Tag Archives: experience

Auschwitz III

This is the last of 3 related postings regarding Auschwitz.  The first post is available here and the second here.

The last selection took place on October 30, 1944. In September Heinrich Himmler, Reichsführer of the SS, ordered the crematoria destroyed before the advancing Soviet Army reached the camp. The gas chambers of Birkenau were blown up by the SS in January 1945 in an attempt to hide their crimes.

Large rectangular concrete bunker in the ground with roof collapsed

Gas Chamber with Collapsed Roof

The SS command sent orders on January 17, 1945 calling for the execution of all prisoners remaining in the camp, but in the chaos of the Nazi retreat the order was never carried out. They did try to evacuate the camp though.  Nearly 60,000 prisoners were forced on a death march toward a camp in Wodzisław Śląski, over 60 kilometers away.  Many never made it.  On January 27, 1945, Auschwitz was liberated by Soviet troops.

Twisted concrete and metal amid a field of debris

Remains of a Crematorium blown up by the Nazis

On November 24, 1947, the Polish Supreme National Tribunal in Krakow began the trial of only 41 of the over 6,000 Nazis who worked at Auschwitz.  It took less than a month.  23 death sentences were issued, as well as 16 imprisonments.  Commandant Höss was found hiding among the German civilian population.  He was tried, found guilty of numerous war crimes, and then hung on a gallows specifically erected for this purpose, in a place just between the home he shared with his wife and children and the first gas chamber at Auschwitz I.

Simple wooden gallows with 4 steps on grass with green trees in background

Gallows built to execute Commandant Rudolf Höss

Visiting the Memorial

In 1947, Poland founded a museum on the site of Auschwitz I and II.  It receives about 1.3 Million visitors annually.  Why do they come?  Why did I come?  I had already been to see 2 other concentration camps in Germany, Dachau and Buchenwald.

Visitors to Auschwitz I are required to go on a guided tour.  It includes the grounds, several of the barracks (including Block 11), and the first gas chamber and crematorium.  Particularly shocking are the exhibitions showing the confiscated belongings of inmates found by the Soviet liberators.  These include hundreds of eye glasses in a tangled pile, thousands of pairs of shoes, a room full of prosthetic limbs, a huge pile of suitcases (many with the names of their owners written on the sides), a 30 meter (98 ft.) long room filled with 2 tonnes of human hair, and nearby a display of the products made from this hair.

Pile of old leather suitcases (brown and black) with names written on the side in white paint

Suitcases of some of those who died

Some of the prosthetic limbs were from German Jews, veterans of World War I who fought for their country, only to be killed by the Nazis 25 years later. We also saw baby clothes and dolls of some children murdered here.  These items really brought home the humanity of the victims.  They were not just statistics, but real people just like us, who had children to be consoled, who wore shoes and who needed glasses.

While visiting we observed several other groups that were obviously Jewish.  We saw a group of Israeli military with the Star of David on their uniforms and a group of young men in black dress pants and white shirts wearing yamikas who were accompanied by a rabbi.  I wondered how many Jewish people are drawn to this place, to see what happened here.  How surreal must this be for them.  Notably, the signs at Birkenau II are in Polish, English, and in Hebrew.

There were many more visitors here than when we went to Dachau or Buchenwald, partly because it was a week with 2 national holidays, a week when many Poles take time off work.  When we arrived, there were touts trying to direct cars and buses to their private parking areas.  The staging area where people purchased tickets and waited for their guides was crowded and loud, too busy to encourage self-reflection at the start of the tour.  After this point, all visitors to Auschwitz I wear headsets to hear their guides’ voices transmitted wirelessly.  The barracks were similarly crowded with visitors, and the logistics of keeping our group together and on pace was distracting.  The whole thing had a feeling of mass-production.  For me, I could begin to reflect upon things only when we reached the quieter, open spaces of Auschwitz II-Birkenau.

Many visitors passing through gate with words 'Arbeit Macht Frei' (Work will make you free) above

Many visitors enter the gates of Auschwitz I.

The guide’s narrative was fast-paced and direct.  He did not pull any punches, rely on subtle differentiations, or utilize any euphemisms.  This surprised me because there were some young children in our group.  I wondered how many of them really understood what he was talking about.

