Tag Archives: holocaust

Auschwitz – Birkenau visit suggestions, early thoughts

I am still working through my thoughts about visiting the Auschwitz-birkenau death/concentration camps but I can share some insights about the logistics of visiting the place (I.e. the far easier stuff) and, during that process, some initial raw thoughts:

– The trip did, as promised, take most of the day. Prepare to be exhausted, physically (especially if you are walking long distances in the seering sun, as we were). And exhausted emotionally. The bus ride there took about 1 hour 20 minutes, each way. The tour takes about 3.5 hours, the first two at Auschwitz, the last at Birkenau nearby (shuttle bus transport provided.)

– No need to join a tour group to visit. It’s not hard to visit on your own.

– We.took a bus from Krakow’s main bus station north of Old Town directly to the site, now a museum. The Train doesn’t leave as frequently and doesn’t go directly to the museum but instead to the town of Oswiecim, the town where Auschwitz is located.

– You buy your bus ticket on the bus from the driver. Exact change not needed. (This would have been helpful to know. Instead we stood unnecessarily in two lines…)

– The bus comes about twice an hour from what we could tell. The return bus was particularly packed with hot, tired, sometimes cranky travelers.

– The place was swamped with visitors but mainly well organized after some initial chaos. People are divided into large groups, by language, and led through both camps with a guide. We also received headsets so we could hear the guide better. Our guide was informative, as expected, and more caustic than expected, clearly repulsed by what he was showing us but convinced of the need to show us. Hard, strange job to have.

– Our English speaking group had only a few Americans. most people were from other European countries. There was also a family from Israel with three elementary school age children. I was surprised by how many children were there. Not sure I would bring my kids when they were grade school age. The guide told parents not to bring their kids into certain rooms and the parents complied.

– There were many very sad and disturbing things on display…piles of abandoned suitcases, the keys of people who locked the doors to their homes when they were deported (thinking they would return), huge piles of human hair, human ashes, photos of emancipated people and their pitiful daily food ration, the large model of the gas chamber and the chilling detail about its efficient design and operation. What got me most, in a tangible emotional way, was anything to do with children – the discarded baby clothes, the haunting “official” Nazi photos of children, some eyes almost lifeless, some eyes too full of life and clouded with tears.

-Do not skip,the Birkenau visit. It is a particularly haunting and moving place that in some ways matched my preconceptions about death/concentration camps even more than Auschwitz, with its vast size (25 times the size of auschwitz); long abandoned railroad track leading from the imposing dark brick building st the gate deep into the camp which has some remaining barracks but also the burnt out shells of many burned out others; the swampy lagoon containing the ashes of so many murdered people; the dark chicken coop like barracks for human beings with rows of worn three level bunks where people were packed like sardines (or chickens) into each level. Hard. Wood. Primitive. Barbaric. Dehumanizing. Unfathomable. Heartbreaking. Evil.

– Go even if you don’t really want to and aren’t sure you can bear it. You will be glad in the end that you and some many others bore witness; that it is there for people to see. It has to be seen to be believed, even if its hard to see or believe or understand.



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To Auschwitz – Birkenau




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Schindler factory, Podgorze Ghetto, Mocak (contemporary art museum) – Krakow

Oskar Schindler’s famous factory in an industrial area of the Podgorze neighborhood south of the Wisla River (and south of the Kazimierz district where we are staying) has been turned into a very powerful museum tracing the history of the 5+ years of the Nazi occupation of Krakow and Poland and the devastating effects for Jews and other Poles. Apparently Steven Spielberg helped increase tourism to Podgorez and especially Kazimierz by filming “Schindler’s list” on site. Like the Solidarity Museum in Gdansk, this museum uses artifacts, old photos, old films, survivor interviews and recreated settings to give you a real feel for the time and place. Like the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, I found that I got choked up at first but then quickly sobered and pushed through the museum. We will see it this works with Auschwitz, which I am trying to steel myself for a visit tomorrow.

Podgorze was the Jewish ghetto where Jews in the Kazimierz neighborhood and elsewhere in Krakow were forced to relocate by the Nazis before they were moved to concentration camps. Today, there are plaques all over the area explaining what various buildings and sites became during the Nazi era, including most powerfully a central square where Jews were deported, beaten, executed, separated from their families et al. Today it is an expanse of asphalt with a sculptural tribute – 70 large metal and achingly empty chairs and is called Ghetto Heroes Square (Plac Bohaterow Getta). Holocaust tourism, for lack of a better phrase, is a strange thing,because you cannot help,but feel uncomfortable about it,,guilty even.

We also visited some far more cheerful places in the area including MOCAK, a contemporary art museum in a striking modern building next to Schindler’s factory and BAL, a hipster cafe/restaurant with artsy people hidden in a still industrial area behind MOCAK (and tricky to find). It is on Slusarska Street, an evocative name for us since it is very close to the last name of good friends of ours back in Iowa.

We trekked back to Kazimierz, crossing a cool new pedestrian/bike footbridge whose grates are filed with padlocks, each inscribed with the names of lovers and sometimes dates ( apparently this is a tradition akin to the one D. saw in Odessa, where newlyweds declare their undying love by padlocking the bridge and throwing the key into the river). we rested our (yes) aching feet at Mieckamia, one of Kracows most scenic beer gardens, on Mleczarnia Street near the central hub of Plac Nowy, where we later picked up some blueberries and cherries at the fruit stalls (I was also tempted to buy some of the dill pickles, which looked like the kind we had for breakfast.)

Tonight we went to Klezmer Haus, an old restaurant serving Jewish,food and klezmer music. Nice to see some jewish traditions still alive….excellent “Jewish caviar” aka chopped liver although different then my grandma’s, not creamy but instead dry chopped liver with shredded egg on top.





