Friday, November 5, 2010


We spent a very sobering day at Auschwitz. We decided to take a tour instead of attempting to do it on our own. Rhys wanted to come with us so Julia wound up coming along as well. She sat in the cafeteria reading her novel about WWII while we toured the facility. On the bus ride in we watched a one hour movie about the liberation of the camp. It was taken by a Soviet soldier and he talked about what he had seen in those first days while we watched the footage. It was overwhelming. I found my mind drifting during the movie. It was just too much horror to take in all at once. Once we arrived, we each got a headset so we could hear the guide. This was nice. It meant the guides could take large groups and didn’t have to yell. It just wasn’t a place for yelling.

We started the tour taking pictures but by the time we reached the crematorium both Tom and I just couldn’t take them any more. It was overwhelmingly sad. We saw the buildings where the prisoners had stayed. They were large brick buildings with rooms that would house 80 to 200 people at one time. Auschwitz was a male facility and women only stayed there at the very beginning and near the end. Their buildings were sectioned off from the others. Inside the tour buildings were pictures taken by guards. It gave an idea of what happened as the Jews arrived. We saw a picture of a doctor pointing to the right indicating a new arrival was unfit and would be gassed.

We saw the piles of glasses, shoes, luggage and most horribly, hair. The hair has been preserved for display. This was the first time I cried. The heads of the Jews were shaved and the hair was reused to make socks and other items for the German soldiers and citizens to use. I wonder if they knew? There was soooo much hair.

We walked through the prison where the Soviet POW’s were housed and other political prisoners were kept. I couldn’t quite comprehend WHY they needed a prison within the prison. When you are shooting people, starving people, and gassing people do you need punishment cells? Out of 15,000 Soviet soldiers sent to the camp only 90 survived. Ninety.

There were pictures of the prisoners with dates of their arrival and death. It gave a sense of how long people survived there. Most people were dead within three months. The pictures were only of the German political prisoners. There were no pictures of the Jews or the Soviet soldiers or the gypsies or homosexuals or any of the others.

We walked past the medical facility where Joseph Mengele conducted his torturous experiments on people. The guide explained some of these but they were so horrific I’m not sure I can remember the details even now. Joseph escaped at the end of the war and lived out the rest of his days somewhere in South America. I wonder how that went for him. Was he haunted by images of his past? Did he find happiness with a new wife and family? Did he continue to torture and mutilate people in South America? He must have had sadistic and psychotic tendencies so do you outgrow that?

Of the thousands of guards brutalizing the captives, only 800 were brought to justice. What happened to the rest? Where did they go? Some of them could still be alive today. The world has changed so much and prevailing sentiments and attitudes have shifted so. I wonder how you continue on with your life after having been a part of such violent brutality. Do you need therapy just like the victims? One of those brought to justice was one of the commandants of the camp. He was hung at the scaffolding within the camp where he had hung so many others. He had lived at Auschwitz with his family for three and a half years. He had a wife and five children. They lived just outside the walls in an area he called, “paradise”. His yard was beautifully manicured and his family had the best of everything.

You see, when the Jews arrived with their treasures, they had to leave their bags behind. They were told to label the bags so they could get them later but this was mainly just to keep the people calm as they were led off to die. The contents of the bags were then taken to warehouses and sorted. It really disturbed me that the warehouses were known as “Canada”. To the Poles during the second world war, Canada was seen as the land of plenty, the richest country in the world. To know that at Auschwitz, there was a place with the name of my country offended me. I don’t want anything remotely close to my life to be associated with the horror and ugliness of that world. This land of plenty was fair pickings for the Germans. If the commandant’s wife wanted something in particular, she would simply get it from the warehouse. When the commandant and his family were relocated later, it took four train cars to ship all of “their” belongings.

By the time we got to the crematorium, we were all just trudging along in a state of semi-shock. I couldn’t take any more pictures. It just seemed wrong. Although we didn’t share this, Tom felt the same and so our pictures just stopped. How could I take a picture of the horror and cruelty? Why would we want to remember that? I don’t know how the Jewish survivors can return. Tom and I don’t want to remember. Why would they?

The crematorium was awful. We stood where the people marked for death stood. We walked into the room they had spent the last miserable minutes of their lives. The guide told us it would take a minimum of ten minutes to die. The guards waited half an hour for the air to clear before entering. The gold teeth were pulled from the dead bodies before they were cremated. The gold was melted down and sent back to Germany. How can anyone want to buy anything gold? It makes my skin crawl. They kept the people calm by telling them they were having a shower. They kept the women together with their children. Women with young children were always killed immediately. They asked the people to get undressed and keep their belongings in a neat, tidy pile. They kept the engines of the trucks running while they filled the crematorium with poisonous gas so that it would drown out the screams of the dying. We looked at the walls marked with scratches. We walked by the ovens where other prisoners were asked to shove the bodies. Those prisoners would be killed after a few weeks and new prisoners assigned the task; probably to prevent uprising. How do you do that to people day after day after day? Who were those sick, sadistic people?

