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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 24, Opava, Czech Republic to Katowice, Poland, 105km today, 2180km total

London to Auschwitz: Day 24, Opava, Czech Republic to Katowice, Poland, 105km today, 2180km total

So many miles from home yet I still have exactly the same possessions as I began with. Definitely moments have changed me yet so many things are still the same. I have re-learnt many life lessons from the experiences I’ve had and created opinions on the world and its people.

Perfect weather conditions
Perfect weather conditions

The weather today was perfect. Pure blue skies, very little headwind and not too many hills. Finally I was about to reach the final country of the trip: Poland. But first another reminder that the Red Army passed through here liberating it from the hold of oppressive Nazi reign.

Welcome to Poland!
Welcome to Poland!

Crossing the border I was excited for this final culture with just one more day before reaching Auschwitz, the final destination. The road on the border was immediately better paved. People were also suddenly friendlier and every smile I gave was returned, every wave saw another back. I felt great. However the road didn’t last long. It got worse and worse until it was the most lumpy broken excuse of a road I have ever ridden.

Stopping in the next town I sat in the sun reflecting how far I had come and how many places I had seen. I walked into the adjacent supermarket and something felt familiar. I felt as though I had not left the comfort of the M25. I was in a Tesco and everything was exactly the same. Except for the signage being in a strange accentuated language. I grabbed a familiar Coke bottle and paid through the self checkout in English. The world is such a big place yet sometimes things can be identical across the globe.

Norbert was the closest I could find
Norbert was the closest I could find

Just before reaching my stop in Katowice, a large monument stood for all to observe. Remembering those sacrificed for the liberation of this country. There is interesting symmetry to these memorials around the demarcation line I saw in the Czech Republic which signified where the British and Russian Armies met whilst liberating the land. The only difference of these memorials is the language.

A war memorial from the liberation by the Red Russian Army
A war memorial from the liberation by the Red Russian Army

I lay awake restless last night thinking about the numbers. I have travelled just over 2000km, thats 2,000,000 metres. Two million metres. 6 million Jews were killed in the holocaust. If there was a Jew standing at every metre that I have travelled hard over 24 days then I would have to turn back now, get home and come back again, with a Jew at every metre each way. This magnificent number is so difficult to comprehend. Having achieved such a great distance I can still but imagine this number.

I haven’t even begun to mention the soldiers from all sides as well as civilians.

The beautiful autumnal forests in Poland
The beautiful autumnal forests in Poland

My final day tomorrow will include a guided tour around Auschwitz. I have brought a British flag along the whole route and picked up meaningful tokens too: sand from the beaches of Normandy, dirt from the hills of Verdun, rocks from outside of the Nuremberg trial rooms, gravel from the Flossenberg concentration camp and conkers from the camp at Terezin. I will lay these down next to the main monument at Auschwitz-Birkenau in a moment that I have imagined for weeks.

DAY 25, KATOWICE TO AUSCHWITZ (OŚWIĘCIM) 42KM TODAY, 2222KM TOTAL >>

London to Auschwitz: Day 22, Prague to Ústí nad Orlicí, 155km today, 1935km total

London to Auschwitz: Day 22, Prague to Ústí nad Orlicí, 155km today, 1935km total

My mother, friend and I have had some quite poor experiences with the locals in Prague, as well as an abysmal boat tour! To add insult to injury, the hotel staff were also very rude on several occasions, which made us feel rather unwelcome in their country. This did not bode well for the remainder of the trip through the Czech Republic. Especially as I’ve been warned that the further east you go, the worse it gets…

Leaving the familiar faces of my Mum and David, I was off to be alone on the bike again – but this time the sun was out! Unfortunately though, I went straight into a strong headwind. A headwind that would not let off, even with the shielding of trees, forests or hedges. I felt good with my well rested legs but wind is possibly the most demoralising thing when on the bike (or maybe a downpour, I’m not sure which is worse).

Coming out of Prague I came across the Jewish cemetery which I explored and I paid my respects at the small memorial to those victims from Terezin – the concentration camp which I visited just a couple of days ago.

The memorial to Terezin victims in the Jewish Cemetery on the way out of Prague
The memorial to Terezin victims in the Jewish Cemetery on the way out of Prague

I saw many roadside memorials for the First and Second World Wars. Too many to count, but I stopped to pay my respects at many of them for the members of the town that they noted and to take a photo of the statues.

