Sunday, May 31, 2009

Auschwitz (Oświęcim)

I’ve always wanted to visit Auschwitz, the largest WWII Nazi concentration and extermination camp, to better understand the sufferings and losses endured during the holocaust but since it is in the rural south of Poland, I never felt quite right about making a trip solely for this purpose. So it was a happy coincidence when I had to make a work trip to Chorzow, Poland only 45 minutes away from Oświęcim, the Polish town later renamed by the Germans. I tried to emotionally prepare myself by reading as much as I could about the horrors that took place there, but there was no way to every fully ready to experience pure evil & hatred in such startling reality. My tour started at the lower camp, which was surprisingly small and pretty even, with neatly arranged red brick buildings that seemed much more reminisce of a college campus than a place of torture. Just after we walked through the barbed wire fences and gate with the motto, Arbeit macht frie, a cruel irony, roughly translating to “Work shall set you free,” we saw the spot where an orchestra played. Our guide explained this served two purposes, to keep the inmates in step so they could be easily counted and also to give outsiders the impression that this was truly a happy work camp. It is shocking that villagers, let alone world leaders, had absolutely no clue of the crimes being committed in their backyard. We visited several barracks in Auschwitz I, the walls adorned with photographs of victims and learned that many people – strong, young people – who came here did not survive 1 year. Inmate supervisors were threatened with their lives if their prisoners violated any rules, so often their actions against other prisoners was just as atrocious as the Nazis’. I fought tears near the execution wall and broke down completely when we visited the starvation and standing cells, a 1.5m space where four inmates would be forced together, standing for days. If anyone escaped from Auschwitz, 10 prisoners would be tortured or killed as retribution. Display cases in the barracks contained endless piles of items taken from prisoners, suitcases with names & addresses written on the outside, eyeglasses, shoes - one case just of children’s, and human hair. The Nazi’s recycled everything they took from their victims, for example Jewish hair was used as insulation in Nazi soldiers’ blankets. After the war, the camp commandant Rudolf Höss – who disguised himself as a farmer to escape punishment – was sentenced to death by hanging on the Auschwitz I grounds, across from the house where he lived with his family. Next to the gallows we saw the gas chamber, where pellets the size of an aspirin would be dropped through tiny holes in the ceiling to kill up to 1,000 people at a time. Immediately next door was a crematorium for easy disposal of the bodies. Feeling very somber and saddened, we boarded a bus for Birkenau, Auschwitz II, 3km away. This was the image of a concentration camp I was expecting, a massive barbed wire perimeter, huge wooden barracks, elevated guard stands, and of course the railway tracks that transported so many Jews to their death. It was here that over 1 million souls were taken, a drastic comparison to the 70,000 lost in Auschwitz I. I was immediately struck at how cold & windy it was, even on a June day, I could not fathom how anyone survived a winter in this place. The huge wooden barracks, which were originally designed as horse stables for 75 animals, slept over 1,000 inmates on wooden slab bunk beds. The toilets were a communal bench that did not have adequate drainage as such many suffered from disease. Our guide showed us the train platform where the selection process took place. Many believed they were coming to a work camp, which is why their arrivals were often so orderly and obedient. They were told that to avoid lice & disease in the camp they would first need to be showered so to leave their suitcases, with their names written, on the platform so that their possessions could be transferred to their barracks. One older Jewish woman even tried to tip a Nazi soldier who helped her with her bags they so believed their instructions. After the doctors separated the sick, elderly, children, & women with children from those who were able to work, each group would then be divided by sex. Believing they were only going off to the showers many did not protest. Inmates were assigned to take all the gold teeth off the bodies after the gassings, for them this was also a death sentence as eventually they would be killed to prevent them from telling the others what was happening.
When finally the Soviets came to liberate the camp, the Nazis bombed the gas chambers to cover up their crimes and evacuated the prisoners who could leave on a death march to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany. Only 1/3 of the 60k prisoners made it.
On the bus back, some people in our group who had remained very somber and quiet throughout the tour started to chat and we learned that an elderly Frenchwoman in our group had actually lost her mother in Auschwitz. Of course the entire experience there was extremely impactful but realizing that there are still victims of this incredible tragedy still living today made it all the more relevant to me. I can only hope that the past will set us of prejudice, free of hate.
But where there is hope, there is life. – Anne Frank

