Poland


Stamp cards that help you trace the changes in Poland through the War

Stamp cards that help you trace the changes in Poland through the War

For out last day in Poland (6/27/15), we spent the morning touring the Schindler Factory Museum.  This is by far the coolest museum I have ever been in (Which is saying something, as I’ve been in museum’s all over the United States and around the world.)  The attention to every detail was incredible.  The museum traces the journey through the war.  Though it is called the Schindler Factory Museum, this is because it was Schindler’s Factory–the Museum covers World War II, not just Oskar Schindler.  Every time we turned the corner, it took our breath away.  From the floor which varied from cobblestones, to planks, to gravel to tile, depending on the area you were to be in, to the interactive screens, to sound effects, to artifacts, this museum truly outdoes anything you’ve ever seen.  I easily could have spent the entire day in there.

We had bought the combination ticket (Three museums for less than $7,00), so we also went back to the Pharmacy by the chair memorial.  It was much smaller than the Schindler Factory, but still offered some cool details.  We had wanted to check out the Resistance Museum as well, but there just wasn’t time.  Instead, we spent the afternoon and evening just roaming around the square.  We will definitely miss this place on so many levels.

Flower Market in the Market Square

Flower Market in the Market Square

So, in case I forget, here’s a list of things I will miss about Poland:

1.  The sound of horse’s hooves on cobblestones as the horse drawn carriages run underneath our window

2.  Gelatto every 10th store or so (and eating it several times a day)

3.  Walks to the square where you are safe enough to walk alone, yet usually run into someone from the hundred members of our team.

4.  Architecture that is older than our country

5.  The bugler who plays every hour from the clock tower

6.  Eva Kor–her humor and her stories

7.  Street performers (usually Break Dancing) in the square

8.  Outdoor restaurants that have blankets on the chairs as standard procedure in case you get cold.

9.  Castles and Cathedrals

10.  Sharing an incredible experience with strangers who feel like you’ve known them forever.

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Birkenau (Auschwitz I)

Birkenau (Auschwitz I)

Today, (6/26/15). We went back to Birkenau and Auschwitz I. On the way, Alex shared another Eva story. Apparently, in the frames after the part of the liberation video that is usually shown, when you watch the end of it, Eva sticks her tongue out at the camera and laughs. Knowing Eva as we do, none of us are surprised.

When we arrived at Birkenau, we had the choice to go on the guided tour or explore on our own. I did a little of both. One of the things I had noticed is that for me, going on a tour is fascinating as far as the information you receive, but it doesn’t allow everything to really hit you.  Walking around with other people, rushing through exhibits, etc., isn’t conducive to reflection and understanding the gravity of the situation and this place.  I wanted to allow myself time and space to truly be impacted by what is here.  So, I opted to keep my headset on when I was with the group and wanted to hear what was being said, but also have the freedom to walk away when there was a shot I wanted or time I needed.

Szymon returned us to the barracks showing the living conditions of prisoners. 100_4484He shared that people in Birkenau considered Auschwitz a spa. Though people in Chelmno considered Birkenau a spa. It’s all in your perspective. Looking through the barracks, I was amazed to see a bird sitting at the window seemingly looking out. It sat for a minute, gazing out through the bars, then flapped its wings.  I was reminded of two things:  First, Mia Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.”  In it, she shares some of the horrors of her childhood and explained how much she was touched by beautiful things as an escape to the terrors around her.  Second,  I was reminded of an interview in Steven Spielberg’s Survivors of the Shoah.  A woman recalls her experience being on one of the cattle cars and peeking out of the top window and seeing birds fly by.  She remembered envying them their freedom.

