Archive for June 10th, 2009

Visiting a Machine

Wednesday, June 10th, 2009

One element that sobered me about Auschwitz was the mass production of death. This was a well-oiled factory that churned out 1.5 million corpses. We’re talking efficiency on an unthinkable level. A phrase that stood out for me was “human liquidation.” The final solution liquidized a huge human population like a commodity, partially for its assets in manpower but generally merely to seemingly streamline the German population but disposing of those thought unfit. The unfit were, of course, humans with eternal souls.

The Third Reich assembled these people from across its occupied territory and generally funneled them through various concentration camps until their final destination behind gates of one of the three Auschwitz camps. Of the two standing camps, both have on their gates the sick slogan “Arbeit Macht Frei” (Work [Will Set You] Free). That this last false promise of hope, the factory began disassembling its victims with assembly line precision and heartlessness.

First, it stripped them of their possessions. At the smaller of the two camps, Konzentrationslager Auschwitz I, we walked past huge displays of suitcases, crutches, shoes, glasses, razors for shaving, shawls, pounds upon pounds of women’s hair, and even a few dolls, all meticulously confiscated in the camp’s machine. Personally, I struggled to remember that these were personal belongs of one living, breathing humans. They looked alien, even synthetic, behind their glass cases in the halogen lighting. Yet they were once owned by very real people, most of whom had no idea what the deportations would involve, many packed for normal life. There were preserved ticket stubs purchased by Italian Jews told Auschwitz was a Jewish settlement safe from the escalating tensions. They even bought tracts of nonexistent land to begin a new life. Instead, it have them either a single prison uniform, inadequate rations, and backbreaking labor, or the last “shower” of their lives. Between 70 and 75% of all those deposited at Auschwitz received the latter.

The Auschwitz machine also methodically stripped its prisoners of their rights and their human dignity. The reconstructed cabins at the larger Auschwitz II-Birkenau camp were not there to house the prisoners but merely to collect them. When we parked outside the camp’s main gate and slept there that night I tried to imagine the feelings of despair once felt by those on the other side of the electrified barbed wire. I failed miserably. If they were not sent directly to the gas chambers after exiting the trains, a small minority spent their days in inhuman conditions. Occasionally SS officers would have them transport huge piles of sand back and forth just for spite. They were programmed to view the prisoners as animals deserving this treatment. A pockmarked wall marked the many of these lives were ended if they refused to forfeit their humanity. Perhaps my life would have ended there if I had been born a European Jew in 1920.

When we toured the Birkenau barracks, I was struck by how barbaric the buildings would have been, especially after a new shipment of detainees arrived, cramming up to 3,000 people into buildings built for 500 max. One barrack housed young women, stuffing up to seventeen into each six foot wide bunk. They would have been piled on top of each other. Not that the camp was intended to collect people; it was intended as the final stop for the influx of Jews and the socially unacceptable into the Nazi industrial system. Train arrives full of cold, freightened people. Train departs empty. Workers mechanically separate the cargo, only 20-25%, the most healthy and fit, are allowed to live. The others, deemed unfit, were disposed of. Merely disposed of. The only biproducts were smoke from the crematoriums’ chimneys and ashes that still grey a pool near the Birkenau memorial. The efficiency of murdering an estimated 1.5 million was sickening; the last stop in Hitler’s diabolical machine to dehumanize and eliminate.


Light in the Darkness

Wednesday, June 10th, 2009

Just the name of Auschwitz can silence a pleasant conversation, especially among people who have visited it. The place has an aura of darkness and walking through it we were exposed time after time to stories of the absolute horrors humans beings visited on other human beings. To experience a place like this–especially as we did for an entire night outside Auschwitz-Birkenau then a full day in Auschwitz I and II–can block from your mind any glimmer of good.

But there was good in Auschwitz. From the very start of the camp as a containment facility for Polish dissidents, the local Poles from the town of Oświęcim–where Konzentrationslager Auschwitz was located–risked their lives for the sake of the prisioners. The only successful escapes were executed with the help of locals who risked death or, worse, becoming Auschwitz inmates themselves. As the camp grew and Auschwitz II (Birkenau) and III (Monowitz) were founded, the entire Polish population of Oświęcim was relocated to an area not far away and their homes were used as the barracks and houses of the SS and Gestapo who ran the camps.

