Remembering Those Lost In The Holocaust

Seeing as yesterday was International Holocaust Remembrance Day and the 71st anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz, it is only fitting that we take some time to remember those whose lives were so tragically taken away, all too soon. I was fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to listen to Michael Marder, a Holocaust survivor, share his personal story yesterday afternoon. This incredible man was able to survive nine different concentration camps, but unfortunately, no one in his immediate family had such luck.

Hearing Michael Marder tell his story reminded me of just how important it is to continue to share such stories so that we never forget about the atrocities that took place not too long ago. And with that, I’d like to introduce you to part of the Gottheim family. The woman in the photo is my great aunt (my grandmother’s mother’s sister), and pictured alongside her is her husband and three children. Unfortunately, they were never given the opportunity to tell their names, so all I have is a last name to go off of.

The Gottheims lived in Poland, but upon hearing of a potential German invasion, they made the necessary plans to make the trip to America by boat. When they arrived to the docks, each member of the family was inspected to make sure that they were in good enough condition to travel. However, as it turns out, one of the children had an ear infection and wasn’t allowed to board the ship. The father told the mother to take the other two children to America, and he would follow shortly after, once the child recuperated. The mother refused, and instead suggested that the father take the other two children to America, and she would follow shortly after, once the child recuperated. The father also refused, and the general consensus was to wait it out together, and make the trip as a family, once the child got better.

Unfortunately for the Gottheims, the German invasion came sooner than they had expected, and the family was murdered in their home before they were able to escape to America.

11 million people were killed during the Holocaust, 1.1 million of whom were children. 6 million of these individuals were Jewish, and others who were targeted and murdered include persons with disabilities, people from the LGBTQ community, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Roma, Slavs, political opponents, and plenty others. So many of these people died without their stories being told, which means to us, they will sadly forever be nameless and faceless. Like the Gottheims, millions of lives were cut short, and who knows what kind of greatness these people could have gone on to achieve?

One would think that we have since learned from the Holocaust, but it was not the first act of genocide to take place in the world, and unfortunately, it was not the last. If we do not remember the atrocities that were carried out just a few decades ago, we will be bound to have history repeat itself. We must never forget the Holocaust, and we must always speak up whenever we see any one person or any group of people being targeted by others. We owe this to the Gottheims, to all of the people who perished during the Holocaust, and to the survivors like Michael Marder who have dedicated their lives to spreading the word about the inhumane treatment they endured.

Martin Neimöller, a well-known pastor once exclaimed:

“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”


Holocaust Remembrance Day

Seeing as yesterday was Holocaust Remembrance Day, I wanted to post about my experience traveling to Auschwitz in Krakow, Poland this past summer, in addition to meeting a Holocaust survivor in Budapest just a few short days after. I already wrote about this a few months ago in my blog, but seeing as this important day is designated to remember the atrocities that occurred years ago, I thought it would be appropriate to repost some of my experiences.

When my tour group arrived at Auschwitz, the line of people waiting to get in seemed endless. The one positive note about this experience was that so many people wanted to learn about the tragedy that was the Holocaust, so at least we as a society are not forgetting our past. As we walked through the gates into the camp, a sign above us read, “Arbeit Macht Frei,” or “Work Makes You Free,” and one could feel a chilling sensation passing by these words, all while knowing what had once happened here.

There must have been thousands of people on separate tours walking through the camp, but even so, it just seemed so gloomy and desolate. You read about the tragedies that occurred here, you hear stories, and you see movies, but there is nothing that can truly prepare you for walking on the actual grounds. The fencing and barbed wire, the watchtowers, and old, dark brick blocks, and the gloomy gray sky above us really makes you think how people were able to survive such conditions and brutality. The strength and courage that everyone must have had during the Holocaust is unbelievable, and there really aren’t any words that can describe how it makes you feel.

Throughout our tour, we saw hundreds of suitcases, personal belongings, and family treasures that countless people were stripped of. And as we concluded the tour with a viewing of the gas chamber and crematorium, we saw where many of these people were stripped of their lives. It is crucial that we do not forget about this devastating time in history so that such atrocities do not repeat themselves. Genocide has occurred all throughout the world, and with such unspeakable acts of horror continuing to this day, we must speak on behalf of those who lost their lives and advocate for those still alive today before it is too late.

