Saturday, April 21, 2012

Heading East for Easter: Krakow, Poland - Auschwitz Concentration Camp

     I think that everyone should include a concentration camp on their list of places to see in this lifetime. Arguably the most infamous is Auschwitz (OWSH-vits), which lies about 50 miles outside of Krakow in the city of Oswiecim (ohsh-VEENCH-im).  The name of the camp is merely the German version of the Polish city and refers to a system of camps, including: Auschwitz I (with the "Arbeit Macht Frei" gate), and Auschwitz II which is also known as Birkenau (BEER-keh-now) and includes a famous guard tower with train tracks. I've been to other labor camps such as Dachau and Buchenwald, but they are very different from the extermination camps here.
     Auschwitz operated between 1941 and 1945 and was the site of the systematic murder of at least 1.1 million people; mostly Jewish, but also political prisoners, Roma (gypsies), homosexuals, and others deemed impure or harmful to the Nazi regime.  This post is meant to give an idea of the layout of the camps and the atrocities committed there.
"Arbeit macht frei" - Literally "work makes free" was the false promise that greeted prisoners at the gate of Auschwitz I.  The original sign was actually stolen two years ago by some people that wanted to sell it.  It was reclaimed and is now in a museum, so this is actually a replica.  Notice the intact brick buildings that served as the barracks for prisoners.  This camp could hold 14,000 prisoners at one time.

This map in one of the barracks gives a visual of where the prisoners came from in Europe.  At a glance you can see that they came from as far north as Norway, as far west as France I think, as far south as Hungary or Yugoslavia, and as far east as Russia.

Standard bathroom in the barracks of Auschwitz I.

Sinks/washroom in the barracks of Auschwitz I.  Much of this camp was preserved, unlike other camps you may visit which were leveled except for a few buildings.

The barracks of Auschwitz I all house various exhibits - this one with several large cases filled with leather suitcases and bags that were taken from prisoners as they arrived.  They were told to pack up their belongings for "relocation" from the forced ghettos in their home countries/cities to these new locations.  The Nazis stole all of the personal belongings upon arrival and used them for the war effort when possible.

Shoe collection rivaling that of the Washington DC Holocaust museum.

In this courtyard between Blocks 10 and 11 several thousand prisoners were shot.  In the building to the right many people were put on "trial" (lasting a few minutes) then executed or put into starvation cells or standing cells (no bigger than a phone booth) for hours or days with three other people.

The gas chamber/crematorium at Auschwitz I could kill 700 people at a time.  Soldiers locked the doors on the outside, then dropped pellets of Zyklon B poison gas into the chamber and sealed it off.  It would take 20 minutes to kill everyone and another two days to burn the bodies.  This "inefficiency" led to the construction of Auschwitz II, aka "Birkenau".

Used canisters of Zyklon B.

Pellets of Zyklon B that could be weaponized when heated up past room temperature.

The commander of the camp, Rudolf Hoess, was tried and convicted after the war and sentenced to death.  Survivors asked that the sentence be carried out at the camp, directly between his house and the crematorium.

Entrance and guard tower for Birkenau.  Prisoners rolled right through those gates to the platform that would decide their fate.

On this platform the new arrivals would immediately be sorted into those that should be immediately sent to the gas chambers and those that should be worked to death in the factories.

Prisoners at Birkenau didn't have sturdy brick buildings in which to live.  Rather, they lived in pre-fabricated horse stables with rudimentary bunks like these that they shared with multiple prisoners.  The bedding typically consisted of straw or hay.

Most of the barracks were torn down, but the chimneys remain, giving you an idea of the scale of this camp.  100,000 prisoners could be held here at one time.

This memorial was constructed for the victims of Auschwitz during the Soviet era in 1967 (in the Social Realist style) and is meant to resemble gravestones and a chimney, with plaques in multiple languages along the front summarizing the atrocities committed here.

Memorial plaque in English.

The large-scale gas chambers were dynamited by the Nazis when liberation by the Red Army was eminent.  The ruins were kept as evidence of the mass-murder.

Prisoners were ushered to the end, asked to strip down and were given locker numbers for their personal belongings.  Then they were marched down to the "shower rooms" for "disinfection".  The same technique was used to kill the prisoners as in Auschwitz I.  However, this chamber (in addition to one just like it 100 yards away) allowed for the extermination of 4,400 people per day.  The bodies were quickly cremated and the ashes scattered into a lake.

 Auschwitz was liberated on January 27, 1945 by the Soviets.  7,500 prisoners were rescued, of which about 20% died of disease and/or starvation afterwards.  The Polish government voted to turn this place into a museum so that no one would forget about the events that took place here.


