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London, Anne Frank’s House, Westerbork, Bergen-Belsen, Auschwitz and JCC Krakow’s Ride for the Living

London, Anne Frank’s House, Westerbork, Bergen-Belsen, Auschwitz and JCC Krakow’s Ride for the Living

Life is made up of experiences, and I have certainly lived over the past week.

A friend of mine was joining a charity bike ride from London to Anne Frank’s house in Amsterdam. Without hesitation I signed up to retrace the Kindertransport route through Harwich, then taking the ferry to Hook of Holland where more than 10,000 Jewish children passed as they were saved from the Nazis.

A group of 18 of us had a tremendous tailwind along the seafront cycle lanes to Amsterdam. On arrival we had a tour of the Anne Frank House which describes one young lady’s story in hiding throughout the war. Our group of 20 cyclists contained a man who’s grandmother was in exactly the same situation as Anne Frank, but she somehow was never discovered. In fact, she was being hidden on the same street, just a few houses down – somehow she managed to survive.

Anne Frank Bookcase

The story told us how this young girl couldn’t leave her house, she could only carefully look out of the window. This would be torture for me, unable to exercise or explore the world, what a terrible state to be forced into for an indefinite amount of time.

Four of our cyclist group took a few extra days off work to push onwards from Amsterdam to Bergen-Belsen. We were without support as we attached heavy pannier bags to the back of our now cumbersome bikes. We arrived in Westerbork just a couple of days later, where 107,000 Dutch Jews were sent through, and only 5,000 of which survived. The place itself was not a place of death, but merely an imprisoned camp until the transport that would take you into the unknown. With hindsight, this was a waiting room for death.

Westerbork Memorial

Our group, now close knit after several days together with an emotional journey, continued on to the most beautiful cycling through the Dutch forests, we crossed into Germany on a dirt road with just a small sign to signify this milestone.

We had many discussions and conversations about what we should do today to combat racism; noting that the Nazi regime achieved their goals by slow and incremental change through propaganda. We all decided that education had to play a big part of it. Suggesting that the difficulty comes from those who are brought up in closed off families, unable to experience life outside of their narrow perception of the world.

After 6 days of cycling, we finally made it to Bergen-Belsen, a Nazi concentration camp where tens of thousands were killed. The British freed this camp in 1945, just a few months after Anne Frank had passed away from Typhus.

Bergen Belsen Gates

Several survivors I have met over the years were in the Bergen-Belsen camp on that day, and so it was powerful to stand in the same spot as my friends had. The museum here was all about first hand accounts; there were many survivor interviews, raw BBC videos and many written testimonies. Particularly poignant to me was a clip of a soldier, just one year younger than myself, who was standing there, in front of piles of dead bodies from the camp in 1945 commenting on how disgraceful the whole experience was. He exclaimed that when he first saw this place, he realised what he was fighting for, he recognised what him and his fellow soldiers signed up for and what they would be willing to die for.

There are many perspectives for different topics in life, but this is the most sure things I have ever experienced: fighting against Nazi’s is one of the most clear cut things in my mind that is good in this world.

This footage also contained some disturbing images of Jewish corpses being buried by the German SS guards after their surrender. The lack of care to the dead was horrifying as bodies were dragged across the dirt into mass grave pits.

It was in this pile of people that we expect Anne Frank to have been having died of typhus just months before this footage was recorded. The faces are anonymous, and the mound too large to contemplate. Yet this was just one of many mounds in this camp, and this camp just one of far too many camps.

Anne Frank Stone Bergen

The story of Anne Frank is just one of the 6 million Jews who were killed, her powerful story has made her become the face of the faceless millions who were persecuted – not just those who were killed.

Our group contemplated the whole unbelievable situation for the remaining 50km to Hannover. Within a few kilometres we were cycling among the most beautiful forest I have ever seen, quite a contrast to the horrors that went on just around the corner.

The following day, we flew to Krakow where we joined a group of 85 others for Ride for the Living. First we would tour around Auschwitz to educate ourselves more about history, but the following day would involve a bike ride from the gates of Auschwitz to the Jewish Community Centre in Krakow. A cycle that would act not just as a memorial ride, but a ride of defiance against the Nazi’s.