Eva sitting at the ruins of her barracks

Eva sitting at the ruins of her barracks

After the barracks, I left the group to go around  a bit on my own. Eva was back at the foundation of her former barracks, and there was a small group around her as she again told about her days in the camp.  She pointed out the remains of the stove they used too cook “organized” (stolen) potatoes on (End of the bricks where the flowers are sitting in the picture).  The girls in the barrack used to take turns standing guard while one of them cooked.  It was only after the liberation a friend had told her, “How did you manage to not get caught?  Boiled potatoes have a smell.”  Eva was surprised, so she boiled a potato to see, and sure enough, the girl was right.  Eva speculated that it might be because Dr. Mengele admired people who were strong and resourceful.  He despised pathetic people, so perhaps he had told them to not interfere with those who had managed to acquire something to help themselves.  Another group member asked if Eva had ever seen the giants or dwarves Mengele kept.  She said she had seen both.  Mengele was trying to figure out what caused all kinds of genetic mutations in his quest to create the master race.  He also practiced different methods of sterilization on some of the twins and other subjects.

Eva speaking to Israeli Students

Eva speaking to Israeli Students

Then, it was time for our candle lighting at the Victims’ Memorial. When we arrived for the celebration, we found Eva sharing her story with a groups of Israeli students, all draped in Israeli flags. She challenged them to never be a bystander, to never give up, and about the power of forgiveness. As she shared her story, one sweet girl sat with years running down her cheeks. “It’s alright,” Eva said, “I made it. And you will too.”
Finally, Alex was able to drag her away, and we went to the monument. One by one, each of us lit a candle and shared who we were lighting it for. Eva lit hers in memory of her family, Alex in honor of the grandparents he had never known. It was an incredible time to hear which aspect of the Holocaust was memorable to whom.

Remembrance

Remembrance

Team members honored their own family members, members of resistance movements, those still surviving in countries affected by genocide, and those who sacrificed their lives for others. I lit mine in memory of Maurice Eisenstein’s family (a member of our Chabad community whose whole family perished in the Holocaust), the Ten Boom family and others like them who risked their lives to hide Jews and paid the ultimate price. After that, a rabbi with us led us in the mourner’s Kaddish. Definitely a moving time.

Then, we left Birkenau for lunch at Art Deco and then to Auschwitz I.

Wall Art from the Gypsy area

Wall Art from the Gypsy area

Here, we went to see the typical barracks. Then, we headed to the Museum dedicated to the memory of the gypsies.  This was another fascinating area.  One of the coolest things was the artwork on the wall.  There was a painting by a prisoner that was actually done on the wall and protected by glass, but there was also an art display by a prisoner whose art talent literally saved her life.  Additionally, it was fascinating to read the stories of a number of children who had escaped.  It may just be my imagination, but I could almost tell from the eyes of these children which ones would succeed.  They had a defiance and a determination that looked different than the others.  What courage it must have taken, just like little Eva, to have the will to survive that will help you do whatever it takes to stay alive.

Children's drawings from the camp (Yad Vashem exhibit)

Children’s drawings from the camp (Yad Vashem exhibit)

A difficult area to visit was the Yad Vashem exhibits.  This was an incredibly well-organized exhibit that really makes the experience real for those who visit.  One of the things nearly every member of our group mentioned was the room with children’s drawings.  A number of children drew images from the camp–some ghastly like hangings or shootings, some beautiful like hearts, stars of David, and a bird singing–ironic in light of my experience that morning.  Another one that touched me the most was the image of a little girl sitting alone on the train platform with a suitcase with the word Terezin, 1943, and a number on it (Possibly a relative’s prison number.)  Another was the image of abandoned toys.  It’s very interesting to view an atrocity though the eyes of a child.

Book of Names room

Book of Names room

Another area that was extremely moving was the book of names room.  In three languages, it states, “The names of the murdered are inscribed in this book as an eternal memorial.”   Then, it quotes Psalms 139:16, “And in your book, they all will be written.”  Like no other area, this room strikes you with the sheer mass of people who were murdered,  I took the opportunity to look up my friend Maurice’s family, as he had mentioned they had been wiped out during the Holocaust.  I thought I might find a relative or two.  There were two full pages (3 feet of type each!) with name after name of people with his last name.  It was horrifying to see the devastation of this one family.  Another team member had found that her family name had three pages.  It brought home the fact that the Holocaust truly wiped out entire family lines!

