Sunday, April 24, 2011

Wildflowers and Chimneys

(Should have been posted on morning of Wednesday, April 20th)

Although Auschwitz was the last camp on our tour, it was the most anticipated site before the trip. As the largest concentration/extermination camp, Auschwitz (which includes Auschwitz-Birkenau and Auschwitz-Monowitz) is the most well known around the world. Our tour of the site began at Auschwitz I, the portion of the camp that existed prior to WWII, which originally served as a military base for Polish troops. We entered a very busy building that serves as the entry way for the museum and grounds. In this building, you could hear several different languages, and according to our guide, Auschwitz is visited by people from nearly 100 different countries each year. To limit the noise throughout Auschwitz I (the museum portion today), they have begun using microphones for the guides and headphones for group members. These created a more personalized, reflective feel as our guide navigated us through the site jammed with other tours.

Our tour of Auschwitz I focused on two key themes: the extermination of the Jewish race and the other prisoners that inhabited Auschwitz I/II (Birkenau). As part of our tour, we saw amazing photos which were taken by SS men and found after Liberation. The photos showed various aspects of the process and procedure followed at Auschwitz. Additionally, the tour focused a great deal on items confiscated at arrival to the camp. These items were stored in places the inmates called “Canada” as the warehouses represented freedom and opportunity. We viewed exhibits filled with various belongings—combs, brushes, pots/pans/bowls, shoes, children’s clothes and toys, and the most disturbing of all: hair. At Auschwitz-Birkenau, hair was not shaved off upon arrival but rather after execution in the gas chambers. This method was preferred since it lessened resistance. The sheer mass and scale of the hair was unbelievable and touched many of us in a way similar to the exhibit of shoes at Majdanek.

After a short drive from Auschwitz I to Auschwitz II, we toured the most well known portion of the camp. At Birkenau, thousands of European Jews arrived via railcar each day, they were sorted based on gender, and some may have had the fortune of becoming an inmate of the camp. For the others, they met a terrible fate in the gas chambers. Today, the remnants of the gas chambers reveal their true nature even though Nazis took efforts to destroy them before liberation. At the site, we were able to walk around and explore the massive size of the camp—the size is difficult to grasp without walking the grounds. The site had some unique features, and in particular the ruins of hundreds of chimneys helped reveal the true size of the camp. The chimneys today reside alongside beautiful wildflowers. In some ways this juxtaposition provides hope as it reveals beauty among ruin. The mere fact that beautiful things can exist at one of the most notorious extermination sites must provide hope for a better future. Auschwitz touched many of us differently than the previous camps. For many of us, we walked the grounds of stories we read, testimonies we heard, and movies we viewed, and tales from Auschwitz became that much more powerful.

Our day continued in Krakow as the kids met up with their Polish hosts in the afternoon. Some of the hosts had graduated earlier in the day, but their schooling is not complete as they have to sit for exams after Easter. In the evening, we all attended a concert at a large church in Krakow. Although the concert was rather long, it was beautiful to listen to traditional European instruments and arrangements in such a setting. The acoustics were also amazing!

Today is technically a free day of touring, but all of us will be making our way out of Krakow and exploring the salt mines. Students will have an opportunity to spend more time with their hosts, and we’ll all have a bit more time to shop.

Saturday, April 23, 2011


My backlog of posts will be uploaded as soon as I catch some sleep! For now, here's the pictures.


Thursday, April 21, 2011

Modem problems

Modem was being uncooperative this morning. We saw the salt mines today, and I will try to post my blog later. It's all written at least!

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The City of Krakow

Our first full day in Krakow allowed us to get a real flavor of the city. We began our day at the school, so for each of us we traveled there a different way. Some of the students walked, were driven, took several trams or used a combination of all three. When your school is located in the city center, the experience begins quite differently from one set in suburbia. There certainly weren’t any yellow school buses chauffeuring our students around.

Lyceum V’s building is nothing at all like HCRHS—it’s situated in a historic building in the heart of the city. There a large imposing staircases and beautiful architecture when you first enter the doors, and quickly, you see how the building’s nook and crannies make it difficult for a stranger to navigate. Although the building differs from Central, the students and the faculty are not so distinct. The students’ dress reflects their individual personalities and style, and the teachers acted much the same way we do in the morning—searching for the copies needed for class and running around making final preparations. Polish students and teachers really aren’t all that different from their American counter-parts. In our friend Agnieszka’s English class, the teachers and a few of the Central students explored the similarities and differences between American and Polish teenagers. We discovered that despite some style differences, teenagers are teenagers—they love their phones, the Internet, shopping, and escaping the clutches of their parents.

After spending a few hours in the morning at the school, we walked around some of the historic portions of the city. We saw the remnants of the old city walls, Wawel Castle and Cathedral, and the historic town square. The city is gorgeous—particularly at night!