Auschwitz Ride for the Living

We were lucky to be joined by Marcel Zielinski who is now over 80. He was freed from Auschwitz-Birkenau when he was just 10 years old, and ended up walking the same route to Krakow to try and find his remaining family. This year, he joined us, cycling as a free man, together with his son and two grand-daughters. It was the most incredible feeling to cycle together through the gates of the JCC. After the long journey, Marcel and I embraced with tears in all of our eyes, sad tears from remembering the past, but happy tears from making the most of today.

My closing comments to the group included quoting my Mum: “everything happens for a reason” – but perhaps this can be derived if you have a positive outlook on life. I believe that anything from the past can be overcome if you have the right attitude today. The past cannot be changed; we must learn, we must never forget, but we must also live for today and for our future. That is exactly what this whole journey was about.

Gliwice and WWII – Something you didn’t know

Gliwice and WWII – Something you didn’t know

Very few people actually know the details of how WWII started. Most generally know that Germany walked soldiers into Poland on September 1st 1939 and the rest of the world reacted by waging war. This is partly true, but it leaves out an incredibly interesting story that I only found by visiting the site itself.

Gliwice Radio Tower
Gliwice Radio Tower

Silesia (now owned by Poland) was an area to the east in Germany that bordered Poland. On the 31st August 1939, a day before the war is known to have started, 4 German soldiers dressed as Polish civilians making sure only to speak in Polish. Under the orders of the Nazi government, they raided the German owned radio tower in Gleiwitz with the intention of publishing a message about how the Polish were attacking Germany. A completely false act that was to be used as propaganda to the rest of the world and justification for attacking – or rather, fighting back.

A poorly coordinated attack meant they went to the wrong building where they couldn’t broadcast. Finally they found the right place and tried to get their message out, but the staff managed to cut the feed so only a few words were heard by the very small local community. A massive failure that the team were unaware of until they got back to their safehouse.

Just a few hours later, pre-prepared, a news bulletin went out in Berlin that the Poles had attacked. Germany wasn’t standing down on this act of war and the following day Germany marched soldiers into Poland.

The rest of the story we know, but this anecdote is rarely told.

London to Auschwitz: Day 25, Katowice to Auschwitz (Oświęcim) 42km today, 2222km total

London to Auschwitz: Day 25, Katowice to Auschwitz (Oświęcim) 42km today, 2222km total

My final day on this journey was expectedly unforgettable. Again the weather gods were on my side as I was awoken by the sun shining on my face. I had just over 40km to reach the destination that was still so distant in my mind. I held a strange sense of excitement of reaching the end of the trip, yet knew the day would be filled with sombre emotion.

The train tracks which brought so many through the gates to this extermination camp
The train tracks which brought so many through the gates to this extermination camp

I visited Lvov in the Ukraine earlier this year (by plane) and learnt about more of the mass killings that were carried out throughout the country. Jews were rounded up and shot mercilessly, only to be buried over with no memorial. This happened in almost every town in the Ukraine, where the majority of the population was almost always Jewish before the war, and almost non-existent after. That trip was filled with sad thoughts but I found myself returning home angry. Angry that these things could ever happen in the world (past, present and future).

I found the same anger hit me whilst contemplating the last push on my journey. I screamed reaching the top of hills with sweat dripping down my face. I gave every last bit of my legs to this final day on the bike. I am a lot fitter since the beginning of the trip; I was speeding along at speeds I never thought I would be able to sustain to finish the 2,222 kilometre journey. Gritting my teeth, breathing heavily, heart pounding hard, I pushed through the familiar feeling of pain in my legs.

Outside the main gates to the camp at Birkenau
Outside the main gates to the camp at Birkenau

Finally arriving at Auschwitz I was out of anger, I had used it all up. My legs complained to me in agony, but they quickly quietened down when my mind switched to thinking about the victims of this place. 1,500,000 people were killed in this camp. Women and children innocently slaughtered because they could not work for the Nazis. Only the men fit enough to work could extend their torture by weeks or perhaps months, if they were lucky, before malnutrition, disease or an SS guard would end it for them.

