“It happened, therefore it can happen again.” – Primo Levi

In part, the impetus for our travels across Eastern Europe was the opportunity to educate ourselves about the Holocaust. We didn’t intentionally choose Berlin, Krakow, Vienna, and Prague for this purpose, but we did find these cities (like many across Europe) intrinsically intertwined in a shared dark history of such grisly magnitude it is hard to comprehend. We sought out memorials and museums throughout our trip to understand how such atrocities could unfold and to further our resolve to identify and curtail parallel tendencies in our own country.

Our first encounter with Holocaust memorials were the simple cobblestones, called Stolperstein, we stumbled across while wandering the streets of Berlin.

On our second day in Berlin we decided to visit the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. The memorial starts simple, small, and unimposing, with simple concrete slabs slightly protruding from the ground like benches. There’s another Stolperstein-like cobble nearby that starts a virtual concert on your phone to listen to as your enter the memorial.

As I moved forward into the memorial it struck me how quickly I was engulled and overwhellmed by the columns which towered over me. It seemed a warning to how quickly something innocuous could become something sinister. And how, like a maze, it can be hard to find your way out.

The tall columns extended down into the earth and were revealed in a visitor center and museum below the memorial. It was like going underground into a crypt where placards detailed the historical progression of the rise of Nazi Germany and the events that led to the Holocaust. The most poignant and heartwrentching experience were the last words of the murdered printed in panels on the floor speaking to you from beyond the grave…

Dear father! I am saying goodbye to you before I die. We would so love to live, but they won’t let us and we will die. I am so scared of this death, because small children are thrown alive into the pit. Goodbye forever. I kiss you tenderly.” – 12-year old Judith Wishnyatskaya 31 July 1942
I fell beside him and his corpse turned over, | tight already as a snapping string. | Shot in the neck. – And that’s how you’ll end too, – | I whispered to myself; lie still; no moving. | Now patience flowers in death. Then I could hear – | Der springt noch auf, – above, and very near. | Blood mixed with mud was drying on my ear.” – Szentkirályszabdja, 31 Oct 1944

On our third day in Berlin we went to the Topography of Terror Museum. Housed on the site of the State Secret Police (Gestapo), SS, and Reich Security offices, the museum is a vast and meticulous archive of the rise and fall of the Nazi regime with a focus the organized and institutionalized propoganda and terrorist methodologies they used to gain and retain power. It asks the central question which seems just as relevant today in the era of Trump: “How did National Socialism, which in retrospect was such an obviously deceitful, megalomaniacal, and criminal undertaking, succeed in attaining such a high degree of acceptance in Germany? Hilter, the Nazi Party gauleiters, a majority of ministers, state secretaries, and advisors acted as classic populists attuned to shifting moods. They bought public approval or at least indifference anew every day. By giving and taking away, they built a dictatorship of consent with consistent majority appeal.” Götz Aly, Historian, 2005.

After spending several hours walking our way from historical placard to historical placard tracing the depressing arc of Nazi evil, we finally learned the fate of the many perpetrators of Nazi terror and the Holocaust. It was depressing to learn that of the tens of thousands of Nazis involved in the murder of millions, only a handful were ever held accountable.

Both the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe and the Topography of Terror museum had ample of documentation and ominous allusions to horrors of Auschwitz and Birkenau – our next holocaust experience.

Krakow, Poland: Our day started early, where dawn met drizzle. It was an appropriately damp and somber setting for seeing Auschwitz and Birkenau. We had booked ourselves into a small tour (~20 people) and set out on the hour and a half drive from Kraków to Auschwitz bracing ourselves for what would prove to be a harrowing and spirit-crushing tour of the brutality and atrocities of the most notorious of Nazi extermination camps.

From March 1942 on until the end of WWII, trains from all across Europe arrived in Auschwitz-Birkenau where over one million people were murdered by the Nazi’s. By the summer of 1944 the extermination initiative reached its peak. Of those arriving in Auschwitz-Birkenau only a small number were classified as “capable of work”, while the vast majority (women, children, and the elderly) were herded into “changing rooms” and forced to undress before heading to the “delousing showers” where they are gassed to death. The killing reached 10,000 people a day with the crematoria operating day and night but still unable to keep up with the bodies. Jewish prisoners were forced to burn the bodies of their dead in the open. Approximately one million Jews, 75,000 Polish prisoners, 21,000 Sinti and Roma, 15,000 Soviets POWs, and 10,000 other prisoners of other nationalities died at Auschwitz-Brikenau complex alone.

