Holocaust


Iconic gate at Auschwitz

Iconic gate at Auschwitz

Today (6/24/15) we headed out for Auschwitz I. On the way, Alex Kor shared more about his parents. Since we had heard from Eva, he wanted to share about his dad’s life. His dad Mickey was the youngest of four brothers. He was born in Riga, Latvia, where he had difficult experiences with anti-Semitism. One of the first was with his brother who was in the Latvian army. While out on a ship, he was thrown over board when his shipmates found out he was Jewish. A while later, his father was shot in the street. His mother and the three remaining brothers were put in the Latvian ghetto. Eventually, they were taken to Rumbula, Latvia. After a while in the ghetto, they were marched out and formed into two lines: One with women and younger children; One with older boys. Mickey wanted to go with his mother. At the last minute, his mom pushed him into the line with his two brothers. Mickey hadn’t known what would happen, but all the women and children were taken out and shot. His mother had unwittingly saved his life.

Eva and Alex Kor at Liberation site, Auschwitz

Eva and Alex Kor at Liberation site, Auschwitz

Another of Mickey’s brothers experienced a scene like in Unbroken where prisoners were forced to carry a log and if they put it down, they’d be killed.  If they made it to a point and back, they’d be killed then.  Mickey’s brother carried the log, came back, hit the Nazi guard knocking him out, and escaped. Mickey himself was sent on the death march. At one point, he ran zig zag from the Nazis and hid in a hole in the ground. The next day, Americans bombed the area. Mickey stayed hidden for three to five hours.  Then, he heard a language he didn’t recognize and took a chance and came out with his hands up. It was the American army.  The commander (Neff) gave him a coke, which he would thereafter associate with freedom. Later, they used Mickey as a navigator since he knew the area. When the war was over, he wrote letter to Neff looking for place to live. Neff found him a place in his hometown of Terre Haute, Indiana, where Mickey could finish high school (He was as 17 at the time.)  Mickey wanted to become a pharmacist, so he went to ISU. John Wooden became his gym teacher and Basketball coach. He taught Mickey a hook shot shot–the same shot he taught Kareem Abdul Jabbar. To this day, Mickey still loves basketball. He then went to Purdue, and is still a loyal fan. When Mickey went to Israel to visit his brother, everything would change.  He met Eva and married her a short time later, though they didn’t speak the same language. (Eva jokes that Mickey thought she was quiet–he didn’t realize they just couldn’t communicate!)

Eva at the same spot she was 71 years ago in the liberation photos

Eva at the same spot she was 71 years ago in the liberation photos

The Neff family became adopted grandparents to the couple’s two children. Mickey, though, didn’t really talk about his experiences in the Holocaust until Eva opened the CANDLES museum. He used to tell Alex he played ping pong against the Nazis. Finally, a man from town came in with his class. He asked Mickey where Eva was because he wanted Eva to speak to his class.  He didn’t know Mickey was a survivor. Mickey shared the coke story of his escape from the Nazis. Later, the kids from the class brought him a six pack of coke.  That six pack is still on display at the Museum.  When the museum was fire bombed, the same students brought him another six pack.

Alex is often asked what it is like to be a child of holocaust survivors. (He mentioned this is his fourth trip to Auschwitz in eleven months. And he has been here 14-15 times.)  He shared that he had a normal childhood for the most part. But, growing up, Terre Haute had very few if any Jews and  no Holocaust survivors. Alex learned how to blend in with Gentiles and his relatives in Israel, so being Jewish didn’t really affect him until about 5-6 grade.  He loved sports as a child, and one day his class was doing a swimming event. Afterwards, Alex was taking a shower, and a few kids started hitting him with towels in the shower. They called him dirty Jew. It was the first time he’d experienced Antisemitism personally.  His Mom called principal who punished the boys, but for the first time, Alex became aware that not all people like Jews.

Eva indicates her Auschwitz tatoo

Eva indicates her Auschwitz tatoo

Then, on Halloween, it was a normal event for kids to throw corn at people’s doors and run away.  His dad ignored it, but to Eva, it was reminiscent of the bullying the Nazis used to do, and it also made her angry because her dad had also ignored the bullying she experienced. Eva used to hide behind trees and chase the  kids down. This only increased the antisemitism.  People started painting swastikas on their house. His mom called the parents of the kids, and the parents excused the behavior, saying the boys were just having fun.  No one really knew any Holocaust survivors. Finally, Eva decided to give a lecture to the 5-6 grades. She wasn’t as eloquent as she is now, and it was pretty rough.  She had hoped to make a difference, but things didn’t change. In 7th grade, things were bad enough that Eva had the idea to move, but instead, she decided to go to Israel in October to ignore the Halloween issue.  She did this every year for several years until things quieted down for the family.

Eva pictured far right (Miriam is cut out of this shot)

Eva pictured far right (Miriam is cut out of this shot)

As a 7/8 grader, Alex hated his parents because he wanted them to be like other kids’ parents. He asked questions about what had happened. His dad made jokes, but his mom answered his questions. He knew why she was affected like she was, but he still didn’t understand why she couldn’t just turn it off. Then, in ninth grade, his class was watching a video for Holocaust Remembrance Day.  Eva recognized her sister in the children photos (Interestingly, she initially saw Miriam before herself because she didn’t know what she had looked like at the time, but was used to looking at Miriam.) Then, in 1978, a local station ran a Holocaust series. Someone at the Television station asked Eva to be there for the beginning and bring the family for the end. At end of series was footage of a  little boy playing with soccer. When he saw it, Mickey started bawling.  It was at this time Alex realized that his dad didn’t talk about what happened because it affected him so badly.

When Alex came to Auschwitz for the first time in 1985, it was not so much that he was affected by what his mom went through here, but more that he’s proud of what his mom and dad have done with their lives despite the fact that everyone made fun of them.  Their story impacted his own in a more powerful way in 1987.

Infirmary where twins were measured and compared.

Infirmary where twins were measured and compared.

The year after Alex started podiatrist school, he started feeling sick. He wondered if he might have a hernia. When he saw his parents’ doctor, the doctor thought Alex had cancer and recommended for him to see urologist. It took a while, but Alex finally went. He had surgery and found out he had testicular cancer. The cancer had gone to his lungs as well.  He was stage 2. His mom sat him down and said, “Look, Dad’s a survivor, I’m a survivor, and you’re going to be a survivor too.”  This advice helped him handle the experience.

When we arrived at Auschwitz I, Eva shared that she used to walk the hour trek from Birkenau to Auschwitz three times a week. In all the time in the camp, she never noticed the words above the gate–they were too high. We started out our time in the camp with the opportunity to walk with Eva through the place where the iconic liberation photo was taken.  She rejoices in the opportunity to recall that she has defeated Dr. Mengele and his henchmen for not only surviving, but returning to share her victory with others.  Eva then took us to the infirmary where the twins were tested.  She explained to us that this was so degrading, that she mentally checked out when she was here, so she didn’t have much memory of evens in this building.

Two prisoners:  one smiles, one scowls

Two prisoners: one smiles, one scowls

After an amazing lunch at Art Deco, we returned to tour the camp with Symon.  He also started us at the gate, explaining that musicians played when prisoners marched in and out. It set a rhythm for the prisoners and allowed the guards to more easily count them.  One women said when she hears Strauss, she has to turn it off immediately because it takes her back to Auschwitz.

