Dec 8th - 13th
08.12.2009 - 13.12.2009 -8 °C
December 8th : Würzburg -> Berlin
This morning after crawling out of bed, Lisa came over and photographed and interviewed us for the local paper about our experiences in Würzburg and Germany. After that we had showers and then when Anja came home we went to Carolin's place where they kindly whipped us up a traditional Bavarian dessert.
Side-note: Since visiting European houses, I'm beginning to understand more what people mean when they talk about 'European Design'. Even students living in old share houses have a great sense of creativity; interesting art, furniture and textiles. I guess it is because it so much more accessible (and not as expensive!) here in Europe itself. It makes for really nice surroundings, not in a slick 'from the pages of a magazine' way, but in the way art and design is so much more a part of people's everyday lives, it's really cool and refreshing and has given us ideas for what we would like to surround ourselves with. Objects which tell stories and have an interesting creative history, generate energy by inspiring people to hold them, talk about them and enjoy looking at them. I like that idea. I am looking forward to making stuff!
Needless to say, Carolin's house was like that, full to the brim with colourful pictures, print outs, postcards, photos and all sorts, it was like being in a studio or something, with lots to look at and play with. We all huddled into the kitchen where Anja and Carolin kindly got to preparing the dessert, while we all drank Glühwein and giggled away. The dessert was absolutely delicious! A bready, cinnamony baked bun covered with a berry sauce and vanilla custard. I can't remember what it was called, but lordy mama, it was good!
We wolfed that down, said farewell to the wonderful Carolin and then went back to Anja's where we grabbed our bags and hopped on the tram to the train station.
There was a problem with the electricity so we were unable to buy our tickets there, we'd have to get them on board the train from the inspector.
We thanked Anja for her amazing hospitality, she had been a fantastic host, showering us with food and fun, we'd had a great time with her again.
Hopping on the first (of many) trains, we were both feeling positive and happy, having absorbed some inspiration from the enthused Würzburgian youth :D
Our card didn't work in the ticket inspectors' machine so we unwillingly used the Australian Visa, knowing we'd have to deal with the fee later on, but had a relatively easy journey, after 8 hours; 1 tram, 4 trains and 4 U-bahn trains, we got into Berlin, for only 39Euros!
Anja had very kindly recommended us to her friend Isabell who lives in Berlin, and she was there to meet us at the station. She walked us back to her apartment and we spent the night getting to know each other. Isabell was lovely, a marketing student who had lived in Berlin all her life and, not surprisingly, loved it (who doesn't!?). We stayed up for quite a while chatting until we all gave in to sleep...
December 9th : Berlin
Neither of us slept very well last night. Feeling sleepy we forced ourselves out the door and went downstairs to get a energy boosting breakfast: Falafel and coffee! After that we were feeling much more human, so we made our way to the train station.
I stopped at the ticket machine to get a couple, while Cam tried to convince me that it's not worth it, we were in Berlin for 10 days last time and not once had we purchased a ticket. I had heard stories of people getting big fines from ruthless inspectors who get a commission for each fare-skipper they catch, and insisted that we get at least a short trip ticket. So, tickets in pocket we got on the train.
What are the chances? I asked myself this question after we were ordered off the train by the casual-clothed ticket inspector who had just issued us with a 80euro fine for not validating our ticket. Of all the trains, and all the times, the first one we get on is full of disguised inspectors waiting to pounce?
Now, I don't want to 'mention the war' or unnecessarily draw uncanny similarities between soldier in a particular German regime and the ticket inspector, but he was a ruthless bastard. We had a ticket after all, we just had forgotten to validate it (thinking the machine would have done it when it printed it). Oh well, them's the breaks.
Feeling a bit grumpy and down, we went for a walk along the Friedriche Strasse and to the Brandenburg Gate to cheer us up. We ducked into the coffee shop and spent some time in there drinking coffee and talking about how much longer we want to keep gallavanting across the world, when we have exciting ideas for what we want to do back in Oz. We came to a few ideas, heading back to Asia sooner rather than later being the main one, the other being that the Trans Siberian in the depths of winter may not be such a great idea. We really want to take that trip, but will come and do it in a more accessible season when we can enjoy all the activities along the way (hiking, riding, kayaking, etc.)
