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Cycling from London to Auschwitz

Cycling from London to Auschwitz

I recently spent 25 days completing a 2222 km (1350 mile) cycle trip from London, England to Auschwitz, Poland. Travelling alone, with just 2 large panniers full of warm clothes and my laptop, I spent 22 days on the bike and 3 rest days in Paris and Prague. I am a freelance software consultant by trade and my aim was to continue my work throughout the trip. With a laptop and WiFi connection I was able to work in any spare time I had. I am grateful to the McDonalds of the world for the free WiFi they provide!

I devised a route which was to follow the Path of Liberation taken by soldiers during World War II, stopping at places of interest along the way. My journey began at Westminster, where key decisions were made by Winston Churchill (the then Prime Minister) and other Allied leaders to invade France and reclaim the land that Germany had taken. I commenced the journey down to Poole, crossing the Channel by ferry to Cherbourg, France. I followed the Normandy beaches where the D-Day landings took place, visiting memorials and museums which commemorated the lives of the many fallen soldiers. I pushed through to Paris where I had my first day off the bike taking in even more museums; I also took the opportunity to visit the Palace of Versailles learning about the crucial role this played after WWI and also went through Verdun to visit the forest where significant fighting took place. Continuing my cycle to Luxembourg – a country invaded by the Germans despite being neutral – I then crossed into Germany where I met a friend who lives in Frankfurt. I visited the trial rooms at Nuremberg where Nazi war criminals were tried after the war; moving through Bavaria I visited the first concentration camp of my trip, Flossenberg. Reaching Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic, I spent a day off the bike visiting Terezin, another Nazi camp for Jews and Polish prisoners. I had a rest day in this popular European holiday destination, where my Mum and friend had flown out to meet me. Back on the bike, I finally reached Poland just a few days later and saw the largest concentration camp the Nazi’s had built, Auschwitz. Approximately 1.5 million people were brutally murdered here and it was a truly emotional and poignant place to complete my journey.

Starting in October, I expected it to be cold and wet – and it was – but despite some bad weather, I had some absolutely incredible experiences. From extreme pride at being British travelling along the Normandy beaches to immense sadness at the concentration camps, I experienced a whole range of emotions throughout the trip, feelings I will never forget. I experienced difficult pain up some hills across Germany and the Czech Republic but when the sun came out and the hills levelled off, I experienced some amazing happiness. I valued my freedom more than I ever have and felt the most incredible joy.

I met some very friendly people throughout France; some American and Canadian travellers next to the memorials of Normandy who were very generous, buying me lunch and museum tickets; several fairly old (70+) cyclists, (Lioret, Mel and others), who were still out hitting the road – they provided great inspiration for me; some local Sunday morning remote controlled airplane enthusiasts, like Lionel, who let me play too; American cyclists, Loren and Eric, also touring Europe who were willing to share a room, some drinks and stories; a lovely American lady, Joy, who ran the Cemetery in Luxembourg and took my camera for a tour despite the US government shutdown prohibiting her from letting me in; a new friend, Mathias, in Frankfurt who let me stay with him and share a local traditional meal. Most people were incredibly friendly throughout.

I was pulled over by police and beeped at by many drivers – especially when I accidently joined a motorway in the dark in the pouring rain! I fixed two punctures and had to buy new tyres half way through. I sent around 60 postcards along the journey and managed to solve most language issues with hand gestures and pointing. I wanted to quit at several points, or at least cheat by taking a train for a short part, but I pushed on through the rain, cold and hills to cycle the whole distance. I talked to myself at many points and sang my favourite songs freewheeling down hills but still claim to have my sanity (apart from being crazy enough to attempt the trip).

Along the route I collected small tokens: sand from the beaches in Normandy; stones from outside the trial rooms in Nuremberg; small rocks from Flossenberg camp; gravel from Terezin camp; and a British flag I had carried for the whole journey. Finally, I added a token from one of the destroyed gas chambers at Auschwitz and lay them together at the main memorial at Birkenau. The grip tape from my bike handlebars fell off on the final day as a sign that it also wanted to give a part of itself to the memory of those lost in this tragedy.

It struck me that if there were a person standing at every metre on my 2 million metre journey, then I would have to return home to England and complete the journey from scratch again to pass 6 million people lining my travels. This was the number of Jews who were killed in the Holocaust. This doesn’t include the soldiers or civilians who also perished which stands at a much higher number.

It is very apt to write my summary of the trip on Remembrance Sunday. I made this journey to commemorate the fallen; to try and understand something that is so close to home and so recent in history. I wanted to share my whole journey by writing a daily blog entry about my feelings and experiences. I hope that I help to inspire people to commence an adventure of their own (not necessarily cycling) and to educate others in the history of the Second World War and the Holocaust. We need to ensure we learn the many lessons from mankind’s mistakes. There is nothing like visiting these places that helps one learn these lessons.

