Archive for the 'eastern europe' category


Jul 09 2015 Published by under eastern europe, Uncategorized

This post is mostly from the Journal I wrote. Again, I have indicated the one subsequent editorial thought added. 

It is very hard to organize my thoughts about Auschwitz. It was not as emotionally potent as the Jewish Cemetery or Museum yesterday. I am not sure why, but maybe writing about it will help.

I am writing this on the bus; we just left Auschwitz II, or Birkeneow.  Auschwitz was built in two parts, about a kilometer apart. The first part was designed for Polish political prisoners and then for Russian POW's. This was before the Final Solution and the Wanasee conference (if this is new to you, there was a good, and fairly accurate, as far as we know, film with Kenneth Branagh). When the Nazis decided to start killing all the Jews, Auschwitz I was not sufficiently efficient. While the place to gas the Jews was large enough, the crematorium could not  keep up with the rate that Jews were arriving. So, they built Auschwitz II, Birkenau, to hold another 100K Russian POWS (that never got there), but mostly to process the  Jews.

IMG_2146When we arrived at Auschwitz I, it could have been a zoo, or a park. There were large groups of people milling around outside, kids running and teenagers goofing off the way they do. There was a bookstore and a refreshment stand and sign to the WC. There was a large parking lot with lots of buses and some cars. Guides waving signs in different languages.  That there were huge hordes of people looking bored, chatting, etc, throughout our 2 hour tour, many groups, people latching onto our group, children running around, made it feel like just another tourist attraction. It wasn't offputting, but it was not an atmosphere of seriousness. It was not a place that said: People were killed here. Lots of People.

The exhibits themselves were more simple than the previous museums. No electronics, no interactions. Having a guide gave good context to the information, and she did not overwhelm us with detail, although parts of the detail were moving. Our guide was a very serious woman, Polish, about 30, who was getting a graduate degree in Jewish Studies. Anushka felt very strongly about Auschwitz, and expressed views several times. I gather expressing views is not something guides are encouraged to do, but she had views.

The two most important things that Anushka said were first: the ones who survived were not lucky. They survived because the war ended and the Nazis were defeated. The second was that the purpose and the importance and the reason for Auschwitz is to honor the dead. Nothing more.

I had a short discussion about this with a couple who were lawyers who did various public law things in their careers (they seem to be about late-70s now). They are clearly activist types and did a lot of civil rights work in the US. He said that he wanted to see more about this not happening again, and more about how this is happening now to other people. That if Auschwitz is just about killing Jews (which its not, but 90% of those who  died were Jewish), it means nothing. This was not the view of our guide (who was not Jewish. There are very few Jews in Poland these days). I did not know what to say. The numbness of it all had invaded my bones.

IMG_2182But back to Auschwitz. Auschwitz I was a museum, but it was not a museum that spoke to me. Was it just too fast, too crowded? I tend to prefer lowtech museums, such as this, with lots to read. But we did not have enough time to read everything, though Anuschka's explanations were good, and challenging, and more than a surface reading. But Auschwitz I was also manicured. There were lots of trees (mostly young, mostly looking like they had been planted and landscape designed in the last 20 years). Most the exhibits felt like they were under glass, and cleaned up for viewing. (Note: I tried to capture this in the picture at right. The reflection was on purpose).

One part that was strong were the exhibits of the goods of the Jews that had been confiscated. 20 meters long of shelves of shoes. Shelves of pots and pans, of combs and brushes. IMG_2157Suitcases with peoples names and addresses on them. The room of hair was the worst. The window display case of ZylonB containers was powerful. I have pictures of all, but the hair. They do not permit pictures of the rooms and rooms of hair. These were awful, but I did not cry. We went from building to building. They were barracks built by the Polish Army. The Nazis did not design this, not the crematorium/gas chambers which were the old munitions depo for the Polish Army. Even the rooms with the three-tiered bunks for prisoners seemed to be under glass.

The only thing that was jarring to me, over and over, were the roads and paths. They were not repaired. They were not paved, or asphalted. TIMG_2187hey were broken stones. They were muddy. They were easy to imagine being in a death camp. The worn out stairs in the buildings, some kind of stone, with worn out depressions in the middle seemed more real to me in some ways than the black and white pictures. It was cold when we walked, and grey.

Auschwitz II was build to Nazi specifications for the Final Solution. It is series of buildings in rows, buildings that seem more like what we expect from movies. Many are gone, because they were wood, and in Communist Poland, there was no money for preservation. The Nazis blew up all the gas chambers here, Canada II, the name for the warehouse of Jewish belongings, the crematoria (there were four of them), and destroyed as much evidence as they could. But there are railroad tracks. What seems like miles of railroad tracks. IMG_2222

Auschwitz I is a museum,; Auschwitz II is a memorial. But I still did not feel the women who walked those paths. I did not hear their stories, see their life. I did not feel them.

At home, now, it seems I was not ready for Auschwitz.

Tomorrow we will tour Krakow, but on Sunday we will go to the Schindler factory, which is now a museum about Krakow under the Nazis.

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Jul 08 2015 Published by under eastern europe, Uncategorized

Some of this written in the present tense, as I lifted it from my journals. I've tried to make clear where I am adding thoughts after the trip.

