Remembering Auschwitz

This fall we had the opportunity to visit Kraków, Poland.   Kraków hasDSC_9426a a beautiful old town, Wawel Hill with its magnificent castle, friendly people, and a rich history dating back to the 7th century.   However, most people associate Kraków with more recent history and a dark history at that.

Not too far from Kraków is the town of Oświęcim. Most of us are more familiar with the German name for this place: Auschwitz. And on this trip to Kraków, we made the journey to Auschwitz.

I know some people will not go to this place out of fear that it is too depressing. But I think it is important for us to never forget the horrors of what happened to people simply because others did not care for their race, religion, lifestyle, or friends.

I was unaware until this trip that the term Auschwitz really is two different locations and the iconic photos we see in the media give the impression of one camp.   Auschwitz 1 is the initial camp, neat and tidy with brick buildings where prisoners headed off to work each day DSC_9354athrough the famous “Arbeit Macht Frei” (work makes you free) gate.   Auschwitz-Birkenau, just down the road, is where the many train loads of people arrived to meet death.   In fact, many of the people in Auschwitz 1 worked to build the second camp until they died through overwork, exposure, starvation, or execution.

We have all read of this in our history books and in the news, especially this week as we remember the 70th anniversary of the camp’s liberation and recall the horrors of what happened and admire the survivors.   But until one goes to Auschwitz, this is all a story which occurred in a distant land long ago before many of us were born.  Birkenau Pano from train tracks-bw-2

They say travel brings history to life and this is definitely the case in Auschwitz. As I surveyed the sheer size of Auschwitz-Birkenau, with the many brick smokestacks standing neatly in rows as far as you could see, each representing a building which housed hundreds of prisoners in dark, damp, cold, and unsanitary conditions, the magnitude of what occurred in this location hit home. It isn’t just a story from Schindler’s List, but something which happened to real people. People with families who just want to live to see their children grow up. People who lost every possession and then lost their lives for the ideology of a madman.

We toured a couple of the remaining barracks and one could not help DSC_9466abut imagine what these people had to endure – and these were the ones deemed lucky enough to live instead of being sent immediately to the gas chambers. Bunks three stories high made of wood and concrete. Our guide informed us they would be given one thin blanket to share and the barracks were not heated. A breeding ground for disease as the sick ones slept side-by-side with the healthier ones.

The latrines were simply a huge building with two long rows of toilets – not like we think, but rather they were slabs of concrete with holes cut out of them. Absolutely no privacy for these people forced to endure every imaginable embarrassment possible. And yet, we were told that the job of cleaning out the latrines (by literally going into the muck) was a prized job because it was a job which meant a bit of privacy since guards didn’t wanDSC_9475at to be in there.

My eyes were opened on this trip to Auschwitz.   After all this, our Polish tour guide implored us to remember the people. And to remember that it was not the Polish people that did this to them since Poland was an invaded country at that time and it was the invaders, not the locals, who committed these crimes against humanity.



So long, Farewell, Auf Wiedersehen, Adieu

Today we learned that the last surviving member of the von Trapp Family Singers has passed away.  Her name was Maria von Trapp – not to be confused with her step-mother with the same name (the child Maria was portrayed as Louisa in the movie “The Sound of Music”) – and she was 99 years old.   She died of natural causes, a peaceful end to a life that was surrounded with danger as a child.

Just last month we had the joy of visiting Maria’s childhood hometown of Salzburg, Austria.  As a fan of the 1965 Rogers & Hammerstein film, I spent a day tracking down some of my favorite film locations.   It DSC_3240-awas fun to relive the movie while enjoying the magnificent Baroque city of Salzburg!

Who can forget the house where Maria confidently marches up to the door on her first day as governess to the von Trapp children.  This house is located outside the city center along an unpaved tree-lined road.  We walked along that road, envisioning Julie Andrews singing “I have confidence.”

This was only the location for the front of the house, seen in several scenes like when Captain von Trapp rips down the Nazi flag from the front and when the family tries to secretly leave the country.   The scenes from the back of the house are from a completely different area in Salzburg and using a different house.   This house, where the scenes from the lake (when DSC_3086-aMaria and the children fall into the water) can easily be pictured, is now part of a hotel for those fans that want to explore in-depth.  For us, a walk around the lake was sufficient (after all, we had other locations to find!).

