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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.

March of the Living 2015

March of the Living 2015

Walking into the Bełżec Memorial, one of the six death camps established by the Nazis, I was nervous as I led 45 young professionals, from March of the Living UK, down the path into the museum.  Suddenly, my new friend Harry Olmer, a survivor from the Holocaust, grabbed my arm and led me to the museum desk.  He proceeded to open up a book and pointed directly to a picture of his mother and sister, who were slaughtered right there, on the site where the Memorial now stands.

There are very few moments in my life, if any, that have been more powerful than that. This really drives home the fact that this history is not so far in the past. Here is Harry, a dentist from Hendon, who retired at 86 just last year, just a few hours flight from London (the same distance as Spain) where his family was taken brutally from him.

Harry and the group at Belzec
Harry and the group at Belzec

“To hear a witness, it to become a witness” – Elie Wiesel.

March of the Living UK focuses on education. This year it consisted of 250 people from the UK, and over 10,000 from around the world. The UK delegation has an incredibly mature approach – to present facts, to give an experience and not push a particular agenda. We are aware that individuals have different perspectives, and that each person is entitled to their thoughts, but to not experience the detail of the story is not how the world should operate.

Education, education, education.

The content throughout was vast and full of emotion. We explored life before the War, visiting the Museum of Jewish Life in Warsaw, which described hundreds of years where Jews were mostly OK in this part of Europe, and occasionally thriving. We then saw the Memorials to those holding out until the bitter end in the Warsaw Ghetto, where brave young men tried their best to fight back.

We were audience to moving speeches from Survivors themselves, and visited just a few of the far too many sites of murder, of death, of torment, all stemming from segregation by way of the ghettos.

We visited Majdanek, a death camp that is almost exactly as it stood when it was in operation in the 40s. We were told of the clinical detail and processes the Nazis undertook to perfect the gassing of people, the harvesting of belongings and the cremating of bodies. We saw just a few thousand pairs of shoes that were left behind when the camp was liberated, the rest having been sent back to Germany. Selecting one of the shoes, we tried to imagine who it belonged to and the tragedy that they faced.

Shoes found at the camps after liberation
Shoes found at the camps after liberation

We came with an abundance of questions, and no doubt left with many more.

How can something like this happen? How can there be so few held accountable for so many deaths? What should I do now? What can I do now?

And of course, the unanswerable and torturous question of “What would I have done?“.

We asked Harry his opinion of Germans now, and with a shrug, he responded “people are people, and we have to accept them for who they are”. This comes from a man who was ripped from his family, transferred from work camp to work camp under terrible conditions with death all around, and somehow he survived the whole War.

Walking on the actual March
Walking on the actual March

March of the Living is not there to inflict depression, nor leave your eyes streaming with tears. There were of course emotional moments, however through education and experience comes the opportunity to open your eyes to some of the most incomprehensible things.

Auschwitz, a site I have visited more than 10 times now, always has something new that gets you. This time, I walked with a member from our group to the actual barrack that ‘housed’ his grandmother. It was located on a side of Auschwitz-Birkenau that I had never even walked to because it was so far away. There was a bunker, still standing, with rows and rows of bunks, essentially where this man’s grandmother would have slept. I started to process that this was where people actually were; not just a picture from a book, not just something from history, but something people we know experienced.

At the end of the day, we always have to come back to our current day reality.

Three members from our group stayed on and joined me in experiencing the Jewish Community Centre in Krakow. A community that is enjoying life and continuing to grow, a prime example that no matter the past, we must keep going.

We witnessed survivors still in the community. Pani Zosia, a member who had little/no Jewish identity throughout communism, delivered the D’var Torah to the Friday night contingent of 100 people. Mundek also sang Yiddish songs that, with the exception of the last few years at the JCC, have not been heard in this area for over 70 years. Now, the whole community is familiar enough with them to join in.