Sunday, May 24, 2009


Who’s life is so fabulous she can holiday in Champagne? That’s right ladies & gents, I have reached a new level of sophistication in my 30-something, Euroized life!
Maria, Tracey, and I decided to take advantage of a long Dutch holiday weekend by heading off to the French countryside. Getting there was nowhere near as fun as our spontaneous Paris weekend due to the atrocious traffic and shoddy Google directions…not surprising that even a computer program can’t figure out the interwoven little villages that make up this region, especially as every single one contains a Rue de’ Ingles and token stone church….but what fun we lacked on the drive was certainly made up for once there! Our lodging for this rather authentic weekend was a rustic apartment in a proper country “manor.” Our hosts at Manoir Maffrecourt, Brits Sandra & Grant, patiently awaited our arrival even though it was after midnight and easily 2 hours later than planned – not the last time we would get horribly lost this weekend! Our tour of the offered amenities was rather brief, a house dog named Hector, and the 24 hour self-service bar where a fantastic array of Dampierre (local) champagne, homemade apple cider, local wines & beers were available to us. It was like Big Ed’s garage but with a mini-fridge of bubbly for the taking! Once we coordinated our sleeping arrangements -- me being the weekend organizer and driver in the private bedroom, and Tracey, Maria, and a very handy pillow ‘sausage’ to keep everyone in their own space took the pull out daybed in the living room – we sampled a few bottles of the much earned Dampierre. One glass in we knew that not only had we made the right choice in going to Champagne for the weekend, but that we were also quite possibly the luckiest people ever to have found such a gem of genuine accommodation.
The next morning we awoke to splendid sunshine and the honking of the local bread truck, where our thoughtful hosts bought us some fresh baguette and croissants, which they delivered with tasty homemade rhubarb jam. As we got ready for the day, a swallow made it’s way into our apartment (Gite Cerise) and much to the girl’s discomfort could not see itself back out, all while leaving a trail of droppings in it’s wake. Thanks to our very kind, and very patient, hosts the crisis was quickly resolved and we were able to eagerly set off and see the Champagne region. In our first stop, Epernay, we did a nice tour of the Mercier cellars and strolled down the Avenue de Champagne to gawk at the infamous Moet (makers of the super-expensive Dom Pierre, in honor of the monk who inventing the blessed bubbly) house. Maria & Tracey took the plunge and bought some very blinged out bottles but I decided to conserve my cash for the local, not to mention cheaper, finds.
As we drove on the Route de Champagne, we realized – much to our dismay - that the champagne houses were only open for tastings during a very small window of the day, and of course, we had arrived too late. But the venture wasn’t all in vein; we saw some incredibly quaint villages, including Avize, which had a beautiful hillside view over the vineyards. When the black clouds rolled in and rain drops the size of golf balls started to fall, we retreated to the dry warmth of the Michelin starred Aux Armes de Champagne in L’Epine. Three glorious gastronomical hours, 6 different types of cheeses, and 8 bottles of champagne brewed by our waiter himself (just like Hollywood, everyone’s a champagne maker!) later we started the trek back to Manoir Maffrecourt. Predictably we got tragically lost– those country lanes were very confusing!! – and nearly peed ourselves when upon arrival in the wee hours of the morning, Maria, a true NYC girl, protected us from bats and other creatures of the night with the “electro-magnetic waves” from her iPhone and an umbrella!
We again awoke to some lovely sun, and more fresh bread this time delivered by our very own pajama clad Maria with curls sticking every which way. On the agenda this day? A bike ride to St. Menehould and lots, and lots of champagne drinking. The 10k ride might have been slightly easier if not for the massive hills and country highway! traffic, but at least there was a good bit of country scenery and friendly cows…even some of the Christian faith…along the way. We rewarded our aerobic feat with a lovely lunch at the Cheval Rouge, Maria sampled the local delicacy pig’s feet while Tracey & I went a much more conservative direction with a goat cheese salad. Back at the Manoir we were true ladies of leisure, soaking up the sunshine, sipping the bubbles, reading gossip magazines, and talking general nonsense. Sandra prepared a delicious traditional, home cooked dinner while Grant supplied the ‘dessert’ of home-brewed liquor.
The sun was again shining the next morning but as our heads were a slight bit sore, we didn’t seem to appreciate it quite as much as the other days. It wasn’t long until we were back in fighting form and off to visit the American Cemetery in Muese-Argonne. On the way we came across a very impressive WWI memorial in Varennes, which we found was donated to the citizens of that village from the State of Pennsylvania…very interesting! Of course it took a few hours, but eventually we found the cemetery where over 14,000 Americans were killed in WWI, 1918-1919.
On the way home we again found ourselves on the Route de Champagne and this time, a house that was open for tastings in the village of Bouzy (how appropriate!) no less.
It was a classic ending to another superb trip with some very fabulous friends.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Bratislava / Brno / Prague

