Posts Tagged ‘WWII’

West to Berlin

Friday, June 12th, 2009

It was a quiet trip for a few hours on that Tuesday (2/6) as we left Auschwitz behind us, we were all engrossed in our own thoughts. Soon, our life was back to normal. Polish music radio was blaring from the speakers, we were talking about what we were going to cook for lunch and what our plans were for picking Dan up in Berlin, etc., etc.

We slept that night in the car–it’s easier to sleep in a car with only 3 people we discovered–at a rest stop about 1 hour outside of Berlin. The next morning we were up and going pretty early, heading into Berlin where we parked across the street from the Deutsche Opera Berlin and began the walk down town. We had parked quite a distance from center city to save money–and we did! Parking for €1 an hour can’t be beat!

We stopped at a Kaiser and picked up some tomatoes and some cheap Gouda cheese. We were about to check out when Matt spotted some delicious-looking chocolate pudding cups for 19¢ each! We bought four and, later that day with some spoons we had requested at McDonalds (Thank you McDonalds!) enjoyed them immensely. They seemed to be made with real chocolate and real cream!

We left the store and, after another 20 minutes or so of walking, stopped at a Gravis/Apple store to get some internet to check for email from Dan giving his exact arrival time and also to check prices for a power cable for my Mac.

My power cable had exploded all over Matt the day before* leaving me with a computer that, no matter how cool it looks, how good its operating system, and how high its technical specs, did me no good. We checked power cables at the Gravis store. €89. Not gonna work. So we tried a last-ditch effort to get in touch with my family and Dan and get them to find my backup power cord (which I had unfortunately forgotten to bring with me).

I emailed my family with a plea and then called Dan who said he was about to leave but he would see what he could do. Then, we waited and, since there wasn’t anything else we could do, we went and explored Berlin. We walked through the main park south to see if we could find an Aldi somewhere. No one knew were one was and it took us about an hour and a half to find one. During that time we did find some free oranges and the world-famous Berlin Zoo (home of Knut, the captive-born polar bear!).

We ate lunch outside a convention center near the Zoo while the rain poured down for half an hour. We also saw “The Broken Tooth,” a church almost completely destroyed by the Allies during the bombing of Berlin, leaving only the church spire, broken off at the top.

Then we walked back into the park emerging at a Burger King right near the Column of Victory topped with a statue made with melted cannons of the defeated French after one of the Prussian victories during the Franco-Prussian wars. It had begun to rain and we holed up in one of the underground pedestrian tunnels that leads to the column where Matt and David had a jam session with their echoes.

When the rain let up a bit we left and headed east toward the Brandenburg Gate, walking again through the park. We popped out this time to be greeted by the muzzles of two large Russian tanks. Thankfully they were just part of the Russian Soldiers’ Memorial, remembering the thousands of Russian soldiers killed during their drive to Berlin. Oddly the day before we had followed much the same route the Russians had followed from Poland to Berlin, we just did it much faster and with fewer casualties.

We then walked to the Brandenburg Gate, followed the path of the Wall, and saw the Reichstag. Then we headed south through the park emerging at the Homosexual Memorial across from the Holocaust Memorial and headed south to Potsdam Platz where we saw the magnificent Sony Center. It was mostly closed except for the restaurants serving extremely expensive food, so we went back to our car and cooked some of our extremely inexpensive, and likely almost as delicious, food.

We slept that night at another rest stop about 15 minutes outside of Berlin in the direction of Leipzig.

The next day (3/6) we went back into town, found a parking spot for just as cheap but a bit further away from town this time, stopped at the Gravis store to check our email (nothing from Dan or my family about the power cord. We were hoping that meant it was on its way) and went to the Zoo. It was a bit expensive to get into the zoo (€12 pp) but for me at least it was worth it. They have the most species of animals of any zoon in the world and, while it is more cramped than the Columbus Zoo, being in the middle of the city, very good exhibits. We spent about 6 hours there and, as far as we knew, were the last ones out that evening.

We picked up Dan at 2115 that evening, walked the Wall, checked out the Brandeburg Gate all lit up and went and saw the Reichstag. Then, back to the same rest stop for the night.

Daniel R. Ziegler

* OK, so, the cord got frayed inside the sheath so it heated up and it broke through the plastic and ceased conducting power. Matt wasn’t even slightly burned or electrocuted. Boring. But it did look like it had exploded, and Matt was using it during the time that this all took place. Isn’t it more exciting to say it exploded all over Matt?

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.