We then walked through a building that explained the typical living conditions in Auschwitz.  Auschwitz became largest death camp. At least 1.3 million people were deported to Auschwitz, and 1.1 million died here.  One of the things that most fascinated me in this area was the hundreds of prisoner “mug shots.”

Two prisoners:  One with a black eye;  one defiant

Two prisoners: One with a black eye; one defiant

I was captivated by the eyes of the prisoners and took the opportunity to look at each one in the eyes.  The differences were incredible.  Each photograph told the name of the person and their fate, but the eyes were what was most interesting.  Some were scared, some solemn, others lifeless, a few angry or defiant.  Some looked off camera while a rare few had a trace of a smile.  What were they thinking in those moments?  Some already bore traces of abuse–black eyes, like the man pictured right or bloody head wounds.  Each one with a story we will never fully know.  For me, this exhibit made the Holocaust a lot more personal.

Lilly Jacob photo:  Prisoner and new arrival in conversation

Lilly Jacob photo: Prisoner and new arrival in conversation

Another photograph that captured our attention was one of the Lilly Jacob photos.  Lilly was initially in Auschwitz, but on the day of her liberation, she had a small miracle.  In the Dora Concentration Camp, she found a photo album in an abandoned SS building.  The photo album contained not only a photograph of her family as they arrived on the selection platform, but around 208 other photographs of events in the camp. Many of these are displayed around Auschwitz and Birkenau.  But, in the corner of one of the pictures is an interesting detail that caught my imagination.  On the platform, you can see a prisoner and a new arrival in close conversation.  Maybe they knew each other, maybe not, but I wonder what they were talking about all the same.  Did he try to warn her of what was about to take place?  I know we’ll never know–another moment of humanity that will remain a mystery.

From here, we went to another area which had proof of the crimes committed during the Holocaust.  These are the iconic photos I had been waiting to see in real life–the piles of shoes, eye glasses, and other items from “Canada” that were found by the Soviet army.  Despite having seen photographs, I was in no way prepared for the magnanimity of the items.

Prosthetics from Canada I

Prosthetics from Canada I

There were two tons of human hair–the shavings of 50, 000 people. The sheer size of this was astronomical.  And this was only a portion.  Additionally, there were 40,000 pairs of shoes. But, one thing that really made it personal was a conversation I had with Linda from our team.  Linda has cerebral palsy.  While she has to use a walker and has difficulty speaking and hearing, she chose to come on this trip to learn about how Hitler treated the handicapped.  After visiting this area, I went outside and noticed Linda sitting in the golf cart (waiting for Eva).  Since we were all waiting, I went to talk to her.  I asked if she had gone up to see things because there were three flights of stairs in the building.  She said that she had because this is what she came to see.  She too was struggling to understand this aspect of the war that was very personal to her.  Tearfully, she asked,  “What did we ever do to them to make them do this to us?” It’s a fair question.  Another emotional area was the items belonging to small children.  Truly impossible to understand.

Shooting Wall

Shooting Wall

In the next area, we saw a barracks that was divided into 28 rooms. In here, Nazis experimented with different methods of torture. There was a standing room, a starvation room, and a room where they tested Zyklon B before using it on the prisoners. They selected 800 prisoners and sent them to the basement in September 1941. The windows were used to throw in the Zykoln B. In the morning, a few were still alive, so they repeated the process.  Another form of torture was starvation.  Sometimes, the SS selected 10 prisoners to go to the starvation cell. Maximillian Kolbe, a Catholic priest, sacrificed his life as a substitute for another prisoner.  Just outside is the shooting wall.  Germans falsified documents of those they shot here, calling it a heart attack. Two prisoners were chained to wall. Then, the Germans shot them in head. If something happened on outside, like a resistance or someone got away, other prisoners would pay the price.  There were also posts where prisoners hands were tied behind their backs and strung up to a post.

Gallows

Gallows

Finally, there was a gallows where they hung escapees to teach a lesson to the others.  Symon told the story of two prisoners who were called outside the camp to fix a piano.  The SS had escorted them in, but by the time they were finished, the SS had left. The Polish prisoners had to decide whether to run or not. Symon asked what we would do.  Most of us said we’d run.  He explained the guards chose not to escape. One of them tried to start talking about it, but the other interrupted. “If you escape, I’ll be murdered. If we escape, they’ll find my sister and kill her.”  This was one of the things prisoners had to consider, and why the prisoners chose to go back.  He then told the story of four guys who escaped. (This story is in Auschwitz Escape as well)  There were three Poles and one Ukrainian. They managed to steal the commandant’s car, SS uniforms, and various other supplies. Because one of them spoke fluent German, they were able to drive right out of the camp.  They escaped in 1943, and still had to hide out til the war was over.  Even then, their mothers were found and sent to Auschwitz instead, where they would be killed.  Ironically, Rudolf Hess, the commandant whose car they had stolen, changed name and lived as farmer after the war.  He was later recognized and was tried in Nuremberg. Then, he was sent to Poland, where he would be executed on this same gallows.

Gas chamber and Cremetorium

Gas chamber and Crematorium

Finally, we made our way to the Gas chamber and Crematorium.  The Crematorium was opened before gas chamber because prior to The Final Solution, the Germans merely needed a way to dispose of prisoners who had died in the camp. After testing Zyklon B, this was exclusively what they used in the Gas chambers.

As we were leaving, two Jewish men and a class of students came into the crematorium where they sang a song in Hebrew.  The students were so affected that one girl started sobbing uncontrollably.  It is truly a dark and horrific place.

But, like Eva before us, we were able to walk out of the camp.  We will return on Friday to experience more of both Birkenau and Auschwitz I.

Galacia Jewish Museum

Galacia Jewish Museum

We ended our evening with dinner and music at the Galacia Jewish Museum.  Here, I had the opportunity to sit with Eva and discuss all manners of subjects.  One interesting story she shared with us was of how she spent free time in the camp.  In addition to shaping knitting needles out of barbed wire, she told about the games the lady in charge of them used to make them play, which were songs that bullied members of their group.  While the girl twins had it rough, Eva shared the story of Zvi Speigal, known as the Twins’ Father.  He was in charge of the twin boys and somehow, he convinced Dr. Mengele to let him give them more food.  In addition to that, he also made them learn each others’ names, taught them arithmetic and geography in their bunks, made them a soccer ball out of rags, and told them he would adopt them all if they survived the camp.  Interestingly enough, they did–and surprisingly, he did.  He truly cared for these boys.  Eva said she wished he could have adopted her too, but she wasn’t really aware of him at them time.  Even in Auschwitz, there are stories of kindness and hope–proof that our circumstances don’t have to shape the kind of people we become.

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Eva at CANDLES

Eva at CANDLES

Today (6/23/15), I had the rare opportunity to accompany survivor Eva Kor to Birkenau (Auschwitz I).  I first met Eva face to face in her Museum in Terre Haute (CANDLES).  I had previously seen her on You Tube for Forgiving Dr. Mengele and was intrigued by her message of forgiveness. Now, I had the opportunity to step into her story, and as I share, you can too.

We began the hour trip from Kraków to Auschwitz with Eva on our bus.  As we drove, she began to share more of her story. (I had  read much of her life story in her book Surviving the Angel of Death:  The True Story of a Mengele Twin.)  This was the real life edition.

Eva spent nine months in Auschwitz, with testing beginning three days after arrival, and yet it only took a half hour for everything to change.