Just one of the many WWI and WWII memorials that I have seen by the road today
Just one of the many WWI and WWII memorials that I have seen by the road today

Having left the suburbs of Prague I was feeling strong. Gazing across the horizon I saw a big tank-like vehicle. As I got closer I could make out 4 army men standing around it, with another camouflage jeep just in front of it. It turned out to be a recommissioned Russian Army Tank. Bought from someone in Poland, it was road legal and used for fun. It had two machine guns (that were non-functioning) at the top and a massive V8 engine for some immense power. The tyres could be deflated and inflated from a compression tank inside to allow for beach driving, as well as being almost fully submersible with a propeller underneath at the back. One of the men looking after it was very sweet and told me all about it, however the others seemed quite unfriendly which was disappointing.

A recommissioned Russian tank with 6 litre V8 and a propeller to make it work in water
A recommissioned Russian tank with 6 litre V8 and a propeller to make it work in water

Pushing on I saw a few other cyclists, dog walkers and farmers. I smiled at all of them and waved at most but I didn’t get one smile back, let alone a wave. After a pit-stop lunch I saw many other miserable looking people; it looked as though each and everyone had a close family member recently pass away, they looked so sad. Most of them stared at me as I passed on my bike with a big smile trying to get some sort of positive response. Being alone on the bike with everyone looking extremely unfriendly is no fun and so I pushed further on the bike than planned because I didn’t want to have more interactions with sad or rude people.

A memorial plaque to what appears to be an RAF pilot from the Czech Republic
A memorial plaque to what appears to be an RAF pilot from the Czech Republic

Unfortunately I pushed on to a part where I would not see a big town for another 50km. This became quite difficult as night was fast approaching. Suddenly it was dark and my small bike lights had no chance at illuminating the road in the depths of the trees. The head wind felt stronger and the gradual incline that I had been on for hours (I didn’t realise this is why my pace was so slow) suddenly caused a long steep descent which I couldn’t enjoy because I couldn’t see anything!

Descending into the darkness with both hands holding the brakes firm, I slowly made it to the next town to find a closed hotel. Fortunately they had an unsecure WiFi network which allowed me to look up their number and phone them. They were fully booked. Searching on my map I moved on until I eventually found a small hostel on a side street in the village.

After a quick shower I went for a Chinese meal where an odd man from the country was also eating alone. He mentioned how he believed in UFOs and could give people energy with his hands. He also said he practised yoga to give him 40% more energy – he knows because he measured it… He was a 60 year old builder and carpenter who was very nice but still didn’t smile!

Just a few days are left on the road until I reach Auschwitz but there is still a fair way to cycle. The anticipation and excitement of reaching the end will no doubt help me along…

DAY 23, ÚSTÍ NAD ORLICÍ TO OPAVA, 140KM TODAY, 2075KM TOTAL >>

London to Auschwitz, Day 20: Rest Day in Prague to visit Terezin Concentration Camp

London to Auschwitz, Day 20: Rest Day in Prague to visit Terezin Concentration Camp

Less than an hour drive from Prague was a concentration camp for the Jews and other prisoners of the Nazi regime. The Nazi’s expelled the 7,000 Czechs from the town in November 1941 and took over the fortress that was built in 1780 to use as a prison. They also created another larger ghetto in the main town for the Jews to be sent.

Gavrilo Princip, the one who assassinated Franz Ferdinand in 1914 kicking off WWI was a prisoner of the smaller camp here.

Star of David Memorial outside of the Terezin Camp
Star of David Memorial outside of the Terezin Camp

Approximately 180,000 people passed through this transit camp before being sent to one of the extermination camps such as Auschwitz where I will be next Wednesday. It is estimated that 40,000 of the prisoners perished here due to malnourishment and awful living conditions. The rest were sent on to be killed at the extermination camps. They were also forced to work whilst there were inmates waiting for transit.

"Work will set you free" above the entrance to the camp
“Work will set you free” above the entrance to the camp

The sign at the entrance to all of the camps reads “Arbeit Macht Frei” meaning “Work will set you free”.

At the smaller camp in the fortress there were just 7,000 at one time but no where near the space to house them all. 90 would share a room of three rows of bunk beds packed in together. No pillows or duvets, just hard wood slats and barely enough space to lie still.

During the winter it gets very cold here: temperatures dropping to -20 degrees Celsius, yet new inmates again would be left out naked in the cold for potentially hours until being given their one thin uniform to wear. They would hand over all their possessions that would be sold or taken by the guards.