Remember when Maria teaches the children to sing?  I’m sure many of us recall every word to “Do, Re, Mi.”   While we didn’t find the beautiful hilltop field where they picnicked (it was January in the Alps afterall), it took some time to find the steps where the song continues.  Nowadays, this area is called the Winkler Terrace, and to my surprise, it really isn’t steps!  I had always envisioned they continued down to the town which this terrace overlooks.DSC_3168-a

We continued down to the city of Salzburg, crossing the Salz River to the other side to look for the final part of the song.  Remember the children are singing in a formal garden, around an equestrian fountain, and then end the song with a flourish on gated steps?   This film location is the gardens, outside of the Mirabel Palace, built in the 1600s by  Prince-Archbishop Wolf Dietrich von Raitenau as a gift for his love (wow!  that’s some gift!).

It was January but there were still a few flowers in the formal gardens, nothing DSC_3178-awas growing over the arches that Maria and the children run through, the water was not flowing in the fountain, and the gates were shut.   But all that didn’t matter since we were here and could picture it all from the movie.

One final stop in our “Sound of Music” tour – we headed out of Salzburg to Hellbrunn Palace where the gazebo is now located.  This is not the original location for the film scene, but it is the original gazebo.  Tucked just behind one of the gates offering easy access for bus groups, we visited in thDSC_3230-ae early morning while it was peaceful.   Many people remember this as the scene when Liesl and Rolf sing “I am 16 going on 17,” but I like to think of it as the place where the Captain and Maria realized they loved each other and sang “Something Good.”

Something good, indeed.  The family stood up against evil and fled Austria for the United States, where the von Trapp Family Singers were made famous, Maria wrote a book, and the family opened up a Tirolean-style inn in Vermont.

oh, david!

I spent some time in Florence earlier this month learning about Renaissance art and I can’t think of a better place to do that!   I have just one word to say about the subject…David.

Oh, David!

He’s everywhere!

He stands atop the hill overlooking the city, next to the town hall, and in one of the major museums.  And that is just Michelangelo’s David (commonly referred to as the David); but don’t forget about the two by Donatello or the one by Verrocchio – they created wonderful David sculptures as well.

Just what is it about David that is so attractive to Florentines?   Most likely idea is the concept of the little guy against the big giant – David vs. Goliath…Florence vs. other city-states.

David was sculpted from one very large piece of marble that lay around the Cathedral shop floor for more than 25 years, ironically called ‘the giant’ by the people who worked there.  It took Michelangelo two years to bring his David from this giant.

Michelangelo’s David is different from the other two – besides his massive size (at 17 feet tall, he towers over the other Davids).  But he represents something different – the others show David after he slays the giant; Michelangelo shows David in the moments before – can’t you feel the suspense as David watches Goliath, stone in his hand, sizing him up and forging his plan of attack?   As David stands there before the Florentines, they sense David is sizing up the competition in the other city-states and formulating his plan of attack.

After seeing the other Davids, I finally got to see the real thing towards the end of my week in Florence.  I had seen some great art throughout the week, but I was not expecting to be in awe of this statue.  But I was.  It was breathtaking – the skill level of Michelangelo was obvious from down the hall.  After seeing the real thing, somehow that garden size replica I’d been eyeing just doesn’t appeal anymore!

Oh, David – a Renaissance masterpiece of a sculpture by a Renaissance master sculptor in the master of Renaissance cities!

(Photo credits go to my fellow classmate, Lissa, a braver woman than I with her camera!)

the many uses of a wooden shoe

We brought in the New Year in Amsterdam.  Wow!  What an experience that was!  The city was definitely a youthful, lively place full of holiday revelers making merry.   The fireworks at midnight were pretty amazing given that they are set off by individuals.  From our vantage point near the train station we were able to see at least four different displays as we welcomed in 2012.

While in the Netherlands, we visited a wooden shoe factory.   My first thought was that it would be a cheesy tourist trap.  Okay, it was designed for tourists with the hopes that we would spend our money in their shop, but the demonstration on how to make wooden shoes was pretty interesting and our guide was funny and kept things rolling.  

First, wooden shoes are still used in the Netherlands.  Many farmers still use them as a slip on and off shoe for out in the fields since they don’t sink down into the dirt as easily as boots.