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Berlin by bike…the way to go!

I wanted to be one of those cool Berliners (or tourists) breezing through the Brandenburg Gate on a bike and today I was. What a kick! For six euros (less than a 6.50 transit day pass) I rented a sturdy thick tire bike from a bike shop near my hotel and pretty much rode from 11 a.m, until 7 p.m. I rode all over the place, checking out new places on my list and revisiting others I had already seen. And I was impressed at how well laid out this city is for cyclists. There are bike lanes all over the place, some in the street, some in the sidewalk (it took me awhile to figure this out but I just followed other bikes along a narrow corridor in the sidewalk that apparently is for riders.) I had a vague sense of where I was going (mainly east and then south) and when I occasionally had no idea where I was, another helpful tourist information sign would appear (ex: Alexanderplatz 1.2 and an arrow pointing the direction).

The best part is that I could cover so much ground in a few hours, see so many things and get a feel for how different parts of the city connect with each other, something you don’t get when you are popping and out of the U bahn (underground subway). From my Wilmersdorf home base I rode east through the Tiergarten, sort of a Bavarian Black Forest version of NYC’s Central Park or even of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, with lush green lawns, lots of trees, dirt paths to ride, a lake or river in there somewhere, although I never found it. Next stop, Brandenburg Gate which was even more packed with tourists than yesterday, if that’s possibly. Along with the tourists were fashionistas attending Berlin Fashion Week nearby. (My new geriatric German sandals, bought today at an orthopedic shoe shop located, as fate would have it, around the corner from my hotel…would make the fashionistas shudder. See photo below, along with yet another photo of the view from the roof where I have been enjoying my late evening meal.)

Onto the Holocaust memorial and then Checkpoint Charlie where this time I found another “wall” documentation center of sorts, focused on “terror.” Next stop, a return to the other worldly Alexanderplatz and its Jetsonesque tv tower and famous lumpen world clock. This time I found Karl Marx Allee, famous for its drab communist era concrete high rises. Then I suddenly found myself in Kreuzberg, a bohemian bordering on seedy at times neighborhood with a big Turkish population. I ate donar kebab and drank chai at a well known Turkish restaurant, Hasir, and stopped for a Turkish pastry at the equally well known Turkish bakery Melek Pastanesi nearby. Then onto the East Side Gallery, another stretch of remaining wall that has dozens of bold murals by various artists on one side and more of berlin s remarkable graffiti on the other side. Both sides were well worth a look.

I returned to my neighborhood and had a soda at a little cafe where the owner asked where I was from. “You’ve probably never heard of it, Iowa,” I said, fully intending to give my standard explanation, I.e. near Chicago. But instead the guy responded with a knowing smile, “des Moines?” Turns out he had visited dsm several times, in his previous life in Computer software. So glad I decided to come to Berlin!



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Mitte South, Potsdamer Platz, Alexanderplatz, gendarmenmarkt, artemisia

Greetings from Berlin where my biggest frustration has been trying to get Internet access on my iPad. I had the same issue in London at my friends house but finally got it. never had any issues in Peru, when I last used it in a foreign land. I did go to a computer store nearby and the guy pressed one button and charged me 15 euros. I thought he was joking. But no.

Anyway, I walked myself silly today and although I made several wrong turns, after awhile I started to understand the lay of the land, literally, and how the various u Bahn and S Bahn trains connect, plus the 100 and 200 Buses, which are cross town buses, doubledecker no less, that offer a great respite from walking long straight streets and some terrific scenery.

I am still trying to work out where “the wall” ran and what is east vs. West Berlin. But it was intriguing to see bits of the wall here and there – the bits by the now super modern Potsdam Platz appear to be covered not only with graffiti but wads of chewing gum. A lot of Berlin requires a better imagination than I have so you can see ugly wall where there are now huge modern buildings and Hitlers bunker where there is now what appears to be an apartment block. ( Right across the street from the other women only hotel I was thinking of staying at, Intermezzo.) while Berlin has its imposing older monuments, the Brandenburg Gate, the post WW2 communist architecture and the 21st century monuments, most notably the Holocaust memorial (which got me choked up as I found myself wandering deep inside the maze of bar slabs of grey stone, laid out in a dizzying number of fluctuating heights) are really the most captivating. Anywhere else, say Chicago and its Cabrini Green housing complex, these bleak concrete slab buildings might be knocked down. But here they are a source of fascination, maybe even pride, a historical record of the brutality of communism. This seemed particularly the case around Alexanderplatz, with its famous bizarre Jetsonesque tv tower and strange mosaics and painted murals on occasional communist era buildings. I also find myself looking at the graffiti differently, as another historic artifact. So that is interesting because architecture I would gave dismissed and graffiti I would have disdained at home, is here in Berlin a surprising source of fascination.

So far, I am enjoying staying at this women only hotel. As I type outside on the fifth floor rooftop overlooking the Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorff area, three women in their sixties, from Canada, Germany and Australia are talking about life, carrying for elderly parents, their adventures as retirees, where to eat dinner, which U and S bahn stations have the most stairs.

I did have my fix of grilled Bavarian coarse fried sausages, mashed potatoes and sweet cooked cabbage that I remember eating in Munich and even had a midday (Augustiner Hell) beer at Augustiner Gendarmenmarket, a lovely reconstructed square. When in Rome. But I cannot seem to bring myself to eat curry wurst…which looks even worse than I thought: sausages served with curry powder and then, even worse, ketchup. Ick.

Other interesting sights: a guy juggling while riding a unicycle in front of traffic stopped at a busy intersection (when the traffic started, he put out his collection hat and got out of the way);eight or so tourists riding some awkward contraption that they sat atop in a circle and peddled; tons of cyclists and tourists on bikes, which seems the best way to see everything. Hope to do that!!






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