Sunday, August 31, 2008

Auschwitz

This is a hard post to write. I've been putting it off for several days because it seems both an impossible task and a necessary one. (Full set of Auschwitz photos).

We spent a full day at Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. The tour is 3.5 hours and covers both sites. Auschwitz was the original site with one gas chamber and crematorium. Hitler decided that shooting at point blank range was too traumatic for his soldiers and that gas chambers would be much more humane for them. The workers imprisoned at Auschwitz were ordered to build a second camp just a few kilometers down the road with 4 gas chambers and crematoria, vastly increasing the available "output" each day. At Birkenau they could cremate up to 5500 people each day. Sometimes Birkenau is also called Auschwitz II.

The tour started at Auschwitz I and we saw much of the evidence of the crimes. In addition to all the things you probably have heard of (mountains of suitcases and shoes from prisoners who were executed) there were several visceral exhibits that I still can hardly stand to remember.

One room contained 2 tons of human hair (7 tons were on hand when the camp was liberated) that were shaved from the heads of the dead females and sold to textile factories who used it to make fabric. A pile of intact braids makes it hard to forget that this was somebody's hair. Gold teeth were pulled from corpses and melted down to be sold.

Human hair.

Those who were "fortunate" enough to be sent to the "work" camp were told upon entrance that the only way out was through the crematorium. They were given a cup of weak coffee for breakfast a thin soup made from (often rotten) vegetables for lunch and one piece of bread for dinner. Not only were they starved, beaten and often tortured but they had to live with the knowledge of their family's probable death and their imminent death. Many threw themselves against the double electrified fence upon realizing these truths.

If you were lucky enough to get a job indoors (prisoners were given only a thin jumpsuit for all temperatures) you may be tasked with loading corpses from the gas chamber into the crematorium. Or, if you were trained in the sciences you may be "recruited" to do medical experiments on children. Things like testing how much pain can a child tolerate when sawing off a limb without anesthetic...or putting toxic chemicals in the eyes of brown-eyed children in an attempt to "purify" them and turn them blue.

If someone attempted escape, 10 people were randomly selected to be tortured and/or die. This might happen by being locked in a small room with 10 other men for 10 days with no food or water, or in a dark room with two small sets of airholes that often were covered by dirt/snow and thus you and your 9 cell mates suffocated to death.


Small holes for the suffocation chamber.

There was some mercy for those who were sent straight to the gas chambers...they often didn't know what was happening until the very end. It made it easier on the soldiers if there was no panic, so people were told elaborate lies. "You are being relocated, bring one suitcase with your most precious possessions. We need to decontaminate everyone to ensure no disease outbreaks in this new community. Please take off your clothes and shoes and remember where you left them so you can efficiently claim them after your shower." Mothers weren't separated from their babies...but usually people began to get panicky when the "shower room" got so crammed full. The last 20 people or so were shoved in the room as the soldiers slammed the iron door shut. By this time, panic began to set in. Holes in the ceiling opened and hydrogen cyanide gas pellets were dropped into the room. The next two minutes or half hour (depending on how strong your system was) were an eternity of struggling to breathe, watching your baby and child die and eventually giving up yourself and passing out and dying.


Electric fence.

Train entrance to Birkenau. Dividing platform is just through the archway.

What do you do with this? It is utterly horrifying. There are really no words. I tried to record the feelings that I was left with at the end of the day...

I was overwhelmed with hopelessness. Not a "the world is a horrible place" hopelessness...but a more personal, wrung-out, apathetic, I-want-to-give-up kind of hopelessness. Imagining being in the camp I identified so much with the men who threw themselves at the electric fence. It made me wonder how you try to sort out right from wrong in that kind of context...are you brave for trying to survive...or stupid for putting yourself through more torture?

What would you do if you were given the job of assisting a Nazi doctor? If you refused to help you would be instantly killed. If you went along with it you could potentially alleviate some suffering of the patients, but in so doing you probably put both them and yourself at risk of death. At that point is it more merciful to try and kill them quickly so they cannot be subjected to more torture? Is it "better" (whatever that means) to stand on principle and die right away or to try to stay alive to alleviate suffering if it means doing many compromising things along the way?

The Allies knew about Auschwitz in 1942 and the camp wasn't liberated until 1945. Several people did escape (141 total during six years) and four went to the Allies and told them what was happening at Auschwitz. Most had a response of, "there's no way it could be that bad." Who knows in retrospect what could have been done to intervene (they were fighting a war with Germany)...but it felt really really hard to know that "someone" did know and "nothing" was done about it.