Roll call was another part of daily life here as it was in Flossenberg and other camps. One story mentions a punishment, an “Appel”, of the inmates having to stand in roll call for 19 hours straight where 600 died from the cold conditions.

One sink was there for a room of 90 inmates, but no tap and only a small bowl of reused water
One sink was there for a room of 90 inmates, but no tap and only a small bowl of reused water

Inside the room for 90 people was one toilet (normally a bucket) and a small bowl of water that would rarely get replaced. Hygiene was therefore a serious problem with many contracting disgusting diseases and dying from them. The prisoners only had one set of clothes that were never washed – just rarely disinfected. There were no medical treatments to any inmates who got sick.

There were also punishment rooms where people would be sent to stand until the next transport to an extermination camp. Sometimes this would be days or even weeks. There was almost no chance of survival as if you sat down the guards were to take you out and shoot you. These rooms had no light, no toilet, no food. Even if you survived here you would be sent to extermination.

The shower room where 100 people had 10 minutes to shower and only the first 400 got warm water before being shoved outside in the cold to change
The shower room where 100 people had 10 minutes to shower and only the first 400 got warm water before being shoved outside in the cold to change

Occasionally there was a chance for a shower whereby the prisoners would wait in line outside for hours in order to get 10 minutes inside a crowded shower with water that was likely not heated. They would disinfect their clothes whilst showering leaving them damp; after they would have to put these clothes on outside whilst still damp and no doubt cold.

The capacity for cremation was 180 a day, but they couldn’t keep up with the number of bodies they had so they had to start burying them out in the fields past the walls.

The nicer washroom that were only presented to the red cross to show the world how good the conditions were but nver actually used and so still in tact
The nicer washroom that were only presented to the red cross to show the world how good the conditions were but nver actually used and so still in tact

The Red Cross got a chance to visit later in the war and were shown a brand new wash room that was separately created as propaganda; it was never actually used by the inmates. Other propaganda films of the Jewish ghetto showed people playing football and having a good time with the idea that they were governing themselves.

A memorial sculpture that was created by a victims family member
A memorial sculpture that was created by a victims family member

Part of the camp had some conker trees which are dropping at this time of year. The guide informed us of this and made sure we didn’t walk under it should anyone get hit in the head. This is an exact piece of health and safety that we have today that we take for granted that just wasn’t even comprehensible in these camps. This is just one example that makes the idea of these harsh conditions so overwhelming to me personally.

The swimming pool that was just outside the prison and used by the gestapo and their families, but it was used as propaganda to show the world that the inmates had a good time
The swimming pool that was just outside the prison and used by the gestapo and their families, but it was used as propaganda to show the world that the inmates had a good time

Another piece of propaganda was a swimming pool and tennis court that the soldiers were allowed to use but of course the inmates were never allowed to even see it. Yet the world was told they were able to use it.

A survivor returned to the camp years ago and told of his story. He was a vet that helped to look after the Gestapo dogs; he managed to eat some of the meat dog food as they didn’t get meat in the camp. This allowed him to survive as the food was totally impossible to survive off. To save costs the Nazi gave bread that was flour mixed with sawdust.

The castle of Theresienstadt has over 55km of tunnels to help the residents of the fortress escape should there be an attack. These were closed off by the Nazi's for fear of exactly that.
The castle of Theresienstadt has over 55km of tunnels to help the residents of the fortress escape should there be an attack. These were closed off by the Nazi’s for fear of exactly that.

Finally we walked through some of the escape tunnels that were closed off during the Nazi occupation. These tunnels were an incredible feat of infrastructure in the 1700s. Recently 2 Danish students jumped the barriers and tried to explore the tunnels but got lost. It took 120 people 20 hours to find them and get them out safely. There are over 55 kilometres of paths to take down there. Coming out of them we arrived at the shooting range where the Nazi’s would gun down political prisoners sent to execution and stocks where Jews would be sent.

I read in the news today that there are several Nazi supporting activists in the world still. The idea that anti-semitism is all in the past is definitely not true.

Tomorrow will see a proper rest day for me so don’t expect another post until Sunday! Shabbat Shalom.

DAY 22, PRAGUE TO ÚSTÍ NAD ORLICÍ, 155KM TODAY, 1935KM TOTAL >>

London to Auschwitz: Day 19, Pilsen to Prague, 95km today, 1780km total

London to Auschwitz: Day 19, Pilsen to Prague, 95km today, 1780km total

Another emotional day as I reached a very significant milestone in the journey following the liberation path.