Finally I would like to thank everyone who supported me throughout the trip. You know who you are and I am so happy to have such great friends and family in my life.

Lest we forget
Lest we forget
London to Auschwitz: Day 16, Würzburg to Nürnberg 100km today, 1470km total

London to Auschwitz: Day 16, Würzburg to Nürnberg 100km today, 1470km total

Today was another incredible day on this amazing cycling trip across Europe.

My target was Nuremberg, which lay 100km away and with just one road to take me there (or so the map said). I wanted to visit the Nuremberg Trial room, which is closed on Tuesdays, so I had to get there early today.

Waking up at 0600, I was eager to hit the road but it was already bucketing it down. I somehow managed to motivate myself and was packed and out of the door in minutes, but it wasn’t long before I was soaked to the bone. Better yet, the road that was marked as suitable for cyclists on the map had somehow turned into a motorway! Evidently I had missed the ‘no-cycling signs’ – were they even there? I therefore found myself pedalling as fast as possible to the next exit on the hard shoulder. Not fun. The alternative was to walk the wrong way down a motorway which would have been more dangerous, especially in the dark. Eventually I found a path that would take me in the rough direction I wanted so I followed it, wasting valuable time and making me rather demoralised about the whole thing.

My legs were soaking after the first bit of rain
My legs were soaking after the first bit of rain

After hours of cycling in the rain, soaked, cold, tired, I finally reached my destination at about 1300. The place I had thought about cheating to reach by taking a train. The journey today was mentally tough, but all my troubles paled into insignificance when I reached the court rooms.

Through a series of posters, videos and audio clips, I was fed the summation of the abominable atrocities, abhorrent war crimes against humanity and of the peace at the end of World War II.

The courtroom where the Nuremberg trials took place
The courtroom where the Nuremberg trials took place

The first thing I did when entering the museum was walk into the court-room. Immediately I felt the emotion from the place. I have never had this happen to me before. Perhaps my subconscious over the past few days was suppressing emotions as I slowly cycled across Germany; but now I found myself standing there, the very same room so many evil people who were responsible for so many deaths stood awaiting the court’s sentences.

21 people were tried here. Göring, Donitz, Hess, Raeder, Von Ribbentrop, Keitel, Schirach, Kaltenbrunner, Sauckel, Rosenberg, Jodl, Frank, Von Rapen, Frick, Seyss-Inquart, Streicher, Speer, Funk, Von Neurath, Schaucht, Fritzsche.

Most received a sentence of death by hanging. A few got lengthy prison sentences and 3 managed to be acquitted. These sentences were given to the defendants over a year after the end of the war.

They were tried for:
Conspiracy
Crimes Against Peace
War Crimes
Crimes Against Humanity

There was a call by many to “liquidate” those who clearly had involvement, but the idea of a fair trial prevailed. Indeed the consensus after the trial was that it was fair and just.

A detailed view of the 177 others prosecuted and 12 follow up trials
A detailed view of the 177 others prosecuted and 12 follow up trials

There were many pieces of evidence that were examined for the trials; some of which were mentioned at the museum. One that stuck in my mind is of a German commander saying that “the lowest German is 1000 times better than any of the people here [in the Ukraine].”

I was in Kiev to trace my family history a few years ago and visited the site of Babi Yar. All of the Jews of the town there were rounded up and shot on top of a hill; the bodies pushed down a ditch and buried over. In some of the follow up trials people were called to take responsibility for such events. Paul Blobel was prosecuted for Babi Yar and the suspected 33,000 deaths there, although other reports suggest up to 3 times as many people were slaughtered in this way here. Blobel was hanged after being found guilty.

The clothes that were discarded from the tens of thousands marched out and killed at Babi Yar in Kiev,  Ukraine
The clothes that were discarded from the tens of thousands marched out and killed at Babi Yar in Kiev, Ukraine

There were also trials for the camps of Auschwitz where the highest number of murders had taken place, and for another camp in Majdanek where conditions were reportedly even more horrendous and unspeakable. These happened over 20 years after the war ended and so evidence was a lot harder to gather.

IG Farben, the chemical company that supplied things like Cyclone-B gas and organised the Auschwitz camp were mostly given short sentences – if at all. Some even obtained successful positions in the pharmaceutical industry after the war.

The doctors who tortured patients and killed many through their tests (e.g. giving them hypothermia to study the affects) were also prosecuted, with some being sentenced to hanging but some eluding even a prison sentence.

A map showing just how many other war crimes have been reported gloablly
A map showing just how many other war crimes have been reported gloablly

At the end of the visit to the museum, there was a display with a summary of reports of war crimes – those crimes being against more than 1000 people. The map shows the true extent of the horrors.

I wanted to point out that this journey is to learn about Europe’s recent war history and honour those killed in them. I could (and probably will) write about many other events that have happened since, and even some that are happening now. However my current journey’s purpose is to learn about and understand better WWII.