Today, we will be heading to Auschwitz. After visiting Terezin, Treblinka, and Majdanek, I believe that this seemingly quintessential camp will still be extremely impactful for each of us.

Monday, April 18, 2011

The Juxtaposition of Reality

On the day of our longest intra-Europe travel day, we woke in the city of Lublin and journeyed to the extermination camp Majdanek. Today, the camp is situated alongside modernity—clear signs of the 21st century. According to our guide, the buildings closest to the camp were not in existence while the camp was functioning, but nonetheless the ability to view a modern city next to the best preserved Nazi death camp is rather chilling.

Majdanek is hard to miss as you drive out of the city center. You see a large monument on the right and behind that monument lays barbed wire, watch towers, rows of narrow buildings, and a crematorium. If you did not know what you were looking at, perhaps you just arrived on planet earth, Majdanek may appear to be a state park or other preserved landscape. To anyone who has ever read a story about the Holocaust, watched a modern day film, or toured a museum on World War II, it is unmistakable as to the true nature of this place.

The most chilling part of Majdanek would have to be a small building that houses thousands of shoes from those executed at the site. The shoes have been placed in containers which line the walls and take up three very high rows in the middle of the room. As you walk among the rows of shoes, you see the individuals who perished—a woman’s sandal, a man’s work boot, and so on. For our students, this was the most poignant part of our trip so far. The death toll was narrowed into individuals who owned shoes just like anyone else, and often, the shoes revealed how little people knew about the journey ahead.

After spending a few very somber hours in Majdanek, we boarded our bus and began our journey to Krakow. We stopped a few times on the way and finally got to our hosts at about 6 pm. It was lovely to see the kids get excited on the bus before we arrived—they were a mixture of nerves and enthusiasm. Despite some fears about being recognized, they very quickly met up with their host families and went off into various parts of Krakow. The teachers were met by our lovely friends who teach at Lyceum V. We were just as excited as the kids to see our dear friends again!

Today, we look forward to a full day in Krakow with some time at school, around the city, and a reception at the school this evening.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Traversing Poland

Yesterday we began our day in Warsaw with a walk around some of the cities prettiest areas. We toured some of the palaces including the summer palace of Poland’s formerly elected king. Along this journey, we passed by the Chopin monument and spoke about the cultural significance of the composer in Poland. Additionally, we walked through some of the city’s most beautiful parks.

Along our way, we stopped at monuments to various Polish leaders—particularly those that participated in Warsaw’s Uprising during WWII and those that were part of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. We made sure to spend some time in the museum dedicated to the Uprising during WWII (which includes several exhibits on the ghetto uprising) and the museum did not disappoint. We watched a computer generated 3-D film that shows the destruction of at the end of WWII, we climbed through replica sewer tunnels complete with sound effects, and we examined tons of other features of the museum. Thankfully the text around the museum is in English

After Warsaw Rising, we had a nice lunch downtown. Then we headed back to the area where the Warsaw Ghetto was located and took some time to discuss the leaders of the ghetto uprising. Then it was to board the bus for our 3+ hour drive to Lublin.

This morning a big day awaits us—we will have breakfast and then travel to another extermination camp: Majdanek. This camp is commonly referred to as the best preserved camp and we will walk around the grounds for well over 2 hours. After touring the camp, we will load the bus and journey to Krakow, which will take almost 5 hours. Thankfully, we stop partway and have lunch. We found out yesterday that Polish rest areas do not really exist, but thankfully our guide knows key spots for WC stops.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Welcome to Poland!

During the night Friday into Saturday, we crossed from the Czech Republic into Poland. At a little after 7 am, we arrived at the main railway station in Warsaw. Our guide was waiting for us in the station and led us to our luxury bus which will take us around Poland. Since we all needed a good meal, we went to our hotel in Warsaw for breakfast and some much needed coffee. Afterward, we boarded the bus again—this time heading outside of the city.

After an hour and a half ride, we arrived at the small village of Treblinka, which became synonymous with the notorious extermination camp built there by the Nazis. Due to its approximation to rail lines, Treblinka was seen as an ideal place for the Nazis to put forth their Final Solution with complete annihilation of the Jewish race. Through the efforts of scientists, doctors, and Nazi leadership, Treblinka became the Reich’s most efficient death camp. In total, over 800,000 people perished at the came—many of whom never realized they were at a death camp until it was too late.

Today, Treblinka is only retained in memory. The Nazis destroyed the camp and planted grass to cover the evidence of their atrocities. To memorialize Treblinka, artists, historians and others came together to create an exhibit that recognizes those that were murdered at the site. With large stone rocks and other features, those that died at Treblinka are not forgotten. During our time at the site of the death camp, all 17 of us went off in our own direction and meandered through the memorial. It was an extremely emotional place, and it was extremely evident how much the students were touched by their somber moods and overall reverence for the memorial.

