Beyond the War, the Holocaust, and the Wall: My 2012 Eastern European Odyssey

NOTE: 54 pictures have been integrated into this narrative.  Most pictures can be enlarged for viewing by clicking on them one or more times.

by Joe Laufer

For 12 days at the end of October, 2012, I had an opportunity to process historic events that took place during various phases of my life in the actual locations they originally occurred.   These were not just ordinary events — but, rather, events that are recorded in history books and which had an impact on society overall.  As I was growing up in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, playing kick-the-can in the alley behind my house, children my age in the country of my forefathers were being herded into cattle cars and transported to concentration camps.

Just inside the main gate of the Auschwitz compound not far from the first experimental gas chamber on September 25, 2012.

As I entered 2nd grade at age 7  at St. Nicholas Grade School in September, 1941, the Germans were experimenting with their first gas chambers at Auschwitz.  71 years later, on October 25, 2012, I would be standing inside one of these gas chambers at Auschwitz. And on January 17 1945, as the Soviets captured Warsaw, I was a mere 5th grader, unaware that 67 years later on October 26, 2012 I’d be standing before the memorial to the Warsaw Uprising in the Jewish ghetto of this historic Polish town.

Standing at the last remnant of the Berlin Wall on October 16, 2012.

On October 3, 1990, at age 55, at the height of my career at Burlington County College, I watched on TV the exuberant celebrations of the re-unification of Germany after 45 years of division — and now, on October 16, 2012, 22 years later, I was standing at the last remnant of the wall that divided East and West Berlin near Checkpoint Charley.

During this travel adventure, I visited countries whose destinies were decided on my tenth birthday in 1945 at Yalta by Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin and that led to years of oppression and suffering which forced them to ultimately fight for their freedom  while I placidly enjoyed the prime of my life in tranquil Vincentown, New Jersey during the late 1980s as my children embarked on their teen years.

I have always proclaimed the inherent educational value of world travel as a catalyst for reflection on and appreciation of the benefits of a life lived in 20th century America.  Visiting Europe during life’s sunset years and comparing my life with that of the people there who survived World War II and the Cold War is an exercise in values clarification and gratitude adjustment.  This trip was much more than a venture into history.  It provided insights into the determination of the human spirit to overcome suppression and appreciate freedom.  I walked away with a special admiration for the Jews who survived the Nazi menace and the Poles who held steadfastly to their faith throughout their persecution.  This is not to take away from the Czechs and the Hungarians who demonstrated their metal throughout the occupation — but after my visit to Auschwitz and Warsaw, I am in utter awe of the Jews and the Poles.

All that being said, the tone for this entire travelogue should now be set, which,  although focusing on the places and events of historical significance along the route, exudes of the human emotions released by  a heightened awareness of the struggles of the people affected by the events in their history.

Simmary calendar of our tour itinerary.

Eight hours after leaving Philadelphia on Lufthansa Airlines , on Monday morning, October 15th we arrived first in Frankfurt and then a short time later in Berlin – a city that seventy years ago as a child seemed to me to be in another part of the galaxy.  We were driven to our hotel, the Arcotel John F,  in the central Mitte district of Berlin, which in the 1930s was a Nazi hotspot.  We learned that we were there at a special time – the Berlin Festival of Lights – during which time all the major public buildings are illuminated with special light shows.  Since several major landmarks were near our hotel, we took the opportunity to walk through the neighborhood to the enjoy the spectacular light shows.

Underground memorial of empty bookshelves in cobblestoned plaza commemorates Nazi book burnings of 1933.

Our hotel was within a short walking distance of “Bebelplatz,” the place where SA Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels orchestrated the infamous book burning bonfires near the campus of Humboldt University on May 10, 1933.  In the cobblestone quadrangle there we viewed the glass-covered underground memorial to the event — a small cubicle walled with a series of empty bookshelves.

Our visit to the beautiful Palace of San Souci in the historic town of Potsdam.

A major Berlin thoroughfare, “Unter den Linden” bisects the neighborhood leading to the Brandenburg Gate.  The following morning, Tuesday, October 16, we headed to Potsdam for our tour of the elegant San Souci Palace of Prince Frederich Wilhelm and his wife Sophie Charlotte. Returning the 20 miles to central Berlin, we had our official guided tour of the city, which included stops at the Brandenburg Gate, the Reichstag, the Berlin Wall memorial, Checkpoint Charley and lunch in the famous 7th floor, glass domed Wintergarten Food Court of the KaDeWe Department Store (generally classified in the same category as Harrod’s in London).  A small group of us had dinner in a traditional German restaurant near our hotel, emerging in a light rainfall for the short walk to the hotel.