Platform where Eva was dropped off

Platform where Eva was dropped off

Most Auschwitz survivors share stories of the selection process.  For Eva, that never happened. She never left cattle car site. A Nazi officer walking by noticed Eva and Miriam were twins from their matching burgundy dresses.  He asked her mother, “Are they twins?”  She said, “Is twins good?”  He replied that it was, and she revealed that they were.  The man took the girls.  The last memory Eva has of her mother is being led away while her mother’s arms were outstretched.  She never saw her, her father, or her older sisters again.

One tour member asked her if she made friends. She said, “No. It never even entered my mind. Children are different. It took all my energy to live one more day–Just trying to get food.” Starvation was the most demanding part plus injection.  The testing on Eva and Miriam consisted of putting both arms in restraints.

Blood draw building for Mengele experiments

Blood draw building for Mengele experiments

From one arm, they would extract vials of blood.  Into the other arm, they’d administer around five shots.  Other twins received different treatment.

As we continued, Eva shared about her home. She was born in a village between the Carpathian Mountains in Romania.  The town contained about 100 families, and Eva knew everyone and every dog.  It was mostly Christians except the Moses family.  In 1940, the village was occupied by Hungarian army. Her father had to appear every 2 weeks or face arrest. Then, her one room school house was taken over by Hungarians. They received new books with math problems like the following:  If you have 5 Jews and kill 3, how many are left?  Eva began to notice how much of life was focused on killing Jews. Her parents’ attitude was “We are Jews and have to take it.” She still doesn’t understand why her mom didn’t go to school when kids called them dirty jews, hit them, and spit on them. She told the teacher, who instead punished them by making them kneel on corn kernels while other kids ridiculed them.  She explained that things are different now because of Israel. Early Jewish people wouldn’t stand up.  From when she was six on, she saw people mistreated. Children, even at six, want to know what’s going on. They know what is fair and wrong. This is what helps kids understand Eva’s story because she was a kid when it happened.

Faces of those who lost lives here

Faces of those who lost lives here

Eva then continued on her life message:  Forgiveness.  She shared the thing she’s asked most often is how do you do it. She responds:  It’s not complicated. But, “Forgive and forget” is an incorrect statement. You cannot forget something important. It’s forgive and heal. Then, she asked us to do it. How do we forgive?  She said, “I ask myself this question:  Do I deserve to live free from the pain imposed on me from life or other people?  Yes.  The next question is how.  If I forgive, does it help you? No. I don’t forgive in someone else’s name. You realize you have to do the work. Take a piece of paper. Write a letter to the person who hurt you. Do not mail it!  Write the words I forgive you. At the end, you should feel freedom and empowerment. Before that, you were still a victim which was limiting your ability to be free. Keep trying until you succeed. If there’s animosity within your home, you cannot do it while you are there. You are still living on the battlefield. The wounds are too raw.  You need space.  I am amazed by the families in Charleston who forgave almost immediately. I think you need time to reflect without emotion. But, I am frustrated by the race issues we’re facing.

View of entrance to Birkenau

View of entrance to Birkenau

There are people you won’t like. If you don’t like someone who behaves badly, that’s okay. It’s toxic when you don’t like people because of their race. If we could teach children at a young age to practice respect, we would not need to take these trips to Auschwitz.”  So, why does she do it? “There are valuable lessons in Auschwitz. If you experience it, it becomes part of who you are. You share your own experience which is why it’s important. You teach with your heart better than with your mind. You learn with your emotions better than just your mind. If you can realize how deprived people were in Auschwitz.”  Eva arrived in the U.S. 15 years after Auschwitz. She remembers seeing fundraisers for deprived children. “We didn’t even have a little hut or a family. We were at the mercy of the Nazis.”

Eva admits she was angry at her parents because after the war, they never really had a home. Her aunt was a home, but not a replacement for mom. She wondered how her parents couldn’t respond to the injustice around them. Because life was so hard, she hated her parents for not surviving. Then, she felt guilty. When she forgave the Nazis, she forgave parents as well. Two years ago, she wrote letter of forgiveness and goodbye to her mother and father. You can read both on the Candles website CANDLES in the section entitled Eva chats.

Ruins of a gas chamber

Ruins of a gas chamber

When Hungarian Jews arrived, they moved the platform. In 56 days, they murdered almost 500,000 people. Even in the barracks, some of the twins told her what was going on:  Birkinau was a killing center. A set of fourteen year old twins told her they were gassing people and burning people. She was startled that people were being burned. “Yes,” the girls said, “Jews, old people, and children.”  Eva said, “That’s not true.  We’re children, and we’re alive.”  The girl assured her it was only twins who were allowed to live. They told her to go to the back of the barracks. From there, she saw flames shooting up from the crematorium.  The girl asked, “What do you think that smell is?”  Eva had tried to dispute it, but the evidence was convincing that it was the truth.   She never learned for sure what happened to her parents. Even today, she wonders how people just disappeared. In a half hour, they were all gone.

The ruins of Eva's barracks, and the flowers we left for remeberance

The ruins of Eva’s barracks, and the flowers we left for remebrance

Eva lives with Auschwitz looming in her childhood as a big atrocity. At one point, she wondered if she made it up–a professor had told her there was no Birkenau. At that time, she was planning to attend events for the 40 anniversary. She came by herself, though she had been corresponding with museum executives for months. She went from Auschwitz I to Auschwitz II (Birkenau). As they were walking between 2 railroad tracks on a mossy road, she came to a monument at the end of camp. She asked the museum guide where the selection platform was. They replied, “You walked on it.”  When she had first walked on it, it had been new cement. The next day, she came alone and walked around recording her thoughts. As she was walking around, she saw cement poking through the grass. She took a picture of cement poking through the grass as proof that her horrific memories were really true.  The concrete was there.  She had wanted to understand if by walking it, she could figure out what happened to her parents, but she couldn’t figure out.   As a child, she had thought the whole world was death camps.

Brick barracks built from local houses.

Brick barracks built from local houses.

After inviting us into her world, Eva had a presentation to give in another location, so we headed to the bus for lunch, then back out to tour the same areas with a guide.  Symon was our guide.  The Holocaust is a personal issue for him as well because his great uncle was in Auschwitz.  But, unlike Eva, he did not survive.  He shared that there were over 400,000 registered prisoners here (not counting the ones who were “liquidated.”) He assured us that Poland never cooperated with Nazis whose first target was the intelligentsia. If you want to control a nation, kill the intelligent. Twenty barracks were already in Auschwitz 1 from a military garrison there. Auschwitz was initially for Polish prisoners. But, they knew each other, and were able to form resistance easier.  Symon’s great uncle was in for smuggling something. When the Germans built Birkenau, they made the local people move. Bricks from the village were used to build barracks. Parts of Birkenau were under construction until the end.

Prisoner bunks in Birkenau

Prisoner bunks in Birkenau

Symon shared some interesting points about the camps and timing.  No one was registered in Treblinka, another camp.  They were all liquidated. But, in Auschwitz, people worked until they died initially. That time might be from one day to five  years. Dr. Mengele came in 1943. What would have happened if Eva had arrived in 1942?  She would have been killed immediately. Birkenau is 25 times bigger than Auschwitz I. It was a permanent rotation. First, prisoners went to quarantine to adjust. Then, they were moved to other part if they survived.