Sadness now filled my mind – despite having visited here before, despite having imagined reaching this well known place, despite learning about so much death, torture and tragedy over the past 25 days on my liberation path cycle. My eyes still drowning with emotion uncontrollably.

People from the whole of Europe were brought here in a logistically challenging exercise. On arrival the women, children and elderly were set aside to go straight to the gas chambers to be killed. They were told they were going to have a shower. The men would be determined fit by one man making a split-second decision based solely on appearance.

The Nazis took all possessions from the victims of the camp, even if they were part of the 25% lucky enough to not be killed immediately. Suitcases were searched carefully for any money or valuable items before being sent back to Germany for re-use.

Approximately 40,000 pairs of shoes are on show in the museum here
Approximately 40,000 pairs of shoes are on show in the museum here

Shoes of the dead were stacked high, 40,000 pairs of them were shown in a display cabinet. They were left when the Nazis evacuated. The laces of shoes were taken out for re-use; nothing was left unused. Body hair was removed before the culling in the gas chamber and used for textiles. Gold teeth were pulled out too after death.

Another display showed empty canisters, once containing Cyclone-B pellets that would turn to gas and cause cyanide poisoning to those inside the dark and small room. Pictures all over the museum show disturbing images, including piles of dead, naked bodies that were moved about in the organised mass killings. These pictures taken by the Nazis as they were so keen on documenting everything properly.

The intact gas chamber at Auschwitz is the most emotional place I have visited. I said Kaddish as I stood alone in the room. The same place my father and I had stood several years ago, now I was reciting the same Jewish remembrance prayer. The same place where many innocent people were deceived into thinking they were taking a shower, but were really going to their death by suffocation. It took up to 40 minutes before the guards were sure everyone was killed.

There are many more lessons and stories I can tell. I strongly believe that there is a value about visiting a place like this, it helps you to grow as a person and to understand the world more. There are some things you can’t learn in books. If you can go with family or a loved one then it helps not only to be there together, but also strengthens your bond.

The outside of the gas chamber still in tact at Auschwitz
The outside of the gas chamber still in tact at Auschwitz

Finally we were shown around Auschwitz-Birkenau, the camp built to increase the capacity for killing. If you take the Nazi story step by step, you can see how they moved from isolating Jews in ghettos, to moving them to other work camps, to mass killing in this fashion. It did not happen overnight and took years to get to the stage it did.

The split second selection process to determine whether you will be sent directly to death by gas chamber
The split second selection process to determine whether you will be sent directly to death by gas chamber

There were many attempts at uprisings but anyone associated was killed. The local people in the town smelt something wrong, they heard rumours about what was going on. They knew. But they were powerless as any of their attempts at resistance were immediately punished with death.

Laying the flag and tokens at the main memorial at Auschwitz-Birkenau
Laying the flag and tokens at the main memorial at Auschwitz-Birkenau

I lay my tokens next to the main monument: first a British flag which has travelled with me the whole way; sand from the Normandy beaches stormed by British, American and Canadians; dirt from the forests of Verdun where the devastating parts of WWI took place and another fight occurred in WWII; stones from outside the Nuremberg trial rooms where some of the Nazis were sentenced to death; pebbles from the Flossenberg concentration camp where many died due to torturous conditions; and conkers from the Terezin concentration camp where we were warned to walk around the tree – a health and safety rule that we take for granted today but never came into consideration during the war. Finally, I placed a piece of rubble from one of the ruins of the gas chambers here at Auschwitz where many innocent people passed. I will never forget this end to my journey as long as I live.

Final quote

I have finally finished my journey. Being both British and Jewish I have related to the places the British soldiers trod to free the enslaved and tortured Jewish people. I definitely take great pride in being both, especially now.

JEWISH LIFE IN KRAKÓW POLAND

London to Auschwitz: Day 18, Weiden, Germany to Pilsen, Czech Republic, 115km today, 1685km total

London to Auschwitz: Day 18, Weiden, Germany to Pilsen, Czech Republic, 115km today, 1685km total

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.