Matt

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

The Lowlands

Saturday, May 30th, 2009

Between the two fields, we awoke Wednesday morning (19/5) had some Harvest Morn bars and packed up our stuff. David had slept outside the night before so his sleeping bag was a bit damp, but it was a bright morning and we soon had everything dried out. So, we started north toward Brussels.

The Belgian countryside is quite nice, but rather unremarkable. Rolling hills and fields, lots of agriculture, and small farming towns. Politically, the country is a bit divided, but not violently so. The conflict centers around Belgium’s relationship with their neighbors. With French and Walloon (a French dialect) spoken in the south and Flemish (a Dutch dialect) in the north, there is sometimes a pull by the French-speaking areas to tighten their relationship with France. A few years ago, a francophilic member of government accidentally sang the French national anthem instead of the Belgian national anthem in front of the press and caused an uproar.

Belgium is also the seat of government for the EU which has its quite impressive and modern headquarters in Brussels. We parked in Brussels near the center of town and visited the main market square, surrounded by beautiful, tall buildings, and visited Manneken Pis, a small, eternally urinating statue. We then sauntered through town past the national library, the palace and the surrounding park and arrived at EU headquarters. The headquarters complex is a feat of modern engineering. Not as ostentatious as, say, the Scottish Parliament building, but impressive nonetheless. In the first courtyard, the four surrounding buildings are connected by a raised, circular walkway. In that courtyard is the main entrance and also an information center. We explored the outside of the building then headed back to the center of town where we had seen a waffle shop.

Belgian waffles are an experience unlike any other. The mass-produced Eggo contrivances pale to cardboard in comparison with real, hand-made Belgian waffles drizzled with chocolate or strawberry or piled high with whipped-cream or fruit. One by one we went up to the little window and ordered our treats. Mine with chocolate; Matt’s with kiwi, strawberry, and banana slices; David’s with strawberries; and Dan had two: one powdered sugar and one chocolate. After his first, Dan exclaimed “I will never look at waffles the same” and promptly bought another.

Dan and I had recently read an “historical” article in our favorite satirical newspaper (The Onion) about how Belgians had halted World War II German advances by serving the attacking forces waffles until they could attack no more. We were certainly fully satiated by these delicious morsels, partly because our appetites have shrunk from not feeding ourselves as often or as much as we had at home, but also because Belgian waffles are rightfully famous.

Anyway, after our confection break we piled back into our mud-covered, semi-stunning Passat and headed toward Amsterdam by way of Antwerpen. We didn’t have a lot of time so we just stopped to send and receive some emails and Matt and I each ordered a half-pint of famous Belgian beer each. Matt did not enjoy the taste of his, but did appreciate the experience. I, however, had ordered one brewed by the Belgian Trappist Monks of Grimbergen since 1128 and enjoyed it quite a bit.

At that point David got an email inviting us to join the youth group at in Bad Pyrmont for hamburgers “American Style”. That event, however, was to take place on Thursday evening at 17:00 and we hadn’t planned on being in Bad Pyrmont until Wednesday so, we had to book it. We left that afternoon and got into Amsterdam early that evening.

Amsterdam is a city with the feel of a small town. We pulled in the day before a national holiday (although we didn’t know it at the time) and the streets at 22:30 were full of families on bikes, couples walking hand-in-hand along the canals, and groups of friends relaxing at outdoor cafés. There were a few street performers out, and hundreds and hundreds of bicycles. We saw the Anne Frank house, the national museum, the Hotel America, and generally took in the feel of the town. We left late that night and went north along the Noord-Holland peninsula toward Friesland. We camped that evening at a parking spot just off the road.

The next day we spent the day driving through northern and eastern Netherlands seeing the dikes, windmills (most of which were modern wind generators, but there were a few old-style mixed in). We stopped at a small town called Oldeberkoop (founded in 1105), visited the local church (built in 1125), saw a county fair, and watched some handball games at a sports camp. Then, we were on our way again. We passed into Germany an hour or so later driving straight to Münster.

Münster is the city where, during the Anabaptist reformation, several Anabaptists set up a small kingdom, took biblical names and proclaimed themselves prophets. They then proceeded to rule with impunity from biblical laws killing people who rejected their claims and, when the city was besieged, led the men in a brutal fight. This led to a shortage of men and polygamy broke out. All in all a bad situation, and really not very good for Anabaptists or Christian witness. In the end, when the besieging army finally broke through, the bodies of the three leaders were hung in cages from the tower of the town church and the cages remain to this day. A rather gruesome history, but a nice city.

From Münster we went northwest toward Bad Pyrmont and, after being thrown off our route by construction twice, we eventually made it into town and, using a stray wifi signal eventually worked out where David’s friends lived and made it there at about 17:45, just 45 minutes late.

Daniel Z