Another unforgettable day on this incredible journey involving another puncture, a visit to a concentration camp, being stopped by German police and questioned, crossing to the fifth and penultimate country of the trip – Czech Republic, nearly getting knocked off the bike by some of the awful Czech drivers and finishing with some of the toughest hill climbs to really test my stamina.
After waking up early this morning I headed to the local McDonald’s to sponge their WiFi for a few hours of productive work. Finally leaving the restaurant it started to rain again. Onwards and upwards into the forests and I got a front wheel puncture this time. It was time to change the tyres! A half hour walk back to town to find a bike shop proved fruitful and within the hour both tyres were brand new. Back on the bike to take on the hill for a second time. However the anticipation of visiting the camp caused my legs to give up in protest to the journey.
The mist filled the forests until I eventually arrived at the camp that was just one thousand miles from home. The town of Flossenberg has a huge source of natural granite and this camp was set up to harvest that from the hills. Initially about 400 prisoners were there, but it grew rapidly with an influx of mostly Polish, the rest Jewish and others, such as homosexuals or political activists, that did not fit the Nazi regime.
It was meant to house several thousand at one point, massively over subscribed. When new inmates arrived at the camp they would be stripped and washed with either boiling or freezing water from a hose cannon. They would be left to stand outside in front of everyone in the roll call area. Those that survived would be given thin prison uniforms.
It was in this roll call area where punishments, hangings and other executions would take place daily in front of the others to try to ensure order. The workers would mine the granite from the hills and were even hired out to locals as cheap gardeners and such. The local population benefitted from the increased number of soldiers in the area by renting out accommodation and charging for local facilities. The exhibition here also showed how local electric and plumbing companies approached the camp to try and secure their business – so they definitely knew what was going on.
For the inmates, like in all the other camps, there was insufficient food. This caused serious malnourishment leading to great sickness which was never treated causing a lot of fatalities.
Over the years approximately 100,000 prisoners passed through the camp, with approximately 30,000 of them perishing at the site for various different reasons, all brought on by the ridiculous Nazi regime and by the soldiers who ran the place.
In the final stages of the war they conducted another death march from here to Dachau in Munich (which I visited several years ago). It would be a great effort for me to cycle there with sufficient clothing, breaks, hotels and food. I cannot even imagine being forced to walk there without any of my comforts on this trip.
A female officer was reported to have screamed at those too weak to complete the walk and ordered them to be shot. She was however not sentenced after the war. There are many stories similar to this which is hugely upsetting.
I wandered around the grounds to the various memorials and passed several groups of German teenagers on school trips. I managed to compose myself and came to a building lower in the valley where the crematorium room itself was still in tact. It’s moments like these that visiting alone is difficult. I remember having the support of my father, cousin and friend at Auschwitz a few years ago and a good friend at Dachau years before that. People can help bring you back to modern reality; but I had several Germans around me and 80 kilometres of lonesome cycling before the day was out.
Pushing on through the hills I was pedalling slowly contemplating this experience. I know this whole series of events called the Holocaust happened. I have seen so much evidence over the years and now I am following a route that was taken by many soldiers to free the surviving captives. But I still just can’t imagine it ever happening in my world. We are surrounded by health and safety that puts one person’s potential injury as being more important than anything; even if it means wasting a lot of time for something very unlikely. Here they just threw people into impossible work with no care for them as human beings whatsoever. If they die, then just replace them. I just can’t imagine this happening today in the world I live in.
Cycling slowly I couldn’t get my head straight. The next thing: I was being pulled over by police. They wondered what I was doing on my bike alone in the hills next to the border, but I quickly befriended them. One guy told me to have one of his favourite beers at lunch before the big ride to Pilsen. This fortunately brought me back to reality as he showed me his 9mm loaded pistol.
Crossing over the border to the Czech Republic (spelt with a ‘T’ by the way) – I noticed several things. Immediately the road turned rubbish; a certain similarity to the standard of English country roads. Potholes, broken tarmac and large lumps. How can the German’s have such nice roads throughout the whole country and the British have such crap?
Within 500 yards of the country I was presented with several posters for “titty bars”. Having a long way to cycle I pedalled past with the notion I could always come back.
I also noticed a difference in the quality of driving after having to swerve several times to avoid selfish drivers; I had not experienced this in the whole of Germany but within yards of this country it was abundant. Back to the familiarity of London drivers!
The final difference that I noticed was the steepness of the hills. None of the roads were this steep in Germany; instead they would find another path to build a road so no vehicle would suffer – but here they seemed to grow steeper after every corner.
Finally I made it to Pilsen. A tough and long day, but one that I won’t forget. Sitting in the warm bath having arrived in this new place I couldn’t help but imagine the horrors of being publicly showered with a freezing hose pipe in front of many others. Am I so lucky or were they so unlucky? Perhaps both?
Tomorrow I press on to Prague where my mother is visiting (along with a friend) to again chase me across Europe.