I felt guilty. I felt like I was so hurt and upset and I couldn't cry. Crying seemed so small compared to what happened there.

I felt like it was important and "good" to have gone. I still think that is kind of a strange emotion.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Ron's Travel Status


I should have written a few of these earlier, but I would like to point out some notables.

After about five weeks, when we were finishing up our time in Sorbovag with Haakon and Asborg, I finally felt rested. 16 months of a way-too-strenuous pace preceded our trip--two rounds of LSAT's and MCAT's, Trina's Pneumonia, Full time work, planning for the trip at about 15 hours per week, normal life, some huge parties/events, the application process (early), immunizations, etc. Now, when I get tired it feels completely nominal. My residual fatigue is gone!

I love my quick dry underwear. It's amazing. My fancy socks are great too, but definitely sub-par in comparison with the undies.

My dry fit shirts are so convenient, but they stink just a little too fast. I know that I actually am the source of stink, but they seem to have a compounding effect.

My bad arches aren't enjoying the cobblestones as much as my eyes are. I'd consider my feet my primary weakness regarding touring.

I'm enjoying our downtime as much as our tour time. We are in a beautiful apartment in Prague and we barely went outside today.

I do miss a smattering of people, but I'm pretty much happy through and through. Really, it's just like I hoped it would feel. Not perfect, of course, but absolutely wonderful. And I get to share it with my favorite person.

And, I'm totally flexing in this picture, which means that, despite being a pretty healthy person, my fragile male ego remains.

Religious Participation

Something I thought was very interesting--Sunday evening, when we went to the chamber music concert, we arrived about ten minutes early. The Church was completely full, standing room only, and hot, despite the soaring ceilings.

We walked in, thinking we were going to have to stand. Then we realized that a priest was saying mass. As soon as he was done, the crowd left. The crowd for the concert was about 20% as large as the mass crowd.

Wieliczka Salt Mine

For our second full day in Krakow, we took a day trip to Wieliczka Salt Mine, outside of Krakow. After the required transportation mishaps, we made it (with a long walk between our drop off point and our actual destination).



The mine has been in use for 700 years, although it is now virtually defunct. It is now used for tourism, and upkeep (water management--otherwise it would collapse). We started by descending 370 steps (altogether we went down 800). Everything was salt--the walls, the floors, the statues, the Chandeliers. Not your everyday site.



In fact, one of the subterranean lakes is so salty that in the early 1900's, when a boat capsized, some people got stuck under it and died, from suffocation, not drowning. They were so buyant in the salt water that they couldn't even get a few inches down to get out from under the boat.




One matter that has set this mine aside in the past is that the people only had eight hour working shifts. This was extremely unusual for mine workers in comparable locations in Europe...






The statues were impressive, the big cavernous rooms and chapels even more so. All in all the mine has 200 miles of chambers and is about 1000 feet at its deepest. We reached a depth of nearly 500 feet. Fortunately, there was a lift at the end.

Our first night in Krakow




















Our first evening in Krakow, we had the opportunity for a concert--Chamber Choir or Organ.

We chose the chamber music concert over the Organ concert (the former was free, and the latter was during our nap time). Although I'm hoping for an Organ Concert somewhere along the way, the music was great and the cathedral spectacular. What an exciting way to being our time in such a musical city!

If you'd like, you can watch a short (10 secondish) video. It's actually an Organ interlude.

We are also enjoying the Kebabs around here--wrapped up like Gyros. Ymmm.

The Jewish Quarter

















Our first full day in Krakow, we enjoyed the Jewish Quarter. Kazimierz the Great, in the 14th century, invited the industrious European Jewish community to settle in Krakow. Since they were usually outsiders and often persecuted (for instance, they were accused of poisoning the wells when the Bubonic Plague broke out), they were happy to find a home in Poland.

















This quarter, once thriving and full of Jews, is now a mere monument to their past habitation. Before World War II, Krakow had 65000 Jews. Today it has a mere 200. The Nazis murdered most of them, and the Communists weren't terribly helpful either. In spite of all this, or even perhaps because of it--the Jewish character of this section of town was especially interesting. Much of Schindler's List was filmed here.