A few days after touring Auschwitz and Auschwitz II-Birkenau, my tour group arrived in Budapest, Hungary, where we walked through the immaculate Dohány Street Synagogue. After walking through the beautiful Synagogue, we came across an elegant little shop run by this cute, little elderly woman who was selling handmade Jewish crafts and goods. We were told that this elderly woman, Lucy Brown was actually a Holocaust survivor. Lucy was a teenager when she, her mother, and sister were taken with the other women from their town on a march, led by the Arrow Cross Army. As they were marching towards the Danube River (where the Jews would be shot and thrown into the River), a street cleaner opened up a gate to clean the grounds behind the gate. Lucy grabbed her mother and sister, and ran through the gate, and fortunately enough, the Arrow Cross leader didn’t notice. Lucy ripped off the yellow stars from their shirts, and the three of them went into hiding until the end of the war, thanks to gentile neighbors and friends of theirs. Because of Lucy’s courage, she saved herself, her mother, and her sister.

There are countless stories of heroic Holocaust survivors, but we must listen to them and pass these stories on before there is no one left to share such experiences.

Day 1 In Bratislava, Slovakia Continued

Continuing with our tour, we walked by the oldest University in Slovak territory, which was founded in 1465. Not this particular university, but public schools of higher education are free to students in Bratislava, which made me start thinking about potentially sending my children here for school in the future!

During World War II, 160,000 Jews were taken from Slovakia, and only 70,000 returned, but left again shortly after. Currently, there are only 4,000 Jewish citizens in Slovakia, and a mere 600 residing in Bratislava. With that being said, we passed a family owned bookshop called “Steiner”, which had been in business for close to 100 years in Bratislava before the government confiscated all Jewish property. Selma, one of the daughter’s in the family was the only member who survived the Holocaust. Her parents and siblings were all killed, and by the time the war ended, she was 20 years old with no remaining immediate family. Selma’s surviving family left Bratislava after the war, except Selma and her cousin decided to stay. Although the bookstore was rightfully returned to her, it was confiscated once again shortly after due to the course of communism. In 1991, Selma was able to reopen her family bookstore with a simple oval sign, “Steiner” that has shown its resiliency since the first reopening after the war Selma passed away in 2010, but her employees own and run the store, still under the Steiner name, with the sign continuing to hang outside.

There are 5.4 million people living in Slovakia, with a 14 percent rate of unemployment and a 4 percent rate of unemployment in Bratislava. The monthly average salary is around 800 euros, which comes out to around 910 dollars.

Many of the traditional restaurants here serve gnocchi covered in cheep cheese and bacon bryndza, which is the city’s typical meal. Creamy garlic soup and cabbage soup are also both typical for important holidays such as Christmas and New Years.

Continuing with our city tour, we came across Michael’s Gate, which was built in the 14th Century as one of the four main entrances into the city. It is currently the only gate in the city that has been preserved after all these years.

We kept on walking and stopped at the Main Square, which was used for executions during the Habsburg monarchy in front of the old Town Hall. There is a statue of a “Watching Soldier,” and it is said that this soldier from Napoleon’s army came into town and found a beautiful woman, but somehow lost her. So he continues to stay right where he is, with hopes of finding her again. The public fountain in the Square has been around since the 1500’s. We then came across an old-looking measurement stick and butcher’s knife which were both used by the government during the Habsburg monarchy. The government used the stick to check sizes of meat and vegetables to make sure they were good enough to sell in the markets. The butcher’s knife showed the size requirement of the knives to be used during this time period as well. Knives used by butchers couldn’t be any bigger than this hanging knife or else they’d be considered weapons, and the owner would be arrested.

In 1989, the Velvet Revolution was hosted in Bratislava, and it received its name because it was a peaceful revolution where no one died. People went outside with their keys dangling from their hands to make noise, in an attempt to show that they wanted to break away from the communistic regime.