Gestapo and SS could not stop the Poles from giving what assistance they could to the prisoners. Prisoners would arrive at their work stations to find bread and fruit hidden amongst the rocks. Poles dropped packages of food and medicine just in front of columns of marching inmates for them to use. It’s impossible to estimate how many lives were saved thanks to Polish assistance, but simply the fact that word got out to the Polish government-in-exile in London about the camps and, through them, to the world meant that the Allies were that much quicker in their liberation of the camp.

Even though fewer than 200 inmates escaped, the lives of those inside were made ever so slightly more bearable by the assistance of the good people on the outside. These heroes aren’t often talked about–the sheer scale of the operation in Auschwitz overshadows their meager victories–but the fact that there were some, even just a few, who cared enough to risk their lives for good means that, in the eternal sense, the accomplishments of the Polish citizens of Oświęcim far eclipses the numerically larger accomplishments of the Auschwitz camps. The story of their fight against insurmountable darkness deserves to be told every time the name “Auschwitz” is mentioned.

Daniel R Ziegler

Driving and Bread in Eastern Europe

Wednesday, June 10th, 2009

We left Latvia and crossed into Lithuania early in the morning of June 1, and drove to southern Lithuania. I (david) was unable to observe much about Lithuanian culture or scenery due to the fact that I was sleeping the entire time (plus the wee hours of the morning are do not give good representations of either, even if I had been awake). Dan pulled into a rest stop at 3:30 and we stayed stationary until a little after 9:00, at which point I drove as the others continued to sleep. The new “major” roads in both Latvia and Lithuania (the “major” road in northern Latvia that I talked about in my last post was not new) are still only two-lane highways, but they are treated as three-lane highways. These new roads are built with extremely wide shoulders, and slow cars will pull over to the side of the shoulder—almost completely to the right of the outside line—but continue driving at the same speed. The faster car then moves slightly to the left—just hanging over the center line—and moves around the car. If there are any on-coming cars, then they move over the outside line on their side as well, just to give plenty of room. The system really worked quite well, and I think that the road was wide enough for four cars to travel on it abreast, but I never saw it attempted.

We crossed into Poland and the new, wide roads were replaced with curvy, semi-truck laden, town strewn roads. It took me almost five hours to progress 200 miles in Poland. This was the antithesis of traveling on Poland’s next door neighbor Germany’s roads: the autobahn allows you to cut through Germany quickly and cleanly, like a knife. Using this comparison, driving in Poland felt like we were bludgeoning our way through the country. Having a left-hand drive in right-hand drive Europe is most inconvenient when trying to pass another vehicle; you are unable to see if there is an oncoming car until you are well into the other lane. Therefore, the person sitting in the passenger seat needs to pay attention and tell you when it is ok to pass. Matt would give me a thumbs-up signal to let me know when it was safe to pass a semi.

We found a cheap supermarket (Tesco) on the outskirts of Warsaw, so we stopped to replenish our food supply. Upon entering the store, we quickly realized that food would be extremely cheap, and the best deals were to be had on bread. We picked up bunches of really cheap breads—three types of smaller “bun sized” items that we used for making sandwiches, a big piece of braided sweet bread that was absolutely fantastic, and two giant loaves of regular bread. We also loaded up on pasta and other useful, healthy foods before continuing on our way.

Although Warsaw is Poland’s capital, it apparently does not have any interstate (called motorways in Europe because they are not connecting states like back home) running either around or through the city, so we were forced to crawl through the entire length of the city. Finally south of Warsaw we got on a four lane highway and were able to make better time down to Oswiecim—the city that houses the Auschwitz death camps. Altogether it took almost 10½ hours of driving time to get from where we spent the night in southern Lithuania to Auschwitz in southern Poland.

We parked outside of the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp and walked to the gate through which the train passed—and was made famous by appearing in Schindler’s List. As we stood by the gate, a group of young Orthodox Jews passed out of the complex singing a melancholy song. I had to wonder what they thought and felt as they were inside knowing that over one million of their fellow people were slain at this site only sixty-five years ago.