We visited several synagogues, two graveyards, and a serene 'square' with excellent international food choices. We had a fantastic Indian Lunch--Tandoori in the Jewish Quarter of a Polish City. Wow, the world is flat.

















At one of the graveyards, we saw a monument to a women who lost all 90 of her extended family members in the Holocaust. She was the only survivor. Note the decorative wall in the graveyard. These are old stones, from before the Holocaust. The Germans had ripped them down--they actually used a large number of them for making walkways in concentration camps. These recovered stones are being made into a decorative memorial in the walls of the graveyard.
















Afterward, we went to an industrial area that was the Jewish ghetto before Hitler's "Final Solution." We learned of a Catholic Pharmacist who stayed in the slum and aided the families, we saw a monument of empty chairs depicting the loss of families, and we even saw the actual Schindler Factory (which is where the factory parts of the film were filmed).

We were glad to end our day with a Kielbasa and some atmospheric music in the main town square.

Krakow



Boy did we get a deal. Decent location, a kitchenette, private bathroom, and a nice enough room (the bathroom had some pluming stink issues, though) for forty bucks a night. Most comparable rooms are twice that.

The worst version of a night train ever

So, I suppose it wasn't actually the worst, but it was pretty nasty.

We went to the bus station to buy our ticket, where a very angry woman who didn't know the answers to our questions responded snidely whenever possible. She seemed to get quite a bit more smiley when she made our seat assignment, which I thought was odd.

Interestingly enough, we ended up with the worst seats on the bus--the back row, sandwiched in (five seats in a row instead of two). These seats do not recline. Fortunately, we managed to switch.

The ride began at 22:00, and went until 6:00 the next morning (actually five because we switched time zones). It was like any decent bus--bumpy, starts and stops, turns and the like. And there was the border crossing, where we had to show our ID. And I had a 'medical' condition that, let's just say, made sitting really uncomfortable--and that was the only option. Fortunately, we did get to make a bleary eyed transfer in Warsaw. I tried the only Polish phrase I knew and the woman looked at me like I was speaking Swahili.

We did get on our train, and we made it to Krakow. And, after a short 25 minute walk with about sixty pounds on my back (and say, forty five on Trina's), we arrived at our hostel. Needless to say, we were tired.

Trinidioms # 3 and # 4

Last time I called them Trinaisms; oops.

"I'm sorry to pop your parade."

"This is so the magic ticket."

Friday, August 29, 2008

In Prague

We just arrived at our beautiful apartment in Prague. We have cable internet here and will be posting all about Krakow soon. Stay tuned.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

First Med School Interview!!

I received my first invitation to interview for med school! I'm so excited!!

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Krakow

We arrived safely in Krakow, Poland this morning after an 8 hour night bus ride followed by a 3 hour train ride. The city is gorgeous, our hostel is amazing (our own bathroom & kitchenette for $40/night) but we don't have internet in our room. The plan is to be here for 5 nights and see Auschwitz & the Salt Mines in addition to the city center. We'll find an internet cafe to upload the postings we're writing soon...but for now, here's a photo of the central square...

Friday, August 22, 2008

A hidden gem

Vilnius. Ever heard of it? Even this Europhile didn't know about it until I was looking for routes into Lithuania. It was little more than a transportation obstacle on my way to Kim and Andrew's.

That was before I saw that it was called "a little Prague" in a Norwegian travel book (listed as one of the 100 best cities in the world). Granted the P word is used too much for cities, but its mere mention made me take a second look.

Sure enough, Vilnius is amazing. It's got the red roofs, and the tight, cobbled and arched streets, complete with a castle and more cathedrals in one place than I have ever seen. Most of the architecture is Baroque (pastel with white ornate trims)--it actually looks a bit like Disneyland.

Every two or three steps in old town yields a picturesque moment--and the price is right. A solid meal for two here is just about ten or twelve dollars (and the grocery store is really cheap). Although hotels are 'normal' prices, the cost of admission, food and other miscellany makes this an incredible bargain in a safe and stunningly beautiful city.

I'd say that Vilnius would be a great introduction to central Europe for anyone interested...In a few years everyone will know about it.

PS. Tomorrow we will be going to a genocide museum in the former KGB office. That promises to be sobering.

On Our Own

This first leg of the trip is 14 weeks--from leaving Seattle to returning to New York. The first half has been seven weeks of being hosted by kind, generous and helpful people.