I have gone past the place where the allied forces met in the middle – the “anti-fascist coalition” as the monument recalls. The US Army and the Red Army met between the town of Borek and Rokycany. It was a very moving spot to reflect at because this signifies the end of the fighting journey for the troops. Now there was just a big mess to sort out.

I have come a long way. The furthest cycle trip I have ever done and it has taken weeks to get here. But I have travelled a similar physical journey to what a lot of the allies would have travelled from the D-Day landings in June 1944 to the declaration of peace in September 1945.

A demarcation line where the Americans met the Russians.
A demarcation line where the Americans met the Russians.

I was reminded by many more memorials that a lot of liberation occurred on this route; these markers hadn’t been seen in Germany but were abundant in France almost 2 weeks ago. They have a strangely uplifting feeling when I cycle past them or stop to reflect next to them. Each time I pass one I feel better about my trip and it gives me a boost of positive energy.

A memorial to thank the liberators of a town just outside Pilsen in May 1945
A memorial to thank the liberators of a town just outside Pilsen in May 1945

Another memorial was in Czech, but I have looked up the meaning which refers to Josef Molák. He was a significant member of a resistance group that was shot by the Nazi Gestapo in 1943.

Josefa Moláka was part of a resistance movement and was shot here in 1943
Josef Molák was part of a resistance movement and was shot here in 1943

A common thing to think about is what would I have done at the time. If I was free and not persecuted then would I be a member of or even lead a resistance group? What if, as was the case, anyone who had any known affiliation with anything that didn’t “fit” the Nazi regime is thrown into a camp or killed just like Josef was? Would I still have the chutzpah to put my life on the line for others? I certainly believe I would. This memorial helps me to remember and thank all the resistance members for their efforts that were critical to the liberation.

As I cycled alone over the remaining hills towards Prague I began to think: what would have happened if I was sent to a forced labour camp because of being Jewish? I am fit and healthy so would be made to work, but would I be fit and healthy enough to stay alive? I know from this trip I need a good amount of food and decent sleep and I can get very emotionally weak especially at times of fatigue. I’m always impressed with any survivors I meet, they always have incredible and inspiring determination.

The bridge into Prague
The bridge into Prague

Finally reaching Prague I was glad to see the familiar faces of my Mum and my friend David; having been alone for a few weeks this is a nice comfort. Especially since the language has changed again to something I can’t even relate to! I am very interested for tomorrow’s visit to another camp, especially with my Mum and David who haven’t been to any of the camps before.

DAY 20: REST DAY IN PRAGUE TO VISIT TEREZIN CONCENTRATION CAMP >>

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 17, Nürnberg to Weiden, 100km today, 1570km total

London to Auschwitz: Day 17, Nürnberg to Weiden, 100km today, 1570km total

Today involved a lot of rain, un-sympathetic people, a rear wheel puncture and not being able to find a place to stay with wifi!

Ingenious ways to try to dry my clothes (and fail)
Ingenious ways to try to dry my clothes (and fail)

I found a lot of my clothes were still damp despite my efforts to dry them with the room’s air-con system. Without any sign in the sky of rain I set off slightly moist.

I first visited the rally arena where Hitler address many of his supporters in Nürnberg. The vast size of the place was incredible although now it appeared abandoned with graffiti all over (my favourite displaying: “Fuck Nazis”).

Where the soldiers and supporters would have gathered, there are now fields with football posts. The whole thing looked out of place in the modern town but served as a reminder of where Hitler gave his speeches. Next door was a “Documentation Centre” which holds a lot of documents from the Nazi regime. Unfortunately I didn’t have time to explore, although with the crap day that I’ve had I wish I did now!

The ominous looking platform where Hitler addressed his Nazi supporters
The ominous looking platform where Hitler addressed his Nazi supporters

Heading off out of town the clouds started to close in on me. It wasn’t long before they caught me and drenched me through again. This time with a side wind to make sure my right cheek would feel the full force as I slowly crossed more fields and forest tracks.