Penny at the Brandenburg Gate

Before we knew it our whirlwind stay in Berlin was ended, with only one casualty, a first day fall by one member of our group that required a trip to the hospital. Prior to this visit, I had been to Berlin once – in early August, 1999.  Then, it was one huge construction site (10 years after the wall came down in November, 1989 and Germany was reunited in 1990).  Now, 13 years later, there was still a lot of construction taking place, but it was a much different city than it had been on my last visit.  Berlin is a classic city.

Early Wednesday morning, October 17, we rose for a breakfast buffet and an early boarding of our bus for the 100-mile ride to Dresden — our lunch stop — and then on for another 75 miles to our destination, the “Golden City” of Prague.  This would be our first full travel day with our very competent Polish bus driver, Richard.  He would be with us throughout the tour.

Ralph Pearson, our Collette Tour Manager, photographed here at our Potsdam, Germany visit to San Souci Palace.

This is a good spot to introduce our Collette Tour Manager, Ralph Pearson, a seasoned Collette employee of more than 20 years who hails from the Berkshires of Massachusetts, and originally from Albany, NY.  Ralph was responsible for shepherding us through the peaks and valleys of Central and Eastern Europe and the centuries of historical knowledge that seasoned the landscape.  He was our international financial adviser, our nurse and pharmacist, and our guide to alternative dining experiences along the way.  Ralph was very  sensitive to the special needs — physical, psychological and social — of our group throughout the tour.  En route from country to country he would provide us with nuggets of knowledge about the geography, history and customs of the  regions we traversed.  He was very skilled at his craft and worked very well with our driver, Richard.

Penny with our bus driver, Richard, who resides in Poland

A word about our group.  We were 45 people in all, 25 of them from all parts of the country traveling individually or in couples; the remaining 20 were members of my New Jersey group.  By the end of the tour we had pretty well become a travel family, tolerating one and others idiosyncrasies (as much as possible) and sharing our life stories and experiences like old friends — and helping one another, whenever necessary.  As with any family, there were issues — but with the help of Ralph, our leader, we survived two weeks  of pretty intense travel activity within the confines of a 50 passenger bus that traversed almost 1,000 miles through six countries.

Joe’s Group: First Row: Cheryl Friedman, Charlotte D’Autrechy Scott, Judy Blango, Tammy Kessler, Debbie Hodgson, Edith Serio, Penny Laufer, Arlene Baldwin, Joyce Jones, Annmarie Monahan.
Second Row: Kathy Clark, Sam Blango, Fred Horner, Joe Laufer, Hans Rottau, Dick Jones.
Back Row: Ralph Pearson (Tour Manager), Richard (Bus Driver), Doug Ghaul, Gus Haines, Marc Baldwin.
Absent: Helen Myers.

Dresden in ruins after the RAF bombing in February, 1945.

On our third full day (October 17), we were headed to Dresden, Germany, on the way to Prague.  Dresden was a magnificent city before World War II.  Unfortunately, in February, 1945, less than two months before the end of the war, it was unmercifully bombed by the RAF.  It had no real strategic military value, and analysts claim that it was bombed purely for retaliatory reasons as the war wound down — to punish the Germans for the London blitz.  Others say that the strategy behind the bombing was to hasten the end of the war with a demoralizing blow to Germany.  No matter what the strategy, one of Europe’s most beautiful cities was completely obliterated — reduced to complete rubble.  This was my second time in Dresden, the last visit having been in 1999.  At that time, it was one big construction site — with the cathedral completely off-limits to tourists as it was being reconstructed.  Today, 13 years later, the city has been completely restored to its pre-war glory and has been recently listed as one of the top ten most popular tourist destinations in the world.  Members of our group regretted having only a few hours in Dresden to experience its greatness.  Several would have preferred at least one overnight here.

Restored dome of the once destroyed Dresden Cathedral.