Auschwitz with the Chief Rabbi, Harry Olmer and Rabbi Gideon Sylvester
Auschwitz-Birkenau with the Chief Rabbi, Harry Olmer and Rabbi Gideon Sylvester

At the end of our six days, I asked Harry what had kept him going throughout his ordeal, but the question had never entered his mind. Harry had to keep going, he had to do whatever it took to get through, just because.

This week with March of the Living was the most valuable week of education and reflection; much more meaningful than a holiday anywhere else. Next year you should join.

A Mysterious Underground City and a Jewish Polish Wedding

A Mysterious Underground City and a Jewish Polish Wedding

I got back late last night from a Jewish wedding in Wrocław in Poland. This was the first (or maybe second?) wedding between two Polish Jews at the White Stork Synagogue there for 50 years. Unfortunately, after the Holocaust and during the communist period, there wasn’t much room for Jewish life in this town. Today, Jewish life in Poland is not what it was before the war, but there is a strong community that is continuing to grow. This wedding is a fantastic show of the religious freedom and modern day society that we now live in here in Poland.

Jewish Wedding in Wroclaw
Jewish Wedding in Wroclaw

It was a really fun and enjoyable day which was a contrast to the day before.

My girlfriend and I drove down a day early, in search of an “Underground City” that the Germans supposedly built during the war. Wanting to learn everything at the location, I simply looked up where to go and drove there. We arrived at the Ksiaz Castle where this city was meant to be underneath. Immediately I got a horrible feeling from just standing there. I have only felt like this before in the Nuremberg trial rooms. It is hard to describe, but I just didn’t want to be there, it just wasn’t right.

Ksiaz Castle
Ksiaz Castle

Only now, after the visit, do I realise that this castle was meant to be one of the major Nazi headquarters for Hitler where a lot of the decisions would be made throughout the reign. A really evil place. This was the centre of the Nazi project Riese, the main purpose was to create a main site of control in the Owl mountains of Lower Silesia.

We eventually discovered that this “Underground City” was in fact 30km away. This was just one of at least 9 underground structures built. After a short drive we arrived at a hillside forest named Osówka. Underneath there was a vast, multi-layered system of tunnels and halls. The Nazi’s got Jews (mostly Hungarian who were sent to Auschwitz) to build this place over the course of two years. They estimate that if the war had not have ended, they would have completed the structure in another year.

Original weapons and helmets
Original weapons and helmets

Nobody really knows what these underground constructs were for. Potentially nuclear shelters, weapons storage, a treasure location, a secret laboratory…but there is no sufficient evidence for any one in particular. What is known, is that the workers were treated just as inhumanely as elsewhere in the Nazi regime. One bowl of soup a day, barely 200 calories, and long working days. If they were lucky, they would survive a few weeks. Many would die. Only a few would survive until the end of the war when the Red Army would free them. At this time, so malnourished that the Russians told them not to eat too much at once, but of course given food and not having eaten in weeks, people ate as much as they could – unfortunately their bodies couldn’t take it and 50 were recorded to have died from “overeating” after liberation.

The multi-layered incomplete underground structure
The multi-layered incomplete underground structure

This learning experience was contrasted with the happy environment of a wedding the following day. A joyous celebration of the union of two Jewish people. Finally, we wandered back to the car via the picturesque main square. A sunny day with lots of tourists, families and children having ice-cream and sweets. Inevitably however, we were reminded of the history just before we reached the car, there was a memorial plaque for the Jews killed in the ghetto of Wrocław during World War II.

The history is incredibly important and necessary to remember, but current life in Poland is as modern as anywhere else in Europe. The Jewish community is unbreakable and we will continue to enjoy such pleasures as weddings. A big Mazaltov to Katka and Sławek!