After about two hours in the soaked saddle I needed a break and so pulled in to the side of the road. I rested my bike on the wall and hid from the rain underneath the balconies from the floors above. An older lady from the garden adjacent came running up to me yelling “Nitzch! Nitzch!” (or words and gestures to that effect). I was confused standing there holding an apple sheltering from the rain from the rain. She ran up to my bike and pointed at my pannier bags. I said in a proud English voice “I am English and have cycled here from London!” expecting her to be impressed. She looked me in the eye with anger and yelled “NITZCH!”. She then tried to rip my bike off from the wall (apparently it was the bike leaning against her wall that was offending her) but the weight of the bags held the bike down so she couldn’t actually move it. To be fair the bike was soaking and the frame and I were quite muddy too, but this was an outside wall where it was raining! Was she scared of a bit of mud from my bike? I pulled the bike off the wall and discovered not even a wet patch. I showed her this with a smile but she was not impressed.

Still smiling I tried to ask if she spoke any English. “NITZCH!” she said in disgust and walked away. I couldn’t believe that I had been this offensive and was saddened that I have been met with unfriendly encounters like this here in the Bavaria part of Germany. Thoughts went through my mind whilst riding on through the hills and rain. What should I have done or said to make the whole event less painful? I still don’t know.

Cool statue - anyone know what it says?
Cool statue – anyone know what it says?

I finally pulled up to the next town where I planned to stop for some warmth and nutrition. I saw a bright yellow sign and pulled in to the “Teppan King” asian restaurant. The restaurant had a huge hallway and I rested my bike in between the door frame as I took a moment to shelter from the rain and try to dry off.

An older asian man came running up to me yelling. What have I done now? I know I’m wet but I’ve not even come inside! I hadn’t realised my front wheel was just over the front door and a small amount of water had formed a puddle just inside his hallway. He screamed at me to take my bike out. Having reflected from the incident before I calmly tried to neutralise this situation by again introducing myself in English. However he snapped back at me: “I don’t care if you are English, look at my floor!”

I remarked that it was just a bit of water and would easily be mopped up – in fact I could do it once I dry off! He stormed off angry. Just moments later he came back with a mop and aggressively passed over the puddle I had caused. One sweep and it had disappeared. I smiled with excitement that my unintentional mess was indeed temporary. But the man kept mopping, the whole hallway in fact, even places I hadn’t been, and then behind the sofa! As if I might have snuck some dirt around there and ruined the atmosphere for his empty restaurant. He angrily looked at me when I finished and he walked back inside.

Reflecting from thoughts of why and how the Holocaust happened I have been trying to work out if better education and experience could have prevented the events. After these two rude encounters today it was reinforced to me that you can’t change the world in a day.

I realised that I could reach the concentration camp of Flossenburg but would be uncomfortably wet to walk around; therefore I decided to delay until tomorrow morning bright and early (after a conference call from the McDonalds’s wifi!).

Fixing my puncture
Fixing my puncture

Coming into the final town I got my first puncture of the trip. Composing myself still in the pouring rain I took the wheel off and replaced the inner tube without too much hassle. The wheel was fine for the 5km further to the bunk house.

DAY 18, WEIDEN, GERMANY TO PILSEN, CZECH REPUBLIC, 115KM TODAY, 1685KM 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 8, Paris to Châteaux Thierry 100km today, 750km total

London to Auschwitz: Day 8, Paris to Châteaux Thierry 100km today, 750km total

What a cool day! Waking up in Paris with the prospect of another 3 weeks of cycling was demoralising; despite knowing that I will have an interesting adventure. The thought of 1400km more, the distance I have travelled already, but twice over, AGAIN, together with the lactic acid is just daunting. I demolished my breakfast before saying goodbye to my Mum (for the third time on this trip as she keeps following me) and cycled off past the Gare du Nord station where she would take the Eurostar back to London. A somewhat tempting alternative to 3 weeks further on the road.

After getting a little lost, despite my plan of being on just the one road for most of the day (it turned into a motorway unsuitable for bikes) I found an incredible path next to a beautiful river just outside Paris. This is where I caught up with Lioret, a lovely 77 year old man. He mentioned that he was only out for a 30km training ride! Mel (the 71 year old man I met on the ferry) – you have competition!

Lioret, 77
Lioret, 77

Continuing on over a railroad bridge (where I happened to see my Mum’s Eurostar go past) I spotted some planes in the distance doing loop-the-loops and other cool tricks. The point of this trip is to stop and investigate interesting things such as this, so I turned around, rolled down off the bridge and found the path to where I would meet my new friends who were controlling the planes. I spent a good 2 hours with them discussing the different petrol turbine and electric propeller engines, along with the different body kits you can get. Unfortunately I couldn’t convince them to put my GoPro on one of the planes which would have been AWESOME.