Symon then took us to the shower areas.  Incoming prisoners had to line up baggage, then wash up.  As a joke, the water was either ice cold or hot. Hitler told the Nazis to have no mercy for women or children. Jews were to be annihilated. The wooden barracks used to be used for 52 horses.

Toilets

Toilets

Now, they held 700 prisoners. At times, there were as many as 90,000 in one square mile. We often ask why more people didn’t resist.  Some didn’t think how to escape because they were too weak to think.

The barracks were divided into three parts:  the Kapos or Jewish leaders (The Germans didn’t contact with the Jews) prisoners in the middle, then latrines. In the triple wooden bunks, prisoners wanted to be on the top, which had better heat, air, etc. Additionally, Symon reminded us that people with dysentery couldn’t get out of the bunks, so they soiled themselves.  Also, prisoners had to deal with lice and rats, which made things way worse for the prisoners on bottom, who had it rough.  Yet, despite the smell, people still wanted a job in the latrines.  Smell doesn’t kill.  Being inside was warmer than outside work, and much of survival depended on who you worked for. Prisoners working outside tried to steal something to burn in stove for a little heat. Birkenau was located on the outskirts of the most industrial area in Poland, so labor didn’t pose much of a problem.  When the Russians arrived, they found 300 wooden barracks. However much of Birkenau was dismantled to help rebuild the capital.

Ash pit where bodies were burned

Ash pit where bodies were burned

Outside, there was barbed wire which was electrocuted. According to Symon, only 144 prisoners ever escaped.  While the Nazi’s tried to hide what was going on here, the prisoners weren’t stupid.  They saw thousands of prisoners arrive, walk over to the gas chambers.  None came back. The Greek prisoners had traveled two weeks on cattle cars before arriving to the horrors.

Symon reminded us that Mengele was one of many SS doctors in Auschwitz. They wanted to find the best methods of sterilization.  Several photographs around the camp came from a camera a prisoner had used or an album a Jewish woman had found showing the atrocities of Auschwitz.  It’s estimated that the doctor who assessed who was capable of work  typically killed 80% and allowed 20% to live. The Nazi’s used cremation because with ashes, you can’t tell how many died. The sonderkommando’s burned bodies in pits first, and then ground and remaining bones. But, we as humans like a black and white world. The Nazis had to kill both normalcy and kindness and then explain to people why they needed to kill. If you see people, it’s harder to kill. That’s why the Nazi’s end up using Zyklon B in the evolution of killing. Soldiers didn’t have to come face to face with their victims.

Monument recognizing the Sonderkommandos who blew up a crematorium

Monument recognizing the Sonderkommandos who blew up a crematorium

But, many Jews didn’t want to believe that the Germans wanted to kill them, despite the evidence. They didn’t want to believe the rumors. When they started to believe, the Warsaw uprising happened.  They wanted to go down fighting, not in the gas chambers.  Symon also referenced the Polish guard who let himself get captured (Covered in Auschwitz Escape, which I just finished reading.)  I was disappointed to learn that he had survived Auschwitz, only to be shot by communists as betrayer after the war. The gas chambers consisted of three parts:  an Undressing room, the gas chamber, and crematorium. Because of their work, sonderkommandos were isolated because they knew too much. Some lived in attics over the crematorium. I can’t even imagine.  They usually cremated 4,000 corpses a day, with totals up to 9,000.  Ashes were placed in Ash pits like those above, or were used for fertilizers in area farms. They refuse to do archaeology any more here because these are open graves. This is one meaning in living stones.

Remnants of "Canada"

Remnants of “Canada”

Finally, we went to “Canada,” so called because of its wealth. Four hundred trains per month were sent from a Auschwitz with valuables collected from arriving Jews. Diamonds were traded to get food. Food and medicine were the currency of the camps. When asked how to survive, the answers usually given were that you had to have age, health, good psyche, and  physical fitness.  When the sonderkommandos tried to revolt, they smuggled gun powder etc. from Canada and exploded the Crematorium.  One group escaped, but were returned, and on Oct 7,1944, about 450 sonderkommandos were executed. In November, the Nazis stopped executing because they needed to destroy evidence. The sonderkommandos knew they were going to be eliminated as well.  The Germans organized the last roll call, then 56,000 prisoners were evacuated 30 km. The Germans destroyed the names of the prisoners, which allowed the sonderkommandos to try to join prisoners. Though they had to pretend to be weak, they made it out.  The Germans tried to find them in other camps, but a few survived–one still lives in Israel. One Polish man escaped the death march by wearing two sets of clothes. Still, only Only 20-25 sonderkommandos survived. They testified after the war. One SS man said they shouldn’t have survived.

Reflections of the people

Reflections of the people

Finally, Symon shared with us that the narration of Birkenau has changed since Communist rule. Polish students learned the real history from their grandparents who had lived through it.   He also shared that Hugo Boss had designed the SS uniforms, and Alliance was the company who insured the Nazis.

As we headed back home, many discussions turned to the need for connections, and that these stories become so much more than just history and empty buildings because we knew someone who had experienced it and shared her stories with us.  In a world of increasing individualism, the connections we forge are the most important we can have.

End of the street used in Schindler's List

End of the street used in Schindler’s List

The CANDLES Museum hosts an annual tour of Auschwitz with Holocaust Survivor Eva Kor.  This year, I am lucky enough to attend.

We left Chicago on June 20 and arrived in a rainy Kraków about 2:30 PM.  After unloading at the Radisson Blu, we headed out for a stroll around the city.  During two separate tours, we took in the Old Market Square and the Jewish quarter, but the real fun would begin today (6/22/15).

Our first stop was just outside of the Jewish area of Kazimierz.  It was named for Kazimierz the Great who welcomed the Jews and established Kraków in 1335 to be named after himself.  Kazimierz (Casimir III) himself is an interesting piece of history.  In addition to founding the Kraków Academy, he supposedly had two Jewish lovers in addition to his four wives.  Because he divorced and remarried and had all daughters, he had no legitimate heirs, causing Poland to start electing their kings.  (I didn’t even know that was possible.)

The Jews experienced a great deal of religious freedom here until 1494, when a fire destroyed a large part of Kraków.  The Jews would be blamed for it, and Jan I Olbracht would move 1400 Jews to the Bawol  district.

Oskar Schindler's House

Oskar Schindler’s House with the red flowers

Eventually, there were 78,000 Jews moved to eastern part of Poland. By the end of 1800, they could move anywhere. In Hitler’s time, Kraków became the capital of occupied Poland, which is the reason it was not destroyed. On March 3, 1941, Nazis set up a small ghetto in Kraków. They divided this area into two parts.  The first part contained workers (those who were young and fit enough to carry out hard labor.)  The second part consisted of the young, the old, and the infirm.  It is this part that will be liquidated.

Many Jews worked for Schindler, who moved his Catholics to other jobs when he realized what was going on and moved to help as many Jews as possible. He would eventually save 1,200.

Our guide also shared with us that the Nazis killed 57% of professors and 37% of doctors. 187 professors sent to Sachsenhausen and Dachau. There is also a plaque in the courtyard dedicated to 30 non-Jews executed who were executed. Our tour guide Marta’s grandfather was slotted as one of the ones to be executed but escaped his execution because he spoke perfect German. In this case, truth is definitely stranger than fiction.  He simply walked up to a guard and asked where train station was.  Because of his flawless German, the guard bought it, and he got away. His advice to Marta is “Know language of your friend and the language of your enemy.”