We decided to sleep in the car in the parking lot directly across from the Birkenau camp and made supper which consisted of sticky noodles which were almost impossible to clean off of the pot, so we filled the pot with water and let it sit out overnight. We put it on the lid of a metal trash can so we would not forget it when we woke up the next morning…except the next morning the pot was gone. We had been warned that there were a lot of thieves in Poland, but a cooking pot? That seemed unlikely. We then noticed that there was a new trash bag in the can and suddenly we knew what happened. The person who cleans up the parking lot must have thought that we wanted to throw the pot away, but it wouldn’t fit into the trash can so we simply left it on top (she must have ignored the fact that it was filled with water). I had already looked in the dumpster that was in the parking lot and did not see it, but we then decided that the clean-up lady would have put it in the trash bag before throwing it away. Dan went to check the trash bags in the dumpster and about five minutes later came back triumphantly holding the pot like he had just won it as a prize. We were all so relieved. The pot expands our culinary options exponentially and I already can hardly imagine making meals without it. (Don’t worry we did give the pot a vigorous cleaning before we used it again).

david miller

The Journey Home and Back

Wednesday, June 10th, 2009

My journey home began on Tuesday, May 26 at 6:27 AM in Gothenburg, Sweden. While we were in Bad Pyrmont, Simon Kolle gave a lot of his time to helping me get a train ticket from Copenhagen to Frankfurt. The plan was that we would explore south Sweden after which the guys would drop me off in Copenhagen, and then head back into Sweden to see Stockholm and catch their ferry to Estonia. Unfortunately, the only bridge from Denmark to Sweden costs € 30 to cross each time, meaning they would pay € 60 to drive from Sweden to Copenhagen and back to Sweden. We found a train that made the crossing for less than half that price.

From Gothenburg to Copenhagen took 3 1/2 hours. The trip from Copenhagen to Frankfurt was a little over 9 hours, leaving me at Frankfurt-Am-Maine a little after 9:00 PM. My flight went out at 12:05 PM the next day. During the next 15 hours I read, ate lots of McDonald’s, slept fitfully for 2 1/2 hours, read some more and had a pleasant conversation with 2 other Americans returning to the U.S.. My Canadian passport gave me no problems abroad until I tried to re-enter my home country. I had several moments where I was genuinely worried that I wouldn’t be allowed back in, at least not in time for the wedding. Happily everything was resolved and my flight touched down in Pittsburgh at 9:16 PM. By the time I arrived home it was past midnight, making the entire journey around 48 hours long, once Europe’s 6 hour time difference is taken into account.

It was amazing to be back in the good ol’ U.S.A.. Though reconnecting with loved ones was the best part of coming home, I spent a great deal of time pursuing less noble pleasures that are in-feasable or impossible on a trip bound by a limited budget. I slept on a comfortable couch (My bed being taken by guests visiting for the wedding), took showers as often as I wished, ate piles of food when ever I wanted, and drank gallons of Mt. Dew (Which is not sold in Europe). Yet the time with friends and family was the highlight of my brief stay. I spent most of my time with my wonderful fiance, Emily, though other highlights include watching and playing basketball with my friends. My sister Marina’s wedding, the entire reason for my return, was worth the effort and expense involved in attending. It was also good to see one of my best friends, Andrew, and a close cousin, Darren, just before they left on long journeys of their own.

The week passed in the blink of an eye and before I knew it I was on my way back to Pittsburgh, flying to catch the plane before it left at 3:15 PM. The flight to Frankfurt was almost disappointingly non-eventful, landing an hour early at 8:35 AM. A bit after 10:00 I started catching local trains (Instead of the far more expensive ICE) from Frankfurt to Berlin where I would rendezvous with Dan, Matt and David. As I sat alone on the trains I found myself missing home quite severely. My train came into Berlin Hbf at 7:46 PM. The return trip lasted a merciful 33 hours. My home sickness faded somewhat when I was reunited with the guys and we explored the streets of Berlin, passing the Reichstag, Brandonburg Gate, and walking along the path where the Berlin Wall once stood guard over Communist east Berlin. I had so much to see and home would be waiting for me at the end.

My brief interlude in the U.S. taught me several important things; even McDonalds is delicious if its the first American food you have had in a month; contrary to what I have staunchly believed my entire life, I actually enjoy Coke; I need more than my driver’s license to re-enter the U.S. with a Canadian passport; no matter how amazing your journey is and how memorable your experiences are abroad, returning, in the end, to the comfort, love and security of home trumps all. But that will come in due time! For the moment, keep us all in your prayers as we continue to see the world!

Daniel Shenk