Ride for the Living 2014

Ride for the Living 2014

In October 2013, I spent 25 days alone with my bike, cycling a WWII liberation path from London, across Europe, to Auschwitz. (See articles here)

It was a deeply meaningful trip, I did not want to dwell solely on the painful memories of this time in history, instead I wanted to look at the positive side of liberating Europe, the good that came with stopping the Nazi regime and celebrating the freedom we have today. Inevitably there were parts of the trip which were overwhelmingly emotional, wandering alone through the Flossenbürg concentration camp was certainly one of them, but the message of the trip was to enjoy the freedom that we now have.

On completing the trip, I spent the Shabbat in Krakow at the JCC. This centre was created thanks to Prince Charles’ ideas and WJR’s support. A place where everyone is welcomed to learn about the thriving Jewish life, in modern Poland.

Speaking to the director, Jonathan Ornstein, I realised that the bike ride should not end at the death camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau; instead, I should finish the journey on a high note with the welcoming, friendly and growing Jewish Community in Krakow.

On Friday 6th June 2014, the 70th anniversary of D-Day, I set out, with 14 other people from the UK, USA, Israel and Poland, to complete the journey from Auschwitz to the JCC. We began the day with some very memorable tours of the camps,then got ready to set off on the bike ride, ready to see the current strong Jewish community of Krakow.

The riders at the gates of Auschwitz Birkenau
The riders at the gates of Auschwitz Birkenau

A moving ceremony in front of the camp gates involved a member of the Krakow community, Pani Zosia, speaking about how she had lost family here; she is grateful that there is a place for her in Poland to experience her Jewish identity now.

We set off on the relatively flat 90km ride along the river Wisla. We meandered down small country roads with little traffic and surprisingly beautiful scenery as the sun shone down on us. We contemplated the freedom we have and reflected on the horrors of the camp we had just cycled away from.

A great sense of camaraderie was amongst the group as we made our way across the southern part of Poland.

Eventually we came into Krakow and began to see the Wawel Castle overlooking the river. We knew we were nearly there. A wave of relief came over us after several hours of cycling. We all rode into the JCC as one cohort, welcomed by local members of the Polish community.

90km later at the JCC!
90km later at the JCC!

After celebratory hugs and pictures we quickly showered and changed before we were kindly welcomed to join the community for Friday night Shabbat dinner. Not only did we hear some older members of the community singing Yiddish songs that used to fill the area before the War, but we met young members who were discovering their Jewish identity and what it means to them.

We spent part of Shabbat walking around the beautifully modern town of Krakow, everyone exclaiming that they didn’t expect Poland to be this beautiful; suggesting that we could be anywhere in Europe.

The evening saw thousands of people (mostly Polish) coming together to experience all of Krakow’s seven synagogues open to the public in an event called 7@nite. A great bonding had occurred between our group, and we ended the unforgettable weekend experiencing the synagogues of the town that once were overflowing with Jewish traditions and life. Unfortunately only the small community still remains today, but they are still here singing the songs and reciting the prayers.

Despite expectations that it might be difficult to ride such a long distance after seeing the horrors of Auschwitz, every rider came away with an extremely positive experience and will no doubt encourage their friends to participate next year.

Please support the cause: http://www.mywjr.org.uk/dezzymei/

March of the Living 2014 – UK Group – Day 5

March of the Living 2014 – UK Group – Day 5

Today we visited Auschwitz. This was my fourth visit to this camp but for many in my group it was their first. The expectations were set for this place to be the most intense on our trip and for many it was, including myself.

A lot of visitors exclaim how unbelievable it is, you can’t truly think that anyone would take part in such hideous crimes. A holocaust survivor on our tour mentioned that “this was the gas chamber I entered and managed to walk out of alive because of pure luck”.

Entrance to Auschwitz with the phrase: Arbeit Macht Frei - work will make you free (with the sadistic meaning of death)
Entrance to Auschwitz with the phrase: Arbeit Macht Frei – work will make you free (with the sadistic meaning of death)

Many people have asked why I keep coming back to a place like this. For me, I am still searching for some meaning in this horrible period of history. I find that each time I go, despite everything still being unbelievable, it becomes more believably unbelievable – if that makes any sense at all.