We went to Auschwitz first. Originally a Polish military base, it had been converted by the occupying Nazis into a death camp. You start your tour by walking past double barbed wire fences and and under the banner “Arbeit Macht Frei” (“Work Sets You Free”).

You are then brought into a small museum to see some of the belongings left behind by the Jews who died here. Jews were told they were being relocated and to pack their bags. This ruse served two purposes: 1) It gave people hope and kept the panic down as they believed they were just being resettled. 2) It brought valuables (clothing (often lined with precious stones), silverware, brushes, glasses, and other belongings) which were repurposed (along with gold from the fillings of the dead) to support the German war effort.

The Nazis also shaved everybody’s hair. We were invited into a room to see a massive display of hair that had been found in bales. We were not allowed to take photographs out of respect for the dead. This hair was used by the Nazis for all kinds of purposes, such as clothing and insulation.

Our tour continued through barrack after barrack, many with walls lined with photos of the victims. Notice the twins. Joseph Mengele‘s obsession with experimenting on twins meant these poor victims received his “special” treatment. We walked through the grounds and through notorious torture cells of Block 11 and past The Black Wall where those kept in Block 11 were executed.

Lastly, we walked through the first gas chamber and crematoria where the Nazis perfected their use of Zyklon B. But the gas chamber here (and the cremetorium for burning the dead) was determined to be too small to meet their production goals.

The Nazis realized they couldn’t kill effectively enough at Auschwitz. It was then they began building Birkenau which was only a short bus ride away.

On the way to Birkenau you follow the train tracks. The same tracks hundreds of thousands of Jews were herded into before meeting their death. The train tracks go straight through the gates of Birkenau and the tracks end between the barracks and the gas chambers and cremetoria.

Nearby we toured a barrack and the adjacent latrines. Interestingly enough, the latrines were the center of Jewish resistance in the camps. Getting a job in the latrines was coveted because although the stench was unbarable and conditions unsanitary, the Nazis wouldn’t venture there. That autonomy gave the workers there the ability to become the center of black market commuications for trade and organized resistance.

The magnitude of death and the size of both Auschwitz and Birkenau are so overwhelming you are really just numb to the horror of the place. I honestly didn’t really feel anything while I was there, except perhaps stunned, angry, and a bit nauseated seeing that mountain of hair.

That was until we came to a spot where we stood by the side of the tracks. It was a place where thousands upon thousands of Jewish passengers disembarked only to be quickly inspected and separated from each other and their belongings into two groups; those who would be processed for work and those who would be processed for death. We were told to walk the gravel road to the end, towards the remains of the destroyed gas chambers and cremetoria. It was then, walking that road, I was overwhelmed with the sorrow of a million souls. Retracing those footsteps my feet became heavy, as did my heart. The drizzle intensified. Or was it my tears? I stared silently into the pit of the collapsed and suken gas chamber at the end of the road. Death lingered there still.


Categories: Berlin, Europe, Krakow | 1 Comment

Do Widzenia Kraków, Grüß Gott Vienna

With dwindling morning hours we wandered the cobbled streets and alleys of Kraków to bottle as much charm as we could carry (along with a painting or two) and have one last pint of piwo before heading to the airport. Do Widzenia Kraków. We’ll miss you.

After an hour delay at the Kraków airport (courtesy of Austrian Airlines) we landed safely in Vienna – Grüß Gott Vienna!. We checked into Hotel Imperial, once the summer palace for Duke Philipp of Württemberg and his wife Archduchess Maria Theresa. This is apparetly where the rich and famous (and infamous) stay when in Vienna. To our surprise we had been upgraded to a couple of suites, (the Maisonette, and the Junior Executive) each with top floor views of Karlskirche and Karlsplatz.

