Thursday, September 27, 2012

Auschwitz I

Stepping into Auschwitz I was a humbling experience and the gloomy weather only accentuated the feel. It was the first of three large concentration camps within a short distance of one another. Today, with the large number of bunkers intact, it has become a large museum. Inside varying blocks are artifacts and information panels. With the masses of tourists and our guide providing facts, numbers and general information of what occurred in the area, it was easy to remain disengaged. The emotion wasn't as strong as I had been expecting. Individual stories were never told. There were only brief moments of reality, with a photo of a prisoner, a child's shoe, and a few rare stories, such as standing on the location of a 19 hour outdoor winter roll call. 

"Several hundred women prisoners, mainly Jewish
were held in two upstairs rooms of this block and used as
human guinea-pigs for sterilization experiments conducted
by Prof. Dr. Carl Clauberg, a German gynecologist, from
April 1943 to May 1944. Some of them died from the treatment
they received, others were murdered so that autopsies could be
performed on them. Those who survived were left with
permanent injuries.
Other SS doctors also conducted experiments on women
in this block."

Execution wall.  Windows in bunkers on either side were blacked out.
That still didn't stop the prisoners from knowing what was occurring,
especially since the blackened windows were not soundproof.
Instead of flowers, Jewish tradition places rocks on graves
or memorials, which is how the execution wall now stands.

The mound of shoes spanned both sides of a large corredor
Children's shoes. Those who didn't meet initial execution were
mandated the same workload and hours as an adult. 
"You are in a building where the SS murdered thousands of people.
Please maintain silence here; remember their suffering
and show respect for their memory."
The only surviving crematoria is also the smallest. The others
were slowly destroyed before the liberation. The final large
crematoria (in Auschwitz II) only being destroyed
the night before liberation. Meaning, mass murders
occurred up until the final hours. 
"This is where the camp Gestapo was located. Prisoners
suspected of involvement in the camp's underground
resistance movement or of preparing to escape were interrogated here.
Many prisoners died as a result of being beaten or tortured.
The first commandant of Auschwitz,
SS-Obersturmbannfuhrer Rudolf Hoss, who was tried
and sentenced to death after the war by the Polish
Supreme National Tribunal, was hanged here on
16 April 1947." 

It was the non-museumesq Auschwitz II - Birkenau that tugged more at my heartstrings.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

a birthday tour

The air is cooler than I was expecting. I’m glad I brought my sweater and wish I had worn long pants. The sky is gray. A mist of precipitation envelopes me. To think it is only mid-August. Then again, I reason, it is still early in the day.

Standing on the sidewalk, the guide of our small 13 person group tells us we have 10 minutes to use the bathroom. We will all meet back where we are. With a three-hour tour ahead of me, unsure of the next opportunity of a bathroom break, I start walking.
The grass to my side is bright green, the only sign of happiness as far as my eyes can see. I quickly look back and make a mental count of the white vans in the parking lot. Three. The one I stepped out of being the last.
Focusing again on my destination I continue towards the entrance of the red brick bunker-turned-museum on my right. I weave through small groups of people clustered along the path. Not one of them is speaking. They only wait with arms crossed or hands rubbing together to warm them from the chill.
Weeping Willows stand solemnly across from the museum entrance doors.  Their vine-like branches encircle large black photographs of the compound, placed near each tree’s trunk, thus protecting the photos the only way they know how.
Nearing the building, now able to focus on the individual instead of the whole, it is easy to see carved initials gracing each and every brick on the wall.  A sign above the door says ‘Museum Entrance’ in three languages.
I walk through the doorway searching for some indication of a bathroom. Trying not to hit anyone, I weave through the masses. Blurs of movement swish past me. Whispers of unintelligible conversations reach my ears. I spot a sign and turn right, in the direction of the arrow. It leads me down a set of stairs. The basement. Seated at a table where the line begins is a woman. On a sheet of paper in front of her, taped to the table, is written '2 zloty’. She collects the money, returning change if needed. Men file to the right, women to the left before disappearing through a doorway.
Leaving the bathroom I again return to the third white van. No one is there. I look around, searching for a recognizable face. Over the next two minutes our small group reconstitutes itself from every direction.  Our guide returns and directs us back to the entrance from which I came. The rush of people is the same as when I first entered.
Our guide walks quickly, past the blue signs hanging overhead. I follow in quick succession, unable to read what the signs were intended to tell me.  He turns right, into a small room where we each receive headphones. It is not a self-guided tour, he assures us, the headphones are only to allow us to hear the information better without the need for the guide to shout. At the exit, a lone pillar stands to the side displaying a blue poster. On it is the star of David and the words ‘Jewish Synagogue’.
Outside is a different world. A large gravel path crunches under our feet. Before us over one hundred people are hurdled together in individual groups, slowly walking forward. To our right is a large grassy area which is abruptly cut off by a large, foreboding electric fence. I look up. There isn’t a bird in sight.
Our new guide, female, speaks in a soft, subdued voice and requests we turn the the electronic device to channel 7.  I place the headphones over my ears as she begins to provide historical background of the area. I slow down, stopping at times to take pictures. I’ve distanced myself from my group by a few feet, but am still able to hear everything the guide is explaining. I continue walking to catch up with the group and hear crunching sounds from the gravel. The sound is not my own. It appears to be coming from behind. I turn around, but there is no one there. I repeat the action two or three more times, until I reason that it must be the echo of the people walking behind the guide’s microphone. Although, a part of me thinks otherwise.
Catching up with my group, most of the other crowds have dispersed.  It is then the words over the entryway, connecting two sides of high voltage electrical fencing, comes to view. It reads: ARBEIT MACHT FREI.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012