Why did I visit another camp?  Perhaps because Auschwitz was different.  It was an extermination camp, the largest and the most infamous.  Why did I want to visit it?  Certainly not because my wife wanted to.  She went only at my request.  Perhaps it’s because I still can’t get my head around it.  I understand something of Nazi doctrine and how many Germans were seduced by it.  Hitler told them they were special, that he could fix their problems quickly, and he offered them someone else to blame.  I’ve studied the research that demonstrates that ordinary people can and will do terrible things to one another with the slightest institutional inducement.  The German people were not evil nor special in this regard.  Most of them didn’t know what was happening in the extermination camps.  The whole thing just seems so surreal to me.  The huge numbers of people killed make it hard to conceptualize.  The horrific acts almost impossible to imagine.

Today the confines of Auschwitz II-Birkenau are green and grassy.  It is surrounded by birch trees. When we visited, the sun was shining, the birds were singing, and there was a warm breeze.  This made it difficult to visualize what happened here.  Of course, when the camp was operational, there was no grass, only mud, due to the large numbers of prisoners occupying the space.

Grassy area surrounded by a fence with a guard tower and trees beyond.

Today the fence and guard tower overlook grass and trees at Birkenau.

For all these reasons, I found my trip to Auschwitz to be less emotional than my previous visits to other concentration camp sites in Germany.   Perhaps it’s a coping mechanism to allow the contemplation of such atrocities?

Auschwitz is a place where murder took place on an industrial scale with the goal of eliminating an entire race of people.  The scariest and saddest thing is that, albeit with cruder methods, similar things have happened since in other places (e.g. Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Sudan).  Will we ever evolve to the point where such atrocities don’t happen?

This is the last of 3 related postings about Auschwitz. The first post is available here and the second here.

Europe Phase 1

After a brief stop in Southampton to visit family, we made it back safely to Canada in time for Christmas. We’re still dealing with the jet lag and trying to get used to the cold. We have our car insured and cell phone activated and we’re staying with generous friends until we return to Europe soon for Phase 2. We’re looking forward to spending time with family and friends over the holidays, and getting back in shape.

When contemplating Europe we anticipated rich history, grand sights, interesting culture, and great food. We experienced all of these things. We knew that travel would be much easier than in the developing world, and it was, despite some bad weather and vehicle problems. We had hoped, against the odds, for nicer weather. After the first week of September, temperatures where we traveled ranged from 2 to 23 degrees Celsius. Pleasant enough if it’s not raining, but cold at night. We were glad that we brought our down coats and gortex jackets! Phase 2 should be warmer and drier.

Because of the cold weather, we spent less time enjoying the nature of Europe and more time in the cities. We look forward to more hiking and for Patrick, climbing and mountaineering, when we return. Also the beautiful alpine views, great beaches, and swimming in the lakes and oceans.

We met fewer people (locals and tourists) than on previous trips because we were traveling by RV (i.e. not staying in hotels, not eating out as much, and only staying in campgrounds some of the time). In Phase 2, we will make more of a conscious effort to connect with people. If you have friends or family in Europe, we would love to meet them. We don’t expect anything, and would greatly appreciate the opportunity to get to know the people of Europe. If you’re thinking of traveling to Europe next summer, let us know and perhaps we can meet up?

Despite leaving a bunch of stuff in the S&M Motel, we found that our backpacks were crammed for the return trip. I’m not sure how this is possible when the only thing that I purchased in 4 months was Bombay Sapphire (gin) at the duty free store. Perhaps Diane’s new boots and clothes are the reason.

During our hiatus we’ll focus on planning for next year, getting our finances in order, getting back in shape, and spending time with family and friends. I will continue to blog. I’ve got a lot of postings partially written that I will finish and share, and lots more ideas. If you’re following the blog, please stay subscribed. As always, your comments on the blog are greatly appreciated.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Things we’ve learned while traveling

We’ve learned a lot while traveling. We have seen and experienced so much that it’s hard to process everything, but here are some of the things that we think that we will stick with us….