It is 5:45, and Elizabeth and I decided to take a break before dinner. We've been going very hard all day. We're sitting in a bar with a large photo of the original rat pack shooting snooker. And a mug shot of a very very young Francis Sinatra. And a piano player about to start. we'll see....

First, real european (eastern) breakfasts - what I think breakfasts should be. Fish, cheese, meat. Incredible dark dense breads. real butter. one softboiled egg. lots of fresh fruit. red currant juice. I've had tea, incredible tea. Rich, dark, real tea. Elizabeth puts sugar and cream in hers. I cannot bear to do that.

The morning was a bus tour with stops. The first stop was the Central Park of Warsaw. It also has castles and forts and was entirely lovely, quiet and green. We walked through, way too fast and too short for me. It is about 70 here, and was sunny and smelt wonderfully from something obscure in bloom. It is a standard tourist stop, but there are hords of school children running around. Children are children everywhere.

The next stop was Old Town Warsaw, which was leveled by the Nazis and rebuilt, original brick by original IMG_2105brick from the early 50s through the 80s. I've been to enough medieval city centers to know that parts were improved upon from the original. There were some photos, but one gathers the esthetic and design and balance reflects a more planned sensibility than what would have sprung up in the 16-18th centuries.




IMG_2111Next we went to the Jewish Cemetery, which has not been rebuilt, and mostly not weeded, since WWII. It is not clear why it was spared. The Nazis were famous for taking Jewish headstones and using them as pavement. I could have easily wandered there for hours. In the early 19th century Warsaw had as many Jews as NYC.  Jews were still buried here in the early days of WWII, and there were lots of headstones with husband and wife and the same 1942 day of death. There are various memorials, including the grave of the head of the Judenrat, the Jewish authority in the Warsaw ghetto, who eventually killed himself.

There was nothing left of the Warsaw ghetto, nor the buildings that Leon Uris made famous. It was row upon row of socialist realism architecture. Ugly.

After this, we had lunch at the Museum of the History of Polish Jews. As was true of the Chopin museum we saw yesterday, the museum people here are in love with technology. Often, it seems, technology is for technology's sake. Both museums suffered disease- huge amounts of detail, but little in the way of synthesis or overarching organization to put detail in context.  Every receipt that Chopin's father used to buy eggs and bread when Frédéric was a child is lovingly displayed and lit. Take home message: there were rock stars and fan boys back then.

For the Polish Jews museum, there were seven areas (each with many rooms). We skipped the first three, which were roughly the history up through 1914. There was too much to see for the time we had, and I figured I could do without the shetl stuff, and the early history of anti-Semitism. There was an incredible flowering of Jewish/Yiddish culture through the 20's.  In retrospect, having seen other places, this was the strongest and most honest memorial by any country as to what happened to the Jews that lived in that country during the Holocaust. There were museums of Jewish History in every city we visited. But this was not only the most complete, but seemed to mourn what happened. Taking responsibility, I am not sure about that. But this museum was as close as any that I saw.

When we came to the 1938-45 room, I started reading everything. Everyone always asks why did the Jews not leave, when it was clear that they were despised? Part of the answer was made clear to me over and over in country after country. The ones who left were the peasants who scraped together money to go elsewhere. The ones who had nothing there. The people who stayed were integrated, as much as anyone was, into society and culture of the time and place. This became very clear in Krakow (another post).

By the end, I nearly lost it, and was feeling physically ill and went out and sat and cried while waiting for Elizabeth to finish.

Tomorrow we go to Auschwitz.

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Central/ Eastern Europe

Jul 08 2015 Published by under eastern europe, Uncategorized

I have always treasured my friends. And, I have always loved traveling with friends, as opposed to lovers/partners/spouses. So, over a year ago, my friend Elizabeth said "let's go to Eastern Europe". E. is older than me, does not have field biology/geology legacy, and travels differently than I might. This trip was a bit more upper end than I would have done on my own. On the other hand, not worrying about logistics, and hot water at the end of the day gave me a lot more time to think about things. And it gave me a lot more time to write.

We went to Poland, Hungary, Austria, Slovakia and the Czech Republic.  There were a couple of themes for me on this trip.  One was culture, into which I lump cathedrals, art museums, concerts and food, of which pastry is the single most important sub-category, followed by the sub-category gelato. The other was  history. History is inescapable in Eastern Europe, but that was part of the point of the trip.

There are lots of ways to look at the history, lots of ways in which the history was presented, seen, and experienced. While the history of the middle of the 20th century was front and center, the 18th and 19th centuries are not neglected by the people vying for the attention of tourists. The response of various countries and cities to the Hapsburgs, the Nazis and the Communists was as different as the money (we spent a lot of time changing money). Also right there is the story of the Jews, which in brief seemed to  be: welcomed into cities, build synagogues, schools and businesses, lose synagogues,  schools and businesses, get kicked out, and then invited back a generation or three later. Up to the Holocaust, where a more permanent solution was attempted.

We went to: Warsaw, Krakow, Budapest, Vienna, Bratislava and Prague. Spending only a few days in each IMG_2094of these made the differences among the countries, the cities, stand out. I tried to learn, and as a 2nd generation American, I went back and forth between familiar and not. I'll post what I saw. I am not a historian. I didn't even really do history of science in these places (though I took a picture of Marie Curie's birthplace). But you can't, I couldn't, visit these places without having some aspects of history smacked into my face.





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