Thursday, November 29, 2012

A Somber Day at Auschwitz

Ironically, it was a beautiful, sunny fall day when we journeyed from Krakow and made our way to one of the coldest and darkest places on earth: the Auschwitz concentration camp, a network of concentration and extermination camps set up by the Nazis during World War II. Greeting us as we entered, was the iconic sign Arbeit Macht Frei, which translates as Labor Makes You Free.

There was no freedom here for the 1.3 million who died, 90% of whom were Jewish.

Auschwitz I, the base camp, was the administrative arm of the complex with its brick barracks, storage warehouses, prisoner cells, and an area for "experimental" medical testings,

and Auschwitz-Berkenau was known as the extermination camp where most of the "final solution of the Jewish question in Europe" was carried out.

Between 1922-1944, transport trains dropped off hundreds of thousands prisoners to this location, where upon disembarking, doctors would separate them into two groups, the young and hearty in one group, and then the children, mothers, ailing, weak and elderly were sent to the other side

where many were exterminated immediately. Three-fourths of the total prisoners

were selected to die. Those who remained prisoners in the labor camps suffered severe hardships, and often died of starvation, illness, or from the freezing conditions.

The barracks contained long rows of wooden bunks where the prisoners were forced to sleep on top of each other, often lying on their clothes so they wouldn't be stolen.
Records show that 800-1000 were sometimes crammed into the compartments of each barrack.

It was with great sadness that we read the names of  many like Maria, who were killed.

Seeing the faces of the children was most difficult of all.

When the prisoners disembarked from the trains, they were told to leave their possessions behind,

many of their personal items being gathered up and sent to "Kanada," a warehouse that stored their earthly possessions, and then were sent back to Germany to be distributed.

Canada symbolized wealth to the prisoners. Toiletries, cooking utensils, clothing and even hair were saved and were on display at the current exhibition.

Sweet touchstones of innocent babies and children who died way too soon.

We witnessed sites of the atrocities, the hanging square,

the Black Wall, where SS guards executed thousands,

and what was left behind of the crematoriums. Heartbreaking stories of families torn apart by the atrocities inflicted upon them.

I was privileged to travel with Joan who had a personal connection to the camp. She was named after her Jewish great-grandmother who had died at Auschwitz. When her grandmother finished her schooling, Joan's great-grandmother put her on a boat to America, sending her away, and on that day gave her the earrings off of her ears as she departed. Her great grandmother and some of her siblings later were sent to Auschwitz. Joan's family line was thus spared when her grandmother left Europe, and she owns those very earrings and wore them in her great grandmother's honor, the day we visited the camp.

This story is one of millions more of the people whose lives were lost in one of the world's most awful atrocities. It was extremely difficult to experience the surroundings, but it was a vivid reminder of the evil that can occur in this world if left unchecked and not challenged. May the memory of those lost remind us of the common humanity of us all and our responsibility towards our fellow man.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Tripping over to Krakow

When offered the chance to go to Krakow, Poland for the weekend with friends, Hubby and I jumped on the chance to explore an area that we really knew nothing about. Upon arrival, our group of 30 immediately went to the Wieliczka Salt Mines which were first built in the 13th century, and which continued producing table salt until 2007. 

Comprised of nine levels reaching to a depth of 1073 feet, and 190 miles in length, the salt mines are massive. Below ground is a virtual wonder-world including a labyrinth of tunnels, chambers, underground lake, and dozens of statues carved out of the naturally gray salt.

Thankful that we weren't headed down all 9 levels on our tour, we began our descent which eventually led us down 800 steps to the third level.

At a level of 135 feet below ground, we put the guys to work making them earn their keep.

We visited chamber after chamber appreciating the stories of the miners and the years of hard labor it took to withdraw the salt, and shore up the chambers as they did.

Most impressive to me were the 3 underground chapels, especially this large one, The Chapel of the Blessed King, illuminated with rock salt chandeliers, 164' long and 49' wide,

with an amazing altar, which was a work of art. Mass and weddings are still held in the Chapel of the Blessed King routinely, redefining the concept of "destination wedding!"

We were thankful to be above ground the next two days with beautiful and exceptional weather for November. Our walking tour of the Old Town included a stop at the Royal Castle and Cathedral of Wawel set high on a hill above the town.

Situated in the center of the Old Town is the Main Square, the largest medieval town square of any European City, which includes the Town Hall Tower,

Renaissance Cloth Hall, 

and one of my favorite stops, the St. Mary's Basilica.

Beautiful original stained glass

and a masterpiece of a Gothic wooden altarpiece, carved by Veit Stoss, which was stunning as it was revealed to us in a ceremony at mid-day when it was opened for all to see.

Strolling through the city revealed many historic styles of architecture

which caught our eyes along the way.

Especially soothing were the many parks around town

where we all enjoyed strolling, enjoying moments of peaceful thought in anticipation of what we knew would be a very difficult following day when we would travel to Auschwitz to experience the terrors of the Holocaust. 

Stay tuned for a few impressions of our excursion in my next blog.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Chatsworth-Chapter 2

After a little blogging break, I'm back to continue sharing with you some more insights about our rainy day trip to Chatsworth. 

If you remember, I mentioned in my last post that the current Duchess of Devonshire was strolling the public rooms that day, taking her own pictures of a very special exhibition that was taking place the day we visited.

Since the weather was so inclement outdoors and spoiled our garden strolls, we were excited

to know that The Florabundance Festival was in full bloom inside.

Masterful displays by floral designer, Jonathan Moseley,

enhanced the opulence

and beauty of the rooms.

A special emphasis was given to fall displays, including this assortment of peppers holding a multitude of blooms,

and the eggplant arrangement gracing this antique piece of furniture. The house was absolutely transformed, convincing us that our choice of days was not an unlucky one because of the rain, but a lucky one, to be able to see the beautiful floral works of art throughout the house.

One the way back to the train station, our taxi driver insisted we would enjoy a quick detour to the village of Edensor, within the parkland of the Chatsworth Estate. The village dates from 1830, when the 6th duke moved this village from another spot that was blocking the view from the house, to this location a bit further away.

Currently living in the vicarage of the village is the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, ever since the death of her husband, the 11th Duke of Devonshire. Deborah Cavendish is the youngest and last surviving of the infamous Mitford sisters, whose lives were so entwined with English culture.

I couldn't help but be reminded of the Downton Abbey fictitious character, Dowager Countess of Grantham, Maggie Smith, who also lives in her own home near the estate of her former home, Downton Abbey. 

We had time to tour the St. Peter's Church,

and the cemetery where many of the Cavendish family, the dukes of Devonshire and their family members, are buried.

Our taxi driver put on his "tour guide hat" to walk us through the church, the churchyard, and a spot he thought would be of special interest to us as Americans. Here lies the body of Kathleen Kennedy, sister of John F. Kennedy, who was married to William, the heir of the dukedom, but who was killed in action in the Second World War. Kathleen, herself, was killed in an air crash just 4 years after her husband's death, and the plaque in front of the headstone commemorates the day that President Kennedy visited his sister's grave just 5 months before his assassination.

A poignant walk through time that tied our American history to the history of this quaint village of Edensor.

If you make it to Chatsworth, I highly recommend a little detour of your own to this charming village.

Hope Chatsworth is on your bucket list too!