Walking in wooden shoes takes some work – you have to use your toes to keep them on.  Remember the Dr. Scholl’s sandals from years ago?  Same concept.

But other than walking on the farm, what can you do with a wooden shoe?  Our tour guide, Steven, enlightened us:

  • Need a hammer?  Use your shoe!
  • If the person in front of you is a bit too tall,
    stand on top of your shoes for a 5-6 inch lift!
  • Being attacked by someone with not so nice intentions?  Hit them with your wooden shoe!
  • If it is raining, your shoes won’t get soaking wet – no need for boots.
  • Hang your shoe on the wall for a handy key holder.
  • If you don’t want to be followed, get the wooden shoes that have the bottoms carved backwards – that way your tracks will appear to be going the opposite direction!

The things you learn when traveling…

Happy New Year, everyone!   May your wanderings in 2012 take you to places you’ve never dreamed of…

#1 – the Siena Duomo

After counting down my top ten (top fifteen with runner ups) places that I visited in 2011, I am finally down to number one.   This was a difficult choice to make since I went to so many places this year that are highlights.  But my number one really stood out to me – it actually awed me.

Number one on the countdown:   the Duomo (cathedral) in Siena, Italy!

In my travels, I go into lots of churches and cathedrals.  It’s just what I do…not only are most free to enter, but they typically have some of the most impressive art in town.   So when we were in Siena this fall, naturally I wanted to visit the Duomo.

As I looked at the outside of the building, I was struck by the stripes in the blocks – you don’t see that very often with so many churches being made of one color stone.  But the Duomo immediately looks different from the others with its white and black stripes that stand out on the bell tower most of all.

Entering the Duomo I allowed time for my eyes to adjust to the darker interior and then I was amazed.  The first thing I noticed was the white and black striped theme continued inside with the columns.  Again, I hadn’t seen another church like that before so the Siena Duomo was already standing out from the rest.  After looking up for a good bit, I looked down and that is where I found the real treasure of the Duomo – the floor!

The entire floor of the cathedral is a piece of art – and the cathedral knows it so you are restricted to walking on small pathways that rotate on different days so the floor doesn’t get messed up.  There are very few chairs or pews in this church (a small prayer area to one side is the exception and the floor is covered up to avoid damage from shoes).    This floor is a series of pictures – either in mosaic tiles or carved marble.  Some of the scenes reminded me of drawings you would see in books.   People, animals, abstract images – they were all captured in stone on the floor of the Duomo.   As I made my way around the building, I enjoyed viewing the pulpit carved by sculptor Pisano from the 1200s and the many frescoes and altarpieces made for the church.

In the center of the main altar is the dome which stood very high and was decorated with a blue background and gold stars – I wasn’t sure if it was painted or mosaic, but beautiful all the same.

A century after this huge church was built, the city planned to enlarge it by making the current nave into the transept and building a new nave twice the size.  The foundation was begun but the planned construction as never completed.  Outside you can see the foundation and the outline for the proposed addition.

The Duomo in Siena deserves my top honors for its masterful construction, artistic flooring, beauty, and uniqueness.    It definitely should be on everyone’s bucket list of places to see.   Thankfully, I get to see the cathedral again in early 2012 as I return to Tuscany and plan another visit in the Duomo.

Thanks for counting down with me – I’ve met some wonderful people along this blogging journey and hope to meet more as we continue to wander into the new year.

Best wishes for a wonderful 2012!


#2 – American military cemeteries in Normandy and Luxembourg

With number two on my list of top ten list sights visited this year, I find myself thinking about my visits to Normandy and Luxembourg.  Both areas were fabulous to tour, but each has a little piece of ground that these countries have given to the United States in which those that gave everything are buried.   I visited each one at separate times, but I can’t leave one or the other out since, to me, both are significant.

Most of us have seen the images of the Normandy cemetery – white grave markers lined up in a row – scenes from movies such as Saving Private Ryan give us the mental picture of this hallowed ground.  Well, I can tell you that movies do not do it justice.  You just can’t imagine the view of thousands of Americans buried in another country.  American flags flying  beside the French flag, name upon name of young men that traveled far from home never to return to their loved ones, many dying just over the hill  from this spot on Omaha Beach on a single day.  It is a powerful place to visit.We went to Normandy on Memorial Day weekend and our day at the cemetery was the same day of the practice for the following day’s remembrance ceremony.  Each of the grave markers were decorated with American and French flags.  We watched American soldiers and airmen marching through the cemetery, lowering the flags, and escorting guests of honor.  We stood still as “Taps” was played – a beautifully haunting music box type sound that echoed throughout the grounds.  Massive maps of the battlefields gave visitors a small concept of how large the war was.   Equally astounding was the large wall of names – those that were not found and were not buried in the grounds with the white crosses and stars of David but no less important.

Normandy was powerful – and an important place for any American to visit and remember the sacrifices made by those we do not know for people they did not know.

About a month after Normandy, we traveled to Luxembourg and stopped at the American cemetery just outside Luxembourg City.   Here, as in Normandy, the country of Luxembourg gave ground to the United States to bury our men that gave everything.   Like Normandy, the white grave markers were lined up in perfect rows contrasting against the green manicured grass.    In the Luxembourg cemetery, we paid our respects to these soldiers who never made the final trip home.

A famous addition in this cemetery was the grave of Gen. George Patton, who wanted to be buried with his men.   Patton didn’t die in battle, but rather from injuries in a car accident not far from where I now live.   The cemetery caretaker told us how Patton’s wife wanted to fly his body home, but during his life, Patton was adamant about staying with his men.   His body was buried amongst the troops, just another grave that got a lot more attention.  Because of the heavy traffic to his grave marker, the cemetery finally moved Patton to the front of the grounds where people could view his grave without tramping atop all the other graves.   So, fittingly, Patton now rests at the front of his men.  From the perspective of looking behind his marker, it would appear that Patton still leads his men who are all lined up in front of him.

There are other American military cemeteries in Europe and I hope to visit them in the next couple years.   But for 2011, my visits to Normandy and Luxembourg were reminders to me that my freedoms did come with a price – a price very costly to many families and one that I should not ever take for granted.


So there’s my number two – the next one will be my top spot for the year 2011.   Let’s recap the top nine and the five runner ups:

Runner Ups:
Canterbury Cathedral, England
Bayeaux Tapestry, France
New Orleans, Louisiana
Neuschwanstein Castle, Germany
Baptisty in Pisa, Italy

Top Ten:
10.          Jack Daniel’s Distillery, Lynchburg, Tennessee
9.            Zugspitze/Garmisch, Germany
8.            Mont St. Michel, France
7.            Sunset at the Sacre Couer, Paris
6.            walking around Warsaw, Poland
5.            Giverny, France
4.            Louvre in Paris
3.            Westminster Abbey, London
2.            American military cemeteries in Normandy/Luxembourg
1.            ?  ?

Stay tuned later this week for my favorite travel spot visited this year!

#3 – visiting with kings and queens at Westminster Abbey

We are down to the top three sites I visited during 2011.   This was the hardest part – sorting these three in some sort of order since they were all significant to me.   So, here we go…at number three is Westminster Abbey in London!  This is a place I’ve wanted to visit for years.

I went to the abbey on my whirlwind tour of London over the summer.  It was later in the day and the lines were long.  But I was determined to get inside and finally see this.  The royal wedding several months ago only increased my desire (was I the only one focusing on the architecture instead of the dress?).

You can’t beat Westminster Abbey for history!   If you’ve been reading my blog for a while or know me personally, at some point you will figure out that I really enjoy British history, especially the Tudor time period.    Inside the abbey a number of England’s kings and queen are buried, including Elizabeth I and her sister, Mary I, and brother, Edward VI.  Ironically, their father, Henry VIII, is not here – he’s in Windsor Castle – but both his parents, Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, are interred in Westminster Abbey.  The Plantagenets  are here as well as a good number of famous poets, playwrights, scientists, authors, composers, and historical figures – people like Sir Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Geoffrey Chaucer, Charles Dickens, George Frederick Handel, and I could go on and on.

The tour itself was pretty cramped – I felt like a sardine in a tin box – and the audio tour did not cover even half of what I felt it should.  But just to be in the building and see this traditional coronation site was inspiring to me.   Making my way around the nave and chapels, I spent time in Poet’s Corner and strolled in the less crowded cloisters.   All too soon my time in Westminster Abbey came to a close, but my memories will last me a long time.

Westminster Abbey – number three in the countdown.   Just two more to go…where will they be?


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