Friday, October 16, 2009

Day 23 - "Forgive But Never Forget"

Hey everyone,

Today we are going over the Holocaust Museums that I went to in Dachau, Germany and Auschwitz, Poland.  As I hope everyone is at least vaguely aware, the Holocaust refers to the intentional attempts by the Nazis to eliminate not only the European Jewish population, but many other ethnic and social groups as well such as the Roma and people with disabilities, among others.  In total, over 6 million Jews and somewhere between 11 and 17 million people in total lost their lives due to this terrible chapter in human history.  Most of the pictures are of the structures and just some commentary, but a couple toward the end are a bit more graphic so just be aware as you go through the images.

Scott and I visited Dachau, which is about 20 or 30 minutes outside of Munich.  Dachau was the first concentration camp built by the Nazi's and served as the model for all of the one's to follow.  In total, over 200,000 people were interred here, with 2/3 being political prisoners and 1/3 being Jewish.  A little under 40,000 people lost their lives while this facility was active.

Auschwitz, arguably the most recognizable and notorious of the many concentration camp sites, was the site responsible for the deaths of over 1.1 million people, 90% of whom were Jewish.  Most of these were killed in the gas chambers using Zyklon B, a cyanide based poison.  Auschwitz was split into two separate camps, Auschwitz I, the original and smaller of the two camps, and Auschwitz II or Birkenau, the newer and many times larger site which killed and cremated 20,000 prisoners a day at one point.

Here's a comparison of both of the entryways to the prisons.  The top picture here is Dachau and the next one is Auschwitz I.  As you can see both of them have the perverse statement written in German:  "Arbeit macht frei" which means "Work brings freedom".

It's important to realize that most of the site that is seen for the tour is a small fraction of the actual facilities.  Large portions where destroyed by the Nazi's in order to cover up what they had been doing.  The hope was that the Allies would fail to see the extent of the crimes of war and against humanity that had been conducted.

It's hard to see, but these concrete outlines are all that is left of most of the Dachau facility.  In total there were 32 of these barracks, each at least 50 yards long and each filled beyond capacity with prisoners.  It took us 5-10 minutes to walk past all of the places where the building where.  The amount of people the camp could hold was immense, but as it turns out was nothing compared to the Auschwitz II which held over 100,000 people at once.  You'll see the size of the facility in a few pictures.

This is the entry gate to Auschwitz II.  If it looks familiar it's because Steven Spielberg used it in the movie Schindler's List. Looks innocent enough from the outside, but inside was beyond your worst nightmares.

Here's a shot of the barbed wire fencing that lined all of the Concentration Facilities.  While escapes occasionally happened, they were very difficult and few and far between.

For one, the prisoners were forced to work 10-12 hours of hard labor and given barely anything in the form of basic human necessities.  Food was in small supply and living conditions were beyond reprehensible, so most people were physically unable to try and leave.

Secondly, attempts at escape would often mean the punishment and possibly death of not only the person who tried to leave, but tens of others in the same bunker as a warning to everybody else.  Many choose almost certain death instead of putting others lives at immediate risk.

This is part of one side of the Auschwitz II facility.  Again, most of the facilities were destroyed by the Nazi's before the Allied liberation but we see where they once stood.  To get an idea of how much they tried to erase, we only stayed at this facility, which again held up to 100,000 prisoners at a time, for about 25 minutes.

This is Auschwitz I.  These facilities were already here before the camps began which is why they were made of brick.  In many of the camps, the prisoners were forced to build the barracks after the numbers of prisoners exceeded capacity.

This is the "Death Wall" at Auschwitz I.  Not everyone was sent to the gas chambers.  Many thousands were sent to a place just like this and shot. The gas chambers were designed to expedite the number of people who could be killed at a time.

These are the bedding conditions inside the barracks where the prisoners where forced to stay.  This one is Dachau.  They were similar looking at Auschwitz but in worse condition.  The roofs leaked, grown men and women were forced to sleep 2 to a twin bunk, and again, people were worked to the point of death so they were often unable to leave their beds to go to the bathroom, so you can imagine the living conditions.  Often there were barely any types of covers.  Furnace would not burn in the winter (remember, these are located in the Canadian latitudes) and the barracks would become greenhouses in summer.  If you were not immediately taken to the gas chambers and were forced to work, you were often just as likely to die of a disease such as Typhus, as you would be some other way.