On leaving the memorial, I realized all I wanted to do was have a good cry and hug the people I love. Tom said he didn’t want to talk about it. We stood holding each other until Julia and Rhys came out of the cafeteria. They joined us in a family hug. It was reassuring to touch them and feel their warmth and love.

Unfortunately, there was more. We returned to the bus and went to Auschwitz-Birkenau. This is a much larger death camp about 3 km away. Auschwitz wasn’t large enough towards the end of the war to accommodate so many Jews arriving. Auschwitz-Birkenau had five crematoriums to Auschwitz’s one. We didn’t spend as long there. We saw the restored stables where up to 1000 people could be housed. This had originally been designed for 50-some horses. We heard about the deplorable conditions but really, it was all just more of the same. How many more ways can you torment and degrade people?

I sat on the railroad tracks just outside the camp after walking down the road so many had walked to their death in the crematoriums. A stiff cold wind was blowing and the grey sky was spitting droplets. It seemed fitting. I wondered how the people at the camp had felt in that weather dressed in thin pajamas. There were many people about but somehow the distance I had put between them and myself was enough. I stared through the death gate, the entrance to Birkenau and thought about nothing. I felt I could have sat there a long time. It was different from the need to touch and feel the love of my family earlier. Now, I felt the need to be alone.

I didn’t feel particularly sad or angry. I wanted to feel the spirits of the people who had passed through. I wanted to be a part of them and to let them know I cared and I understood. Perhaps I don’t understand completely. How can anyone ever completely understand this? I wanted to heal that pain and suffering knowing that it was so long ago. I don’t know why I thought I could do that but I felt a need to sit alone and send out that thought to the world.

In talking to my family later, it was interesting to note that Rhys had felt a consuming rage growing as he walked through the memorial. Rhys felt the sadness, pain and suffering was overwhelming. His face took on such a deeply sad look as he thought of it. Tom had felt a need to escape. He was glad he had come but now he wanted to never speak of it again. His main question was how those thousands of guards could have done that day after day. He couldn’t understand how so many people could agree to participate in such horror. Getting carried away in the moment is one thing, but for four years? Julia asked careful questions and wondered how you visit Auschwitz and not internalize the pain you witnessed there. For my family, the memorial has served its purpose.


We took a detour from Vienna to Krakow, Poland. The trip was a bit out of the way but Tom really wanted to see Auschwitz and Rhys has had an affinity for the word, Krakow ever since he used it as his name in the online gaming world. Krakow was a beautiful city and we all wished we had had more time to explore.

It was Rhys’s birthday when we arrived so we went out for dinner to a recommended Polish restaurant. It was recommended by our hostel as a throwback to the communist/socialist days. The place was a cafeteria style with yellowing walls and sad, lackluster ambiance. The servers spoke no English but we were pretty sure the menu said perogi. We ordered two plates and they were fabulous so we ordered another two plates. Our whole meal with drinks cost only $7 total! Food in Poland is crazy cheap. Our hostel actually served breakfast AND dinner for free. The hostel was very popular with our children as well. It had showers with water that squirted out from all sorts of odd locations, a built-in radio, telephone, foot massage, and a seat for back massage. This was far beyond anything I have ever experienced so all of us had quite a bit of fun playing in the shower when it was our turn. If you want an inexpensive vacation, try Krakow!

Kunsthistorisches in Vienna

Our family actually seems to enjoy hours in art galleries. This is good since there are an awful lot of art galleries to visit. The major collection in Vienna is at the Kunsthistoriches Museum. We only had two hours so we rented an audioguide and hit the highlights.

The ones I thought were the most interesting were not on our highlighted tour. Don’t get me wrong, the highlights were amazing and I could rave on about many of them. The last two we saw however, just seemed like an extra gift. Both were painted by Paolo Veronese. The first one was called, “Lucrezia”. As I rushed past, my eye caught the beautiful young woman richly dressed and I glanced again and noticed she was holding a dagger to her chest. The painting was interesting because the horror of what is happening in the painting isn’t at first apparent. The story is that Lucrezia was raped by the son of the Roman Emperor and she killed herself. The people of the town rose up in anger, hunted down the son and killed him then deposed the emperor and thus began the republic of Rome. This may or may not be true but I like the fact that the great tragedy of Lucrezia’s life brought about something better for others.