After settling into our luxury accomodations we headed out for dinner walking the Ringstraße side streets looking for someplace to eat. After failing to get into several restaurants (for lack of reservations) we settled on a simple local brewpub where we could get a good schnitzel. If in Seattle you can’t throw a rock without hitting a Starbucks, in Vienna you can’t throw a cobble without hitting a schnitzel.

After dinner we wound through back streets and alleyways past black tie receptions and art openings in grand buildings with even grander façades until we happened upon the grandest of all – St. Stephen’s Cathedral . Although it was late the church was still open so we went inside and found an stunning art exhibit by Peter Baldinger called Sky of Stones. It was the first of several art exhibits we’d stumble upon in our short weekend in Vienna.

Categories: Europe, Krakow, Vienna | Leave a comment

Salt, Groats, and a Mea Culpa

Our day started early, where dawn met drizzle. It was an appropriately damp and somber setting to see Auschwitz and Birkenau (which I’ll blog about separately). A punctual driver picked us up at our apartment right on schedule. We had booked ourselves into a small tour (~20 people). It would be a long day, not because of the hour and a half drive from Kraków to Auschwitz (and hour and a half back), but because of the harrowing and spirit-crushing hours touring the brutality and atrocities of the Nazi’s extermination camps. Knowing this, we had booked an extension of our tour with an add-on. To lighten the weight of our collective loss of faith in humanity, we had intentionally booked a trip that would end with a tour of the UNESCO’s World Cultural and Natural Heritage listed Wieliczka Salt Mine.

The several hour tour would take us to depths of 135 meters (443 feet), and to 20 chambers spread across 3km (1.86 miles) – a mear 5% of the overall mine dating back to the mid-13th century.

Our journey started with a dramatic descent down nearly 60 flights of stairs, to our initial depth of 64 meters (210 feet).

The legend of the salt mine is that Kinga, (who was later canonized the patron saint of salt miners as St. Kinga) the daughter of the King of Hungary Bela IV and wife of Polish ruler, Boleslaw V, threw her engagement ring in a Hungarian salt mine and it magically made salt appear in Poland (as well as her ring). To commemorate this legend (as well as political, religous, and other figures) miners carved rock salt sculptures in large chambers throughout the mines.

Our descent continued to a chapel built by and for the miners. During long stays in the mine it gave them a place to workship.

The most incredible chamber on the tour, at 331 feet deep, was the Chapel of St. Kinga – 67 years in the making (by 3 master miners who had been promoted to do the work). It held dozens of carved salt statues, a salt floor carved to look like tile, and even salt chandeliers.

The next major chamber we came to was held up by an incredible latticework of pine timbers.

Our tour ended with a further ascent to a restaurant, bar, and gift shop some 443 feet below the surface before we were able to catch the fast ascending elevator ride back to the surface.

As we headed back to Kraków we looked for places to eat near the Old Town Market. We stumbled across an interesting looking restaurant called Dobra which focused on building meals around varied types of groats.

After dinner we headed to Pod Badanami to see some live music with Mea Culpa & Jazz Roosters whom we had heard about the night before. While listening to jazz standards in Kraków seemed odd (although there is a long history of jazz in Poland), the band was good and the venue (in the catacombs beneath Old Town Market Square) made it even better.

Categories: Europe, Krakow | 1 Comment

Wawel Hill & Castle, Poland

Wednesday we woke to brisk blue skies which afforded us a glorious (but crisp) day in Kraków. As it turned out, our tour of Auschwitz-Birkenau was Thursday (I had it wrong), and that gave us another full day to explore the city.

Clara and West left early to find their breakfast amongst the fabled Milk Bars of Kraków, as we headed out for more cobbled wanderings of the old town back streets. We popped into various shops (Pepita purses, Pączki, Polish pottery, another coffee, maybe a beer) as we meandered our way towards Wawel Hill (where in the caves thereunder the mighty dragon Smok Wawelski once lived) and then atop to Wawel Castle where we met up with Clara and West for a self-guided tour of the state rooms, and a guided tour of the royal private apartments. Unfortunately the caverns below the castle wouldn’t be opened until later in April.