The roll call area where people would stand for hours watching others be tortured and even killed
The roll call area where people would stand for hours watching others be tortured and even killed

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.

Some of the deceased in the woods
Some of the deceased in the woods

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.

The view overlooking the memorials and crematorium at the bottom of the Flossenberg camp
The view overlooking the memorials and crematorium at the bottom of the Flossenberg camp

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.

The crematorium where many bodies were burnt at Flossenberg
The crematorium where many bodies were burnt at Flossenberg

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.

My new friend on border control
My new friend on border control

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!

Just one hill coming into Czech Republic
Just one hill coming into Czech Republic

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.

A beautiful moon at dusk on the outskirts of Pilsen
A beautiful moon at dusk on the outskirts of Pilsen

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.

DAY 19, PILSEN TO PRAGUE, 95KM TODAY, 1780KM TOTAL >>

London to Auschwitz: Day 15, Aschaffenburg to Würzburg 75km today 1370km total

London to Auschwitz: Day 15, Aschaffenburg to Würzburg 75km today 1370km total

A much needed rest yesterday afternoon and a lie in this morning allowed me to start afresh on even more hills in Bavaria today. Heading up through the forests I caught up to another couple out cycling on this fine Sunday morning. They were foraging for mushrooms on the forest floor but seemed interested in my long trip.

I have told many Germans here about my journey, and almost everytime I mention I am finishing in Auschwitz they seem to go quiet and not really want to talk. I have yet to confront them with this, but perhaps it is them not knowing what to say. This couple were no exception as they headed off to a trekking path to find their mushrooms after I’d spoken with them.

Schnitzel Lunch
Schnitzel Lunch

After cycling a little further, I stumbled across an antique shop/restaurant overlooking the river which was filled with locals – always a good sign. I ordered “the most popular thing”, a schnitzel, which was delicious – though this could be because I’d waited for an hour for it and by this time was starving! Taking another coffee after the meal I pressed on with the remaining 30km for the day.

Riding through more quiet forests I saw a big hard-back book by the side of the road. Intrigued by it, I stopped and inspected it. It was a collection of German adult magazines. Very strange but oddly funny as I stood on the side of a steep road in a German forest looking at some odd German material! I decided I had to leave the book as it was too heavy to carry – also someone might want to come back for it perhaps?!

Interesting restaurant full of lots of antiques for sale
Interesting restaurant full of lots of antiques for sale

Whilst riding over the gentle undulations into Würzburg, I saw several cyclists heading the other way. None of whom smiled. If I hadn’t gone through France where there were a similar number of grumpy people, then I would think all Germans were grumpy – but I guess it’s just a people thing! Another cyclist (who looked a bit like Albert Einstein with crazy hair) was behind me at one point. I slowed down to let him catch up, said hello when he did, but he ignored me. I pushed on after he passed me to get beside him and start talking but he ignored me again and turned off. Just rude.

Church of Würzburg
Church of Würzburg

Finally I reached Würzburg which was heavily bombed during the way, more than Dresden; so much so that the women had to rebuild it because many of the men had perished. I wandered through the gorgeous town centre to try and find the famous oldest Pizzeria in Germany, but alas it was closed… Sunday again! From the few interactions I had, the people there didn’t seem that friendly and I settled for a cheap chinese meal to pack the calories in. (Word to the wise: a small beer in Germany is still pretty big!)

So now an early night ahead of an early start to avoid the expected heavy rain. With the Nuremburg museum closed on Tuesdays, yet another reason to complete the 100km as quickly as possible tomorrow…!

DAY 16, WÜRZBURG TO NÜRNBERG 100KM TODAY, 1470KM TOTAL >>

London to Auschwitz: Day 14, Frankfurt to Aschaffenburg 45km today 1295km total

London to Auschwitz: Day 14, Frankfurt to Aschaffenburg 45km today 1295km total

I have now completed two weeks on the road with my bike. With me I have two (unnecessarily heavy) bags containing some warm and dry clothes, toiletries, laptop and bunch of cables to charge my iPod and camera. I have met lots of people along the way, but, like a cab driver or delivery man, I have actually been with only myself the whole time.