I genuinely can’t understand how the German Nazis could complete these disgusting actions, but I become less surprised by new revelations. The period of visiting gives me a time to reflect on my own life and inspires me to make sure I make the most of the opportunities I have.

One story that stands out from history, a survivor who documented his account fully after the liberation in many books for which he won many awards. However he succumb to his emotional wounds and killed himself in 1951. This idea than not only were people murdered in the camps mercilessly, but, should someone be lucky enough to survive, the damage lasted a lifetime.

This gave me an even deeper respect for the survivors, especially the ones I have met on this trip. I can only imagine giving up in their situation, and yet here they are today, walking beside us, teaching a new generation. This is an inspiration.

Gas chamber 2 at Auschwitz
Gas chamber 2 at Auschwitz

I noticed whilst walking through the gas chamber another group that seemed to be speed touring through the whole camp without much explanation of what they were witnessing and why they were there. Without a decent explanation of the site and no time for “processing” the overwhelming information, there is little meaning. The visit needs to be taken seriously.

There is much controversy over school children visiting from Poland, Germany and Israel for example. Suggesting that they could be too young at 15/16 to properly understand; in practise many kids will be messing around/not paying attention to the details and they may miss quite a lot. However, this age is the latest age that you have a state education to enforce everyone to visit. It is much better to get them to visit than to simply hope they will when they are older.

<< Day 4 – Shabbat in Kraków with survivors stories and the JCC     Day 6 – The March >>

March of the Living 2014 – UK Group – Day 4

March of the Living 2014 – UK Group – Day 4

Today was the most powerful of the trip so far. We spent a good part of the early afternoon touring the Kazimierz part of Kraków, the old Jewish Quarter.

After visiting the old, we went on to see the current Jewish Community Centre in this modern and trendy city. Firstly we heard from one of the survivors, Marla, who now lives in England. Her story is a horrifying first hand account of life in the harsh ghettos of Poland; she described the beatings that were given and the losses of friends and family, the deportations from one horrible place to another and then the unfathomable conditions within the death camp from where she was liberated by the British: called Bergen-Belsen. I have tremendous respect for the survivors for continually telling their story to many groups year after year. It cannot be easy re-telling difficult stories, let alone the energy needed to travel regularly across Europe. I thank them for joining us and I take it upon myself to ensure that their testimony isn’t forgotten going forward.

Following this we heard about the future of Jewish life here in Poland, specifically in Kraków. Members and volunteers of the current Jewish Community Centre spoke. These are young Jews who have been brought up Jewish in Poland or have discovered their Jewishness. One girl googled her name when she was 12 and found lots of Jewish content; she questioned her mother who confirmed it. She then set it upon herself to discover Judaism through the JCC and she is now a key member of the community. Another non-Jewish girl, Kinga, came to the JCC to learn about Judaism, only to discover that her Grandmother also kept milk and meat separate in the kitchen. Rabbi Avi Baumol pointed out that she is probably Jewish and is now part of a conversion class with him. Everyone here engages with Judaism in a positive way, in an open and welcoming context; a fantastic contrast to the history of the Nazi occupation. A discussion about current levels of antisemitism showed that the young people living here in Kraków feel very safe and extremely positive about a strong Jewish future despite the relatively small size right now.

Fortunately we had the opportunity to hear from another survivor, Renee. Her story involved many deportations to different camps. Each event seemed worse than the other; she mentioned the fear that overcame her when a man couldn’t get his wedding ring off when prompted by the SS on entry to a camp: he was threatened with the guards chopping the finger off but fortunately managed to squeeze it off. She mentioned someone who stole a small piece of bread that she was clutching whilst sleeping; she was saving it for her cousin but couldn’t believe someone could be so awful in the camp. Almost all of her family were lost to the Nazis and she spent time both at Auschwitz and finally Bergen-Belsen.