Ralph Pearson gave us a brief guided tour of the highlights of the old city, and we were free to choose a lunch venue and shop for a few souvenirs before boarding our coach for the continuation of our scenic route to the Czech Republic and the beautiful city of Prague.  My main objective was to get to see the inside of the restored Dresden Dom or Cathedral which I couldn’t see on my last visit.  It was certainly worth the wait.  I have the greatest respect for those who insisted that so many of Europe’s treasures were restored to their pristine state, and I marvel at how well it was accomplished.

A hurried lunch in Dresden.

Our lunch bunch was forced to gobble down our sausage and sauerkraut and leave behind half a glass of Dresden beer, but Prague beckoned.

It wasn’t far from Dresden to the border, but we still had almost two hours of travel within the Czech Republic to arrive at Prague, which is pretty much in the center of the country.  One thing becomes fairly obvious on a tour like this — how small, and how closely related the various European countries really are.  As we crossed the border it was easy to see how the Sudetenland was a factor in Hitler’s decision to invade Czechoslovakia at the end of 1938 and fully obliterate it in 1939 — with the proximity, the makeup of the population and the vulnerability.   It is like New Jersey annexing Delaware.  Not that it was right, but it was so easy!

Penny in the Old Jewish Cemetery during our tour of Prague’s Jewish Quarter.

We arrived in Prague in the late afternoon.  We did not go directly to the hotel, but rather to the old town for a brief introduction and walking tour.  Those of us who had opted for the tour of the old Jewish Quarter were taken by our guide for a partial  tour of that area, to be followed the next day with the completion of the tour.   Most of us were introduced to the new travel technology used by tour guides: “the Whisper” — an electronic transmitter with an earpiece for each participant that allows the guide to speak without shouting as she tells her story.  Collette recently introduced these and they enhance the tours dramatically.

The Pinkas Synagogue presents a sobering listing on its walls of almost 80,000 Jewish victims of the Holocaust.

This being my second visit to Prague, I learned a lot more from our very knowledgeable guide.  Because we arrived later than anticipated, the Jewish Quarter (Josefov)  tour had to be truncated because of the closing of the venues.  I was especially impressed by the Pinkas Synagogue, which is dedicated to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust from Bohemia and Moravia.  Their 77, 297 names are inscribed on the walls of the main nave and adjoining areas.  The old Jewish Cemetery with multiple layers of graves was also impressive.  During the Nazi occupation, the area was preserved in order to provide a site for a planned “exotic museum of an extinct race.”  This meant that the Nazis gathered Jewish artifacts from all over central Europe for display in Josefov.

Dinner entertainment in our intimate restaurant on our first night in Prague. That’s Doug Ghaul and Debbie Hodgson in the foreground.

Interrupting our tour until tomorrow, we joined our colleagues in the square for a short jaunt to our cave-like, basement level restaurant for our first dinner in Prague.  After dinner we boarded our bus for the drive to the Diplomat Hotel on the outskirts of town.  Most of us were disappointed by the fact that our hotel wasn’t located closer to the town center.  However, in most other cases throughout the tour our hotel was conveniently located.

Penny and Joe on the Manesuv Bridge over the River Vitave in Prague. on our way back to the old town square from Hradcany Castle.

After breakfast on Thursday, October 18, we boarded our bus for our formal city tour of Prague, which began at Prague Castle and took all morning, on foot, ending in the Old Town Square.  Prague is often called the “fairy tale” city, because of its medieval charm, and it definitely merits the title.  We were most impressed by the amazing Hradcany Castle and its overwhelming neighboring St. Vitus Cathedral — one of the most beautiful in Europe.  A leisurely (but long) walk to the old town square ended at the  astronomical clock where, with hundreds of other tourists (and pick pockets),  we watched the mechanical figures perform, the bird sing and the live trumpeter play his hourly ditty from the tower.

Every hour tourists gather for the show at the Astronomical Clock.

Penny took the rest of the afternoon to shop while I resumed my guided tour of the Jewish Quarter and had a nice quiet solitary lunch coupled with people watching from an outdoor restaurant on the old town square, near where Tom Cruise blew up the aquarium in Mission Impossible #1.

The Czech Folklore Dinner and Show was a hit with all those who attended.

We returned to the hotel where we prepared for our Czech Folklore Dinner Show which was held in a quaint old stone barn/restaurant on the outskirts of town.  The family operated restaurant and show, with a really fabulous three-man folk band, was first-rate and extremely entertaining.  As a bonus, we had the place all to ourselves!