During the Yugoslav wars, a friend of mine fled the province of Vojvodina, Serbia with her family and began a new life in Vienna, Austria. Her stories of struggle, loss, bravery and strength are what gave me a desire to visit the northern region of her home country as opposed to the southern region closer to Kosovo, which I would have done otherwise. Since she was unable to join us, however, we decided to take a day trip into Subotica, instead of the city she grew up in.

A friendly neighbor of our farmhouse played taxi-man and drove us the 20 miles to Subotica in his 'I-don't-know-how-in-the-world-he-got-it-running' car. While bouncing down the street a young horse appeared walking down the road in the distance. Not following a straight line, he was taking up the entire road. He'd walk, look behind him, stop and then walk some more. As we neared the scene, the owner came into view. A short, thin, elderly man - his overalls hung loosely on his body. He ran, in brown boots that also appeared a bit too large, chasing the horse. But the horse found it a game and kept a small enough berth to taunt his owner without getting caught.

The 40 minute ride ended with our arrival in the art nouveau capital of Serbia. Walking through Subotica's streets, my mom and I envisioned high society, prestigious individuals in the early 1900's going about daily life when the city was at its prime.

The most striking piece of architecture was one we hadn't been looking for. Hidden just outside the city center, the Subotica Synagogue is claimed to be one of the finest surviving pieces of religious architecture in the art nouveau style, says Duke University. And I, wholeheartedly, agree. As beautiful as the building is, though, it is equally heartbreaking. Throughout the years it has fallen to disrepair, although restorative works are currently in effect. The synagogue has since been dedicated to the "4000 Jewish citizens with whom we lived and built Subotica. They perished in the Fascist death camps during the World War II."

Friday, September 14, 2012

The thing about language barriers.

It is required to register with the police while in Stara Morovica. That's at least what it said in the handbook displayed in the farmhouse. It also said there was a community pool (which was taken over by the local criminali), a man who transports you and a canoe to the local lake for an evening paddle via horse and carriage (who no longer lives there), and bikes to ride (ones with flat tires and no pump). But we went to the station anyway, mainly because the handbook stated the local chief of police spoke English - a rare find in the small Hungarian speaking village of Serbia.

I sat on an old leather sofa in the small, one-roomed police station, embarrassed, while my mother asked the officer question after question about the activities stated in the farmhouse handbook. All the while, his companion sat at the desk adjacent the sofa and wrote down our passport information. Trying to create a degree of separation from my mother's interrogation, I pretended to understand the program playing on the boxy television sitting atop a large file cabinet, and only acknowledged others when spoken to. 

Back at the farmhouse, a few locals stopped by to check on us. One, speaking fairly good English, mentioned that the police officers needed our phone numbers. Thinking it was no more than a part of protocol, I gave my number; as my mother is mobile-illiterate.

The following afternoon I received a text message which read, 'Hi, this is Victor the police officer. I work late tonight and am wondering if you want to go for coffee this evening.'  Naively I turned to my mother and asked if she thought the 'you' was intended to be plural or singular. The verdict was singular.