I’m not sure that I’ve heard high school students be completely silent for more than 10 minutes, but today 14 students did not speak for well over 45 minutes. They were in tune with the overwhelming reality of what happened on the ground we walked on, and they all dealt with it in their own way. I’m not sure I’ve ever been more impressed by young people. If this empathy could exist among all adolescents, it would be a wonderful thing!

After Treblinka, we had a nice lunch on the way back to Warsaw. When we arrived in Warsaw, we toured through Old Town—the portion of Warsaw that was restored after World War II when it was nearly completely destroyed. We finished with a buffet dinner at our hotel, and now find ourselves resting for the remainder of the day.

We all need some time to relax after Treblinka—another reason why this trip is so important and life-changing.

Friday, April 15, 2011

The Overnight Train

So far so good on the overnight train! Most of the students equated the train with the Hogwarts Express which made it that much cooler in their eyes. Unfortunately, Hagrid is not going to meet us when we arrive in Warsaw, but we will be met by our next tour guide.

Our last day in Prague was lovely--we did see the sun peak out! In the morning, we started out at Prague Castle: exploring the cathedral, old castle, and view of downtown Prague. We had lunch right within the walls of the castle and then watched a concert of classical music. After the concert, we walked down from the top of the hill where the castle is situated and made our way to Charles Bridge. This bridge is the most iconic bridge in Prague as it was built in the Middle Ages. As a footbridge, it has a vibrant feel to it with performers and merchants. From our walk to Charles Bridge, we shopped and explored Prague until dinner. We had a lavish meal at the Blue Rose -- right next to our hotel which has a 15th century grotto feel. It was stunning! Directly from dinner, we were taken to the train station and boarded our very own "Warsaw Express" which will help us begin the second leg of our journey.

Next time, Poland!

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Czech Sun

Yesterday, we had a day filled with somber reminders of why we’re in Eastern Europe, but we also had the good fortune of having nicer weather than our first day here

After a tasty breakfast at the hotel, we left at 8:30 am to travel to the town of Terezin. Historically, speaking Terezin has some unique features. It was originally built in the late 18th century to protect the Austrian-Hungarian empire from Prussia to the north, but became known as the “model ghetto” during Nazi occupation.

Upon arrival in Terezin, we went to the “small fortress” – the size is quite relative. This portion was designed as a military installation and also served as a political prison in its earliest years. Here we explored prison cells for men and women, washrooms (for show when the International Red Cross came to inspect), tunnels that connect various parts of the fortress, and the areas where prisoner executions took place.

We boarded the bus again for the short ride to the walled down of Terezin or the “large fortress.” Also fortified, this portion originally served to house those that served and supported the fortification. When the Nazis took over Czechoslovakia, the Czech inhabitants were forced to move out, and Jews from the region were concentrated there. The ghetto of Terezin is hard to imagine as the town has been beautified as a memorial site. Additionally 2,000 residents still live in Terezin—many of them the relatives of those that were originally forced out. It was surreal to have lunch in a cafĂ© within the walls of Terezin. One of the students pointed out that Katy Perry was on the radio, there was a flat screen tv in the room, and we were eating lunch in a place were thousands starved. The Nazis packed in over 60,000 Jews into a city designed for 3,000 inhabitants—a statistic that made the death toll more conceivable.

After Terezin, we had an hour’s ride to Lidice (or more correctly the memorial to the former town of Lidice). For those do not know, the story of Lidice is terribly devastating as Hitler used the town as one of his many examples in an effort to maintain complete control through utter terror. Lidice was a small town of Christian Czech citizens who were blamed for playing a role in the assassination attempt (which ultimately was successful due to infection) of Nazi leader Rhinehard Heydrich. The people of Lidice likely played absolutely not role in the shooting of Heydrich, but they were made an example of anyway. Hitler ordered the male citizens of Lidice executed the women and children sent to the concentration camps, and the town destroyed entirely. His orders were fully carried out in a two day span where the male population was taken to the outskirts of town and murdered without explanation. Many of the women were sent to Ravensbruck camp and some of the children were placed in the home of good German children for re-education. The town of Lidice no longer exists—the surviving inhabitants along with people from around the world who were horrified by what had happened helped build a new Lidice just beyond the original town’s boundaries. We toured the museum and memorial to the town. We saw the sun in the Czech Republic for the first time when we began walking the memorial—it provided much needed warmth for this experience.

When we returned to Prague, we shopped and refreshed ourselves before dinner with Dr. Felix Kolmer, a survivor of Terezin and Auschwitz who is a native son of Prague. Dr. Kolmer’s presentation was timely as we had fresh images of Terezin in our heads and will be going to Auschwitz in just days.