Sabbath service at the Galicia Jewish Museum

Sabbath service at the Galicia Jewish Museum

When we returned to the hotel, a group of us were scheduled to head into town for a musical Sabbath service.  So we caught a cab downtown for a little over $4.00 total for the four of us, and waited for the service to begin.  We had previously had dinner here, and it was a cool venue.  The group here is really a grassroots group trying to interest seekers and make traditions more palatable for a younger audience.  With my normal experience in Judaism being with Chabad, it was WAY different.  They had a female rabbi, played instruments throughout, and didn’t recite the normal prayers, though there were people who did it.  However, the music was well done, they had Siddurs available for the visitors, and Kiddish was sensitive (both wine and grape juice) with the most amazing hallah I have ever tasted.  Just not what I’m used to.

When we arrived at the hotel at 10:30 PM, Eva was just heading into the lobby.  She sat on her walker and shared with us–stories from her past (returning to their family home to find it abandoned and neglected.  She teared up discussing her mother and how it felt to realize by the tall weeds and neglected appearance that her parents were never coming back.  But, she soon changed to the humorous as well, laughing through the tale of her husband getting trapped in his new used car because he didn’t know how to get out without setting the alarm off.  We laughed and cried and just thoroughly enjoyed being in the presence of Eva Kor.  Finally, we headed back to our rooms, shocked to discover it was midnight, and we had spent an hour and a half sharing with her.  What an incredible time!

The Wieliczka Salt Mine

The Wieliczka Salt Mine

This morning (6/24/15), we had the rare opportunity to visit the Wieliczka salt mine. It is an incredible experience, and one I recommend.  Ironically, I first heard of the Wieliczka Salt Mine in the eighth grade English book selected for me to teach.  The article was used for students to practice summarizing, but described in great detail the beauty of this mine.  Now, 13 years later, I get to see it in person.

This was a working salt mine until salt production stopped in 1964. Now, they just use the brine from the mine for bath salts and other beauty products.  When it was time for our tour, we were escorted to a miner elevator (claustrophobic–it was built for the miners, but is actually more like a 3x5x6 cage.  Still, an incredible experience!).  We descended several floors to start the tour.  In the normal tour, there are 800 steps, but a few of us were blessed to take the “handicapped tour” because of our knee problems (heart for me.) there were about 20 stairs. Additionally, in one area, we had a ramp of 100 meters with about a 30 degree incline.  We discussed the difference between the American definition of handicap accessible and that of other countries.

Salt Sculpture in the mine

Salt Sculpture in the mine

Down in the mine, it is a constant 57 degrees (constant 14 Celsius). They used oak or pine wood to reinforce the walls because they are hard woods.  The salt statue in the main chamber is from the Second World War. Inside the mine, there are 2,350 chambers with 240 km of corridors.  And, in 1978, UNESCO placed the Wieliczka salt mine on its list as a world heritage site. With its rich history, it’s easy to see why.

In the 18th century, kings owned the mine. At the time, it was a treasure.  Due to the lack of refrigeration, salt was valued for its preservative properties and its ability to mask the taste of that which had not been preserved well enough. In fact, In the 14th-15th century, it was more expensive than gold.  In one chamber, there is a statue of Johann Wolfgang van Goethe who had visited the mine (right). It was carved by miners just outside of the only chamber excavated with explosives. In addition to the amazing sculptures, in the lower levels of the mine, there is a Sanitarium for people with asthma or a spa to enjoy as the air is supposed to make you look two years younger.