In 1993, the government decided to separate from the Czech Republic, which is when the country became Slovakia. The decision came from the Prime Minister, and some say it was for money and others say it was for power. The idea was thrown around too that Czech likes beer and Slovakia prefers wine, so a separation was destined to happen.

We spotted the former summer place of the Arch Bishop which distinctly had an arch bishop hat atop the building. As we continued with the tour, we spotted a peace treaty between the Habsburg Monarchy and Napoleon/France from the 1800’s. We then passed a statue of St. George successfully fighting a dragon. On the street, we came across a statue sticking out of the sewer which has been there since 1997. It is said that he is smiling because he gets to watch all of the women walk by. It is good luck to touch his hat and nose, and this happens to be the original statue since it was built first, whereas the one in Russia is actually a copy.

We also walked past the Slovak National Theatre as well as the American Embassy, consisting of two neighboring buildings, making it the largest embassy in Bratislava. I wish we would have had more time to spend in Bratislava because it truly is a beautiful city, but it was time for us to return to Vienna.

Day 1 In Budapest, Hungary Continuation

If you’ve been keeping up with my adventures traveling abroad, you’ll notice that I last left off in the early afternoon on my first day in Budapest, Hungary. In the previous post, we had just taken a tour of the Jewish Museum, located in the same building where Theodor Herzl was born, which is currently next to the Dohány Street Synagogue. I split this day up into three separate blog posts because there was so much to talk about, but this post will be appropriate timing-wise with January 27th having been the 70th Anniversary of Auschwitz’s liberation.

As we exited the Jewish Museum, we came across an old brick wall memorial, symbolic with the one that kept the Budaptest Jews with pieces of original bricks from the Ghetto Wall in Budapest. While following the outside train, we walked through a Peace Garden, dedicated to those who lost their lives in Budapest. Pictures along the walls show the dead bodies that were found in the same area, upon being discovered by the Russians during the liberation. Near the garden there was a memorial plaque for the Warsaw Uprising, and a unique piece of artwork. It represented the beginning of the Holocaust with the Jewish people holding onto their belongings, and as the artwork progresses (from left to right), you notice that the people in the sculpture become emaciated and their belongings quickly disappear.

One of the most notable pieces of artwork outside is a large stained glass piece in the middle of a courtyard. The red throughout the glass shows the flames of the crematoriums in the Holocaust, while the blue shows hope for the future. Close by to the stained glass is a memorial commemorating all of the gentile heroes who helped save Jews in Hungary during the Holocaust. Near these memorials and the Jewish Museum is a Heroes Temple which serves as a memorial to the Hungarian Jews who put their lives on the line during World War I.

As we neared the exit of the outdoor courtyard, we spotted the Weeping Willow Memorial. You’ll notice that there are no roots on the tree, because they say that the roots were taken out during the Holocaust, but the branches symbolize the start of a new future. And each branch contains the name of a Hungarian Jewish family murdered during this time. If you look at the tree upside-down, it is in the shape of a Menorah, symbolizing hope and positivity.

Upon leaving the Jewish Quarter, we made our way over to the Holocaust Memorial Center, which is actually a renovated synagogue from the 1920s that currently serves as a memorial and museum for the Hungarian Jews killed in the Holocaust. Upon first entering the courtyard of the Museum, you’ll notice six large columns; each column represents 100,000 Hungarian Jews, which represent the 600,000 Hungarian Jews, and the total of six million Jews killed during the Holocaust. The walls surrounding the Museum are filled with names of the Hungarian Jews who died during the Holocaust, but there is still an ample amount of space remaining since there are many Jews whose stories and outcomes we still don’t know of. For this reason, people continue to look into these missing Holocaust victims, and hopefully one day soon, we will know what happened to them.

The building itself is slanted downwards, showing that nothing will ever be straight again. But there are trees on top of the building, showing hope for the future. The entrance of the Museum is flat, but as you walk through, it is slanted downwards to show the worsening of the situation as the Holocaust progressed. Upon first entering the Museum, there are lines along the wall representing everyone from the Holocaust, but as you walk through the Museum, the lines progressively end, representing everyone who was killed during this time.