Tomorrow I am continuing to Flossenburg concentration camp.

p.s. I have just finished the day by going to an independent cinema on a “Gay-Filmnacht” to watch a movie entitled “The Butler” which is a hollywood story about the history of civil rights for black people over the last several decades in America. I think this part of the world has definitely come on a bit…

DAY 17, NÜRNBERG TO WEIDEN, 100KM TODAY, 1570KM TOTAL >>

London to Auschwitz: Day 10, Sainte-Menehould to Esch-sur-Alzette, Luxembourg, 115km today, 1000km total

London to Auschwitz: Day 10, Sainte-Menehould to Esch-sur-Alzette, Luxembourg, 115km today, 1000km total

This morning started off well enough. I had a short lie and found a bike shop on the way out of town and was able to get my bike chain oiled. These small things allowed me to push on hard through the morning climbs.

Generally feeling great, my spirits were lifted seeing the kilometre markers for the Voie de Liberte. They served to remind me of the purpose of the trip and I had seen them before, but only in Carentan during my first day in France.

Voie de la Liberte
Voie de la Liberte

Every kilometre that passed I saw another marker, thrusting a fist in the air each time, I felt great. I spotted some poppies near the side of the road; I stopped and attached them to my bag next to the badges from the Caen Memorial Museum. Knowing I only had about 50km to Verdun, and didn’t plan on cycling much further meant there was no pressure to push too hard.

Bike at the end of the Rue de Liberation
Bike at the end of the Rue de Liberation in Verdun

I managed to reach the town of Verdun in good time and began the climb into the forest where a significant amount of the fighting in World War 1 took place. The relentless and infamous trench warfare came alive as I cycled further.

Just out of town I noticed another open field on my right, and again there was a cemetery. This one was much bigger than that one I saw yesterday, which was also bigger than the one on the way to Paris in Normandy. I didn’t even try to begin to estimate the number of headstones. It was simply overwhelming.

Another Memorial Cemetery
Another Memorial Cemetery

I lost track of time walking around the site in complete reflection. After finally composing my thoughts, I pushed on up the hill.

My loneliness on the road was relieved as I came across an older couple climbing the same hill. Gilbert was 75 and his wife Vichelle was 68. They used to do big bike tours but now were doing smaller cycling loops by taking the bikes in the car to see different parts of France. We stopped at just one of the many large memorial statues in the forests and talked for a while. They mentioned they had a grandson who was my age, but he was more into the gym than cycling. They took a photo of me to show to him; I took a photo of them to show to you.

Gilbert et Vichelle
Gilbert et Vichelle

The forest contains many memorials for the fallen. I am determined to re-visit this place later in life and see them all – others would be welcome, and we don’t have to cycle!

A larger memorial caught my eye. It described one of the nine towns that was completely levelled during the relentless shelling of the war. Small markers pointed out where each house had been; now gone forever.

After seeing the Museum being ripped apart by a bulldozer, I was frustrated. The web said it was a great monument to visit. In the distance I saw another large building. This was Duadeaumont, another cemetery, again with white cross gravestones. This one was even bigger. Much bigger.

Douaumont Ossuary
Douaumont Ossuary

I wandered the field to try to comprehend the scale. The enormity was partly the point, it wasn’t there to be measurable.

I visited the building’s museum and learnt that in the basement there were the remaining bones of the unknown dead who were dragged out of the woods after the war. French, English, German. All together in one spot. 130,000 men’s worth of them.

In a solemn daze I climbed to the top of the building to look out over the cemetery and forest. At the top I met an Englishman, on a gorgeous BMW motorbike who was just touring the area alone, and a couple from Australia who had spent the month touring France and Germany. Speaking English and learning their stories was a nice relief from the heavy emotional surrounding.

After a quick sandwich I pushed on, planning to stop at the next hotel in time for a conference call. There was nothing for miles, and I mean 40 miles. I spent 65km on the bike trying to find a hotel. No-one had a clue. No-one even knew what Wi-Fi was. I really was in a strange part of the country. My phone signal wouldn’t work and I found myself stuck not knowing what to do. I pushed on until eventually I got service.

Still unable to find anywhere to stop for the night but not wanting to ride too far, I asked everyone if they knew of a hotel. No-one did. Eventually I made it to Luxembourg and finally found an internet connection.

Welcome to Luxembourg
Welcome to Luxembourg

Coming into town I coasted for about 10 kilometres and descended steep roads with switch-backs. This proved to me that all the hard work I had put in over the past couple of days was to climb that height. I didn’t realise before, but now feel better that I have been given back the height I climbed.

Also I just hit the trip’s 1000km mark coming into town! It’s still not half way though, with about 1200km to go.

Tomorrow will be a relaxed short trip into Luxembourg City, where I’ll be taking that “rest day” I’d planned.

DAY 11, ESCH-SUR-ALZETTE TO LUXEMBOURG CITY TO TRIER, GERMANY, 65KM TODAY, 1065KM TOTAL >>