Salt chapel--carved entirely out of salt

Salt chapel–carved entirely out of salt

The mine averages over one million visitors per year, and tourists started visiting after the First World War.  Our tour guide shared the legend of the patron saint of this mine. The Hungarian Princess Kinga knew that Poland was rich but had no salt. King Bela took her to a mine in Hungary. She threw her engagement ring down the shaft to claim it,  When she arrived in Poland, she asked miners to dig down deep.  According to legend, they found salt, and when they split it open, her engagement ring was inside, claiming the mine for herself.  She then became the Patron saint of miners.   Mining is dangerous, so miners prayed a lot in the chapel–and it’s incredible!  This chapel is floor to ceiling salt (Trust me, one of our tour members licked the floor…)  The amazing artistry is incredible, reproducing such greats as Da Vinci’s Last Supper,  other incidents in the life of Christ, a statue of Pope John Paul II, and a salt chandelier!  It is breathtaking!

Salt Crucifix from the chapel area

Salt Crucifix from the chapel area

There are three masses held in this chapel every year:  One at Christmas, one July 24 (Polish Independence Day), and the fourth of December, the day of St Barbara, the patron saint of miners.   This entire room was carved by three Polish miners who were also artists.  I can’t even imagine what it took to create a thing of such lasting beauty.

In addition to the caverns and chambers, the mine also boasts a restaurant and two bookstores where you can purchase a variety of salt and salt related items.

From the mine, we headed into town where we were able to spend time just walking around the market, having conversations with our group, buying souvenirs, and enjoying the horse drawn carriages and the variety of street performers always doing something on the streets of the square.

After an incredible dinner at Wesele on the square, we headed back to the hotel to hear one of our tour members share about his trip to North Korea three years ago.  I have included my notes from his lecture.  Please realize that this is North Korea as seen through his eyes.  His views may be accurate–they may not be.  With the current lack of information about North Korea, I appreciate the opportunity to learn, even if I take it with a grain of salt.  Most of it has already been discovered by the UN or other organizations.

He began his talk explaining the ideology of North Korea.  He compared it to a religion of Kim family worship. These men are held in such regard that there are a variety of myths surrounding them such as rainbows appeared at their births or they don’t have to use the bathroom.

He got to visit North Korea because they invite a group of Harvard grad students to visit, and he wanted to attend.  He explained in this ideology that the government has absolute control over information. People are taught that their first loyalty is to state. Children will even spy on their own families, just like in Nazi times.  He had written his thesis on North Korean prison camps.

After explaining that the Kims have been In charge of 20 million people for 60 years, he delved into previous history. Before WWII, Korea was colonized by Japan. Japan tried to get rid of Korean culture. Then, after World War II, it was split into two parts:  one controlled by the Allies, one by the Communists. Both sides put in puppet government. So, the Koreans came from a unified people–one people group. The politics were imposed not chosen. North Korea had been controlled by the USSR, so when Communism fell, they needed new benefactor. They chose China, another close Communist nation, but they never had the relationship with China they had with Russia.

So, what is life like for a North Korean?  He asked us to remember they controlled what he got to see. First, he commented that they had a hard time feeding the group. The food they received was either inadequate or sub par. At end of trip, all members had mouth sores and were weak. After first experiencing inadequate nutrition, the feeling is intense. Then, it subsides. At the peak of their hunger season (day 2-3), they went to restaurant. Their minder told the group North Korea was paradise on earth.  In the middle of making the statement, the lights went out. It was a rolling black out.

He also reminded us that, depending on what you do with interacting with locals, you won’t end up in jail, but they will. We talked about the Holocaust prisoners strong sense of familial responsibility–it’s the same In North Korea. There are three classes in Society. Your class determined food, information, ability to be in government, etc. The three classes are: those loyal to Kim’s, people who were wavering, or people determined to be disloyal. Because of this, there is such a culture of fear. They don’t want to be sent north.