Stalin’s statue stood on the bluff behind these two pillars. It has been replaced by a metronome, ticking out every second of precious freedom that succeeded the terror.

Even though I had visited Prague once before, I walked away from this second trip with new knowledge about how bitterly the Czechs hated the Russians.  Thanks to the fact that our local guides shared their personal experiences and feelings with us, we learned how deeply oppressed they felt during the occupation.  One of our guides pointed out the former location of a statue of Josef Stalin which dominated the landscape, and how it is now replaced by a large metronome that clicks away the time second by second to illustrate how sacred their time in freedom actually is. She also shared with us newspaper photos of the toppled statue with Stalin’s face in the mud.  His downfall brought utter joy to their lives.

We had a refreshing lunch stop at a pleasant Czech amusement area just short of the [Czech-Austrian border.,

Once again, we all agreed that two days in Prague was insufficient, and lamented the fact that we had to move on — this time, to Vienna, Austria’s capital.  After a hearty European breakfast, on Friday, October 19th,  we headed south for our 156 mile trip to the musical city of Vienna.  It was a relatively long trip, but because of an accident on one of the major highways – a beer truck overturned and spilled its precious golden cargo all over the road – we were forced  to take the scenic  route through a winding, fall-foliage festooned mountain road.  Most of the route was through the beautiful Czech countryside.

We arrived at our Viennese Hotel, the  Arcotel Kaiserwasser, late in the afternoon.  The relatively modern hotel is conveniently located across the highway from a subway station and along the Danube.  Ralph, our tour manager, offered to take us to see a famous Viennese landmark, the Hundertwasser House, before dinner.

Penny, Debbie and Ralph at the Hundertwasser House, Vienna.

Penny in front of the Hundertwasser House

The architect Hundertwasser set out to create a building that defied the common use of straight lines and symmetry, but rather followed the non-linear flow of nature in its design. Many of us joined Ralph on a short bus trip to the section of Vienna offering us a view of this architectural phenomenon with its colorful pillars, multicolored adornments, wavy floors and crooked walls.  After freshening up, we headed for our dinner at one of the area’s most unique tourist restaurants, “Marchfelderhof” whose menu proclaimed: “Welcome to Austria’s most historical and traditional restaurant visited by the most famous celebrities”.

Marchfelderhof, the acclaimed Austrian restaurant.

We were greeted at the door by the flag-waving staff, walked over a red carpet through the entrance where musicians were serenading us, and ushered to our elaborately  decorated tables where our “Aperitif “Jonathan”  (a test tube bottle of homemade apple schnapps) awaited each of us.  We were fed a great meal, entertained throughout and were treated to the house desert “Curdcream & Nougatmousse with marinated woodberry roaster.” It was truly and elegant meal in an elegant (but slightly tacky) setting. After a long day we were ready to hit the sack, which brought us to the half-way mark on our tour, Saturday, October 20th, when we had a tour of the city of Vienna on what turned out to be our 6th consecutive sunny day in Europe.

This was Penny’s first visit to Schoenbrunn Palace – my third.

The tour included the summer retreat of the Habsburg dynasty,  the lavish Schoenbrunn Palace, a rival of Versailles  and most of the elaborate European Royal palaces. This was my third such visit, the others being in 1999 and 2010.  We also took a tour of the City of Vienna, ending in the pedestrian area around the magnificent St. Stephan’s Cathedral.  For lunch, several of us sampled the elegant chocolate cake of the Hotel Sacher.  I also sampled a sausage from one of the many street-corner vendors.

Sampling the chocolate cake at the Hotel Sacher.

Our final event in Austria was an opportunity that most of us availed ourselves of, to attend a musical concert at the Orangerie at Schonbrunn Palace. The “optional” included dinner at a charming Viennese neighborhood restaurant called Burgerhof.  Contrary to the sound and look of its name, it was not a burger joint — but a nicely appointed family restaurant, where we were able to sit on the glass-enclosed porch for our pre-theater dinner.  The concert consisted of favorites by Mozart and Johann Strauss – performed in the same setting where Mozart debuted many pieces and where he competed against court composer, Antonio Salieri.

On Sunday morning, October 21st, after breakfast we boarded our bus for our fourth city destination, Budapest via a southeasterly route of approximately 133 miles. Encountering a few traffic jams along the way, we still arrived in mid-afternoon in this most beautiful of cities, known as “the Queen of the Danube.”