There are enclosed artifacts from some of the Hungarian Jews throughout the entrance of the Museum, as well as pictures of the Dohány Street Synagogue, filled with suitcases and belongings. The Germans began running out of places to store the belongings of the Jews, so they filled the Synagogue with the personal effects taken from the Jews in the area. There are numerous videos in the beginning part of the Museum that show Jewish weddings from the 30s, but as the footage of the weddings continues, you can notice that everyone in attendance had to wear Yellow Stars, which is from some of the last weddings before deportation started.

As you continue walking through the Museum, you’ll hear the sound of people marching, which continues for quite some time. You’ll also see video footage of people marching to Auschwitz because there was no railroad in Budapest. (Remember, in a previous post, I mentioned that Hungary was the last country to be occupied so by this time, there was no set plan on how to exterminate the Hungarian-Jews so the Nazis had to improvise. This led the Jews to have to walk to the concentration camps).

Near the end of the Museum, there is disturbing footage of people right before they entered the gas chambers. No one knows who filmed the footage, but it’s the only existing one of the Jewish people upon entering the gas chambers. Walking past this video, the sound of a heartbeat beats above you in the hallway leading to the exit, and right before you reach the end of the hallway, the sound stops and the room is completely silent. And at this point, there are very few lines left, compared to the countless lines (representing the Jewish lives) in the beginning of the Museum.

There is a beautiful Synagogue connected to the exit of the Museum, which shows that the Jewish religion is still existent and strong. The back of the Synagogue is filled with glass memorials, commemorating just some of the many Jews who perished in the Holocaust. After having learned even more about the Holocaust throughout our time in the Museum, it was inspiring to leave off on a note of optimism, seeing this beautifully renovated synagogue dedicated to those who lost their lives years ago.

Day 2 In Kraków, Poland, Continued

I decided to write two separate blog posts for my second day in Kraków because even though we had seen so many sights during the first half of the day (in the previous blog post), nothing could have prepared us for the second half of the day which was spent at Auschwitz and Auschwitz II-Birkenau. To make it easier to follow along, the way this post is written goes hand in hand with the pictures and signs below, as I detail my experience throughout.

We arrived at Auschwitz, and the line of people waiting to get in seemed endless. The one positive note about this experience was that so many people wanted to learn about the tragedy that was the Holocaust, so at least we as a society are not forgetting our past. As we walked through the gates into the camp, a sign above us read, “Arbeit Macht Frei,” or “Work Makes You Free,” and one could feel a chilling sensation passing by these words, all while knowing what had once happened here.

“Throughout the world, Auschwitz has become a symbol of terror, genocide, and the Holocaust. The German forces occupying Poland during the Second World War established a concentration camp, on the outskirts of the town Oświęcim, in 1940; the Germans called the town Auschwitz and that is the name by which the camp was known. Over the next years it was expanded into three main camps: Auschwitz I, Auschwitz II-Birkenau, and Auschwitz III-Monowitz and more than forty sub camps. The first people to be brought to Auschwitz as prisoners and murdered here were poles. They were followed by Soviet prisoners of war, Gypsies and deportees of many other nationalities. Beginning in 1942, however, Auschwitz became the setting for the most massive murder campaign in history, when the Nazis put into operation their plan to destroy the entire Jewish population of Europe. The great majority of Jews who were deported to Auschwitz (men, women, and children) were sent immediately upon arrival to death in the gas chambers of Birkenau. When the SS realized that the end of the war was near, they attempted to remove the evidence of the atrocities committed here. They dismantled the gas chambers, crematoria, and other buildings, burned documents, and evacuated all those prisoners who could walk to the interior of Germany. Those who were not evacuated were liberated by the Red Army on January 27, 1945. On July 2, 1947, the Polish Parliament established the State Museum of Oświęcim – Brzezinka on the sits of the former camps at Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau. In 1979 these camps were formally recognized by UNESCO by their inclusion on its World Heritage List.”