Renee and Me
Renee and Me

The camp was liberated by the British and the prisoners were treated extremely well by these soldiers. They had not been given any compassion for years, but the British did everything they could to make sure that the victims were looked after in the best possible way.

Our final “processing” session was extremely interesting. Focussing on the question of whether the world has a good Jewish future and specifically if Poland does. Our discussion took on many points, such as the prevalence of anti-semitism globally, but also about the validity of the small and powerful Jewish community in Kraków.

I raised a point from my personal experience with the JCC Kraków that I have been welcomed by the members, staff, volunteers and Rabbi for the last 6 months. We had a 150 person strong Seder night last week which was extremely powerful for me. The doors are open to anyone. This is a great statement, especially given the location. The key to a happy future is no doubt increasing education to everyone, no matter their background with Judaism. The level of observant Jews here is not going to grow overnight to the levels they were before the war, however this example of a strong Jewish open community here is immensely valuable and we all agree a fantastic attitude in making the world a better place.

<< Day 3 – Bełżec            Day 5 – Auschwitz and Birkenau >>

March of the Living 2014 – UK Group – Day 3

March of the Living 2014 – UK Group – Day 3

Another incredibly intense day seeing so much history in such a short space of time.

Bełżec was the first death camp set up during the Nazi regime, close to the border with Ukraine. It was constructed in the middle of a huge forest, surrounded by tightly packed Nazi planted trees and with an extra layer of leaves on top to hide it from aerial view.

Unfortunately again this place has a sense that the Nazis won here. They closed down the camp, dismantled it and hid all evidence well before the war ended. They had killed all the Jews they wanted in this area and got away with it. Hundreds of thousands of them. They proved that their Final Solution could be accomplished. The next step for them was to bring in Jews and other undesirables from further afield to larger camps like Auschwitz.

The view of chaos from the top of Bełżec
The view of “chaos” from the top of the Bełżec memorial

Fortunately Rudolf Reder was one of less than a handful of survivors and has the best reported testimony. Backed up by workers testimonies this really was a tragic site.

Interestingly, none of these death camps were actually set up in Germany, all of them in Poland. This was shown to be completely deliberate, to try to push the German Nazi war crimes away by a physical distance to try to absolve themselves from responsibility should anyone find out at the time of even after the war. When they realised they were about to lose the war, they tried to hide all evidence – e.g. by blowing up the gas chambers at Auschwitz whilst escaping.

Unfortunately their idea of pushing away the blame also seems to have succeeded today; it is common to blame and hate all the Polish, when actually very many of the Poles were victims too. There were many collaborators, but also many opponents and righteous. Anger is better served to the intolerant, the anti-semitic, of which we know there are still far too many worldwide.

Train tracks from Treblinka put on display at Bełżec
Train tracks from Treblinka put on display at Bełżec

Moving on, we stopped at another rebuilt synagogue in a small town called Łańcut. The town population, mostly Jewish before the war, was completely erased here; to zero. As we entered, we had the most incredibly moving sight of some Israelli kids (probably late teenagers) singing loudly, screaming at the top of their voices. Their energy was felt from before we entered. We were hit with the same feeling of strength in the knowledge that we are still here today. Together we are still singing.

A long drive across the country to Kraków saw us stop just past Tarnów in a normal forest. Another, unfortunately familiar, merciless mass killing site exists here in a public park. 10,000 people, many of whom are Jews or just ordinary Poles are commemorated here. In one day, 1800 Jews were taken here and shot. One by one with a bullet to the top of the spine, the base of the neck, as trained on a dummy by a local doctor. Children first. The mothers were then walked past their slaughtered children before also being killed. Finally the husbands would walk past both piles to the same fate.

Another merciless execution site in the forests
Another merciless execution site in the forests

Nothing like this is excusable in any way yet no-one was punished for this site after the war despite the knowledge of who did it.