The journey is from London along a WWII liberation path starting at Westminster, to Poole in England, over to Normandy in France, down to Paris, along to Luxembourg, across Germany and finally ending at the most famous concentration camp from World War II: Auschwitz in Poland. I am just over half way through in terms of physical distance and nowhere near completing my emotional journey as there are still three camps to visit, including ending at Auschwitz.

In total I have spent every day but one cycling; that rest day involved a lot of walking around Paris and seeing museums and art exhibitions.

I am exhausted. Physically exhausted. I have had some great ups and some tough emotional reflection. But now I am just tired.

Throughout the trip I have tried to imagine climbing the cliff faces of Normandy to destroy the large Nazi stronghold at Pointe du Hoc. I looked down the Champs-Elysées as Hitler did when he invaded Paris, and as Charles de Gaulle did when he finally made it back for the liberation. I have been through the forests of Verdun which was a region of death and destruction during World War I. I pushed on through to Luxembourg, which has always been technically neutral, but was an early invasion point for Germany. I am now half-way through crossing Germany feeling a strange sense of accomplishment having come so far; but 14 days living out of a small bike bag is wearing on me. And I have another 14 days on the road. Really I am only half way.

I know that I am very sheltered; part of this trip is to take me out of that comfort zone. In order to continue working on my software projects I have not been camping but instead staying at small hotels/bed and breakfasts/friend’s flats; all with hot showers and freshly cooked food. This gives me a structured base before heading off on a daily cycling adventure, never to return to the same location.

My mind is now turning to the concentration camps; I think about the detailed torture the Nazi regime enforced on many groups, especially on my Jewish people. The atrocities are unthinkable, and even the little things stick with me.

Little things that are of such irrelevance to the big picture I shouldn’t even mention them. In my sheltered existence these little things would be life shattering for me, especially on this exhausting journey. I read “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor E. Frankl who was a survivor of Auschwitz. One thing that I keep thinking about is not having coffee. I don’t drink a lot of coffee but on this trip it has been essential. To keep my energy levels up and ensure my mind is sharp on the roads for two weeks solid I have had to have at least one cup each day. I cannot currently imagine getting by without it. It is such a small issue but yet so significant to my everyday life.

Viktor paints a picture that you would be amazed at what stresses humans can go through and still be ok. Humans are adaptable and strong creatures. Yet I still feel dependent on coffee, I still desire a warm shower after cycling all day, the internet is essential to my life, and it is frustrating without a comfortable bed. It’s not even winter here yet I am so thankful for the shelter from the cold. Even GPS to make the travel part easier, not to mention video calls and emails to make me feel just around the corner from my loved ones.

Trying to understand what the soldiers went through is extremely difficult. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a very serious issue and I cannot try and comprehend it. Exposed to so much crap through stories is hard enough for me; but living it I can’t begin to imagine. Especially whilst I sit in my warm hotel room, eating fresh Vietnamese beef and noodles, on my laptop talking to friends from home.

Moving from soldiers to concentration camp prisoners is a completely new chapter. Coffee is just one small thing that I can’t think of living without. There are so many other small things that would upset me tomorrow if I didn’t have them. Clean clothes being one of them and I am sure everyone reading this is the same.

It’s important to value the small things in life and remember that things could always be worse…

DAY 15, ASCHAFFENBURG TO WÜRZBURG 75KM TODAY 1370KM TOTAL >>

London to Auschwitz: Day 13, Engleheim to Frankfurt 50km today 1250km total

London to Auschwitz: Day 13, Engleheim to Frankfurt 50km today 1250km total

Today was a very relaxed day. Only needing to complete 50km before my friend Mathias got off work at 1900 led to a chilled pace on the bike. Waking up at 6am I saw the weather forecast updated from being an absolute downpour expected when I went to sleep, to no rain at all for the entire day! I decided a lie in would be acceptable and went back to sleep relieved.