After discussing things over and a few back and forth text messages it was decided that Victor and his companion would join us for dinner instead. Despite his fluency in English, however, language barriers still posed issues in regards to time. Thinking they'd come before 9 o'clock when their shift started, we set the outdoor table and read. When 6:00 turned to 7:00 and 7:00 to 8:00, we moved the dishes back into the house.

The 8 o'clock hour also brought a spur of the moment invitation to visit goats and purchase their milk. That was the one thing I had wanted to do during our stay. But not knowing when the officers were due to arrive and especially since, my mother reasoned, they were clearly coming to see me, I was in a bit of a conundrum. In the end I went, as my mother's idea of 'all things fun' does not include goat's milk. So she stayed to wait.

A couple picked me up and led me to the goats. He only spoke a handful of English words and an equal amount of German. She spoke nothing but Hungarian. (We had thrilling conversations). The lady who owned the goats welcomed us in warmly. Wooden stables filled her back yard. Through hand gestures, facial expressions and the occasional English word, she introduced me to her 9 adult goats and 7 kids... (goat kids that is).

Once introductions were over, 15 minutes had past and she led us through the back door of her house. On a table in the mud room were two large buckets filled with milk. Now, I thought, we're getting somewhere.

She sat us down at her kitchen table, a flowery printed outdoor tablecloth covered everything but its legs. She offered us sparkling water, which I declined, and then opened a dorm-sized refrigerator displaying rows of goat cheese in all shapes and sizes. Bringing two out, she visually explained how the cheeses were molded. After a few verbal exchanges, the man turned to me and asked if I could spare 30 minutes to watch the entire cheese-making process.

I crave opportunities like that and wanted to do nothing more than stay and learn. But I looked at the clock who's hands were telling me it was 8:30. I couldn't leave my mom to do all the entertaining, especially if her assumptions were correct. Explaining the situation proved difficult though. Instead I said 'milk' and made a hand gesture to indicate drinking. The woman's face lit up in understanding. I felt a flood of relief. The next thing I knew, I had a tall glass of warm milk - straight from the goat - slapped down in front of me. And then she started making the cheese.

Monday, September 10, 2012


For 3 days we made the small, 5600 person strong, village of Stara Moravica, Serbia home.

My mother's immediate response to our surroundings was as follows: "Then we went to a little farmhouse in the back of no where (Claire chose it).  Nothing but flat farmed fields all around us, in a run down village.  I wanted to turn around and head back to civilization (or at least to somewhere with horses, hills and people in traditional dress)."

Indeed the village wasn't what I had been expecting either, based off what I had researched. But it wasn't that bad. And my mothers initial response turned to praise... after my attempts of over-enthusiasm due to the skeptical look she gave me when we arrived, and the warmth of the locals. 

And I quote: "However we really ended up enjoying ourselves.  We bought honey from the local bee keeper, bought freshly baked bread from the woman next door with the stone oven, walked around town, had some neighbor women come over to help us adjust.  Had dinner cooked and brought in, visited a cute Art Nouveau town approx 20 minutes away, then had 2 of the local police officers over for dinner (one was hitting on Claire and brought his friend along for moral support). It turned out to be a really nice vacation."

*quotes were pulled from an email my mother wrote to my brother, which I found after hacking into her account. Like she said during our most recent visit together, "we share no email secrets." To which I corrected her and stated, "no, you share no email secrets."  My password is secure.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Guessing game

Every holiday with my mother involves more than one country. To her, it is not fathomable to spend an entire week in one country alone. No, no... there is too much of the world to see and too little time in which to see it. So after our small jaunt around Romania concluded, we made our way to country number two.

Question is... which country was it?  Maybe photos will help.

Kansas, you ask?  It does look like it, but no. Kansas is not a country, it's a state.

No, Oklahoma is not a country either.

If you think the strange factory has thrown you off your guess, wait for the next shot.

And the answer is...

Monday, September 3, 2012

Representatives of Romania

most beautiful sheep alive
Miller wetting wool that is being pound down by large legs of wood
faces of those imprisoned during the Communist Era on the walls of a former Communist prison - now museum
Conductor on a steam train
non-uniformed steam train Engineer
local field workers
 (her socks are my favorite)
Maramures countryside
happy man returning home after work
Most prominent form of transportation: two feet
Dutch kindred spirit
Soon this will all be a dream. Modern technology and the desire to wear
current fashions is already replacing the country's age old
custom of manual tools and traditional clothing.