After Sofia, our shows traveled on to other parts of E. Europe and so did I. In my first stop, Bratislava (Slovakia), I took advantage of the amazing weather by walking up to the castle, some nice views of the New/”UFO” bridge & St. Martin’s cathedral but not much to see in the buildings, and around the winding streets around Michael’s Gate. In the old city area I discovered streets full of shops, restaurants, all with outdoor terraces alive & buzzing with the unmistakable spring feel in the air, and more quirky E. European statues, like the Paparazzi, Cumil “The Watcher” man in a manhole, and Schoener Naci, a Bratislava citizen who used to walk the streets in his finest, greeting people as they passed by.
My hotel was also a highlight of this short stay in Slovakia, there were touch panels in the people elevator - very futuristic - and a vehicle elevator to get to the parking garage. Once again, I was easily amused.
From Bratislava I drove into the Czech Republic. It was European Labor Day and the weather was perfect for the holiday, although I was working it was nice to have a day driving through the countryside surrounded by the bright yellow “mustard” flower fields. My destination was Prague but as I was passing by Brno, I thought I would stop off to explore the country’s second largest city. The police check point coming into the city and then lack of activity, people, open shops, etc. in the centre struck me as odd initially but I dismissed it as being a holiday and morning time, but when I realized the town was virtually deserted after the few hours spent visiting the Cathedral of SS Peter and Paul, the Town Hall Tower, and the Parnas Fountain, it started to feel very eerie. As I walked down the Masarykova towards the Namesti Svobody (main square), out of the corner of my eye I saw a massive police TANK roll past me. Then as I looked around I realized that the street was covered with police in riot gear. Many thoughts ran through my mind… bank robbery, terrorism…then relief as I realized it was trendy to be American again thanks to Obama and that the cops were extremely relaxed & jovial. Curiosity, of course, got the better of me so I had to ask a TV crew to shed some light on what was happening. Finally I learned that a white supremacist march of 1,000 “skinheads” was taking place in just a few hours. I considered the photos I could get if I stayed around but better judgment took over and I got the &*^% out of there!
A few hours later I was safe & sound in Prague once again enjoying the many splendors the city has to offer – a mellow, eclectic vibe, beautiful architecture, bridges & spire topped buildings, and tasty food! I caught some sort of peaceful demonstration/parade of human flowers on the Manesuv most (bridge), strolled by the (John) Lennon Wall – a Czech symbol of love & peace, and went into the famous astronomical clock tower where I looked down on Old Town Square.
All things considered, it was a very eventful and enjoyable week in the former Czechoslovakia!