There must have been thousands of people on separate tours walking through the camp, but even so, it just seemed so gloomy and desolate. You read about the tragedies that occurred here, you hear stories, and you see movies, but there is nothing that can truly prepare you for walking on the actual grounds. The fencing and barbed wire, the watchtowers, and old, dark brick blocks, and the gloomy gray sky above us really makes you think how people were able to survive such conditions and brutality. The strength and courage that everyone must have had during the Holocaust is unbelievable, and there really aren’t any words that can describe how it makes you feel.

“On 7 October 1941 a camp was established in Auschwitz for Soviet POWs. About 10,000 men were registered as prisoners and held in a special fenced-off compound comprising blocks 1-3, 12-14, 22-24. Most of them died of hunger, hard work, and SS brutality. Many others were gassed or shot by order of a special Gestapo commission. Those who refused to work were forced naked out of their blocks in the freezing winter weather and doused with water, as a result of which many froze to death. Within five months, by March 1942, some 9,000 had died. The remainder were transferred to the newly constructed Auschwitz II-Birkenau.”

The first bunk we entered was Bunk 4, which is currently a room dedicated to selection of Jews deported to Auschwitz. Upon entering into the bunk, you immediate see a quote by philosopher, poet, and both literary and cultural critic, George Santayana. It reads, “The one who does not remember history is bound to live through it again.” That’s why constant learning and trips like these are so important because just like any genocide survivor, Holocaust survivors will only live for so long. Sooner or later, it will be up to us to share their stories and make sure that no people of any race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or religious belief are targeted ever again.

“Auschwitz was the largest Nazi German concentration camp and death camp. In the years 1940-1945, the Nazis deported at least 1,300,000 people to Auschwitz. 
1,100,000 Jews; 140,000-150,000 Poles; 23,000 Roma (Gypsies); 15,000 Soviet Prisoners of War; 25,000 Prisoners From Other Ethnic Groups
1,100,000 of these people died in Auschwitz. Approximately 90% of the victims were Jews. The SS murdered the majority of them in the gas chambers.

“We must free the German nation of Poles, Russians, Jews and Gypsies”
-Otto Thierack; Minister of Justice of the Third Reich

“Jews are a race that must be totally exterminated.”
-Hans Frank 1944; Governor General in Nazi occupied Poland

June 1940: Beginning of deportations of Poles. The Nazis sent to the camp 140-150 thousand Polish prisoners; half of them perished
June 1941: Beginning of deportations of 25 thousand prisoners of various nationalities; about half of them perished
Summer 1941: Beginning of deportations of 15 thousand Soviet POWS. Most of them perished.
March 1942: Beginning of mass deportations of 1.1 million European Jews. Auschwitz started fulfilling two functions: while remaining a concentration camp, it became a sit of the Holocaust, the biggest mass murder in the history of mankind. Perpetrated by the Nazis, about 1 million deported Jews were murdered by the SS mainly in gas chambers.
February 1943: Beginning of deportations of 23 thousand Roma (Gypsies); 21 thousand of them perished.

Estimated Numer of Jews Deported to Auschwitz:
430,000 from Hungary; 300,000 from Poland; 69,000 from France; 60,000 from the Netherlands; 55,000 from Greece;
46,000 from the protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia; 27,000 from Slovakia; 25,000 from Belgium; 23,000 from Austria and Germany; 10,000 from Yugoslavia; 7,500 from Italy; 690 from Norway; Plus approximately 34,000 Jewish individuals transferred from other concentration camps.

In the following pictures, you can see Jews arriving to Auschwitz from Hungary, and exiting the cattle cars. You can then see them off the cars and standing outside, awaiting selection, during selection, on their way to the gas chambers, and then the grounds emptied out after selection, with only SS soldiers and personal belongings left behind. The next picture is of the only known footage of women on their way to the gas chambers. The source of these pictures is unknown.

