and was directing us across open fields.

When we entered Poland, I assumed we would need to stop at some sort of border control so I pulled over at the first opportunity, into a parking lot filled with trucks.  Turns out there is no border crossing protocol and I was lost in a sea of trucks. We got some strange looks as we wormed our way out and back onto the highway.  Luckily our license plates say Belgium, not U.S., so I wasn’t the stupid American.

By dusk we were pulling up to our campground, one that we had chosen purposely for its proximity to Auschwitz. But we didn’t know the story behind the place, and are ever the more thankful that we came here.

The facility is a combination hotel/campground retreat center, operated by a Catholic organization dedicated to dialogue and prayer, focusing on what lessons can and should be learned from the genocide that played out here.

I am typing this story in the lobby of the hotel, where I met the night clerk, Gosia.  She’s 29, learned English while attending community college outside Washington, and started here, at the Centre for Dialogue and Prayer in Oswiecim, two months ago. She grew up in Oswiecim, where Auschwitz is, but has only visited Auschwitz three times. After each visit, she said, it takes her a month to recover.

“People need to come here, to see Auschwitz,” she said. “It cannot be explained, the same way you cannot explain a color or a taste. You need to touch it, to sense it. That is one reason I want to work here, to meet people and for the spirit of this place where we can talk about our feelings toward Auschwitz. We cannot change the past, but we can change the future.”

My last photo today was sunset over Auschwitz, from our campsite. We are at its threshold, and I look forward to tomorrow with dread, and with hope that in time, peace among men will prevail.

Following the push pins across Europe

June 30th, 2009 Comments off

We leave for our European RV vacation in just four days, and we thought we’d better sit down and figure out what our basic plan of attack is once we get there. Plan of attack. Sounds like we’re planning a military assault. I’m hoping I can just pull the mobi out of the dealer’s lot without causing a scene. It’s heavier and larger than anything I’ve ever driven before. Well, there was that semi when we moved our daughter to college.

Our goal for this three-week vacation is to see as much beautiful countryside as possible, so we will immediately drop southeast out of Antwerp, where our daughter and her boyfriend live, and head east for Germany’s Black Forest, rather than heading northeast toward Berlin. We’ll cross southern Germany, through Bavaria, then head northeasterly toward Prague in the Czech Republic, then into  Poland and brace ourselves for Auschwitz. The basic route then takes us southwest, across western Slovakia and into Austria (Vienna, Salzburg and Innsbruck) before heading into Switzerland (Zurich, Bern and Geneva as the main targets but surely being seduced onto highways leading higher into the Alps). Then, we head back to Antwerp via Dijon and Reims, France.

We will, of course, be taking country roads versus the major highways, and targeting campgrounds outside the cities. And once in country, we’ll refer to our specific guidebooks and maps and solicit the advice of locals. In other words, we don’t know where the heck we’ll be, any given night, but probably we’ll be in the shadow of a huge blue pushpin.

We created a very general Google map showing the very basic route. It’s about 2,100 miles as the crow flies (are there crows in Europe?) but we’re assuming we’ll put in 3,000 miles or more. We are hoping, too, that the GPS doesn’t crap out, or we may end up in Slovenia instead of Slovakia.

Jeanne has been doing most of the research, and has relied heavily on what has turned out to be her favorite reference guide, “Central Europe” by Lonely Planet. She also has a lot of tabs sticking out of “Europe by Van and Motorhome” by David Shore and Patty Campbell, and is poring over Fodor’s “Eastern & Central Europe” and “RV and Car Camping Vacations in Europe” by Mike and Terri Church.

We could buy more specific guides, of course, but there is a weight limit to our luggage.

My diet-demanding health coach will be tickled pink with this news: Our route should take us to Uttenweiler, Germany, where we will visit her family’s bakery and we can say hi! to her cousins Gertrude and Paul. And pick up some streudel while weíre there.