This was a tough one to see.  These are the toilet facilities at Auschwitz II.  No privacy, no sanitation, just a hole in concrete along with 100 others right next to each other.  Prisoners were often forced to use the facilities at the same time during the work day so you can imagine what it was like in there.  Sadly, survivors said this was the best time of day, because often the German SS guards would not come in there due to the stench.  So this was really the only time you could talk freely to someone else.

This was the most difficult thing for me to see from both places.  This is a glass case about 2-3 meters wide and 20 meters long.  It's hard to fully grasp what this is, but all that you see inside is the shorn off human hair of 40,000 of the female prisoners who were forced into the camps.  I don't remember the number but I know it's at least 2 tons in weight. To see this and to see it on this scale was when you really felt the magnitude of the atrocities that were committed here.  This is only 5% of the number of prisoners who came through the Auschwitz gates. They had several other cases just like this one filled with glasses, pairs of shoes, prosthetics, suitcases with the names on them, and children's toys.    Some estimates put the number of murdered children at 1.5 million during the Holocaust.  Most of them were taken off the train and immediately sent to the gas chambers.  The rest, especially twins and triplets, were used for medical testing before being killed.

These are two of crematoriums that were actually used to burn the bodies of the murdered victims at Dachau.  To realize that at some point actual people were put in these devices is hard to believe.  To realize that the SS made other prisoners take the bodies of their former colleagues from the execution grounds and load them onto the platforms is equally as disturbing.

While not fun, I think it was important to go see these sites.  It's easy to gloss over what really happened when you're at a desk in some classroom 6,000 miles away and 50 years after the fact.  To see it up close helps to make sure you fully get what happened.  "Those who don't know their history are destined to repeat it" which is why the phrase always associated with the Holocaust is "Forgive but Never Forget".  We shouldn't live in the past but we'd be wise to heed it's lessons.

Unfortunately, the world is still experiencing mass genocide, even today.  Since this tragedy several other outbreaks have occurred all over in places like Cambodia, the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, and Darfur.  Millions more have died needlessly and unless it's stopped millions more are doomed to follow in their footsteps.  It's everybody's problem, and if nothing else, I hope this might make everyone who reads this a little more aware or maybe think what it would be like if it was you or a loved one instead some stranger from a far away land.  Hope everyone is doing ok and thanks for reading.  See you next time. . .

Day 22 - Salt: Health Hazard or The Poor Man's Marble?

Hey Team,

So we are moving further east and have hit the country of Poland.  This was quite the impromptu trip for me.  I wasn't planning on coming this direction, but I ended up with an extra couple of days, so I thought I'd hit a couple of spots that I wouldn't normally go to.  Krakow is in the southern part of Poland and is probably the second most important city here behind the capital of Warsaw.  However, according to what I read, it the coolest one to visit.  The main point about coming here was to see the Auschwitz Concentration Camp (about an hour away) and the Wieliczka Salt Mines (30 minutes), but I did want to see "The New Prague" of Eastern Europe.

Now before describing my impressions, let me first throw out a couple of qualifiers.

1)  The weather was absolute garbage the whole time.  Like 40 degrees and wet.
2)  I did basically zero prep work on what I was going to do in Krakow.
3) I only had a day to see what I wanted to in town due to the other two spots.

So having gotten that out of the way, I have to confess I was not impressed with Krakow.  It has some nice places, including the largest Medieval Square in all of Europe, which you'll see, but overall, it just didn't pop to me.  It was still ok, but is toward the bottom of the list of places I've seen, which you have to remember are arguably some of the prettiest places in Europe, so it's all relative (sorry to all of my Polish friends).  On the plus side, it was amazingly cheap to do stuff at and I stayed at a great hostel.  Here's some shots of the city.:

Are you Catholic?  Do you like Churches?  Are you both Catholic and like Churches?  Great News!!!  Apparently there is a building code in Krakow that states there must be one built every 50 feet or so.  Like this one. . .

or this one. . .

. . . or this one.  I don't think I had to move in order to see these three. I just needed to rotate my body about 90 degrees a couple of times and bam!!  There was another one.  I would think there is some serious competition for a congregation.  My guess is there would be some major incentives bandied about like free John Paul II (he's from Poland) bobblehead dolls if your one of the first thousand to Mass, or a cheap raffle for a replica Popemobile or something like that.

This church here is the Big Dog in town, St. Mary's Basilica.  It is a brick church that was built in the Gothic Style (again) in the 14th century.

Here's an inside shot of it.  As you can see, it looks very similar to the other's I've shown you but it does have some unique features including the wood carving on the altar there which is considered one of the best in Europe.

