More thoughts on Auschwitz

This morning was sunny and mild with a slight breeze. It was just right…a perfect day. In fact the day was almost too pretty as our bus rolled through the outer gate at Auschwitz. If you’ve watched the documentaries, seen Schindler’s list and read Elie Weisel you are prepared for worst horror known to Western civilization. Yet the red brick buildings under a sunny sky, among trees and small grassy areas belie this place’s horrific history…at least for a few minutes.

While we were in our first building, it began to rain. There are no accidents. By the time we left the last building, it was thundering in the skies above us and raining in our hearts.

Our trip to Birkenau was cut short by lightning dividing the sky and the rubble of countless, grim buildings flashing in the foreground. Perhaps it was fitting that we were wet, cold and miserable as we looked at the toilets, if you can even call them that, in the converted horse stable that was the prisoner’s awful excuse for shelter in the final days of their lives.

We saw rooms filled with all the macabre evidence. There was luggage, eye glasses, shoes, prosthetic devices, tooth and hair brushes and other personal artifacts providing incontrovertable evidence of the robbery that occurred before, during and after the many other acts of cruelty inflicted on the Polish, Jewish and Gypsy populations of Europe. At one point, we were told how they manufactured socks in a nearby factory with women’s hair.

It is hard to understand this degree of hatred. I personally attribute it to a perfect storm of sins…arrogance, greed and fear among others. Nothing new here especially against a backdrop of centuries of bloodshed in Europe. What the Nazis added was the presence of an atrocious racism with charisma and great logistical capability. Perhaps the saddest and most disturbing reality of all is that Hitler required and received the loyalty of the S.S., the cooperation of many Germans and the complicity of an apathetic world.

Rudolph Hess was the Commandant at Auschwitz. He lived in a house not more than 200 meters from the chimney over the main incinerator at the extermination camp. His children played in their back yard and his wife kept a garden. She said living there was like a paradise. How nice.

Unfortunately, I believe that he and his family were created by the same God that created you and me.

The Europe trips remind us of many lessons…the unimaginable craftsmanship of the cathedrals along with the unfathomable cunning of the death camp. I noticed the steps in and out of those barracks are worn away. Hundreds of thousands have trod over them to view first hand the remnants of these atrocities and the culture and mechanics of evil. I wish the students didn’t have to enter those buildings but obviously they do. Of course George Santayana was right.

Bob Davies

Krakow’s History

Krakow is a city that knows its history. The glorious (for example, the Polish victories over the Teutonic Knights in the 14th century) and the inglorious (for example, Nazi occupation and Auschwitz) are all a part of Krakow. We are staying in the heart of the old city, right at the bottom of Wawel Castle. From our hotel, it is a 5-minute walk to the center square and innumerable shops, cafes, and cathedrals.  After exploring the castle and grounds, we came upon a merry band of polka-meisters.  It was a match made in heaven!

Polka Anyone?

Polka Anyone?

Yesterday (Saturday), though, was a hard day. We visited Auschwitz. The weather was cold and rainy. The impact of knowing that we were standing on ground that for so many was their last vision on Earth was too powerful to describe. Especially as we stood inside the gas chamber and looked up at the holes through which the SS troops dropped the poison capsules. After Auschwitz, we visited Birkenau, a satellite facility of orchestrated murder that dwarfs Auschwitz in size. When the Germans pulled out in 1945, they burned the wooden barracks, leaving only the chimneys of each building.  These still stand like tombstones as far as the eye can see.  As I said, it was a hard day.

I am happy to report, however, that the day had a positive ending.  Dr. Davies and her husband, Bob, who have been with us in Krakow, took the group out to dinner at a local restaurant.  Few things enliven Queens students as much as free food and drink.  Last night was no exception.

Dinner with the President

Dinner with the President

Today, we are off to explore the old Jewish Quarter of Krakow and the historic salt mines outside of town.  I’ll try to post another blog entry afterwards.  Warning though: Krakow appears to have borrowed its internet technology from Kiev. 




Ok, I’m a little proud of myself. We weren’t in Poland for more than an hour before I had my first Keilbasa. It’s like being back in Chicago only the accents are thicker.

We thought the weather left a little something to be desired in Central Europe. Here, they’ve had floods. Just keep swimming… Just keep swimming….

Krakow looks like a great city. Very compact and easy to navigate by comparison with some of the other mega-cities we encounter.

We ‘ve met the new team of faculty leaders: Reed Perkins, Karen Neal and Deb “Pierogi” Campbell. Deb led us to a great restaurant called Pod Aniolami, which means “Under the Angels” in Polish. The wild boar with green chilies and raisin sauce was exceptional and definitely the real deal. Pamela, ever the vegetarian, loved the fresh spinach (go figure).

The hotel is, shall we say, interesting. The room we are in is about 3000 square feet give or take a parlor or two. And someone had the brilliant sense to clad the whole thing in a brown floral. It’s really quite something. I’ve been pretending that I am Omar Sharif since I walked in. Now I’m thinking the iron curtain may have been due to simply being embarrassed. Actually, the hotel is fantastic. Oh I almost forgot. In the room next to ours there is what appears to be a job fair for out of work Ukrainian tractor dealers. They have a hot buffet and the local girls just arrived. We will keep you posted.