Penny on Fisherman’s Bastion located on the bluff above our hotel.

Our hotel, the very “artsy” Art Otel Budapest, is located right on the Danube, almost directly across the river from the Parliament Building, one of the most delicately crafted government buildings in the world — modeled somewhat after the British Parliament building.

Heroe’s Square, location of several memorials, including the tomb of the unknown soldier and several major buildings.

Upon our arrival we did some exploring on the “Pest” side of the Danube, having lunch in a small outdoor restaurant near Market Square. We also did a preview visit of Fisherman’s Bastion, which provided a beautiful panoramic view of the city – especially the Parliament Building.   We made a special stop at Heroes Square, a large area with monuments dedicated to military heroes of Hungary – taking on special meaning during our visit because of the celebration of their national holiday.  Nearby we drove past the zoo, the public baths and other historic sites.

Monument along Danube near Parliament. 60 pair of iron shoes memorialize Jews shot into the river by Arrow Cross Socialists.

One of the memorable sites we saw along the Pest side of the Danube was a monument to Jewish victims of a Nazi-like Hungarian Socialist group called the Arrow Cross Militia who would line up their victims along the Danube River bank causing their dead bodies to fall into the water.  The monument, located near the Parliament Building,  consists of 60 iron pairs of period-correct (1944-45) shoes abandoned at the waterfront.

I took this picture of the Parliament from the promenade just outside the front entrance to our hotel on the “Buda” bank of the Danube.

We had dinner in the hotel that night, and then walked along the Danube waterfront viewing the brightly lighted white Parliament building and light-strewn bridges reflecting in the water.

Our schedule was slightly altered because the folks in Hungary were celebrating a national holiday while we were there — much like our Fourth of July — they call it “Freedom Day” –  celebrating the October date in 1956 when they conducted a rebellion against their Russian Occupiers.  It started as a student march on parliament on October 23.  But after the loss of 2,500 Hungarian lives and with the intervention of Russian troops it was crushed by mid-November.  Yet it lit a light for the quest for freedom which eventually resulted 33 years later in the 1989 creation of a free Hungarian Republic, when October 23 was proclaimed a National Holiday.

Bullet-ridden former Ministry of Defense on Castle Hill, Budapest. Damaged in 1945 when the Soviet army laid siege to the city, with German and Hungarian forces fighting from the hill.

While we were sitting in the bar of our hotel on Monday, Oct. 22nd, we witnessed a candle light parade pass our hotel window:  men, women and children marching with torches and flags along the banks of the Danube across from Parliament. I was a 21-year-old college student in 1956 when these brave students rose up against their oppressors.  It was good to have been there to celebrate their freedom with them.

View of Budapest from Castle Hill.

We spent Monday, October 22nd,  pretty much on our own.  Penny decided to stay with Debbie and do some shopping.  I went off on my own and bought a ticket on the “Hop On – Hop Off Budapest City bus tour.”   It gave me a chance to visit on my own any of 14 historic sites for as long as I wanted, and hop back on the bus when I was finished.  The bus would be at any one of the 14 locations every half hour all day long.  I took advantage of re-visiting some of the sights we had seen the day before.  I ended up at the Parliament building and then took the subway back to our hotel in time for dinner.

Entrance ramp to our boat for the “Budapest by Night” Danube Cruise.

We had dinner at a local restaurant not far from the Boat Launch from which our “Budapest By Night” tour was to embark. This narrated boat tour on the Danube gave us a wonderful night-time view of all the brightly illuminated bridges and buildings along the Danube.  It was truly spectacular and a fitting conclusion to our stay in Budapest – the eighth night of our 12-day tour of Central and Eastern Europe.

We started out early on Tuesday, October 23.  It was our longest travel day that would take us through the country of Slovakia en route to Poland.  Our destination was the historic city of Krakow, a distance of 182 miles.   The day was rainy, but it really didn’t matter, because we were on the bus most of the day.  We went through some pretty nice countryside.  For most of us, it was our first time ever in Slovakia.  By the time we reached central Slovakia for our lunch stop, the sun had come out.

Our lunch stop at the ski resort in central Slovakia.