The next seven weeks, which began yesterday at about 15:00, is for just the two of us (with the exception of a few days with my uncle, aunt and cousin late in the journey). That said, we've been able to really take in the relaxation associated with being hosted--not having to cook, plan, or figure things out. Savings lots of money, time and effort. And making dear friends along the way. Writing in too many sentence fragments.


Nevertheless, we are very excited about being on our own. We are definitely our own best company, and we love to bask in that. Some married people get tired of each other. More typically for us, the more time we spend with each other, the hungrier we get for more. So, if we are a bit reclusive next time you see us, you'll know why.

Just Trina and me for most of seven weeks. Yippee!!!

PS. We did not coordinate our clothing today, despite the patriotic look.

A vestige of communism

The buildings in Klaipeda are almost all connected to a central boiler system, responsible for heating all water and houses. The endless hot water that results is a real luxury.

But this comes with problems. The hot water is off for a week in the spring for any repairs that need to be done. And even worse, in the fall the heat doesn't come on until there are three days under a certain temperature. Two terribly cold days and a warmer day isn't enough. This is a real problem for the elderly.

Most homes also don't have a way of regulating the heat, other than calling the city. Some buildings are sweltering upstairs while frigid downstairs. In the end, this can cause quite a bit of friction between neighbors, hardly in line with the original communal intent.

Another Tribute


Traveling with another person is an intimate affair, even for a married couple. I would like to quickly acknowledge the people I've traveled closely with in the past.

Juniors Abroad: Bennet Smith, Nate Kellar, Bryan Millington, Jenelle (Hall) Clarke
Bolivia: Melinda (Dumas) Castro, Aaron Gapasin
Europe #2: Jarett Creason, Luke Watson (in the center of the picture)

I have to be honest, this trip has reminded me of Jarett and Luke a few hundred times. They were both former 'residents' of mine in college--and absolutely fantastic friends as well. We laughed a LOT that trip, bickered occasionally, but developed a lifetime of memories. As I journey with the person who is most dear to me, and we find our way around the globe, I'm particularly impressed as I remember how easy it was to travel with people who weren't my life partners.

I expected that traveling with my dear wife would not be difficult. I was right. But as I reflect on my other travel companions, I'm awfully grateful for the wonderful friends I've been blessed with.

Thanks to all of you!

Ron

The Staves


A big thank you to Kim, Andrew and Ieva Stave.

They not only took us in, lent us their bed, fed us, showed us around, introduced us to their friends, and taught us about Lithuania--they were great and fun companions. When I was at George Fox I worked for Kim in residence life. My first backpacking trip was a retreat for residence life staff--we called it walkabout--and Kim was my leader. That and the entrance to residence life were a defining moment in my young adult development.

That was nine years ago, and it has been about eight years since working for her. So wonderful and amazing to meet again, on the other side of the world.

A big thank you to this wonderful family.

Also, please note that the Staves are missionaries funded by donation. They work as Dean of Students and Athletic Director at LCC International University. If you are interested in this kind of cause, please consider donating to them.

Trinaisms #3

"That'll put hair on my back"

PS. Another quotable--'speaking of loose poopies!"

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Have you ever noticed...

...that many women of Eastern European descent dye their hair bright colors?

We've noticed it a ton here and have been offered two explanations.

1. During Soviet times all forms of personal expression were discouraged or forbidden. With independence people have gone over the top simply "because they can." This is notable in dress, building styles and accessories. On the surface it seems sort of compensatory, but I think it is quite possibly just the relishing of freedom of expression.

2. During Soviet times there was only one color of hair dye available - a sort of reddish/purplish color. For older ladies who had been dyeing their gray hair, they either grew it out and looked sort of clown-like (and were more easily distinguishable - a bad thing in Soviet times) or they bought the one color available.

Either way, I don't think I've ever contemplated the freedom represented by an aisle of hair dye. Just goes to show all the small things we take for granted.

Quotables

This one is just too good to leave off the blog...

From nearly 3 year old Ieva, after walking in and seeing Ron in his workout shorts without a shirt on,

"You have very big nipples!"



Later that day, Ieva pronounced to us,

"I am cute. I am funny. I am not that bad."

Did You Know?

Lithuania only gained its independence in 1991.

Lithuania was the first soviet republic to declare independence from the USSR.

The mother of Pope John Paul II was of Lithuanian descent.

The Lithuanian language is said to be the closest modern language to Sanskrit. It is not very similar to Russian or Finnish (closer neighbors).