We solemnly made it to Kraków for a Shabbat service. Deeply meaningful and moving given the past few days. A welcome break to the historical sites and a great chance to reflect. After dinner, our processing session saw the most incredible comments from my group. The young-adults, all between 20 and 35, opened up with passionate personal stories about their family history and what it means to them to be standing where their grandparents or great-grandparents once were.

The first time I visited Auschwitz I felt an overwhelming need to return to London and convince my friends to go. Excuses were given: it’s too far, I can’t leave work, I don’t want to be upset. So far I have failed, almost none of my friends have visited since my initial trip because of my inspiration. I undertook a bike ride from London to Auschwitz in order to document it; this was my way to try and educate my friends who have not been.

I had a very powerful realisation in this processing session. The 30 or so people in my group; the ones who I met in Warsaw airport on Wednesday; those who I have had many a lengthy and deep conversation with; those who stood next to me as we have said Kaddish far too many times; those who visited and experienced Majdanek and Bełżec with me and felt the strength of our presence at these sites: these are my new friends. I can no longer feel that I am alone in my experience, because now I have many new friends who have visited with me.

<< Day 2 – Majdanek         Day 4 – Shabbat in Kraków with survivors stories and the JCC >>

March of the Living 2014 – UK Group – Day 2

March of the Living 2014 – UK Group – Day 2

Today was a very long and difficult day. We visited the Majdanek death camp which was the most moving place I have been to.

To many of the group, it was their first visit to any sort of physical camp of this nature. Initial reactions from the main memorial overlooking the whole camp was that it was a lot smaller than they thought it would be. Several hours of walking later, they realised how big it actually was.

The camp sits in the middle of a field overlooked by a large monument. The camp always sat in an open area and on the top edge of a hill that can be seen for miles in all directions. The victims at the time walked the short distance from the drop off point to the front gates. The purpose of the camp was solely as a solution to the Jewish Problem by means of death. The majority of those arriving would not leave the first building. The initial gas chambers were just inside the gate because the Nazis wanted to get rid of them immediately. All women, children and the elderly were, without mercy, sent to their deaths here – after being shaved and undressed, humiliated for the SS soldiers to see as they poured cyclone-b into the chamber.

The Large Monument Overlooking Majdanek
The Large Monument Overlooking Majdanek

The crematorium is almost a thirty minute walk away at the other end of the camp, up the hill if you go directly. Inmates were forced to push their deceased comrades in carts up this hill for burning.

Currently the camp resides with many buildings surrounding it close by. Supposedly a lot of these buildings were not there at the time, but several accounts recall many being able to see the camp from houses.

Majdanek has a sad and horrible end. It feels as if the Nazis really won in this place. Many hundreds of thousands were killed here and when there were just 18,000 Jews left in the camp with no plans to bring anymore, they took them out to a hill and shot them all. This act was very common in many places in this part of the world, but it means to me that the Nazis were done here. They had killed the Jews they wanted to and this was the final Jewish torment.

The Crematorium
The Crematorium

Following this event in November 43, the camp was used as a POW camp by the Nazis.

A large mound of human ash is left as the final reminder. We said Kaddish (a memorial prayer) together in the group and reflected on this place. Extremely emotional.

The Pile of Ashes and the Crematorium
The Pile of Ashes and the Crematorium

To end the day we visited a rebuilt synagogue in Zamość. A town that was half Jewish before the war and only 3 now identify themselves as Jewish. Far too familiar a story in this part of the world. The synagogue will not be used for formal services, but will exist as a reminder of what was here before.

We finished with our “processing” discussion which was very interesting. Everyone always takes a different thing from their visit, some feel angry at the Poles, some feel confused by the whole thing. The overwhelming theme that I think we all agree on is the value of visiting here. To stand next to a place where “they” tried to extinguish Jewish life. Standing here is an act, an act to say fuck you to the ideals of the Nazi regime. We are still here.

<< Day 1 – Warsaw Ghetto and Uprising            Day 3 – Bełżec >>

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.

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