Further along the wall was another painting possibly painted as a partner to Lucrezia. It is called “Judith and the head of Holofernes”. From where I sat looking at Lucrezia I could see Judith quite well but the rest of the picture was more subtle. She was lovely in a richly dressed gown. Only after I got up to take a closer look did I see she was holding the head of a man. The story is that Holofernes had his army outside the gates of her city. In the night, she snuck out and seduced him. When he fell asleep, she cut off his head and saved her city. It seems a bit unlikely as I learned in England that beheading is actually quite difficult and takes a lot of strength. Often, just one chop of the axe wasn’t enough. Also, she looks awfully clean for someone who has just cut off another person’s head. Not that I’d know first hand how messy it would be, but it seems like there should have been a bit more blood; unless, of course, the enemy was bloodless.
Julia's report:
We went to an art gallery in Vienna. The art gallery wasn’t one of the better ones in my opinion, but one of the pictures I liked was of a girl about 8 years old wearing a big fancy dress. We saw this drawing many times first of all it was repeated when she was 1, 3 and once when she was 5. Also other artists like Botero, drew the picture in their way of the painting by Diego Velazquez. I first saw the painting when it was done by Fernando Botero in a National art gallery in Budapest. The story behind it is that this is a princess, and the king had people painting these pictures and sending them off to her future husband. There were lots of other paintings but none of them were as odd or interesting as this one.

Rhys's report:
So, Suzanna's getting ready for a nice bath and looking at herself in the mirror, and then all of a sudden 2 old creeps are staring at her nude. One is on the left crouching down to get a good view; the other is 'hiding' at the end of the bush looking over his glasses. The guy at the front is in such a back breaking position for his age, therefore he must really want to see her bathing. Another thing I found funny about this picture is that the title doesn’t give it away, but it still makes sense in the picture.

The little things

Food in Austria is more like Canadian or American food than any other place I think. First of all they really like schnitzels (shnih-tsel-z) and strudels (Ss-true-tells) schnitzels are like a thin piece of meat, with bread crumbs so pretty much deep fried chicken… but better. And strudels came in cherry, or apple. And some times even cheese. There are not a lot of vegetables and there’s a lot of meat.

Speaking German
When speaking German you have to speak English with a VERY bad, horrible accent. Like apple is apfel or Good morning is Gutainmorgin. (Goo-tin-more-gin) Some words are different though. Every thing you can pretty well guess here or just kind of fits. Donka is thank-you and after a while it just kind of fits. And there’s not much weird stuff like in some languages the words don’t match up quite right. But thank you very much here is donka-shon easier right?

The Museum Slug

We have visited several museums now and I have been dubbed the “museum slug”. Apparently, I take longer than any other human to make my way through a museum. This from my speedy children. As slug, I feel I am probably best prepared to regale you all with museum stories.

Albertina art gallery:
This museum was once the house of Maria Christina, favourite daughter of Maria Theresa. Now isn’t that just awful? Maria Theresa had something like 8 kids and she played favourites! Maria Christina was the only one allowed to marry for love. Poor Marie Antoinette got fobbed off on Louis XVI and it certainly didn’t get her ahead any. Get it? A-head? I still got it. At any rate, Maria Christina’s husband, Albert was something of an art collector so her house became an art museum.

We actually didn’t see much of the main collection. We were so busy in the exhibition galleries looking at Michelangelo, Picasso and Kentridge. The children’s favourite was Kentridge. He is much more current than Picasso, or Michelangelo for that matter. His thing is performance art. He plays with film and drawings. It wasn’t my cup of tea but Rhys thought some of the films were hilarious. On the way out of the museum we actually bumped into him and he graciously accepted to have his picture taken with the kids. Our brush with fame... so to speak. Heh, heh.

I wasn’t keen on Picasso either but I was interested in how his art was all politically motivated. His drawings and paintings were macabre and violent and a wee bit disturbing. It certainly isn’t something I’d want to hang in my home.

The Michelangelo exhibition was my favourite. I learned a lot about him. He wasn’t the nicest person in the world and was difficult to get along with. He copied statues and then passed them off as his own. He competed with Da Vinci and Raphael for commissions. He was brilliant at composition but not considered as good a painter as Raphael so he would sketch compositions for other painters and they would paint them. He lived a long life in interesting times. I am looking forward to Italy!