“The people were selected on the railway platform. Those to be gassed were assured that they were going to take a bath. Dummy showers were fixed to the ceiling. Cudgelled and hallooed with dogs, 2,000 victims were crammed in the chamber- 210 square meters/approximately 235 square yards in area. The chamber door was locked, and Zyklon B was poured. After 15-20 minutes, the chamber was opened, corpses were stripped of gold teeth, hair, earrings, rings, and then transported to a crematory. Victims’ personal documents were destroyed.” The next few pictures show a model of the gas chamber and crematoria, as well as some of the many empty cans of Zyklon B that were used to kill those who entered. A map of the camp also helps with understanding the layout of Auschwitz.

“From 26 March 1942 until mid-August of that year, Blocks 1-10 were used as a camp for women prisoners. It was separated from the men’s camp by a high wall. About 17,000 women, Jewish and non-Jewish, who had been deported from Germany and throughout German-occupied Europe were housed here. During these four months, a few thousand women were sent to the gas chambers or died as a result of the conditions in the camp—starvation, rampant epidemics, lack of sanitary facilities, and slave labour. Those who were still alive in August 1942 were transferred to the new main women’s camp in Sector BI of Auschwitz II-Birkenau.”

The next picture shows a collection of glasses that were taken from the Jewish victims who entered into the camp with them. The following picture shows aids (such as prosthetics, crutches, etc.) used by the Jewish victims who were handicapped. You can then see pots, pans, and dishes that were collected upon arrival. When the Jewish people were evicted from their homes and forced to leave, they brought some of their belongings with them, pictured below. They each had a suitcase, piece of luggage, or basket, and in the pictures, you can see the names of who the luggage belonged to, and the addresses of where they lived. You can also see piles and piles of shoes belonging to those who entered the gas chambers, seeing as they undressed first. The final picture of belongings is that of personal items of hygiene included shaving brushes, hair brushes, etc. As we left the block we were in and went back outside, we passed by the experimentation block.

“Several hundred women prisoners, mainly Jewish were held in two upstairs rooms of this block and used as human guinea-pigs for sterilization experiments conducted by Prof. Dr. Carl Clauberg, a German gynecologist from April 1943 to May 1944. Some of them died from the treatment they received, others were murdered so that autopsies could be performed on them. Those who survived were left with permanent injuries. Other SS doctors also conducted experiments on women in this block.”

As we walked past the extermination block, we came across a wall with flowers in front of it, unaware of the additional atrocities that took place before us.

“From 1941 to 1943, the SS shot several thousand people at the wall in this courtyard between Blocks 10 and 11. Most of those executed here were Polish political prisoners, about all, the leaders and members of clandestine organizations and people who helped escapees or facilitated contacts with the outside world. Poles who had been sentenced to death in nearby towns were also brought here to be shot, including men, women, and even children who had been taken hostage in revenge for operations of the polish resistance against the German occupation. Prisoners of other nationalities and ethnic origins, including Jews and Soviet POWs, were also sometimes shot at this wall. The SS administered brutal punishments here: floggings, and also the torture known as “the post,” in which prisoners were hung from a post by their wrists with their arms twisted behind their backs. The execution wall was dismantled in 1944 on the orders of camp authorities. Executions were subsequently carried out elsewhere, most often in the gas chambers and crematoria at Auschwitz II-Birkenau. After the way, the execution wall was partially reconstructed by the museum.”

Our final stop in Auschwitz was to the gas chamber and crematorium, which we were not allowed to take pictures inside of. As you step down into the chamber, you can see where the dummy shower heads were up above, leading people to believe that they were going to take a shower and get cleaned off. I think the most powerful image I recall from walking through what was once a munitions bunker and then a gas chamber was the scratch marks all along the inside of the walls, where the victims desperately tried to escape once the chamber door was closed and locked. On the other side of the chamber was the crematorium, where some of the Jews were assigned to place the corpses inside the lit fire. And often times these crematorium workers came across the bodies of neighbors, friends, and even family members.