  • How to sleep in our clothes.
  • How to ride an elephant.
  • How to make Tibetan and Thai food.
  • Things are never quite what we expect, but are always interesting in their own way and we are frequently surprised.
  • Potato chips come in many weird flavours in other parts of the world, for example seaweed, tomato sauce, buttered corn, masala, ham and cheese.
  • There is virtually no limit to the number of times one’s sandals can be repaired.
  • A family of five and their dog can ride on a single motor scooter.
  • Being a foreigner is sometimes an advantage, but never in the pocketbook.
  • You can never have too much toilet paper or mosquito repellant.
  • We can live much more simply than we do. We have way too much stuff.
  • We are extremely fortunate to have been born and to live in Canada.
  • When we work together, we’re a very strong team.
  • Our comfort zone expands quickly to adapt to our environment.
  • We can say ‘no’ to people in desperate need, but we often feel guilty afterwards.
  • Domestic animals have a really poor life in the third world.
  • In the third world, a soft mattress is hard to find.
  • It’s significantly more expensive to travel in Africa than in India. South East Asia costs a bit more than India.
  • Traveling in Africa was the most difficult, followed by India and Egypt which are about the same in difficulty. By comparison, it is relatively easy to travel in Jordan, Nepal, and South East Asia.
  • Eat where and what the locals eat. Street food is much cheaper and often better.
  • Traveling is better than working.
  • Everyone speaks more languages than Canadians do.
  • Local transportation is always cheaper if you walk away from the bus or train station or the tourist attraction first.
  • Not all 3-wheelers are created equal. There are many varieties and configurations in Asia. The tuk-tuks in Thailand, with front shocks and rear springs, are deluxe compared to those in India.
  • Traveling light is the only way to go. Sometimes even a small pack seems like too much.
  • Taking with a small notebook computer was a great idea.
  • Television is a brain sucking device. When we have it, we watch it. When we don’t have it, we don’t miss it. Perhaps we’re addicted, because despite this, we’re nowhere near ready to give it up.
  • White people want to be darker and dark people want to be whiter.
  • Sunscreen is expensive everywhere because only white people and wealthy Asians use it.
  • Seeing sights is a bit like collecting things. Having experiences and developing relationships is much more rewarding.
  • Life is short. We are all dying. Time is our most precious commodity. We should therefore spend our time doing things we are passionate about.
  • We don’t own our possessions. We are just their custodians for a period of time.
  • Worry is an energy drain. If we can fix something, there is no need to worry about it. If we can’t fix it, there is also no need to worry.
  • Life is lived on the edge. Calculated risk taking and actively pursuing our fears is where we live our richest lives.
  • We can be together 24×7 for a very long time and still want to be together.
  • We really love and appreciate our family and friends. We have a lot of people who love us.

Things we’ve learned in India

We’ve learned a lot in India. Yes we’ve learned about India and its peoples, but we’ve also learned about ourselves. Here are some of the things we’ve picked up…

  • Indian people that know about Canada think that it’s a good country.
  • Indian culture, religion, language, and food are far more exotic and varied than what we experience in Vancouver, which originates mostly from a single state in India called Punjab.
  • People in India basically want what we have in North America, but it doesn’t seem feasible or sustainable for a billion more people to live like we do.
  • India appears to be on the verge of an environmental meltdown. The average person doesn’t appear to have any understanding, appreciation, or care for their environment. It is the norm to dispose of garbage on the street or ground (even in parks) and out the windows of vehicles and trains.
  • It’s much easier to be a vegetarian if you live in India.
  • Even though we’re not fit right now, we’re fitter than most Indian people.
  • If you’re down to two pairs of underwear, don’t lose a pair on a bus.
  • Don’t play solitaire on a moving boat if you want to keep all your cards.
  • Just because you’re next in line doesn’t mean that you’re next.
  • Sometimes four showers a day isn’t quite enough.
  • A family of four can ride on a single motorcycle.
  • Not all towels are created equal.
  • Just because a man sells Patrick some underwear, doesn’t mean that they are men’s underwear.
  • Just because an Indian transvestite isn’t looking at you, doesn’t mean that he/she won’t grab for your crotch.
  • Every day spent traveling in India is interesting.
  • Three months isn’t long enough to really see the country.
  • Three months was the right amount of time for us. We are ready for our next adventure.