Yesterday was very reflective and yet filled with extreme happiness. Perhaps I have an endorphin addiction (in fact a few of my friends say I do) and that kicked it all off; or perhaps it was a real experience. Either way, today involved a slight come down from it all. I had expected heavy rain and was ready for it last night; this morning’s forecast caused a complete change of mental state expecting it to be completely clear. Feeling great I set off wearing more than sufficient clothing to stay warm. Then the heavens opened and it started raining cats and dogs; within an hour of setting off I was drenched to the bone, leaving me feeling a bit crap.

Rain isn’t really an issue by itself. When you exercise in the rain you stay warm (think football or rugby); also things dry out and no worry about my possessions locked away in waterproof bags; as long as you don’t sit in wet clothes for an extended period it is absolutely fine for your body. However there are still a few issues whilst cycling:

1) Brakes don’t work so well which can be an issue if you ever need to stop.
2) Manhole covers, painted road markings and of course the many tram lines in Frankfurt all become very very slippery. In fact Loren (my American friend) managed to fall off his bike on one of these very tram lines and scrape his whole leg.
3) When travelling fast you get a big line of water (or in my case mud) up your back. It also comes off the front wheel to hit you in your face: so it’s difficult to see.

These things lead to quite an unpleasant experience even when prepared for it. Nonetheless I shall not be broken!

An eagle statue overlooks the oncoming clouds on top of a vineyard
An eagle statue overlooks the oncoming clouds on top of a vineyard

After reaching Mainz I stopped for a cappuccino at a busy breakfast bar. I managed to sit next to a lady who told me she met an Englishman who had cycled through her town a month ago. He was from London and on his way to Istanbul (she said he was called Jake M…). I wonder how many conversations like this are missed because we sit one seat over or go to a different breakfast place.

Continuing on in the rain I shortly arrived at the skyscraper filled Frankfurt and immediately met heavy traffic. Snaking my way through the cars I narrowly avoided several close calls on the slippery tram lines by regaining control of the rear of the bike. Eventually I reached a cafe where I would immediately disrobe and put on all new dry clothes stored away in my panniers.

I then met Mathias at his apartment; after a quick shower we headed out for a traditional Frankfurt meal. Applwoy is a cider like drink that is a little sour. Normally mixed with Fanta, or in our case fizzy water, we took a 5x300ml jug (1.5L for those who can’t math). This accompanied our Frankfurt schnitzel with special herb and cheese sauce which I inhaled.

Applwoi and Mathias in Frankfurt
Applwoi and Mathias in Frankfurt

Mathias is a friend of a friend who I only met today; however it is extremely nice to meet someone so friendly and hospitable. Travelling alone is difficult when in a different place each night, but this was a great change of routine. We got on really well and because he has a rugby match in the morning we can both get a much needed early night. Interactions like this make travelling worthwhile!

DAY 14, FRANKFURT TO ASCHAFFENBURG 45KM TODAY 1295KM TOTAL >>

London to Auschwitz: Day 12, Trier to Engleheim 135km today 1200km total

London to Auschwitz: Day 12, Trier to Engleheim 135km today 1200km total

Today was an extremely poignant day. I think I re-discovered the point of the trip. I endured the steepest and longest hills I have ever cycled. The cold meant I lost all feeling in my feet descending the climbs. My legs gave way under me as the hills just wouldn’t stop coming. The rain was upsetting on the slow ascents, and hit me hard in the face on the quick descents. Yet it was probably one of the best days in my life.

Motivated by early starts I was out of the door by 8am having had a great big breakfast of smoked salmon, scrambled eggs, cinnamon grahams, orange juice and, most crucially, a big pot of coffee! But today it was cold. It was the first day of the trip where I had to wear more than my lycra shorts and short sleeve cycling top. Straight away, I hit the climbs I knew I had coming for me. It got me warm, but my toes were still tingling from the cold. I stopped and put on an extra pair of socks. I reached the top of one hill where I’d only seen 2 cars in the 45 minutes of climbing. I was a lone ranger on the vast expanse of the German countryside.

Standing up on the bike, in my lowest gear all the way, I was exhausted. Surrounded by the pine trees of the forest, it was dark and damp. Eventually, I saw no more trees on the tarmac ahead, just grey sky and as the saying goes: “What goes up…must come down”. I immediately descended into the oncoming frost, causing my fingers to become numb. At the bottom of the valley I stopped and put on my longer gloves and took the opportunity to stock up on some sugary sweets.