“Before the war this building was a munition bunker. From 15 August 1940 to July 1943 the SS used it as crematorium. In the autumn of 1941, the largest room, which had been designed by the camp as a morgue, was adapted for use as an improvised gas champed, the first of its kind in Auschwitz. Several groups of Soviet POWs were also murdered here in this way, as were sick prisoners whose return to work was considered unlikely. Poles form outside the camp who had been sentenced to death by the German summary court were shot here. After the establishment in Auschwitz II-Birkenau of two more improvised gas chambers in spring and summer of 1942 for the mass murder of the Jews, the gassings here were gradually stopped. Later, with the completion in Auschwitz II-Birkenau of four purpose-built gas chambers with crematoria, the burning of corpses here was also stopped (July 1943). The building was subsequently utilized for storage, and then as an air-raid shelter for the SS. The incinerators, chimney, and some of the walls were dismantled, and the holes in the roof through the SS had poured Zyclon B were sealed. After the war, the museum partially reconstructed the gas chamber and crematorium. The chimney and two incinerators were rebuilt using original components, as were several of the openings in the gas chamber roof.”

The next two pictures are of another camp map, and the evacuation route that was used while the Red Army was advancing towards the end of the war. At this point, our group boarded the bus and drove over to Auschwitz II-Birkenau, which is just about a two-mile distance. As we walked into Birkenau, the first thing you immediately notice the long stretches of land completely surrounded by fences, barbed wire, and watch towers. The railroad tracks also lead right up to the center of the camp.

“Immediately after getting off the train, the Jews were ordered to line up into two columns, one of women and children and the other of men. Each column was subjected to ‘selections’ by SS doctors and medical orderlies, there and then on the ramp: the strong and the healthy were separated from the old, the sick, and children. People selected as fit for work were sent to the camp. The others, usually 70 to 75 percent of a transport, were sent to be murdered in the gas chambers (photos taken by the SS, 1944).”

We saw a bunk that was designated as a latrine, and it was merely holes where the victims would have to do their business in public, cramped alongside one another. Needless to say, it was beyond unsanitary and often times they were beaten by the guards while using the latrines. And some people were even assigned to clean the latrines by hand as another way of dehumanizing them.

“I suddenly see Steinlauf, my friend aged almost fifty, with nude chest, scrub his neck and shoulders with little success (he has no soap) [He] sees me and asks me severely why I do not wash. Why should I wash? Would I be better off than I am? Would I please someone more? Would I live a day longer?…. Does Steinlauf not know that after half an hour with the coal sacks every difference between him and me will have disappeared?….

[Steinlauf says]“…even in this place one can survive, and therefore one must want to survive, to tell the story, to bear witness; and that to survive we must force ourselves to save at least the skeleton, the scaffolding, the form of civilisation.

“We are slaves, deprived of every right, exposed to every insult, condemned to certain death, but… … we must certainly wash our faces without soap in dirty water and dry ourselves on our jackets…. …for dignity… We must walk erect, without dragging our feet… …to remain alive, not to begin to die.”

– Primo Levi, “Survival in Auschwitz”

The next bunk we went into was the barracks containing three-tier wooden bunks intended for 15-20 prisoners to sleep, for a total capacity of more than 400 prisoners per barracks. The barracks also happened to be unheated in the winter. Two iron stoves were eventually installed, but they weren’t sufficient enough to heat the entire space. With a few minutes to spare before having to return to the bus, we came across yet another guard tower as well as a train car used to transport the victims to the site. And with that, our tour of Auschwitz and Auschwitz II-Birkenau had concluded.

Day 2 In Kraków, Poland

Our second day in Kraków was beyond impactful, so I’ll be splitting it up into two separate blog posts. That being said, we began the first part of our second day in Kraków walking through the city’s Jewish center.

In 1902, Helena Rubinstein revolutionized the world of cosmetics with her new personalized and innovative beauty regime. Because of her, there is now skin type classification (1910), and she helped create the first moisturizing, anti-acne and sun care.. Not to mention, she offered women the first waterproof mascara (1938) and the first modern mascara (1958) ( Elizabeth Arden opened her first spa on Fifth Avenue and began to build one of the world’s first
global beauty brands ( So Helena Rubinstein lived in the house pictured below, and apparently her husband cheated on her with Elizabeth Arden. The ongoing joke of the city is that you can’t cheat on someone in the same industry because everyone’s bound to find out eventually.