Lithuania was the last country in Europe to be converted to Christianity.

Nearly all male Lithuanian names end in "s" and all female names end in "a" or "e". When you learn someone's name, you automatically know their gender.



Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Beautiful Baltic Sea

We spent a few sunny hours yesterday at the Baltic Sea just a short bus ride from downtown Klaipeda. It was gorgeous!

The waves were huge!




Standards of modesty are a little different here. They have these changing areas every hundred feet or so on the beach, so you can change without being seen. But, we also saw at least two fully naked women standing in the surf!


PS - The extra arm that appears to emerge from my hip is actually Ieva Stave's!

Monday, August 18, 2008

Rysjedalsvika

If you, theoretically, were buying a boat ticket to the place below, how would you pronounce it? Seriously, give it a try outloud.

This was our challenge word the whole time we were in Norway. On our last day with the Giil's we had our final exam and well...I am not sure I can say I exactly passed. But it was fun trying!

Klaipeda and the Staves

Our first stop in Eastern Europe is in the Baltic Sea state of Lithuania. We are staying with our friends Kim and Andrew Stave, of George Fox fame. I worked for Kim when I was at Fox (as a house manager) and Trina was also one of her residents. We've very much enjoyed the familiarity and memory sharing of our time with Kim and Andrew.

They live in Klaipeda on the cost of Lithuania--they work at Lithuania Christian College, an ecumenical school whose primary goal is to foster moral leadership (don't read this in the American political milieu too much) in the former eastern block by developing morally, socially, and intellectually integrated leadership skills in their students. Obviously an ambitious project!
They've given us a nice tour of Klaipeda--up and down the main streets, to the marketplace and the meat market, the great eateries (we had amazing Ukranian food last night), and the important squares and landmarks. We also spent some time at the beach on a spit that juts out near the port (and near an enclave of Russian territory that is not connected to the main country by geographic means). It's been great fun.

We've also enjoyed their hospitality, of course, and their dear little girl Ieva (the Lithuanian iteration of "Eve"). She's an absolute doll--doing something cute at every turn. She's in that three year old little person stage, which I have to be honest, is about the only stage I really look forward to if I have children (well, there is the post-collegiate one too).

It seems that the primary story for this area of the world is the soviet/post soviet dichotomy. There is the old--the standard Stalinist dormitory looking buildings--the transition--the too quickly built and unfinished because of poor planning--and the new, the restorations and the steel and glass. Each have their own distinct character and bear witness to the complexities of the culture at the time. We weren't quite ready to dive into Euro-Russian history yet (despite my love for such subjects) after all life of fjordland hikes. But we are glad we have, and we are adjusting well to our new surroundings.


Trinaisms #2

"Ron, please don't throw me out with the wolves."

Our Norwegian Bus Ride

We forgot to mention our Norwegian bus ride. Hakon and Asborg dropped us off at the bus station in Forde (about a ninety minute drive from Sorbovag). It was an emotional farewell on all counts (it probably didn't help that none of us had enough sleep the prior night). We were quite sad to leave them, and both got pretty watery-eyed.


Since I had slept about three hours the night before and couldn't sleep on the bus, I was downright rummy. Trina wasn't far behind in her sleep deprivation--as well as her rummyness.
Fortunately, we did make it in one piece to Oslo where we were treated like royalty.

Nine hours on a bus will make anyone a little batty!


Thursday, August 14, 2008

Whirlwind Tour of Oslo

We have spent one day touring Oslo and thoroughly enjoyed it. First stop was Holmenkotten, a famous ski jump in Oslo. It was spectacular.


Next stop, Vigeland Park. An entire park full of the work of this famous sculptor.


Then, we visited the Viking Ship museum - three intact ships were found buried in three different cities around Norway. The ships were used to bury important people. It was fantastic to see a full-size Viking ship that was from 800AD!


Then, a drive through the city...


Next stop, Parliament. Our former host, Haakon Giil was a member of Parliament from 1993-1997.


The best part of the day was the wonderful relatives with whom we spent it. Ingebjorn (cousin of Haakon & Aslaug) visited us for breakfast, the tour and dinner.

Trond (husband of Aslaug) was our tour guide and driver for the day.

Aslaug (brother of Haakon) is a wonderfully sweet woman. I am so privileged to know her.


Tomorrow morning we fly to Lithuania!