Feeling a bit perkier we went for a nice walk through the Tier Gardens and to he Reichstag Building where we lined up to go inside. The Reichstag is the German parliamentary building and is really beautiful. Of particular interest is the 'Cupola', a huge conical glass structure on the top, designed by British architect Norman Foster (famous for 'The Gherkin' in London amongst other projects). After a long wait in the queue, we made our way up and spent a long time looking out over the (foggy) view of Berlin, and going over various photos of it's turbulent history. We then went for a nice walk through a big Christmas market, the same place we had roast chestnuts before going to see a cheap classical performance 3 years ago (ahhhhh...). From there we went to the supermarket to get some ingredients to cook dinner for Isabell, and then made it back to her apartment about 6 o'clock. I made a tasty dhal and we drank beer while talking about the different lives of students in different countries. It was a really nice evening! Isabell kindly helped us organise our transport to Krakow tomorrow and then we got into bed.
December 10th : Berlin -> Krakow (Poland)
Still feeling pretty zonked from not much sleep, we rolled off the mattress and got changed ready to leave. It is strange sticking to a schedule! Having made plans to be in Finland for Christmas, we are trying to see as much as we can in the next couple of weeks as we make our journey there. We said heartfelt thank you's and good bye's to Isabell and then walked to the Hauptbahnhof where we got tickets for the next train to Krakow. Grabbed a sandwich and coffee for breakfast and then sat on our bags at the platform in wait for the train, wondering exactly how many times we have done this very thing over the past many months....?
The train was spot on time and everyone scrambled on (it must leave spot on time too!) we found our seats and got comfortable for the 11hour journey.
It was a nice train ride, we made friends with the sweet old Polish lady across the aisle who entrusted us with her handbag each time she went to the toilet. The train rolled through lots of beautiful forests, villages, past lakes and looming soviet flat blocks. We got into Krakow a bit after 8pm and managed to find our way on foot to the hostel. It was a great little place capacity for just 30 people) and had a good atmosphere.
We chucked our bags in the room and went for a walk to the Town Square which was very beautiful (it was voted the World's Best Municipal Square a couple of years ago). We then went......to a restaurant!! For dinner! A restaurant! The Eastern European prices are a bit more conducive to eating out, so we enjoyed our first meal out in a very long time
It was a Georgian Restaurant and had great food.
December 11th : Krakow
Today we hit the beautiful town of Krakow! On foot we took in all the lovely cobble stoned streets. In the Market Square we briefly looked at the Christmas markets, did our best at avoiding the hundreds of pigeons everywhere (haven't they got somewhere warmer to go?) and went to the St Mary's Church. There were people praying inside, so we felt a little bit awkward barging in, so took a look around the outside and then moved into the centre of the square to the old Cloth Hall, now a market selling Polish crafts and touristy things. Then down one of the roads which leads to castle, we looked at some little shops and cafes. The Wawel Castle is famous for it's dragon story: the prince of the castle poisoned the dragon with sulphur and it then ran from the castle to drink from the river to stop the burning...and drank itself to death. I was thinking of more swords and flames.....but drinking oneself to death has a certain Eastern European charm to it I suppose.
From the big castle we went to the Jewish Quarter (or what's left of it) and looked at some of the remaining synagogues and squares. It is a lovely area near the river. We bought a coffee at a red themed place and then when for a long walk along the river. Krakow is a really nice town, is has a great feel about it. Not at all what I was expecting from Poland, to be honest! The people are friendly and handsome and the general feeling is positive. Perhaps it's a 'the only way is up' attitude, given their miserable history.
A long day walking, for dinner we went to vegetarian eatery which makes traditional Polish food, but vegetarian style! It was really nice.
From there it was back to the hostel for free 'Polish Vodka Night'. There's a nice small bunch of people there, so we all huddled around the dining table and chatted the night away, while the hostel guy made us 'Mad Dog' shots with vodka, tabasco and some red jam stuff. I dislike vodka immensely to say the least, but was convinced to drink it since it's local stuff, and it was surprisingly nice! All I could taste was the jam, but that was fine with me. We then went out to a pub with Dave, Jarrad, Kenny and another dude whose name slips my mind.....had a pint and were swept in with a crowd watching some extreme wrestling match and yelling in aggressive Polish at the tops of their lungs. Hmm......my first impression of the Poles' handsome demeanour decreased somewhat After some good conversations Cam and I made our way back to the hostel (I have to be up early to speak to Chris' 21st Party contingent tomorrow) and left the other guys to it.