During the Holocaust, the Germans actually took over the square, and lived here. There is a commemorative memorial pictured below in honor of the people from the city who were killed as a result of the atrocities.

We then traveled to the factory which belonged to Oskar Shindler, which is more famously known from the movie, Shindler’s List. Oskar Schindler arrived to Kraków hot on the heels of the German invasion in September 1939. As a member of the Nazi party and an agent of the German military intelligence he managed to appropriate the factory which had been set up by a group of Jewish businessmen in 1937. Kraków’s two Jewish proprietors who became dependent on Schindler, Abraham Bankier and Samuel Wiener, provided him with necessary capital. Under Schindler’s control the plant continued to produce cookware and varied metal vessels, primarily for the German army. He reduced costs by replacing the original Polish staff with cheap labor from the Kraków Jewish ghetto the Nazis organized not far from Schindler’s factory. When Germans liquidated the ghetto in 1943 and moved the remaining Jews to the Plaszow concentration camp, Schindler opened its branch on the premises of his factory complete with barbed-wire fences and watchtowers. In the face of the Soviet Red Army’s advances, Schindler relocated, and with the blessing of the German authorities, his munitions business and its workforce in the late 1944 to the branch of Gross-Rosen Concentration Camp in Bohemia’s Brunnlitz. Thanks to Oskar Schindler, about 1,200 Jewish prisoners from Kraków were liberated by the Soviets on May 8, 1945 (

The gate at Schindler’s Factory is the original one from when the factory was in use during the Holocaust, and the outside walls are covered with pictures of the Jewish survivors that Oskar Schindler saved. Nearby, there is also a memorial for air force members who were killed by the Germans during the war as well.

As we left Schindler’s Factory, we passed Lover’s Bridge, which was filled with combination locks, since couples put locks on the bridge to honor their love for one another. We then came across a second bridge shown in the movie Schindler’s List, which was reconstructed after facing damages during the Holocaust to look like it originally was before the war..

Our next stop was to Wawel Royal Castle that ranges back to the 11th century. Upon walking through the Wawel Castle, we entered the Wawel Cathedral, a Roman Cathedral over 900 years old, containing sarcophaguses of various kings. Unfortunately we weren’t able to take pictures inside the Cathedral, but the outside area was also an incredible sight. After walking through the breathtaking Cathedral, we came across a large courtyard that housed Sigismund III Vasa, the King of Poland from 1587-1632. In 1595, a fire burned down one of the castle’s wings. Sigismund III Vasa moved to Warsaw shortly after, which is when Warsaw became the capital of Poland. The people of Kraków begged him to return but he refused. The joke of the town is that he was probably too embarrassed to return since he could have been the one who started the first since it came from the castle corner containing his alchemy studio.

After our morning tour, we were given two hours for lunch, which we spent in Kraków Square, a quaint little square containing churches, restaurants, and both an indoor and outdoor marketplace with small crafts custom to the area. It is actually the largest medieval town square in Europe that is accessible via 11 streets and two passages ( In the square, there are two tours of St. Mary’s, which are both different heights. There is a bugle call played from the taller tower–Hejnalica, and a church bell known as Półzygmunt that hangs in the lower tower ( Legend has it that the two towers were built by brothers who were competing over the size of their own tower. In the heat of the competition, one brother stabbed the other, and accidentally killed him, so he went to the top of his tower and jumped off, which killed him instantaneously. For this reason, the buildings were never evened in size. And in case you were wondering, we had more peirogis for lunch, this time spinach and potato.

I also included a picture of Żubrówka, more commonly known as Bison Grass Vodka, because the vodka is infused with bison grass. This Polish made vodka was a favorite drink of Polish nobility, and is quite popular with the locals as well. We found a local liquor store where we were able to sample the vodka, and it was surprisingly good. As they say in Polish, “Na zdrowie,” or Cheers!

Our afternoon tour consisted of visiting Auschwitz and Auschwitz II-Birkenau, which will be written as a separate post.