Model Planes!
Model Planes With Lionel!

Stopping for lunch in Meaux I met an American from Georgia and a Parisien who was very supportive of my trip. They spoke highly of Germany and put my fears of the country to rest. Perhaps I have been reading too much about the wars!

Cathedral at Meaux
Cathedral at Meaux

After reaching the Champagne region of France (which I haven’t managed to get a glass of yet) I hit the 100km target for the day. I stopped at McDonald’s in Châteaux Thierry (which happened to be one of the few places open on a Sunday) for a quick salad and a WiFi top up. Feeling good, I looked ahead at my route and found a bed and breakfast just 15km away along a nice river path. Just after setting off I saw two cyclists coming the other way with big bags on their bikes like mine. I slowed down and approached them with my best French. As it happens, Eric and Loren are American and I’m now sharing a room and a few beers with them tonight!

My apprehension about the long trip ahead evaporated by today’s fun encounters. The cycling distances are easy, and when the sun comes out it is stunningly beautiful and very enjoyable. Another chilled couple of days lie in store before reaching the next capital of the trip: Luxembourg City.

A Great Feeling
A Great Feeling

DAY 9, CHÂTEAUX THIERRY TO SAINTE-MENEHOULD, 135KM TODAY, 885KM TOTAL >>

London to Auschwitz, Day 7: Rest Day in Paris

London to Auschwitz, Day 7: Rest Day in Paris

As expected I was unable to have that lie in, despite my legs still aching with fatigue. I did manage to have a short afternoon nap to help my body recover, but this exhaustion was possibly due to the 5 hours of walking around museums this morning!

After a momentary panic thinking I had locked myself into a self-cleaning public loo, the magnificent building I was searching for came into view: the Musée de l’Armee, which is well known for it’s war exhibitions. The museum gave a detailed overview on the period building up to the outbreak of World War 1. In particular it highlighted Germany’s defeat of France in 1871. Leading to the treaty of Frankfurt (where I will be next week) and caused France to become paranoid. This fear led bolstering France’s military capabilities in comically choreographed training videos. The French also started colonising parts of Africa with fear that Britain, Germany or Russia would seize everywhere else and France would be left with nothing.

Musée de l'Armée
Musée de l’Armée

However, in the early 20th century, Germany felt surrounded. Following the assassination of archduke Franz Ferdinand in Austria in 1914, the Germans invaded the neutral countries of Belgium and Luxembourg (which I am also passing through in a couple of days). Britain immediately declared war and France was attacked by the Germans in 1914. After nearly 5 years of an extremely bloody war, a treaty was signed in the hall of mirrors at Versailles (where I was yesterday). This put the harsh demands in the form or reparations on Germany, many consider this a key factor in Hitler’s rise to power.

After this exhibition about the World Wars (don’t get the audio guide though – it’s rubbish!) there was a section paying tribute to Charles de Gaulle section which is extremely interesting. He was a soldier in the first world war but was injured three times and captured as a POW. He tried (and failed) to escape 5 times. Similar to a character from a movie. I likened him to – Inspector Clouseau.

Charles de Gaulle

De Gaulle did have a strong determination never to give up. He gave the vote to women, independence to colonies and privatised national businesses. Throughout his life he acheived incredible things, but in the context of the Second World War he really was a saviour. He fled to London when Hitler invaded France and Pétain signed the agreement with the Nazis; from there he helped the resistance against this new Vichy state of France that was in coalition with the Nazis and other Axis powers (Italy mainly). He helped the public maintain faith in their country, broadcasting incredibly valuable speeches. No matter how small his following for his country was, he still kept faith and worked at it until people realised they needed to join up to fight for the cause. Charles de Gaulle was an incredibly determined man who helped to shape the world in a better way.

The Many Faces of Charels de Gaulle
The Many Faces of Charels de Gaulle

Tonight will be a quiet one ahead of 3 days cycling to Luxembourg. I am still weary that I have a long way to go before reaching Auschwitz, with some big hills and likely cold weather. Lots more time for contemplation about this war, and for me to reflect on not just my British heritage, but what it means for me as a Jew to be making this journey.

DAY 8, PARIS TO CHÂTEAUX THIERRY 100KM TODAY, 750KM TOTAL >>