The castle didn’t allow photos, so I have none to share. But the tapestries were epic (especially the Noah’s Ark series which proves that unicorns and dragons made it on the Ark), the coffered ceilings amazing (in particular the “head room” ceiling where carved wooden heads stare down upon you watching your every move (presumably to keep you from taking pictures of them). One thing of particular note was the leather wallpaper, all hand tooled. It was a castle full of treasures and artifacts from the 16th, 17th, 18th, and 19th century, so it wasn’t hard to be impressed.

After storming the castle we made like peasants and went to a nearby inn to fill ourselves on pints of ale and

As the low sun turned sherbet in the west we made our way back to the old town market square with a quick stop at the Church of St. Peter and Paul.

Once back in the old square we enjoyed the sunset on St. Mary’s and the Town Hall and some additional shopping before heading out again.

We had a quick drink and appetizer at Czeczotka Bar before trying to get into Harris Piano Jazz Bar. We had put in an online reservation, but apparently not early enough. All the tables were taken when we arrived. Our plan B was to see if there was live music at Piwnica Pod Baranami, but they didn’t have any music that night and suggested we come back tomorrow to see Mea Culpa and Jazz Roosters. We made a plan of it.

We wandered the back streets of Kraków looking for some Polish food. We settled on an interesting place called Zalimianki by Polish celebrity chef Ewa Wachowicz where we had our first bottle of Polish wine and enjoyed an innovative menu of updated regional dishes.

Categories: Europe, Krakow | 1 Comment

Old Town Market, Kraków

I had first come to Kraków on business in 2000, the same year Kraków was named a European Capital of Culture. It was winter and bitter cold with a light dusting of snow softening the sounds of what was already a quiet medieval off-season town that hadn’t found its tourist stride yet. I didn’t think much about traveling to Poland when I left on the trip, but I left vowing to return someday. I distinctly remember my first serving of crimson borscht, the comfort of fresh pierogis, the sharp bite of kielbasa with mustard, the sour pucker of a sauerkraut salad, and the hot sweetness of a Grzane Piwo or two.

I loved my short time in Kraków and knew Tawny would love it too. As I had been here on business I didn’t have a chance to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau and I felt my trip was incomplete. I vowed to return someday. And that day started today.

We arrived in Kraków early in the morning thanks to the ungodly hour of a Ryanair flight from Berlin. Luckily our Airbnb (Newcastle – Luxury Old Town Apartment) was ready and waiting for us. It couldn’t have been more conveniently located just steps from St. Mary’s Basilica with a view of the Wawel Castle. It was our first stop. Unfortunately, we found that the famous St. Mary’s Alter by Veit Stoss was currently being restored and wasn’t viewable. But we could hear the hourly golden bugle playing from our room from early morning until late into the night.

After viewing St. Mary’s we split up to explore more of Kraków. Clara and West headed to one side of Market Square (the largest medieval square in Europe) and we the other. We entered the Sukiennice (once the global center of international trade, now more a touristy set of indoor booths selling trinkets to the tourists) to expore treasures like amber from the Baltic Sea, carved wooden boxes, pisanki, and a variety of other souvenirs. We bought a few keepsakes and then strolled the square exploring up and down side streets within what was once a well-fortified walled city.

As we relaxed into the day at a sidewalk cafe Clara and West contacted us. They suggseted a bar for us to meet at on the way to Kazimierz – The Jewish Quarter. We caught up with each other and decided to find nearby Record Dillaz!!! record store to see if we could find some items on our list before dinner. Tawny found a somewhat rare original pressing of Prince’s first album in great shape and added it to our collection.

We then found Alchemia, a vegan and vegetarian-friendly bar, and restaurant that looked good. Unfortunately, for all the health consciousness on the menu, the thick haze from the smokers left us choking as we tried to find a table. We couldn’t find one, and we couldn’t take the smoke. We headed next door to the restaurant only version where we could enjoy some interesting variations on hummus dishes before heading back to our apartment. We had a long day planned for tomorrow with an early tour out to Auschwitz-Birkenau followed by the Wieliczka Salt Mine, and we wanted to get our rest for would prove to be a somber and emotionally draining day.

Categories: Europe, Krakow | Leave a comment

Blog at