December 12th : Krakow
I was up early this morning, waiting by the phone to hear from Aus. I had a shower, breakfast and a coffee and then Cam woke up, but we still hadn't heard anything. We made our way out on our way to Schinder's Factory. I called a couple of times and then we got the call we were waiting for :D It was really lovely to talk to Chris on his party day, he enjoyed the scrap book and surprise speech video I had made for him and was having a great day, spoke with Courts as well and the folks, everyone having a good time. It is nice to feel part of the fun despite being so far away After a while nattering we said goodbye and we continued on our walk to the factory. It was in the industrial side of town and was pretty miserable on a snowy, grey -10c day. But we found the factory eventually.
The story of Oskar Schindler is interesting, made famous by the book and film 'Schindler's List'. Unfortunately, his museum was not. It was lots of heavy reading predominantly about the statistics about the destruction of Jewish business during the Nazi occupation, as well as some examples of the products. The museum was under renovation and will apparently be much more insightful when it is all open..
We still spent a while there, read a lot and learnt a bit more of the economic affects on the Jewish population, and then started on the long walk back to the hostel.
For dinner we went back to the amazing vegetarian restaurant and decided to go to Auschwitz tomorrow.
December 13th : Krakow -> Auschwitz Birkenau -> Krakow
We got up early this morning, ambivalent about our feelings for the day ahead. We are going to visit Auschwitz 1 + Auschwitz 2 (Birkenau), the Nazi death camps used between 1942 – 45 to perform mass industrial genocide. These Nazi-run camps facilitated the imprisonment and murder of an estimated 1.5million people, including 1.1 million European Jews, Roma Gypsies, POW's, Homosexuals, Intellectuals and many others whom Hitler wished to wipe from the face of the earth in his quest for Aryanisation of the German race.
Showered and breakfasted we walked to the local bus station and hopped on the next bus. When we arrived, the air was foggy and cold and the place was full of Israeli school kids all laughing and joking with one another, which gave it a peculiar atmosphere.
You can enter the camp for free and walk around yourself, but we decided to get a historical guide to give us more of an accurate account of what went on here. Well, we certainly got one. Szymon (Simon) was our guide, and was incredibly passionate about the subject, his own family members having been murdered in this very place.
Entering through the gates bearing the cruel slogan “Arbeit Macht Frei” - “Work will set you free”, the atmosphere was immediately grim. The snowy -3c day felt particularly fitting as we weaved our way between the barracks whilst Simon spoke of the terrible acts of torture and murder which were committed here. I took only a couple of photos, something about taking snaps all over the place felt a bit strange.
He showed us models of the cattle carts where prisoners were stuffed in, barely able to move, to be transported to Auschwitz (they were usually under the false belief that they were going on holiday). Once there, they were then thrown off the train and subjected to 'selection', which involved standing in a line, where at the end of it, an SS officer assesses your physical appearance, determines whether or not you can work or not, and points you left or right.
One way means you walk straight to the gas chambers (under the guise of going to take a shower before starting work), the other way means you walk to the prison barracks where, after being robbed of all your possessions, stripped naked, hosed down with freezing cold water and dressed in striped prison pyjamas, you will be tortured and most likely worked to death, if you are not shot, starved or gassed before that stage.
Many trains arrived during the black of night, when it was not possible for the SS Officers to assess the prisoners, so they were either selected randomly, or all sent off to the gas chambers.
The photographic accounts of this were painful to see. An image of a frail old man, all dressed up for a holiday; hat on head, suitcase in hand; being pointed towards the gas chambers by a Nazi officer, was unbelievably profound.
Once the prisoners had gone through 'selection', all of their possessions were taken from them. There were massive piles of thousands of suitcases with the names and dates of birth of people who were tricked into believing they were going on holiday, followed by thousands upon thousands of intimate belongings: spectacles, shoes, prosthetic/wooden legs, combs, brushes and clothes belonging to adults, children and babies. It is just a fraction of the 'booty' stolen by the 3rd Reich before murdering these poor innocent people. They let absolutely nothing go to waste, the shoes were all sole-less, they pulled them apart to check for anything of value which may have been hidden in them, golden fillings and any jewellery were ripped from corpses after gassing.