Thursday, April 19, 2012

Heading East for Easter: Krakow, Poland - Wieliczka Salt Mines

     When you spend an Easter break in Europe there aren't too many places where you can be guaranteed to have hot, sunny beach weather.  Since that's the case, sometimes you just embrace the fact that it's practically still winter and you'll be packing some sweaters, scarves, gloves, and jackets.  Now that our days are officially numbered in Germany, we've got a short bucket list of places to see while we're still here.  Our two-week Easter break was our last chance to have a lengthy getaway so we chose to check out a strip of "eastern" Europe, beginning in Krakow and heading south through Budapest, Hungary before finishing off with a drive along the Dalmatian Coast in Croatia. (Note:  some would consider this "central" Europe, but it's all relative anyways and besides.........all of these places were formerly behind the "Iron Curtain" so I'll call it eastern Europe, albeit a beginner's version).
     Despite living under an atheistic socialist regime for years, Poland is considered by some to be the most devoutly Catholic country in Europe.  We had heard great things about Krakow and decided to check it out for a few days.  This post focuses on a side trip that we took from Krakow to the nearby Wieliczka ("veel-EECH-kah) salt mine, which initially doesn't sound very cool, but it's actually a very unique site with a long history and a most-impressive interior decor.
     The salt mine has been in use since the 11th century and was the source of great wealth for Poland under king Kazimierz the Great.  The mine is unbelievably vast, including about 2000 large chambers, of which we saw about 20 on our 1.5 hour walking tour (443 feet down).  Walking around and licking walls is one thing, but the real draw to this site is the collection of statues and chapels that have been carved by miners since the 19th century.  Below are some photos of these impressive sculptures...........all entirely made of salt!

As you enter the mine your first task is to descend these steps as far down as you can see, and then some.  Not sure about the exact count, but it was hundreds.

The infrastructure of the mine is all wooden, as metal would corrode in this environment.

Literally all of the walls, ceiling, and floors were entirely lickable.......on second thought that's not so special because technically you could like any wall, ceiling, or floor, but these are all salt (around 95% pure if I remember right).

We were also encouraged to pluck salt crystals off of low-hanging ceilings to taste.  The test came back positive - it's salt!  Here I was contemplating how much better it would be if this were a sugar mine.

The first work that you come across is this sculpture of Nicolaus Copernicus (Mikolaj Kopernik in Polish, his home country).  This is the only work done by an artist from outside the mine.  He is beloved by his countrymen and is most famous for formulating the heliocentric theory - that the Earth revolves around the Sun, not vice versa.  He actually visited this mine in the 15th century.

So three miners spent the majority of their careers in the mine carving out chapels and adorning them with sculptures (mostly religious) and chandeliers such as this one.

St. Jadwiga (on left) was "king" of Poland succeeded Kazimierz the Great at the end of the 14th century and his regarded as a hero because she married a Lithuanian Prince Jagiello, thus uniting the two kingdoms against the Teutonic Knights (German crusaders basically).  She Christianized Lithuania, kicked off the Jagiellonian dynasty in Poland and was actually sainted by John Paul II in 1997.

The main attraction is this Chapel of St. Kinga.  It was carved in the early 20th century and is loaded with impressive Christian reliefs and sculptures.

John Paul II - probably the most beloved native of this devoutly Catholic nation.

Relief in the Chapel of St. Kinga - keep in mind that these were just talented miners who acted on a hobby, not Renaissance artists.

The Last Supper relief is one of the focus pieces here.

As you can see, this is not your stereotypical salt mine.  I definitely recommend stopping by this one-of-a-kind place if you find yourself in Krakow.  Let me know if you come across a sugar mine.


Sunday, April 15, 2012

Day Trip to Würzburg!

A few weeks back we decided to take a Saturday day trip to a city close by called Würzburg.  We even convinced two of our colleague friends, Dan and Gina, to come with us. It was a bit gray and cloudy but we made the best of it and surprising had a very lovely time. Würzburg is only about an hour and a half from Frankfurt and definitely worth a visit if you are in the area.

Justin and Dan highly interested in whatever Rick Steves is saying. We are outside the Residenz Palace. Only outside pictures no cameras inside. I will say it was pretty awesome inside though.

In the gardens

Nice Dan!

The whole gang

A front view of the Residenz Palace

This is Marketplatz with the Marienkapelle in the background

Inside the Marienkapelle

One thing we didn't know about Würzburg was its reputation for wine. Well to prove it we had to sample a few. And I will admit right here on the blog I had my first good German red wine. I usually stick to the Riesling or white wine in Germany but it is possible to have a good red, wish I could remember the name. A cool side fact about this Burgerspital Weinstubbe is that it was started to actually give back to the community as a charitable foundation. Today this Weinstubbe still supports 100 poor and elderly citizens of Würzburg

We walked the streets of Würzburg until we found the Old Main Bridge and decided to sample another wine.

Dan and Gina overlooking the Main river and Marienberg Fortress enjoying a nice glass of wine with the locals.

Even on a cloudy, cold day in Würzburg we managed to have a really nice trip and to sample a few good wines. If you are interested in learning more about German wine one of my fellow bloggers in Germany wrote a great piece here.


Friday, April 13, 2012

St. Patrick's Day 2012

I know this is totally late but we had such a good time that I thought I would share even if it is a month overdue.

In very impromptu fashion I decided the Wednesday before St. Patrick's Day that I wanted to throw a party in my 42 square meter apartment. I had seen an idea about a beer tasting party and I thought what better holiday to try it out on than St. Paddy's Day.  So we packed our tiny apartment with about 12 people and tasted a bunch of beer before heading down to the neighborhood Irish Pub.

The way it worked, everyone brought a beer and we gave it a number and people could try as many beers as they wanted and then ranked it on a 1-5 shamrock scale. In total I think we had about 17 beers including a true green one flavored with Waldmeister. Prizes were given to the top two beers (A taste of the rainbow, Skittles). We blared some of our favorite Irish tunes and had a great night while wearing green.

Getting all set up

In the midst of tasting and ranking

My last minute decorations... not too bad huh?

The aftermath

My creative efforts at making a ranking card

It turned out to be a really fun idea and I look forward to doing it again. It made for a night full of great conversation, opinions, and of course laughs.

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