There is a dual function of the prison camps: Get rid of people they don’t like permanently and inspire so much fear that everyone wants to obey. These aren’t death camps like Auschwitz. If your cousin does something, your entire family may get sent. When you arrive, you’re told you’re scum, and you will work for the regime until you die. They call it being plucked up by roots.  You have to eliminate the whole family to get rid of the root of disloyalty.  Estimated numbers in the camps were 150,000-200,000. Most of the information we have comes from people who escaped. There’s a story of one man who was born in camps because “good” prisoners may be allowed to have sex with other prisoners. Like the Nazis, guards are told prisoners aren’t people. Starvation is rampant. It’s so bad there were people searching through dung to find undigested kernels of corn to eat. There are extensive rapes and forced abortion. Guards also use people for live target practice or lock them in cells where they can’t stand or stretch. Survivors say there are no pictures, but if you want to see, look at Holocaust.

So, what can we do? How do we make sure we’re not just the same as those who knew the Holocaust was happening and did nothing about it.  First, we can raise awareness, especially with people in power. But, the question remains:  What do you do to make people across the world care? Our speaker’s suggestions?  North Korea is dependent on China to feed their people. Why does China support North Korea? His speculation is for China, It is better to have Korea divided than united and leaning toward the US. China has a lot to be proud of and to offer the world. They also want to save face with the world. When things get too bad in North Korea now, China turns off oil for 24 hours–they yank the proverbial chain. We need to ask China to use their leverage to bring change.

Still, the question is far from easy.  What would North Korea do with all those people if the camps closed? He doesn’t know.  But the US government isn’t the one to raise pressure. We need advocates. We can’t throw our arms up and saw there’s nothing we can do.

Another interesting thing he shared was that everywhere they went they saw actors. They were allowed to visit a maternity hospital named for the Kims. On the trip, they had a neonatal doctor from the US. After touring the hospital and seeing all the mothers and babies, he said none of the babies were newborn, and none of mothers had just given birth.  It was all an act.  Also, they went to a library to see people typing on computers. When they walked by screens, they were all off.
They also came across a wedding in park that they “happened” upon. Every building had pictures of Kim’s. People have been sent to camps for not respecting the portraits.

Someone asked what does China get out of North Korea? Apparently, there is long history among the countries there. People believe if armies are coming to attack China, they’ll go through Korea. Having the buffer zone is good for them.  Also, the two countries fought together against Japan in WWII. He feels that in China, there is a diversity of opinion: Some ask why are we in this? Others say we are brothers in arms, loyal to the end.  Another group asks at what point do we break ties?  Having North Korea, though, also deflects resources and interest to something else when China needs it to.

As to the future, he shares he thinks North Korea was better under Kim il Sung. He really was a war hero. Under Kin Jong Il, things got worse. People hoped things were going to change with the new regime. But he thinks Kim Jong Un is being the most brutal, executing even his own family. Everyone’s hoping for reform. China did it successfully.  Maybe Korea can too.  For past 60 years, people have been predicting the collapse of North Korea, and yet it holds on. He does not think solution is military. There is a pessimism in the region. Most of the region doesn’t want to take on the issues associated with thousands of refugees and their health problems, etc. feels like leaders think it will be over soon so haven’t tried.
He recommends reading The Hidden Gulag by David Hawk.  It contains testimonies of people in the camps.

Finally, he shared a few stark details.  The kids are malnourished, so South Koreans are on average are 5-6 inches taller, despite being from the same heritage. He saw schools and orphanages where the kids were malnourished with rashes. He didn’t see a single old person in North Korea. People had also converted cars to run on steam for when there’s no gas.  He stated that people have same clothes and haircuts. The number one thing studied in school is the wisdom of the leaders. This is all people know. Only ruling elite are allowed outside education. There is smuggling out of North Korea, but they’re clamping down on it. One final story he told was when they had been in North Korea for six days.  Suddenly, a noise broke into their sub-consciences, and everyone on the team stopped.   It was the sound of a bird. They had seen and heard no birds or squirrels in the whole time they’d been there. When 1/5 of country died, they ate them all.

The first step is being informed.  Now, we have the opportunity to be an advocate.

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.

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!