This promises to be a great trip if we can just get Deb’s energy level up a bit. (Ha!)

Omar (aka, Bob Davies)

Kharkiv Baby House #1

Well, today is our last day in Kharkiv. Our time here has gone by faster than a Ukrainian taxi (trust me, that’s fast). We have not been able to post many blog entries, but we’ve had an eventful time — starting with an unforgettable 8-hour bus ride that seemed to hit every pot hole and bump between Kiev and Kharkiv. To give you some idea, the bus was nicknamed “The Paintshaker.”

Our days in Kharkiv start with omelettes, cappuccinos, and Russian bread and cheese. We walk 30 minutes to “Baby House #1”, the orphanage run by our local host Dr. Andrey. We spend the morning playing with the kids. The afternoon is open. On Sunday, we met up with Sergay, an English teacher and good friend of Andrey. He led us on a walking tour of the central city, recalled the Soviet Union days, and told stories of how simply wearing Levis would get you arrested by the KGB.

Our time at the orphanage has been nothing short of incredible. The facilities are wonderful, with much specialized equipment and trained staff. As its name implies, Baby House #1 cares for newborns to 4 year olds. There are many special needs children, with conditions ranging from cerebral palsy, Down Syndrome, hydrocephalus, to malnourishment. After breakfast and getting dressed, the kids are brought outside to play with us. Their caregivers are there to help and supervise. We brought beach balls, blowing bubbles, and other simple toys to share.

Michelle, Evie, Ashton, and Erika play with four kids from Baby House #1.

Michelle, Evie, Ashton, and Erika play with four kids from Baby House #1.

Lindsey and a new friend played together the entire first day.

Lindsey and a new friend played together the entire first day.

We are hoping to have dinner with Andrey and Sergay tonight in our last night in Kharkiv. Tomorrow, we leave on the 7:00 am train back to Kiev, where we have one more day in Ukraine before flying to Krakow, Poland.

We Made it!

Yes, we’ve made it Kharkiv! 50 km from the Ukraine-Russia border, Kharkiv is the second largest city in Ukraine. It was also the capital city during the early 20th century (thanks to a “suggestion” by the Russians/Soviets to relocate the government closer to Moscow). I’m in a bit of a rush here as we start our day early today. On the schedule is a trip to an AIDS orphanage where we will get a tour and meet the children and staff. Afterwards, we will get our first glimpse of “Baby House #1″, the orphanage for special needs infants and toddlers where we will actually be working. Everyone is very excited about being at the orphanage we’ve spent so much time learning about in the prep class.

My apologies for the long silence in Kiev. Our hotel’s internet connection was not only wireless, it was also internet-less. I promise to update the blog more frequently (as long as the internet connection holds in Kharkiv). Plus, I’ll be putting up some pictures of us enjoying the Ukrainian way of life. So far, everything not volcanic is going very very well.
– Reed

Better late than never–Kiev

I just had word from Professor Campbell that the group has–finally!!–arrived safe and sound in Kiev.  They are checked into their hotel which is located directly overlooking Independence Square–the central square of the city and the site of the demonstrations that lead to the Orange Revolution of 2004.   They will begin touring Kiev already this afternoon and have a full day of exploring and tours lined up for tomorrow.

Arrival in Warsaw

Good news and bad news for the group.  Due to their delayed arrival in Warsaw, they were not able to make the connecting flight to Kiev.  After using great patience and waiting in line for hours, they were finally booked on a flight for tomorrow.  The good news, as Dr. Perkins reports, is that “Lot Airlines put us up for the night–it’s actually a pretty decent hotel.  To commiserate/celebrate we all went out to dinner at a brew pub.  Everyone is absolutely exhausted”  After a good night of sleep they will then continue on to Kiev tomorrow where the plan is to do an walking tour upon arrival and the longer bus and walking tour the next day. 

These guys are a great bunch of JBIP troopers and are making the best of a tough travel day!  Kudos to all of them.

Ukraine Can Wait

Greetings from exotic Chicago! Yes, the Poland-Ukraine trip has had a bit of a rough time getting started, but our spirits remain high. Our layover in Chicago has now been extended to 12 hours. We’ve eaten in the food court. Twice. We’ve taken naps on airport benches. We’ve gone through airport security three times, shown our passports at least double that, and have yet to leave the country. What’s to blame? Icelandic volcanoes, apparently. Let me humbly suggest that the next time any of us are in Iceland, we should put a polite note in their national suggestion box (I’m sure they have one, Icelanders seem like such nice people) to control their volcanoes. Surely there is some sort of geologic daycare or after school program they can use to keep the volcanoes busy and not a menace to society. It’s especially unfair to us on JBIP trips. We will likely lose at least a half day in Kiev. Still, we will do our best to carry on. As it seems now, we will be arriving in Warsaw tomorrow (Tuesday 5/11) afternoon, and will try to get the first flight to Kiev later that day.

The sun is setting now in Chicago, and we are hoping the next time we see it, we will be in beautiful Poland. Stay tuned!!