Here's a shot of the largest medieval square in all of Europe.  It would probably take you over 10 minutes to walk the perimeter.  Unfortunately, there was quite a bit of renovating going on here so I couldn't take any really nice shots.

Here's a shot of the 14th century Wawel Castle in the Old Town District of Krakow.  It sits right on the Vistula River and it's huge.

So after doing a bit of sightseeing in town, I hitched a bus for about half an hour to the Wieliczka Salt Mine which is an original member of the UNESCO World Heritage Site (this is a big deal by the way).  It had been continuously producing salt since the 13th century until just a few years ago, where it is now a museum.  It goes nearly a quarter mile underground and has over 300 km of tunnels.  Salt was one of the most valuable commodities in the Middle Ages because of it's ability to preserve food.  In fact it was called "White Gold" (guys try this out on your lady friends the next time they want jewelry.  I'm sure they will be very amused at your hilarious little joke), and in certain areas of the world, it was used in place of currency.  A little trivia for you  In every European language the word "salt" is the root word of "salary", so you can see how important it was financially.

Here's some shots of the countryside of Poland on my way to the tour.  Lots of farmland that looks just like this with beautiful rolling hills and green green grass.

So we finally arrived at the Salt Mine place (The World Heritage Site remember), and this is what I saw when we got out of the bus.  My first thought was, "Awesome, maybe we can catch the last half of the little league game that this non paved parking lot is connected to".

Fortunately, it got better (although the parking lot was amazingly close to the site) and we met up with our tour guide and began our walk down approximately 800 or so steps.  At our deepest decent we made it down to about 135 meters below the surface.

After 800 or so years, this place looks like a massive honeycomb. So in order to make sure a few million tons of rock salt doesn't fall down onto the nice tourists walking around, there are a couple of these beams strewn about.  Notice they are made of wood.  Iron cannot be used due to the corrosive nature of the salt.

So I haven't really told you what's so great about this place.  It's not just that it's this really old and massive salt mine.  It's also because over the centuries, miners apparently have a lot of down time and started to carve things into the rock salt.  And as it turns out it wasn't just a bunch of four letter words in Polish or "Joanie Loves Chachie".  Unlike most people, these guys (has to be guys because women where not allowed to work in the mines apparently) actually could quit their day job.  The amount of detail on these sculptures is stunning and apparently it's not the easiest thing to do. The rock salt is very brittle and if you break off Copernicus' nose here (he's a famous Polish scientist who determined that the Earth rotates around the Sun and not vice versa) you can't exactly super glue it back on.

Here are some of the Seven Dwarfs doing their thing.  (I fear that some of my younger readers may not have seen Snow White since it has nothing to do with a computer) but these guys are. . .you guessed it. . .Miners!  Hopefully the irony is not lost on anyone here.

So this is about the most amazing thing I've seen in a while.  This is an actual chapel carved out of the salt mine.  And it was done by 3 miners over a 70 year period.  Popes have come down here to see this thing, and if you have enough coin, you can get hitched down here as well.  The following shots are some details of the ginormous room.  70 years people!!!

Had to show you this.  This is the floor.  They didn't bring in a bunch of linoleum and lay it down either.  They actually carved this out of the salt.  This entire room is about 90-95% pure salt. I felt bad just walking on it.

I have to confess we were encouraged by our guide to participate in unprotected salt licking in the mines so we could "taste the salt".  I knew I shouldn't but the temptation was too great.  I can only hope I'm not one of the scores of other people who foolishly engaged in these unsafe actions.  As the saying goes, "Once you tasted salt in the Wieliczka Salt Mine you've tasted salt with everyone else that the Wieliczka Salt Mine has tasted salt with".

Here's a shot of me in front of the altar where they actually celebrate Mass.

Here is the salt sculpture of Poland's favorite son of the last 50 years or so, Pope John Paul II.  He visited this chapel multiple times but never as the Pope.

I think this one might be the most remarkable piece in the room.  It's a redoing of The Last Supper by Da Vinci and it is unbelievable.  It might be hard to see here, but the depth perception this thing projects is incredible.  In reality it only has a depth of about 6 inches or so.  This is carved right onto the wall of the room.

Just a great trip and tour of a remarkable site.  Afterwards, we headed back to Krakow.  Tomorrow will be the serious post of the blog as I go on a tour of Auschwitz Concentration Camp.  As I said earlier I'll post the Dachau Camp pictures from as well.  Not fun, but I think good for everyone to see.  Hope everyone is doing well.  Later. . .