We stopped at a beautiful ski resort in a town called Dona Vale, a bit north of the city of Banska Bystica.  I had mushroom soup for lunch and we relaxed a bit in the sunshine before heading north to Poland.  It was dark when we arrived in Krakow and we went to dinner in our very elegant hotel called “Andel’s Hotel” in a centrally located area just outside the walls of the old city.  After dinner, led by Ralph Pearson, we took the short walk to the old town square to get a sense of the lay of the land.

The Wawel Dragon spewing fire at the Wawel Castle in Krakow.

Wednesday, October 24 was set aside for a guided tour of Krakow’s historic Old Town.  Our male tour guide with excellent — full of knowledge and humor.  We started at Wawel Castle, the former residence of Polish kings and the location of the famous Wawel Dragon who spews fire – and then worked ourselves through the University area, where we saw sites related to Copernicus, viewed the historic mechanized clock and then visited several historic churches, including one where recently canonized Friar Maximilian Kolbe, a Conventual Franciscan, was once assigned.  He offered his life in exchange for that of a fellow prisoner at Auschwitz.

That’s the Krakow Cathedral in the background.

Sites related to the life of Pope John Paul the II were pointed out to us, and we visited the Cathedral from which the Pope once administered the Diocese of Krakow.  We ended our tour in Market Square.  Penny and I didn’t have the greatest lunch experience at a recommended restaurant across from the Opera House, but we managed to survive the day – returning to the hotel for a brief rest in advance of our afternoon optional tour of the Wieliczka Salt Mine.

Wieliczka Salt Mines, a UNESCO World Heritage Site

The Wielieczka Salt Mine is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  It has been functioning since the Middle Ages and consists of nine underground levels.   Our guide, who is also a mine worker at the site, took us down into this spectacular maze of unique rooms, tunnels, chapels and salt statues.  I was most impressed by the large hall with multiple salt chandeliers and religious salt sculptures, including one classic image of Pope John Paul II.  It was a long and arduous walk for us, but well worth it.

Great underground hall and chapel decorated with religious salt sculptures.

After our salt mine tour, we headed back to the hotel where we decided to have dinner, and where I had my first ever taste of cold cherry soup.  And so ended our visit to Krakow, Poland.

Statue of Pope John Paul at location where he would stay on visits to Krakow after becoming Pope.

We found Krakow a beautiful and historic city.  Our local guide was especially good at explaining the role of the Catholic Church in the ultimate fall of Communism.  He was eloquent in his analysis especially of the role played by Karol Woytyla , Pope John Paul II in first rallying to Polish people to abandon Communism and then pushing the dominos throughout the other countries of Eastern Europe.

Which brings us to Thursday, October 25, an important travel day which included visits to Auschwitz and the Shrine of the Black Madonna at Czestochowa before we arrived at our final tour destination, Warsaw.  We started out early for the first stop on our tour, the infamous concentration camp of Auschwitz.  The city of Oswwiecem, or Auschwitz, is about 40 miles due west of Krakow.

At entrance to Auschwitz I.

The concentration camp actually consists of two separate facilities, Auschwitz One, a former Polish military barracks made up of a series of two-story brick structures, established in 1940 and which held between 12,000 and 20,000 prisoners.  The other, Auschwitz II – Birkenau, begun in 1941 and which held more than 90,000 prisoners in 1944. This is where most of the Jews were exterminated in the gas chambers.

Our Thursday morning tour started with an extensive guided tour of Auschwitz I, starting at the notorious “welcome” sign which reads “Arbeit Macht Frei” – “Work Will Set You Free.”  Our group of 45 was broken into two groups for the narrated tour.  We were shown dioramas  of mounds of actual human hair, thousands of shoes, prisoners’ shoe polish, shaving brushes and tooth brushes, suitcases and other possessions.

St. Maximilian Kolbe, Martyr at Aushwitz, – Exterminated, August 14, 1941. Canonized a Saint of the Catholic Church by Pope John Paul II, 1981.

I have a personal interest in Auschwitz because of my past association with the Conventual Franciscan Order during the 1950s and early 1960s and the story of  Friar Maximilian Kolbe, who was imprisoned in Auschwitz with several other Franciscans from May through August, 1941. During my seminary years I was introduced to the life of Friar Maximilian and his work of spreading devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary at his “City of Mary,” Niepokalanow in Teresin, near Warsaw.  He helped establish one of the largest Polish Friaries there.  He was martyred at Aushwitz on August 14, 1941 when he offered to substitute his life for another prisoner who had children and who was among 10 selected to die in retaliation for the attempted escape of a prisoner. Forty years later, in 1981, Maximilian was canonized a Saint by Pope John Paul II.  While in Krakow, we visited the Franciscan Church there where Maximilian once served.