Isaac's Synagogue

Isaac’s Synagogue

From there, we visited the Isaac Synagogue. Legend (1001 Arabian Nights) has it that Isaac had a dream of a treasure in Prague.  He went to Prague in search of the treasure.  Eventually, he met an officer with whom he shared his dream.  Apparently, the officer had a dream of a treasure in the house of Isaac the son of Jacob.  Isaac went home and took apart his oven where he found a treasure.  He used the money to build a synagogue.  The moral of the story is something along the lines of the grass is not greener on the other side–treasure is in your own home.  During WWII, this building was used as a stable and warehouse.  Eventually, it would be an art center. Now, it’s a Chabad Lubavitch (which is cool for me since I attend Chabad at home.)

Krakow Ghetto Deportation area.  Empty Chairs Monument

Kraków Ghetto Deportation area. Empty Chairs Monument

We then went to the deportation area of the Kraków Ghetto.  The Kraków Ghetto is the smallest ghetto, while the Warsaw Ghetto is largest. Before the ghetto was established, 3,000 Jews lived in the area that would become the ghetto.  The largest amount in the ghetto was 20,000 in an 18 block area.  Because there were 68,000 Jews of Kraków killed, the Empty Chair Monument has 68 chairs to represent the 68,000 Jews executed here when ghetto was liquidated (Note:  Other places say 70 chairs.  I didn’t count.)  There are two meanings they used chairs for the monument according to our tour guide.  The first is that since Jews were often moved, they were told to bring their belongings.  Because of that, chairs, tables, and wardrobes littered the area.  The second meaning is to symbolize waiting to be exterminated, an idea reinforced by the Nazi’s who apparently made the ghetto wall in the shape of Jewish tombstones.

Dr.

Dr. Pankiewicz’s Pharmacy

Another cool story from the Bohaterow Ghetto is the story of Dr. Tadeusz Pankiewicz.  He was the only non Jewish person to operate a business inside the ghetto.  He was allowed to keep his pharmacy as a service, but I doubt the Nazi’s know just how much of a service he performed. Observing what went on with the Jews from his spot just outside the square, he decided to help the Jews.  In addition to medical care to ease the suffering, he provided tranquilizers to  help Jewish children sleep through Gestapo raids.   He also provided Jews with hair dye needed to change their appearance and help them get out of the ghetto.  Additionally, his store served as a meeting place for other resisters, and a cover for Jews trying to escape.  He truly was a remarkable man, and he has been honored by the Yad Vashem..

On our way to the Plaszow Concentration Camp, we learned that there were 9,000 working concentration camps. Originally, this camp held 2,000, but when the Bohaterow ghetto was liquidated, it swelled to 8,000. The built a gas chamber and crematorium there, but they were never used. In Schindler’s List, they made it in the construction phase because the camp was destroyed. Another inconsistency is that the camp is on the hill while Amongothe’s house is on the bottom.

Plaszow Concentration Camp Memorial

Plaszow Concentration Camp Memorial

In the Camp, there is nothing left of the original buildings. All that remains is a series of monuments.  In addition to the large one pictured here, there is a small monument to the Hungarians who perished at Auschwitz (almost half a million towards the end of the war when they came from Hungary immediately to the gas chambers) because this camp was on the way to Auschwitz. There’s also a monument to Polish policemen, many of whom were also executed.

Amongothe's House

Amongothe’s House

After exploring the area around the monuments, a number of us chose to walk down to Amongoethe’s house.  There is apparently a guard balcony in back, but it doesn’t look like sniper stand or anything you could use as such.  While I have yet to see Schindler’s List (a number of us are planning a movie night on our trip), one thing that I wanted to be sure to share is that Amongothe’s house was recently bought by an architectural firm who is planning to turn it into offices.  This may be one of the last times to see it like this.

Basilica of the Virgin Mary

Basilica of the Virgin Mary

From the camp, after lunch on our own in the city, we headed to the Basilica of the Virgin Mary.  This spot boasts the two highest towers in the city.As such, they logically became the watch tower. There also was a bugler who played different melodies to warn, assemble, or celebrate.  Legend has it that during the Tartar invasion, the man playing the warning melody was shot in throat mid-song. Because of this, a bugler will play the same melody every hour on the hour 4 times in the cardinal directions, stopping at the same spot as the man who was killed. It is an amazing sight to behold.

We then went inside to see the amazing decoration of St. Mary’s.  Built over twelve years from 1477-1489, this church has incredible splendor that is a sight to behold.  For a mere $1.33, you can take pictures inside (identified by the special photography sticker.)

Interior of St. Mary's

Interior of St. Mary’s

St. Mary’s boasts the oldest stain glass window in Poland. Additionally, the panels on the wall were considered the wordless Bible–a way to provide the uneducated with an understanding of the Bible.  This alter had been found by the Germans who sent it to northern Poland.  After the war, it would be returned.

Pope John Paul II's House

Pope John Paul II’s House

Along the way to the Wawel Royal Castle, we also saw the oldest church in Kraków.  We the saw the oldest street in Kraków where Pope John Paul II lived when he was the Bishop of Poland (in the yellow house.)

We ended our time at the Wawel Castle, built by Kazimierz (Casimir the Great) who was the last king in a 400 year dynasty.)  Our tour guide shared some incredibly interesting stories with us.  Because Kasimierz had no legitimate heir, the Polish and Hungarian kings agreed whoever died first, the other would be king of both countries. The Polish king died first.  Not wanting to leave his kingdom, the Hungarian King gained permission for his ten year old daughter to become king of Poland (Yes, not Queen..). After 200 years of the second dynasty, one of the kings ordered tapestries to be made. 138 survived because they were sent to Canada during the war, and Canada kindly returned them.  This tapestries took one man eighteen years to create or eighteen men one year. Many tapestries are on display on site.

Wawel Castle at night

Wawel Castle at night

When that dynasty ended, the king was elected by Parliament:  first French, Hungarian, then Swedish. The Swedish king moved the capital from Kraków to Warsaw to be closer to Sweden. During the war with Sweden, more Polish citizens were destroyed than during the Nazi regime.  A queen would eventually defeat them.  Surrounded by Russia, Prussia, and Austria-Hungary, it wasn’t long before they divided Poland between them starting in 1772. It became an Independent country on Nov. 11,1919. One interesting thing to see is the empty coffin of the first Bishop of Kraków who became the first Polish saint after being beheaded. (The Crusaders also occupied Poland because there were lots of pagans here, being the last non-religious country in Europe). In front of the tomb is a sculpture of a Bible with pages moving, representing the Bible with pages blowing from Pope John Paul II’s burial.  On the Sculpted Bible is a vial containing the blood of Pope John Paul II.  Other fun facts include the crowning of the royal family in front of crucifix and the fact that they were buried here until 1500. There are monuments to a number of kings inside.  Two of the castles on this site burned. This one is third. It also boasts a tournament courtyard where knights used to joust.  And, it is the biggest Renaissance castle in Europe, making its money from salt mine.

We finished our day with an incredible dinner at Hawelka, before a group of us decided to go for a walk along the river at night.  Indeed, it has been a Monumental day!