Back on the bike and into the next climb. I was getting hot, yet still felt cold – a weird sensation. I began to think of the forests. This German land was where a lot of the fighting took place during the war. The soldiers would be out there day and night in the cold, sleeping in the wet shelled out holes in the forests unless they could avoid it. It is only the beginning of October but it was awful for me despite the fact that it wasn’t even raining and I was well prepared.

Three hours into this climbing and I reached another peak. A small shack offered what seemed to be food and maybe a hot cup of coffee. I considered continuing but gave in to the temptation. “Café?” There were no English speakers there but everyone understands “Café” – coffee. I saw a sausage on the grill – “Würst?”. The man smiled at me and filled a bun with mustard waiting for the sausage to be cooked. His wife looked at me and smiled whilst holding a lit cigarette; it seems the indoor smoking laws haven’t reached here yet, or at least are not enforced! We tried to talk to one another; of course the weather is the perfect topic. She made some sounds at me and I inferred that she was asking whether I was cold. They showed me the newspaper forecast for today which showed no rain but an absolute downpour tomorrow. I’d better get a move on! I stepped outside and the cold hit me. Time for another jumper.

The next hill offered a spot of rain, not much, just enough to let me know it could be worse. Another 50 minutes of lugging my bags containing laptop, clothes and tools up a hill in drizzle led to a ridge. The heavens opened – I was going to get wet. I donned my waterproof and began the descent. I didn’t have to pedal for 10 kilometres; but I did to try to keep my legs warm. Each raindrop felt like a small sting on my face.

I checked my map again. Relief. Knowing that the small blue lines – indications of water – mean the source of a spring, which means on top of a hill, and the bigger bits of water (where the little ones join up) is going to be downstream. I found a path all the way to my destination adjacent to this comforting blue line. I began the descent, excited that I didn’t have to climb again soon. Hopefully not again today.

I was right. Lots of freewheeling. I turned my music up. The clouds parted as if the weather gods were granting me a prize for sticking at it through the hard climbs. The vineyards of Germany surrounded me as I descended at upwards of 50kmph (hoping not to get a blow-out again). I admire the scenery. I let the sunlight warm my face.

Then The Rolling Stones played in my ear: “You can’t always get what you want. But if you try sometimes, you get what you need”. A British band with a great hit. Hurtling along the German countryside I sang loudly to the wind screaming at the top of my voice. I was extremely happy. Possibly the happiest I have ever been.

I started to think about this whole trip. The liberation path is just one part. The overriding thought is to remember the victims of The Shoah, The Holocaust. More than six million Jews killed. 6,000,000+. I realise how lucky I am to be doing such an amazing trip. I feel so liberated and free to do what I want when I want. Jewish and British. British and Jewish. It made me realise that I am doing this trip because I can. As a “Fuck You” to those who tried to oppress others in the past. A “Fuck You” to Hitler.

I try and think what someone who was killed at Auschwitz might feel about my journey. I hope they would be happy that the world (or at least the western modern world) that I live in allows people to do this. Without prejudice. Without fear. I hope they would be happy for my happiness. The feeling of being alive that I have experienced today. Waking up early, attacking the hills as hard as I can, documenting it to tell others. Living life as I want to and in my eyes, living it to the full.

I don’t think the world should ever have gone through any genocide to learn a lesson. But this has happened. We cannot change those events of the past, but we must learn from them. We must learn not to make the same mistakes again and to prevent others from making them now and in the future.

Tomorrow it is meant to rain hard all day, and there is a train station next door that will no doubt take me straight to Frankfurt… But I am more than determined to cycle in whatever conditions try to stop me, and I plan to enjoy every moment of it.