I was left totally devastated and breathless by a room full of tonnes and tonnes of human hair. Shaved from the heads of murdered women after they had been gassed, this massive pile equated to approximately 50,000 women. The size of a whole town. And this was just a tiny percentage of the amount produced at this place.
The Nazis used this hair to make woven hair-fabric, which was then utilised as insulation in their uniforms, blankets, or to stiffen uniform collars.
We saw the various torture chambers; amongst them the standing cell and suffocation cell. The 'Wall of Death', where people were executed was adorned with flowers and memorials.
We saw the pathetic rations of food given to prisoners and images which detailed the results of starvation. The details of tests carried out on prisoners, mainly child twins, were awful.
We saw a model of the 'Death Factory' in Birkenhau, which was mostly destroyed by the Nazi's in an attempt to cover it up. Simon described that this was an experiment in industrial genocide: the Raw Material being the prisoners, and the Final Product (or, as it was termed: The Final Solution) being their ashes....:
The prisoners had their possessions taken from them, ordered into what looked like a big change room where they were to remove all of their clothes, and then ordered into big communal 'wash rooms'. Thousands at a time could be sent in to these chambers where, through holes in the roof, officers dropped down crystals of Zyklon-B covered with Cyanide, which would suffocate and kill everyone inside within about 20minutes. After this the bodies were removed of any fillings/jewellery and heads shaved of hair, before they were cremated, the ashes buried.
Nowadays, when entering the gas chamber at Auschwitz 1, a large marble block reminds you to remain silent to respect the lives of thousands of people who had been murdered within these walls. In the dark, grey room, looking up to the small chutes where the gas was dropped down, I felt helpless with grief. These poor people were completely defenseless. Innocent adults, children and elderly people died slow and painful deaths in this very room, their screams for help masked by the engines of trucks deliberately left running outside.
We walked all over Auschwitz 1, seeing the photos of prisoners, their prison uniforms, personal artifacts and stories. After 3 hours there we caught the shuttle bus to Birkenau, about 25 times the size of Auschwitz 1, and where most of the killings occured. We visited the sheds where bunk 'beds' of 3 levels kept 8 prisoners on each level. It looked exactly like a chicken koop, and was a place where many people froze to death during the night, surrounded by rats, bugs, urine and faecal matter. It was now getting dark and the temperature was about -5c, inside the wooden shed it was just as cold as outside.
There were many other areas of the camp that we visited, all of which were equally shocking. The conditions that these people were subjected to were absolutely appalling. Those who left the camp to work tortuously for 11 hours a day had to be returned, dead or alive, at the end of the day.
It is unbelievable that such an efficient and effective form of genocide went on for so long without being stopped. Simon the guide insisted that Churchill, Regan and the Allies were aware that the camps existed but did nothing to stop them. I know little of this, but found aerial images of the camps accidentally captured by American pilots in 1943 were quite surprising to see.
The Nazi's disguised the camps as labour camps, and when the Red Cross visited, showed them particular sections which had been mocked-up to appear as though the conditions were hospitable.
The most sickening and depressing part of all is that it was partly successful in its aims. The Jewish population in Europe was drastically reduced by the camps.
The whole experience was incredibly powerful. It generated a sort of sadness and disbelief I have not felt before.
We returned by bus to Auschwitz 1, where we had to wait for an hour for the next public bus back to Krakow. Standing shivering in the dark, feeling the snow falling on our hats while the freezing wind licked our face, we felt only too aware that we are so lucky to have the life we have, that we would be able to freely leave this awful to place to seek food and warmth.
Back in Krakow we went to the local veggie restaurant and had a big feast, discussing what we had seen during the day. The enormity and evil of it all is too much to comprehend.
A famous quote by a holocaust survivor and writer, Primo Levi, speaks of Anne Frank who died in a concentration camp and whose diaries are now famous world over: “One single Anne Frank moves us more than the countless others who suffered just as she did, but whose faces have remained in the shadows. Perhaps it is better that way; if we were capable of taking in all the suffering of all those people, we would not be able to live”.
Today spoke to me in a way I will not forget, and was an ultimate reminder of the evils committed by man which stem from intolerance, ignorance and hatred.