Entrance to Dachau:  "Work makes you free"

Entrance to Dachau: “Work makes you free”

We set off this morning (8/5/13) for Dachau. I was really looking forward to this trip, as morbid as that sounds, as I have had an interest in the Holocaust since I was in junior high. Finally, I had the opportunity to be there in person and hopefully grow in my understanding of the experience.

I had been interested to see on the website that the time they recommended for you to stay at the site was “All day.” Being there, I can easily see why they stated this. We opted to take the English tour for 3 Euros each (Parking was also 3 Euros for the day), and let me say, the tour was a worthwhile investment. (Mom and I each gave our tour guide an extra 20 Euro–she was amazing–and a volunteer!)

"May the example of those who were exterminated here between 1933 and 1945 because they resister Nazism help to unite the living for the defense of peace and freedom and in respect for their fellow man.

“May the example of those who were exterminated here between 1933 and 1945 because they resisted Nazism help to unite the living for the defense of peace and freedom and in respect for their fellow man.”

The tour started at 11:00, and since we had gotten there at 10, we explored a bit on our own before time for the tour. At 11:00, we met Franziska who would guide us through the experience. The first thing she shared with us is that the tour would last between 2 and 2 1/2 hours, depending on how fast we walked and how many questions we asked. This may seem like an extensive amount of time to be just walking around, but it was an incredible experience. Franziska took us through the life of a prisoner, from arrival to death. It was truly unforgettable.

Design copied by other camps

Design copied by other camps

First, we walked through the entrance gate where the prisoners would have been taken. The gate sports the traditional Nazi slogan: Work makes you free. Dachau was actually the first concentration camp to be opened (1933). It was intended as a place for political prisoners (Translation: anyone who stood against the Nazi party.) Therefore, when you hear the stories of Dachau, very few of them are Jewish. They are mostly European and Russians political prisoners, including a large number of clergy. The Jews who were there were in transit to another camp. According to the statistics we heard, the youngest prisoner was 7 1/2 (kept alive because he had small hands which were suitable for reaching down to plant crops in small holes) while the oldest was 92 (and incidentally survived Dachau. He was an intelligent man who was utilized as a tutor for SS children.)

Dachau was also a model camp in many ways. First, its structure (rows of barracks with a central roll call area) was copied in all the other concentration camps. Second, this was the camp they showed off for propaganda reasons. The Red Cross even visited 3 times, and made glowing reports about the camp. The only problem is they were shown the SS officers in prisoners’ clothes in the “Living Room” area of the barracks, drinking, laughing, and playing cards, while the real prisoners were away at work.

Dachau beds in the early years

Dachau beds in the early years

Initially, though, before the war broke out, Dachau was not “that bad,” though as early as 1935, there was a jingle people used to say, “Dear God, make me dumb (silent), that I might not to Dachau come.” In 1933, the commandant Hilmar Wäckerle seems to have been a good man. Prisoners worked two days a week in a factory (usually BMW or other car manufacturers who paid the SS for the use of the prisoners, especially once the war preparations started as their labor force had been decimated due to military training.) These factories were largely the reason Dachau was one of the first to “vote brown.” The business generated by the SS and the “free” labor of prisoners must have been a hard offer to resist. Unfortunately, like many people today, they were willing to vote for whichever candidate best lined their pockets instead of considering the principles and character of the person in office. Prisoners might also be hired out to farmers in town. Those who worked on farms often were healthier because they received rations from the farm, but the other prisoners received a piece of bread, butter, and soup for the day, and could buy other items at the canteen. Additionally, medical staff was on hand to deal with any prisoner who had been injured or was infirm. Wäckerle had a little over 50 men to a room, and each bed had dividers between it and the one next to it. They were a meter wide and two meters long. At this time, there was a 99% survival rate in the camps. Since this was a prison and a camp for political prisoners, occasionally, those who had served their terms were released. Those who did not survive were usually the ones interrogated for information or charged with high treason.

Bedding Stage 2.

Bedding Stage 2.

All of that changed when Theodor Eicke took over. Eicke, who would eventually be placed over the entire concentration camp system, was a World War I veteran whom Himmel rescued from a psychiatric ward, where trouble with a local had sent him on the charge of being a “dangerous lunatic.” I’d say they had him pretty well pegged. He instituted a series of changes that gave the SS full range for brutality. Prisoners could be shot for disobeying an order, whether it came from an SS officer or the kitchen staff. He also instituted punishments such as having a prisoner stand on a chair, placing the prisoner’s arms behind his back, tying his wrists to a rope that was suspended above him, and pulling the chair away, thus dislocating the shoulders, or worse. Unfit to work, the men were usually then sent to other camps to be killed. Another punishment was essentially an extreme corporal punishment. The prisoner would lean over a table, while an SS guard (or a family member if one was on hand–chosen as a dual punishment), would beat him 25 times with a whip supposedly made of a dried ox penis. This was designed to humiliate the prisoner even further by implying they weren’t even worth a traditional whip. The prisoner had to count in German as he was being whipped. If he didn’t know German or stumbled on the numbers (or passed out), the count began again.
whipping table and whip

whipping table and whip

Also, guards had prisoners do menial tasks that would steal the less than 5 hours a night they had to sleep (usually 3 or 4). They had to polish the floor until it shined, make their beds so the checked squares were opposite from one bed to the next, forming a continuous pattern, or pull all the brown and yellow leaves off of the trees lining the roll call area in the fall.

Additionally, Dachau accepted more prisoners, and expanded the camp so the living conditions changed. Rations were cut approximately in half. Beyond that, beds were made smaller and with more people in them. (By the end of the war, there were three men to a bed less than a meter wide, sleeping head to foot.)

Bedding final stage

Bedding final stage

Because of these cramped conditions, disease was became rampant, so much so that SS guards refused to work in the barracks for fear of catching the diseases. Rooms and prisoners were disinfected, and conditions improved slightly, but never fully. One tour member asked how many concentration camps there were. Franziska explained that this is a difficult question to answer because, “What defines a concentration camp? A munitions factory (Like in Schindler’s List) utilizing prisoners can be considered a concentration camp–so can a farm with prisoners working it, or the area of land where they’re forced to sleep because the camp wouldn’t invest in barracks. The numbers are tricky.”

I was not aware that Dachau was an entirely male camp until 1944 (aside from the 7-13 female prisoners kept in “The brothel,” for obvious use.) Men were granted visits to the brothel, glasses, or boots in exchange for giving information about another prisoner. Fewer than one percent of the camp ever received such a bonus. Most who did chose the brothel because it was secret and didn’t advertise they had ratted someone out. Another way the Nazis kept resistance down was by constantly rearranging the barracks. Nationalities were mixed and parts of barracks were moved regularly in order to insure that no prisoners spent enough time together to really form bonds. This made the experience even more lonely and difficult.