The start of another climb
The start of another climb
Fun German farmers
Fun German farmers
Heading down-stream
Heading down-stream
Could someone please tell me what this means?
Could someone please tell me what this means?
Weird stuff you see on the side of cycle paths...an abandonned childs bike...
Weird stuff you see on the side of cycle paths…an abandonned child’s bike…
Warning: Frogs
Warning: Frogs

DAY 13, ENGLEHEIM TO FRANKFURT 50KM TODAY 1250KM TOTAL >>

London to Auschwitz: Day 11, Esch-sur-Alzette to Luxembourg City to Trier, Germany, 65km today, 1065km total

London to Auschwitz: Day 11, Esch-sur-Alzette to Luxembourg City to Trier, Germany, 65km today, 1065km total

Another day, another country. Welcome to Germany – don’t mention the war!

A nice early start was tough at first, but after downing some coffee I was eager to hit the road. The extra hours allowed me to keep going beyond my target with no problems. It reminded me how valuable seizing the day is. I still had some height to descend from just inside the border into the City of Luxembourg – great to relax for a few kilometres!

The whole country of Luxembourg was very clean and well kept. The people were very friendly and all spoke English. The city contained some tremendous architecture and history, however I wanted to push on: I was feeling good and the sun was out so why not? There were great drivers too which was a nice change from the final parts of France; a delight to be riding the roads.

Luxemboug City
Luxemboug City

The American Cemetery just outside the city was again closed due to the American budget cuts. I managed to catch a lady as she entered the main gates. She turned came to meet me beyond the gates, we spoke in French until she responded that it was indeed “fermé” (closed as it was in Normandy). I hung around to take a video outside and noticed this lady still standing there. Over the past few days a few people had tried to break in; this lady lives in the grounds and thought I was going to trespass (she was probably right!). I think she was intimidated by me! We worked out we could speak to each other in English and she was sad to say that the place was closed.

American Cemetery in Luxembourg
American Cemetery in Luxembourg

She did very kindly offer to take my GoPro in video mode and walk around the site (that she wouldn’t let me into for legal reasons) and she filmed the whole grounds along with a commentary. General Patton was also buried here; he led his troops to liberate Bastogne in the Battle of the Bulge (or the “Ardens”). George Patton unfortunately passed after the war after being involved in a car accident where he wasn’t wearing a seatbelt; he suffered serious injuries which he didn’t recover from. He was brought back here to be buried with his men.

Over 5000 headstones
Over 5000 headstones

I continued on downstream of the Moselle with a tailwind; I was flying. Casually hitting 32 kmph (20 mph) without any pedalling for about half an hour. I was next to the river for miles until eventually crossing and entering Germany. Managing to not be selected by the police just past the border I continued on a small cycle path overlooking the flowing water. Another beautiful site to the trip.

Entering Germany
Entering Germany

I have been reminded to “not mention the war” but it is a bit hard with the motivation for this trip. An older German gentleman cyclist struggled to catch me on the way into the next town; he had an amazing looking carbon bike with impressive racing wheels. He said I was very strong to be going so fast, especially with the bags. I guess a short day, several espresso’s and 10 days of riding non-stop have helped my speed!

Why did the ducks cross the cycle path?
Why did the ducks cross the cycle path?

Trier is the oldest towns in Germany and it contains some beautiful historic buildings that I have witnessed wandering around the town. It was also a big battleground in World War II. Many British POWs from Dunkirk were marched here before taken to other POW camps in Germany; a similar journey to the one I have undertaken.

One of the many designer elephants about the town - this fluffy pink one was my favourite!
One of the many designer elephants about the town – this fluffy pink one was my favourite!

Coming into the town I checked my bike for any issues: the rear tyre was pretty well worn but the front not so bad (because of the weight of the pannier bags). Using a trick I learnt from “The Man Who Cycled The Americas” I swapped them over and also cleaned the chain and oiled it – however there is a fair bit of sand and grit in their which I can’t get out – hopefully it won’t become a problem! Otherwise the bike is running extremely at this approximate half way mark.

I had “noodlesoup” for dinner, which is German for “noodle soup”. Next stop – fluency!

Tomorrow I will head towards Frankfurt with a plan to get there Friday and stay on a friend’s sofa.

DAY 12, TRIER TO ENGLEHEIM 135KM TODAY 1200KM TOTAL >>