This poster inside one of the Auschwitz cell blocks illustrates the arrival of Conventual Franciscan priests from the City of Mary Immaculate, Niepokalanow in Teresin, near Warsaw. While in the Seminary in the 1950’s I had been taught about these Friar-colleagues who were incarcerated by the Nazis for harboring and assisting Jews in their Monastery.

People in background were members of a contingent of Israeli visitors to the camp.

We saw walls lined with prisoner mug shots, posters of life in the camp, displays of empty Cyclone B gas canisters, cells of prisoners, the infamous Wall of Death where the Nazis executed thousands of people by shooting, and a gallows where escape plotters were publicly hung, among many other things.  At the end of the tour we were taken to Gas Chamber No. 1 now serving as a memorial.

The Wall of Death, where thousands were shot to death.

AuschwitzII – Birkenau.

After this almost two-hour tour, we were taken by bus to Auschwitz II – Birkenau, about two miles distant for a much shorter tour of the wooden one-story prisoner blocks, showing the three levels of sleeping platforms (one could hardly call them “beds”).  One block was an extensive latrine with dozens of open lavatories.  The area where most of the crematoria were located was pointed out to us.The tour was a sobering experience and one which we will never forget.  The silence on the bus on the way to our next destination was evidence of the  emotional impact of the information we received and the sights we had just experienced.

Entrance promenade to Czestochowa.

We then traveled north for approximately 35 miles to the spiritual center of Poland and the shrine of the Jasna Gora Monastery in Czesttochowa, where we saw the famous Black Madonna, the sacred icon dating back to early Christianity when the Evangelist St. Luke purportedly painted it, and to its arrival in Poland 630 years ago in 1382 where more than 5 million pilgrims from all over the world visit each year.  We arrived at the chapel of the Madonna to the strains of a melodious hymn being sung  in the midst of a Mass being concelebrated by dozens of Catholic priests and attended by a crowded chapel of pilgrims.

Priest at podium in Chapel of the Black Madonna, hanging above altar to the right.

Immediately after the Mass we were able to walk within a few feet of the sacred icon as some of the pilgrims honored the Madonna by penetentially traversing the area on their knees.  After doing homage at the sacred relic, Penny and I visited the beautiful basilica adjacent to the chapel and then the museum on the monastery grounds.  It was inspiring seeing the many pilgrims representing various organizations doing homage at the shrine.  A troop of uniformed scouts performed a ritual at the shrine while we were there.  Penny purchased a number of religious souveneers at the site.

Pilgrims gather for procession into the Basilica at Jasna Gora Monastery in Czestochowa.

This is the skyline of the “New” Warsaw. Our modern Westin Hotel is among the newer members of the Warsaw skyscraper family.

After our visit, we continued north on our way to Warsaw.  We stopped for a traditional Polish lunch of soup and pirogues at a pre-designated restaurant along the way.  It was late, damp and cold when we arrived in Warsaw and our elegant, centrally located Westin Hotel – a high-rise hotel (we were in room 911 on the ninth floor).  This ultra modern hotel had one of those external, glass-enclosed elevator shafts that would give anyone who feared heights a definite case of vertigo.  Our tour director indicated the modern Warsaw had the nickname of Poland’s Manhattan!  Because of our late arrival, Penny decided not to have dinner, but I joined Joyce and Dick Jones and Hans Rottau for a light meal in the hotel restaurant.

A stop in a historic park during our morning guided tour of Warsaw,

On Friday morning, October 26, our twelfth and final tour day, we embarked on a guided bus tour of Warsaw which included several stops and ended with a walking tour of the Old City.  Our tour guide took us to Lazienki Park, adjacent to the Presidential Palace.  She described the iconic art-deco Chopin monument which can be interpreted as a willow tree,  a hand and an eagle’s head.  The Charles De Gaulle Monument was pointed out to us, as was the Ronald Regan Monument, honored here for his 1987  Berlin challenge: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”

The park was a temporary construction site, but we were shown the Chopin statue, with a stylized willow tree over Chopin’s seated figure which echoes a pianist’s hand and fingers and doubles as an Eagle’s head. The Nazi’s had destroyed this statue, but it was restored after the war.