All in all, it was a very long, somber day, but one that solidified the purpose of our trip and our study of the Holocaust. We are all hoping the sun makes a return appearance today.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Longest Day on Record

Yesterday (Tuesday), I woke at 4:30 am in NJ, and as I sit here writing this it is after 9 pm in Prague. It has been an extremely long “day”…but at the same time, it has been a truly wonderful day.

We had a smooth departure from Newark airport (after a bit of delay—likely due to the rain showers), and despite a bit of turbulence, the 6+ hour flight was pretty pleasant. I was able to experience a student’s first flight (since he was 4 years old), so I took on the role of counselor a bit. I also stuck to the back of the line as we went through our “hurry and wait” travels. This led to my “momma duck” nickname as I was constantly urging them from behind.

Upon arrival in Dusseldorf, we were all exhausted, but mustered the energy to get on a much shorter flight to Prague. We landed in Prague at about 8:30 am local time, and our guide Gabriella was there to meet us. Gabriella has done a fine job leading us through Prague today. We encountered rain showers today, but she did her best to keep us dry and moving along.

After dropping off our luggage at Modra Ruze (Blu3e Rose), we headed to the Jewish quarter of the city where we went through the Jewish cemetery, the oldest Jewish synagogue still in operation (in Europe – I believe), and the Spanish synagogue famous for its architecture and design.

Despite being dead on our feet, the group hung together and managed to make it through the walking tour and lunch. After lunch, we checked in to the hotel. We discovered that some of our ladies and gents are living like princes and princesses while others a residing a bit more like the average peon. But in all sincerity, the rooms are all lovely – some just have vaulted ceilings or raised platforms (like my room).

In desperate need to shower and rest, we stayed at the hotel until 5:30 when we went to dinner in the “Old” section of town off of the city’s historic main square. All of our meals include three courses, so we’re glad for all of the walking to balance it out!

Tomorrow, we’re headed outside of the city in the morning as we travel to Terezin and the Lidice.

Despite over-exhaustion and exertion, the trip is going well so far, and everyone seems to be enjoying it!

Monday, April 11, 2011

The Night Before

Well grades have been submitted, sub plans have been written, packing is 95% complete, and tonight's the last night before we leave. I've been excited/anxious all day, and now things feel set for tomorrow. Though I'm sure the nerves will stay with me until we're on the plane tomorrow afternoon.

At this point tomorrow, we'll be somewhere over the north Atlantic at this time! :)

Next post, Prague!

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

A week to go!

With only a week left, the Holocaust Overseas tour is a reality! We had our final parent/student meeting last night, and everyone seems ecstatic for our journey.

We'll be flying out of Newark about this time a week from now and beginning our journey in Prague. After a few days to explore the beautiful city and relevant Holocaust sites, we will take an overnight train to Warsaw. Then we will travel around Poland to various museums and camps, and finally, we will end up in Krakow with our Polish hosts. I cannot wait to meet this year's students from Lyceum V and reconnect with the lovely faculty from there.

In my excitement for the trip, I went on Google to seek out information about the overnight train (the only component I have trepidation about). Let's just say that I hope we're riding first class--otherwise, I may not get much sleep! Here's some tips (via

Tell me more about night trains

  • What are the benefits of taking an overnight train?
    • Simple. It lets you spend a full day sightseeing in one city, then wake up refreshed and ready to start the next day in another. While also saving you the money you would’ve spent on a hotel.
  • What types of overnight accommodations are available if I am traveling with a railpass?
    • It depends on your railpass. First-class passes get sleeper accommodations (containing either 1 or 2 private bed, a washbasin, fresh linens and towels). Second-class passes provide T3 compartments (containing 3 beds, a washbasin, fresh linens and towels) and couchettes (which are shared compartments that have 6 beds without amenities). Some T4 compartments (containing 4 beds plus amenities) are offered in 1st and 2nd class as well. You just need to check your train and fare details for specific availability.
  • What does “gender specific” mean?
    • It means we keep the boys and girls separate at night, unless you and your travel companions book all the beds within a compartment. It specifically applies to the Elipsos, City Night Line, Lusitania (train from Madrid to Lisbon), and Spanish Night trains. And as romantic as those trains are, we just had to do it.
  • What types of compartments or sleeping accommodations are available on overnight trains?
    • They vary according to the train and route. The most common compartments are Singles, Doubles, and Couchettes. Some offer T3, T4 and Deluxe Sleepers.
    • Here are a few details. A Single is a first-class compartment that contains one bed, a private washbasin, linens, towels and its own lock. A Double is the same with 2 beds (normally bunked). A couchette is a very affordable second-class option with 6 bunked beds and a public washroom. The T3 compartments contain 3 beds, a private washbasin, fresh linens and towels, and the T4 contains 4 beds plus those amenities. Lastly, Deluxe Sleepers include a private restroom in your compartment.

Edited to include hotel information: