Thursday, January 24, 2013

And just a bit more from Krakow....

I could swear that was the sun up there......Oh my, it was!
You've read about the group trip to Auschwitz, and hopefully you have made your way through Courtney's account of her experience there.  Suffice to say, if yesterday was difficult, today was the complete opposite.  Although tired, everyone rose to head out on a walking tour of this city at 9:00 a.m.   Three of the "greatest guides ever" (student words, not mine) turned the sorrows of yesterday into the joys of a most wonderful city with incredibly warm people and beautiful things to see. 

Couldn't resist.  But didn't go in.
Perhaps the best part of the day came at about 1:00 when we saw the sun.  THE SUN.  There it was, breaking through the clouds and giving hope to all of us below.  It was as if everyone got a boost of vitamin D - life was back - the chocolate had been found - word flew through the town square that the best hot chocolate in the world was to be had "right there" and it seems as if most everyone managed to get some.  Indeed, our day was full.  Fun, and full.

Edge of main square of Krakow
St. Mary Basilica
I'm sharing some photos of the magnificent St. Mary's Basilica that stands in the main square.  Built in the 13th century, it is what they call the "perfect example of Gothic architecture in Poland."  The alter is the largest of its kind in Europe and was created in the years 1477-1489 and carved from oak and linden wood.  The ceiling of the Basilica is stunning.  Ah gee, the whole place is overwhelming.  By the way, this was not Pope John Paul's church, although he served Mass here often.  His church was the Cathedral which is in the castle complex.   As Krakow was the Pope's hometown, however, there are many references to him throughout the city.

Ceiling at Basilica
Main altar at Basilica
Crucifix above St. Mary's

In concert at St. Catherine's

Rehearsal time at St. Catherine's
Tonight we have returned from a formal concert at St. Katazyna Church (St. Catherine's) here in Krakow.   It is perhaps the most oft-used church for concerts and even on a splendidly cold night, we had a nice crowd of locals who came to listen to a choir from South Dakota.  (It still amazes me that anyone comes, really.....I mean, who has heard of Augustana and/or South Dakota in a place like Krakow, Poland?  :-)   "Jack," the organist is a dear man who welcomed us warmly - and even turned on the overhead heat lamps.  "They will not warm the building, but they may warm your face" he said.  Well, not so much.  Maybe a bit, but a least it was not as cold as our first church in Prague....remember, the "fire breathing choir?"  None of that tonight.   This church was also built in the 13th century, and while not far from the main square of Krakow, it was, in its day, standing in a whole different town. 

We have an early to be on the bus at 7 to make our concert at Brno.  It will be interesting to see if we can get everyone on board on time.....we've been pretty easy on the morning hours this entire trip!

Tomorrow - a report from Vienna!

More about Courtney Williams

Courtney Williams wrote her family last night after returning to the hotel from a long day.  She offered to share her words with you back home, in the hopes that you might have an insight into at least one person's perspective about a rather amazing day.  I'm grateful to Courtney for sharing these thoughts, and I know you will be too:


So, now that I've been there, thought about it, cried about it, and processed it, I would like to tell you about my experience at Auschwitz Birkenau. We took an overnight train from Prague to Krakow, and after being watched by people in the train station, followed by some creepy guy, and being the last one to board the train only to spend my night with 5 of my now closest friends in a tiny compartment with all our luggage and crap. Not the best experience.

We arrived in krakow at about 6:30am, into snowy, windy, bitterly cold conditions and had to walk a good quarter mile to where the busses were meeting us. We had little snacks we brought for the train, and since we didn't have breakfast on the train, I had tomatoes and potato chips for breakfast. Our rooms weren't ready, so we left our things in Ali and Molly's room, as they had about half of the rooms ready. We had just enough time to brush our teeth and layer up before we left for Auschwitz at  9:30. I've never worn so many layers.

We got to the camp around 11, it's About an hour and a half away from Krakow, in the middle of this modern village. The village wasn't there in the second war. We went into the museum/main building, and got our headphones like we had at the Capitol in DC, where only we could hear our tour guide. From there, we went outside to the outside of the camp. It was a 2 and a half hour tour through just Auschwitz.

The entrance gate to the camp is surrounded by barbed wire and the gate itself says "Arbeit Macht Frei" which in German basically means "work will set you free" which really meant, you'll die working and then you'll be free. We saw the roll call square where the prisoners would stand for hours on end while the nazis did roll call, the gallows where they did public executions, and went through the different exhibitions in the different buildings. They were basically a museum, different pictures, letters, pictures of most of the prisoners, and it was very moving to see it in person, not like at the museum in DC. But, then we walked into a room filled with hair. Hair from the women prisoners. Another room was filled with just children's shoes. Another with adult shoes. One room had suitcases and bags, another had pots and pans and silverware. We also saw all the empty cans of the cyclon b pellets that the nazis used in gas chambers. It's nothing like the holocaust museum. I wasn't ready to see the hair. It was 2 tons of human hair. And all of the other belongings just piled up in the room. Just piles and piles. I can't even imagine.

Then we went to the execution building, which has been left in its original state. We saw where the prisoners stood trial, where they got ready and stripped in the washroom before execution, the shooting block, and the different punishment rooms they had in the basement of the building. We never learned about that. They had starvation rooms, suffocation rooms, rooms wherein 5 or 6 people would stand all night, and a number of other cells, all how they would have looked back then. It was haunting. We walked around the barracks, the prisoners slept on straw, with 8people on a bunk, and the barrack could fit a few hundred prisoners.s no toilets, and most died from starvation, disease, or cold from the shitty living conditions.

There was so much barbed wire everywhere, and it used to be electric, so any escapee would likely die of being electrocuted. It's terrifying being in there, walking where so many were tortured and worked to death and being murdered for who they were.

The last building we saw at Auschwitz was the crematorium and gas chamber. We went into one of the gas chambers where millions were killed. And saw the crematorium where they were burned and their ashes scattered to the river or used as fertilizer. It's nauseating to see and think about.

Birkenau was incredible. Most of the camp is gone, the Germans blew it up when they figured out the Russians were coming, so most of the camp is rubble, including all four of the gas chambers and crematoriums. The rubble has been left where it was blown up so you can still make out what happened there. The camp is over 1/5 of of a mile long, yes we counted up steps, and really wide. We went into the wooden barracks, which were o more than stables with bunks. Drafty, freezing, with a singular stove for heating, which I bet never got used. The toilet room was basically slabs of concrete with holes in them, and you had 15 seconds to go to the bathroom, only twice a day. No dignity. You got a shower maybe once every six weeks and didn't get to wash your clothes. The camp is out in the middle of nowhere, so it is bitter cold in the winter and scorching in the summer. And you're walking, there's no other mode of transportation. We were freezing even with all the layers on, I can't imagine how it was to have next to nothing. The camp has a single railway car that stands in the middle of the track, and it's nothing extravagant. A cattle car that hundreds of people would be forced into and travel for days on end.

As far as my emotions went, I have never felt more hollowed out, more raw than I did when we left. I started crying before we got to the gate at Auschwitz, and had a hard time containing my tears as we walked around. I wanted to look down as we walked, because I felt like I couldn't bear to see what the Nazis had done. But there was a little voice in my head that kept saying"you will look up and you will see this" I didn't look down again. The hardest thing for me to see was the hair all piled up. I can't even explain it. I was so angry for most of the tour, and nauseous as well. To be in a place where so many atrocities went unchecked just disgusts me and breaks my heart. Millions of men, women, children, grandparents, siblings, lovers, all brutally ripped away from their lives and sent to death because someone thought their race was better. 

The worst room I went in was the gas chamber. When I walked in, I felt like I couldn't breathe, and there was something holding my chest. I couldn't stop the tears flowing. But I couldn't look away. It was so unnerving to be in a room where people thought they were going to shower and be clean, and instead they were suffocated and killed. How does one justify that? How do I look at this from my faith's perspective? I feel angry that no one stopped this, I feel nauseous that I visited the site of a genocide, I feel torn in why God didn't stop it, or if God even had some hand in it. And I am so sad that all those innocent people had to live through it. How does a human race plot something like that, and how do others not put a stop to it? I don't know if I can put away these emotions that seem to be taking me on a roller coaster ride. It is like a wave of anger and grief and pain and confusion.

I know I'm not even doing this justice by putting it into words, but I'm afraid it's the best I can do. What I saw will be in my head and heart for the rest of my life, and even now I don't think I can fully understand and come to terms with it.

We sang a song in choir last year called "In Remembrance" and it kept popping into my head yesterday, just the last line. This is what I will leave you with. It isn't something to be forgotten or brushed over. I will struggle with my emotions and thought on this for days and months.

The line went: "Lord, in your infinite mercy, grant them rest. Rest forever more."


Krakow arrival and on to Auschwitz

Sleeping car bound for Krakow!
To say that yesterday was a long day would be completely unfair.  It was a REALLY long day, but one that will go down in the memories of our students as one they will not soon forget.  

The group "survived" the night train - it was far from "leavin' on a midnight train to Georgia" (for you Gladys Knight fans) - and images are surfacing on Facebook of why you don't pack HUGE suitcases when you are sharing a cabin with five of your best friends.  Creativity was the key.  "We can do it!" was the motto.  And some got more sleep than others.  Dr. Johnson had the only single room, but before too long learned that he got to house the piano with him.  And then a student who simply couldn't find another place to stretch out found Dr. J's upper bunk would suit him just fine.  "Did you take a picture?" I asked.   "There was no way to get far enough back in the room to take one!" was the reply.  It must have been quite the night.

Buses pulled up  to the Krakow Novotel at about 730 a.m. and since rooms were not ready for them, they had to make do with running to nearby grocery stores for supplies or buying the breakfast buffet (which would be free for them the next two days).  Luckily, the hotel worked hard to get about half the group into rooms prior to our departure for Auschwitz at 9:30 a.m. - so many people shared their rooms with those less fortunate and people got the chance to shower etc.   Things have a way of working out!

Thousands of suitcases fill halls of former barracks.
Hallways are filled with official papers of those who died here.
Your editor did not go on the Auschwitz tour today as I'd been there earlier this fall.  I'm told that the experience was a solemn one - as I knew it would be - and their visit led to a good opportunity to debrief during a class session held later in the evening.  Dr. Nitz did a marvelous job of leading a discussion last night about the reactions to our trip thus far - how cultures change, how our views of cultures change base upon our personal experiences....why tour guides leave out portions of history that to us seem important to us but to them seem forgettable.....and how the Auschwitz experience will be part of their thinking for years to come.  Again, I'm so proud of these students and the way in which they are wrestling with issues of global perspectives and their role in it.

Empty gas canisters from the Extermination Chambers
Living conditions of those who were held at Auschwitz.

"You can't forget what you saw. You can't desensitize yourself from the Horrors and the memories. You walk where they walked. You stand where they were murdered. You can see the barbed wire. The Holocaust happened. Auschwitz and Birkenau happened. Never forget."

                                                           Words of Courtney Williams, from her Facebook post....

"Auschwitz: wow, what a humbling experience.. sometimes I was angry, sometimes I was sad but overall an extraordinary trip.. I will never forget it"
                                                           Adam Vosburgh, Facebook post
After hot showers and the chance to regroup, we took off for a group dinner in the main square of this captivating city, "Wesele."   Wow, what a wonderful restaurant, and what a GREAT meal.   Golden broth with polish pasta, chicken filet with cream sauce, boiled potatoes and the best (THE BEST) cucumber salad, and some "to die for" apple pie.  Wow.  Was that a great meal.
Front of our restaurant, right on main square of Old City

We left the restaurant and slid our way home.......tomorrow we do a three hour foot tour of the old city district and prepare for our concert at St. Katazyna Church.  It seems like the choir hasn't sung for a week (!) so it will be good to get them in front of us again. 

Until later -

PS   Some of you may wonder why student reflections are not a part of this blog.  The answer is simple really.  By the time we get home at night, students are spending quite a bit of time working on their personal journals which are required for the course they are taking as part of this tour.  These journals become very personal and important to them in this educational journey.  To ask them to write a separate reflection for our blog would be unfair.....and it takes a bit of time to get this up and out.  One of these days, I'll figure out a way to grab some statements to share with you, but until then, please understand that my goal is to keep you updated photographically and with just a bit of "color" to let you know what we are up to.  -  Brad Heegel, Tour Mgr