Monument in the heart of the former infamous Warsaw Ghetto, now demolished. A major Jewish museum is being built nearby.

The highlight of today’s tour for me was a dual stop — one at the Warsaw Uprising Monument and the other at the Warsaw Ghetto memorial in the heart of the former ghetto and soon to be the site of a major World War II Museum.  We walked through the nicely restored Old City with its quaint buildings and had lunch there. While Penny and Debbie shopped, Hans Rottau and I toured the Royal Castle in Warsaw — a building with a deceivingly plain exterior, but lavish interior.  Because the Russians refused to restore it after World War II, the Polish people themselves raised the money for the restoration.

Inspirational monument memorializes the brave and bloody Warsaw Uprising which lasted from Aug. 1 to Oct, 4, 1944.

Joe and Penny in the center of the Old Town Square in Old City, Warsaw. This whole area was restored after WW II,

Our final day in Warsaw was sunny and a bit brisk — but was a perfect ending to a great overall tour.  We returned to the hotel for our “Farewell Meal’ — which included a few remarks by Ralph Pearson, myself and one or two other members of our group.

We retired early, recognizing that an early rising was required on Saturday, the day of our journey home.

We had to leave the hotel by 7:30 a.m. on Saturday, October 27th for the Warsaw airport.  The Westin Hotel provided us with bag breakfasts.  Our plane from Warsaw to Frankfurt had to be de-iced before we left in a smattering of snow flurries.  After navigating Frankfurt airport for our Lufthansa flight to Philadelphia, which also had to be de-iced, we took off a bit later than scheduled.  The flight home was pretty flawless, but arrival in Philly was marred slightly when two members of our group separated from the core to take care of a baggage issue which unfortunately resulted in  only 18 of our 20 participants taking the shuttle to Vincentown.  Eventually the two lost members made it home via Rapid Rover.

The general consensus was that this was a very aggressive but comprehensive tour.  We saw everything we anticipated seeing and learned a lot more than we anticipated.  I personally came away from the experience with a much greater appreciation for the freedoms I have as an American citizen.  I also have a much greater respect for the people of Central and Eastern Europe of my generation who endured so much suffering at the hands of the Nazis and the Russians.  I have a deeper understanding of the horror and evil of the perpetrators of the crimes of the holocaust and of the need to keep the memory alive so that these crimes will never happen again.  Everyone who can should visit the scenes of these crimes as we have in order to get a sense of their reality.

NOTE: My complete photo album for this tour has been posted on Snapfish. 


About burlcohistorian

I'm a former educator who spent 50 years as a teacher and administrator on both the high school and college levels in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. I'm a world traveler and have spent the last 20 years as an amateur historian, and since 2002 have served as the official Burlington County Historian. I am also heavily involved in the preservation efforts at historic Smithville Industrial Village, a Burlington County park near my home on Rancocas Creek, Vincentown.
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2 Responses to Beyond the War, the Holocaust, and the Wall: My 2012 Eastern European Odyssey

  1. Larry Tigar says:

    Looks like you had a great trip. Don’t have time right now to read all this, but will later. Keep in touch.

  2. Jim Keenan - Canevin '66 says:

    You wrote: “I personally came away from the experience with a much greater appreciation for the freedoms I have as an American citizen. I also have a much greater respect for the people of Central and Eastern Europe of my generation who endured so much suffering at the hands of the Nazis and the Russians. I have a deeper understanding of the horror and evil of the perpetrators of the crimes of the holocaust and of the need to keep the memory alive so that these crimes will never happen again.”
    I think these are important insights. My experience is that a lot of Americans do not realize that they take for granted things that others still struggle to have (freedom of speech, freedom of religion, for example). In telling Polish jokes, people don’t remember that once the Poles stood between Europe and chaos or that the wing design of modern fighter planes was a Polish invention. Among the myriad wonderful things done by Czechs, people don’t realize that they invented the sugar cube (of all their inventions this is surely a best beloved one) or that the original Budweiser beer came from there (maybe a close race for Best Beloved first place). I had friends (most of whom have passed on now) who had number tattoos on their arms and who only missed death at Nazi hands by luck, or whose whole families except themselves had gone up in smoke. One of my dearest friends is a Holocaust memorializer, passing on the story of a survivor for new generations.
    Thanks for writing that great account of your trip.

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