Roll Call area

Roll Call area

From the barracks, we moved into the area where roll calls were done. One tour member asked Franziska how the Germans felt about this, while another questioned how strange it is that a site of such horror is a tourist attraction. Franziska answered both questions, giving a perspective I had never considered. She talked about the fact that Germany focuses on the Holocaust so much because the rest of the world continues to punish them for it. She explained that as a child in Hamburg, her school took her on trips to concentration camps 8 different times. In one instance, her teacher made the children stand motionless for 2 hours in the roll call area so that they would have a small taste of what the prisoners experienced. Even today, when she drives into another country, her car is not safe for 15 minutes before someone will have scratched a swastika on it because her license plate has the DAH of Dachau. She’s been refused service in restaurants in Italy because they saw her drive up in a car with DAH on it. Like so many cases of racism, each person assumes the other is racist, which is a form of racism in itself. I think this is the biggest “take away” for me. I remember being in high school when the Berlin wall came down. I remember the fear people felt because of what a unified Germany would mean to the world (while, in fact, the unification of Germany made it harder for those in the West because they had to absorb and remedy the problems of the East.) That fear led many to judge the German people unfairly.
Shooting Wall

Shooting Wall

Franziska went on to explain that she has heard former SS leaders give school talks with great remorse for the role they played. They explained how they had been convinced that they were doing the right thing. When you understand that German students started math problems in elementary school that said something like, “If a handicapped person costs the government $30,000 marks a year, how much will the government spend by the time that person is 30?”, it’s easy to see how some of the thought process came to be. In point of fact, there’s a larger Neo-Nazi group in America than in Germany. And many items that have disappeared from Dachau (Shower heads, faucets, etc.) have turned up on Ebay in America, Canada, and Australia. Additionally, the Allied forces were not entirely innocent. Some shot surrendering SS members, even in hospitals as well as family members in the SS area outside the camp. Others used extreme forms of interrogation and forced soldiers to confess to crimes they may not have committed. (These crimes were uncovered in 1991 and had been covered up by General Patton.) I’m sure each side thought they were doing their duty, or avenging others, but it does bring to mind the question of what is justifiable force in dealing with an enemy–a question we still haggle over today.

Special Prisoner Holding cells

Special Prisoner Holding cells

From the roll call area, we went to the shooting wall. This is the place where political prisoners were executed. Interestingly, because Dachau was so close to a town (The SS quarters and their families are just past the prison wall), the officers used to shoot prisoners on Sundays when the church bells were ringing and the noise wouldn’t be noticed. Those accused of high treason, which interestingly enough included SS soldiers who had helped prisoners or tried to let them escape, were executed immediately.

Just beyond the shooting wall is the holding cells for “Special prisoners.” The prisoners thought of this as being a safe house from which no one returned. What I mean by that is the prisoners were given decent food, didn’t have to work, and were kept alive–until new batch of political prisoners came in to “replace” them. The special prisoners included men like the former chancellor of Austria and several prominent clergy members.

Crematorium

Crematorium

Having finished our course in the life of prisoners, we walked over to the crematorium area. While the crematorium was used at Dachau to eliminate bodies of those who had died of disease or starvation, the gas chamber located there was never used. One interesting fact is that the crematorium was located outside of the camp and facing east. This way few of the prisoners and none of the town knew what was going on. Those prisoners who worked in the crematorium were killed every three months to keep news from leaking. Eventually, though, use of the crematorium stopped as well, due to the coal shortage. It is for this reason the U.S. soldiers who liberated the camp found 11,000 dead bodies there and in almost 30 rail cars outside the camp. Quite a staggering number! Because they were unable to identify the bodies of the dead, they cremated the bodies and put the ashes in a mass grave with the monument of a coffin and the sign “Never Again” in five different languages. (I was touched by the fact that
Mass grave of 11,000 unidentified dead

Mass grave of 11,000 unidentified dead

as we walked by it, one of the young men in our group added a stone to those already on top of the monument as a sign of remembrance–he couldn’t have been much over 20. Please note, the monument is just in front of the museum building which used to be the former check in area and showers (real ones). The roof in the picture belongs to this building, not the monument.)

From the area of the crematorium, we walked back over the bridge and stopped beside the electric fence. Here, we heard the stories of why no escape from Dachau ever succeeded by going over the fence. Between the barracks area and the fence is a strip of grass, nicknamed the “Green zone.” Any prisoner who stepped in this area would be shot immediately. They were not shot in the head, which would have been an easy death, but either in the shoulder or the stomach, which were slower and more painful. Past the green zone, there is a ditch about 5 feet down and 6-8 feet across.

Measures to prevent escape

Measures to prevent escape

On the other side of this ditch was first gravel, which would have caused a noise to alert the guards, and then on top of the gravel, coils of barbed wire which were arranged in approximately 1 foot squares, all electrified and going up higher the closer one got to the fence, which was also electrified. Franziska informed us that it is because of this that prisoners who wanted to commit suicide, usually did it as they were returning to the camp by throwing themselves against the fence from the outside.

This referenced a monument she had shown us earlier. After the war, Dachau had been used as a holding place for German prisoners associated with war crimes. Then, it became a place for refugees. While it was still being used for this purpose, a contest was held among survivors to create a monument to be used in Dachau. Sixty-five entries were made. From these, this sculpture of Nandor Glid’s was chosen.

Memorial Sculpture

Memorial Sculpture

Glid himself had not been at Dachau, but instead at a labor camp where he had joined the National Liberation Movement to fight against the Nazis, and was later wounded. He chose the design for his sculpture after talking to numerous others who were at Dachau. One of the most striking images they had communicated was this fact that some, wanting to choose the time and method of their death instead of having the Nazis do it for them, had chosen to throw themselves into the electric fence. The Nazis would leave the bodies there until the rotted, which in winter, could be months, so workers would have to pass by the bodies on their way to work. That image was burned into the memory of anyone at Dachau.
Protestant Memorial

Protestant Memorial

That is why the judge, himself a survivor of Dachau chose this statue. In it, the hands of the victims make the barbs for the barbed wire fence, and the center person (with his head down) forms the swastika with his body.

Just inside the fence by the green zone, Franziska also pointed out 4 different church memorials. To the best of my knowledge, Dachau is the only concentration camp with religious monuments for faiths other than Jewish. At Dachau, there is the Russian Orthodox memorial, a Protestant Memorial, a Catholic Memorial, and a Jewish Memorial. Additionally, there is a monastery just outside the wall.

Portable Altar

Portable Altar

These memorials are due to the fact that a number of the prisoners at Dachau were members of the clergy who took a stand against what Hitler was trying to accomplish. One interesting item I saw in the “Special cells” was a portable altar to be used by the clergy for holding religious services. It makes me proud that almost 3,000 clergy took a stand against the evils of the Nazi party.

Finally, we made one last stop to see how Dachau was laid out at the time, and compare it to it’s use today. Interestingly enough, the former SS area and training facilities are now utilized by the Dachau police. Apparently, they have gone to great lengths to preserve what they can as a remembrance of the crimes committed here. Franziska told us one last story here. She had recently met a survivor in his 90’s. He shared that he used to work in the area of the camp that made honey for the German officers. He explained that he used to pee in the honey as his own form of resistance. So, a number of German officers received “tainted honey” from Dachau. All in all, our tour had been an amazing experience!

Residence Munich

Residence Munich

We then headed to Munich to the Residence Museum and treasury. Driving around Munich was every bit of the insanity predicted, but we finally managed to find both the Residence and the parking garage right beside it. (Max-Joseph Platz is super convenient, but charges 4 Euro for the first hour and 3 Euro an hour for every one after that.) The Residence is an unimpressive façade compared to some of the other places we have visited. However, this was more the seat of government for the Bavarian rulers and the place where the royals stored their treasures. Here, at last, was a castle in which you could take pictures. Unfortunately, the lighting set up around the area makes getting a good shot extremely difficult.