Sisi Museum and Kaiser Apartments:
Sisi is short for Queen Elizabeth. She was married to Franz Joseph in the 1800’s; part of the Hapsburg clan. She was a very beautiful woman and she is something of a celebrity in Hungary and Austria even today. Her museum was excellent, and she can be compared in some ways to Princess Diana, although she was never the philanthropist Diana was. Sisi had no desire to be empress. She didn’t like the role once she was in it and she actually was not all that fond of people either. She wrote poetry and her words reflected such a sad and unhappy life. I think she may have suffered from depression. Everyone always spoke of how beautiful she was and she spent quite a few hours every day on a beauty regime. In contrast, she wore a veil more and more as she grew older because she didn’t want people looking at her anymore. She felt caged and like her life was not her own. She sympathized with the Hungarian people and was instrumental in gaining partial freedom for the country thereby winning the affections of the Hungarians. In the end she was assassinated. The killer actually wanted to assassinate someone else but as the other person had missed their train, he decided to kill her. Imagine being second choice assassination! It sounds like some comedian’s one liner. It wasn’t until after she died that public opinion turned in her favour and statues were made of her and history was written. Her coffin in the crypt always has the most flowers on it as well.

The Neue Museums:
There were three museums in one place and the ticket covers them all: Ephesus museum, Armour museum and Musical instrument museum. We began looking at statuary from Ephesus. Apparently the Austrians had excavated there as well so felt it was their right to take a few mementos of their trip. Our favourite was the bronze statue of an athlete. That's him there on the left. The Austrians had found him in over 200 pieces and had pieced him back together. Talk about the ultimate 3D puzzle!

I had the most fun at the Armour museum. They had some seriously disturbing armour there. Initially, knights wore chain mail shirts but these weren’t strong enough to withstand a powerful blow. That is how the first armour began. It started with a cover for the torso and then moved slowly over the rest of the body. It spread to the horses as well and although there are no complete surviving suits, pictures indicate that horses may have worn armour covering their entire bodies, even their legs! Things really got rolling though, when armour became fashionable. The metal-workers tried to follow what was hip and groovy.

The suit on the left had a widely flared skirt and leggings that ended in clown shoes on the feet. It was for a wedding. Yes, you read that correctly. I’m not sure WHOSE wedding. We’re guessing he was a real rat, but that’s just a guess. We’re also not sure if the groom wore this or one of the guests. Perhaps hardest to believe after seeing this is that wearing armour was seen as macho. Knights were regarded as heroes and every male wanted to show his status as a hero and big, brave guy by clanking around in a suit. It also marked him as wealthy since it was expensive to have a suit made.

Now, looking at the picture on the right, one figures this had to be a male going through some sort of mid-life crisis as he has armoured his manhood in a most provocative way. How does one order a suit like this? Does it come in small, medium and large? Julia figured it should have a little spike on it so it could all be part of the protective gear. Fighting would take on a hip-hop dance-like quality as the knight could give a left jab, right high-kick with his ultra pointy toes and then a hip thrust. I leave the rest to your imaginations.

We didn’t find the musical instrument museum as fascinating as we thought after the fun of the armoury. The best part was being able to listen to the instruments being played on your audio headset after hearing a bit about them. After we were finished, though, we went to the Haus der Musik and that was amazing. It explored sound and hearing as well as how sounds work together to create new sounds or “music”. My favourite part was learning about the many composers alive in Vienna at the same time. I was told this was the dullest part of the museum, of course.

I didn’t realize so many famous composers were all alive at one time. Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert, and Haydn all were living in Vienna around the same time. You probably all knew that Beethoven composed while deaf but did you know that Schubert composed at a desk? He was too poor to own a piano so he would compose at his writing desk! If he needed to hear the music he wrote, he’d have to visit a friend who owned a piano. He wrote quickly and rarely needed to change what he composed. Amazing. There were 9000 musicians living in Vienna at the same time as the famous bunch I listed. That was 3% of the population. We know the music of a few but statistically there must have been several hundred gifted musicians in the city and we only really know the music today of a very few. I wonder if their music is the best there was to offer or if they just happened to be in the right place at the right time.

At The Opera

In Vienna, Austria, we went to the Opera. We saw the barber of Seville, and it was excellent. In the first half, Julia slept on the floor while we watched. I should mention that we had standing seats, er stands. The stands were 4 Euros while the seats were 200+.

When the lights dimmed they played the starting music. I couldn’t help but thinking of Bugs Bunny & Elmer Fudd. If you've never seen the barber of Seville, the story is about a guy who wants to marry this girl, and she feels the love too, but her guardian doesn’t feel so groovy. The barber, Figaro was funny. There was this one part, when Figaro was playing the guitar, and Lindoro (the male lover), was singing to get Rosina (the female lover) out. There was a pause in the song and Figaro said "olĂ©" and everyone laughed (except Julia). Weirdly, her guardian thought that she would make a fine wife too, and wanted to marry her, and she was supposed to marry 'the count' Almaviva. Then her guardian told her false tales of how Lindoro was trying to make her marry the count. Then when Lindoro broke into her house she wasn’t too excited, and shoved him saying something like, "You're just trying to make me marry the count!" And then, he says, "Well, I happen to be the count!" and she goes and then they get married happilyeveraftertheend.