Hall of ancestors

Hall of ancestors

We started out in the hall of ancestors. Once can immediately feel the weight of responsibility a young ruler must have felt as he or she walked past all of those eyes staring down at them. There’s even a portrait of Charlemagne and a gigantic family tree. It was an incredible contrast to see the gold and glitz of Munich right after the brick and concrete of Dachau.

From the hall of ancestors, we went into one of the areas displaying the treasures of the king. Here we were confronted with a number of reliquaries. Reliquaries are one of the most interesting things for me to see.

Skull of John the Baptist

Skull of John the Baptist

As reliquaries were supposed to bring blessing to the one who owned them (and even miracles), the king was expected to have the largest collection. While I know historically a number of reliquaries exist that did not contain anything close to what they are supposed to house, there were a few here that were especially interesting. First, there is the ever popular piece of the cross of Christ. Apparently, a whole forest of these were sold at the time. They also had the typical bones of the martyrs. But the things that most interested me were two fold. The first was a crystal casket containing the skeleton of a small child, supposedly one of the children murdered under Herod’s orders.
Public Chapel

Public Chapel

While I think carrying around bones of any kind is morbid, the skeleton of a child would especially creep me out. The other curiosity is the skull of John the Baptist. What interested me most about this is the way they decorated it and put a crown on it. Still, you’re carrying around someone’s skull!

From this point we took in the Chapel for the public. What interested me here is that the royal family sat in the gallery (the spot from which I took my picture), while the rest of the congregation sat below. I guess they wanted to keep an eye on things. Another odd thing is that the gallery area is in the back. Usually, if royals are seated above the crowd, they are often in a prominent position to allow the congregation to look at them. That is not the case here.

Maximilian I's chapel

Maximilian I’s chapel

Additionally, just off the Gallery is an ornate chapel, which was the private place of worship for the king and queen. Maximilian I had it completed in 1607–interestingly, the same year of the Jamestown colony. It is a beautifully decorated area which definitely inspires worship.

We left the chapel to go through a variety of the rooms of state. Here the royals conducted business of all sorts. What interested me the most is the themes of the room are incredibly religious in nature, from the room showing the law of God is higher than the law of men, to the room demonstrating the virtues a ruler should posses, to rooms that remind mankind of their command to subdue the earth. Unfortunately, many of these rooms were damaged during World War II, so the center paintings in each room no longer exist.

Rathaus-Glockenspiel

Rathaus-Glockenspiel

Finally, we left the splendor of the Residence (Residenz) and headed a few blocks downtown to see the Rathaus-Glockenspiel in Marienplatz. For once, we timed something exactly right and got there just in time for the 5:00 show. Since it only plays 2 times a day (Three times in the summer), this was a rare treat. This breath-taking 105 year old clock tower tells two stories from the 16th century. The first is of the marriage of Duke Wilhelm V to Renata of Lorraine. They have figures from each country who joust (the one from Bavaria always wins…). The second story is of the coopers who danced through the streets after the Plague. This is supposed to be a picture of loyalty during difficult times.

With that, we called it a day, paid our 10 Euro parking bill, and headed back home. I must say the Alpine Club treats us like family. They’re always helpful and interested in what we have done for the day. It’s a great place to stay.

When I got the opportunity to tour the CANDLES Holocaust Museum with a group of Lilly Grant recipients, I had no idea what I would find. Initially, I didn’t think it compared in size and scope with others I had seen, but the CANDLES Museum offered a treasure no other Holocaust Museum could offer: Eva Mozes Kor.

Eva describing her family

As a bit of back story, since I was a child and my dad visited Israel, I have had a special love for Jews (I did my eighth grade research paper on Jewish Persecution), so when we had the chance to tour the CANDLES Museum as a workshop, I took the opportunity without hesitation. CANDLES stands for Children of Auschwitz Nazi Deathly Lab Experiments Survivors. Eva Mozes Kor, herself a survivor of Dr. Mengele’s Twin experiments, founded the Museum in 1995 after she and her twin sister (both of whom survived Auschwitz) had located 122 survivors of the experiments. As we sat in that small two room museum and listened to her story, we were spell-bound. For a little over an hour, Eva shared her journey with us.

Yet, it wasn’t until we turned to look at the back wall that my real shock came. When Eva moved to that side of the room, I turned and gasped as I saw a movie poster from “Forgiving Dr. Mengele.” (www.youtube.com/watch?v=LbDyc4WNU6Y) Suddenly, everything slid into place. This woman was the star of an amazing video I had seen earlier that year which had challenged me on so many levels. Her message of forgiveness is incredibly relevant to so many today.

One of the most serendipitous things about this time was the opportunity that a fellow teacher had. Eva had come to her school when she was a seventh grader in the midst of being an outcast and bullied. Eva’s message of forgiveness had given this teacher hope as a young girl–now, almost 20 years later, she got to meet her again and thank her for helping her survive the experience of being bullied and go on to become a teacher herself.

Meeting this unforgettable lady!

According to the staff, Eva is at the museum six days a week, has an incredible two hour presentation for students, and works tirelessly around the place. She also survived a current hate crime when the museum was defaced and burned in 2003. She saw it rebuilt in 2005 and continues sharing the truth of the healing power of forgiveness. One of my favorite quotes from the evening is “Anger is the seed of war; forgiveness is the seed of peace.”

If anyone is in the Terre Haute, Indiana, area, be sure to add The CANDLES Museum at 1532 S. 3rd Street to your itinerary. It will be well worth your time!

Lying unobtrusively on the North side of Chicago, Skokie, Illinois, is not a place most people are familiar with. But, it is home to the fourth largest Holocaust Museum in the United States. Originally started as a store front museum, the Holocaust Museum was started after a group of Neo Nazis threatened a march on the town of Skokie, which was home to about 7,000 Holocaust survivors.

Holocaust Memorial in Skokie

These people who had kept their silence for so long decided the time had come for their voice to be heard. In 2009, they moved from the store front to a 65,000 square foot museum. Today, four students and I took a trip to see it.

We started our visit at the Holocaust Memorial, which is located just outside the Skokie library. The sculpture depicts a man who is part of the resistance, a grandfather and his grandson, and a woman holding her dead child.

Thou Shalt Not Kill

Around the base of the sculpture are inscriptions honoring those who helped the Jews and memorializing those whose lives were lost. The most interesting part to me was the portion of the Torah Scroll poking out of the rubble, stating, “Thou Shalt Not Kill.” A poignant message indeed. We then moved on to the actual Holocaust Museum, which is about 10 minutes away from the library.

The Holocaust Museum was designed to depict the movement from darkness to light. The basement houses an interactive exhibit for children to examine real life situations of bullying and determine the choices they’d make in similar situations.

Darkness to Light

The main floor walks the visitor through the different stages of the war, and docent-led tours are available for this section, often led by Holocaust Survivors. Our tour guide shared about his experience when the Nazis first came for his father and step brother. His father was spared because he was sick (this was during the early years of the war), and his step brother was a Swiss citizen, and therefore untouchable. Because of a scheduling conflict, we weren’t able to hear his entire presentation.

Rear View

Of particular interest in the exhibits is an original transport train car, which visitors may stand in. The exhibit also hosts a variety of first hand testimonies, including ones recorded immediately after the war and available for interested parties to hear in the research library. One of the most notable things for me was the eye-witness footage of a number of the camps and even some executions which were clandestinely caught on tape. All in all, it was an incredible experience. If you’re ever in the Chicago area, it is well worth checking out.