Leaving Warsaw we first went to Treblinka. Then we visited Sobibor. I came to Poland knowing more about those two death camps than I did about the others. I had read the memoirs of some of the survivors. There’a a great book called “Into That Darkness” that is a series of interviews with Franz Stangl, the commandant of Treblinka, that were done when he was in prison after the war. Worth reading. I’ll write about those two camps later.

Belzec. I knew very little about Belzec. Hundreds of thousands of people were murdered there. It’s near the border of Ukraine. It was part of the series of Aktion Reinhard camps – Treblinka, Sobibor, and Belzec – that were set up specifically to eradicate all Jews from Europe once the Final Solution became official Nazi policy.

The facts of all these camps are chilling; the numbers are mind-numbing. But Belzec. Belcez gave me what I came here for. And, as I expected, I didn’t like it.

Unlike the other camps, the Belzec death camp is not in a secluded area. Sitting just outside the town of Belzec, there are houses that look to be pre-war era dotting the area between the main avenue and the entrance to the camp. It definitely is, and was, part of the town.

There is a small visitor’s center/museum at the site. It’s filled with stories of those who died there, notes about those who ran the camp, and artifacts found years later. A case with dozens of Star of David armbands, tin bowls that the watery camp soup was ladled into, buttons, small toys, eyeglasses, shoes… the echoes of the people who passed through here. Nothing new or different from what we saw at the other camps or at the museums. People. Death. Mementoes.

It’s the memorial at Belzec that shook me. Subtle, yet an intense experience you don’t understand the intensity of until you are already in it. The Belzec memorial is a large hill filled with black stones and rocks encircled by a cement barrier with twisted pieces of rusted metal protruding upward. Slicing the field in half is a walkway with a tall memorial stone at the end. The pathway to the memorial stone is cut into the hill so that it is level. As you walk along the pathway, the symbolism of the stones and metal protrusions are clear. Feelings of sorrow, of the whole waste of human life. Of the cruelty and horror. A few steps further, as the hill rose and the path stayed level, I realized this was a turning point. I could still see the stones and metal without looking up, but the wall was up to my neck. I had the slight sensation of being trapped. I didn’t want to go forward, but I couldn’t turn back. Unlike those who died here, I did actually have the choice to go back. Back to the road, to the bus, back to my hotel with the soft bed and smooth linens. Room service. Hot tea on demand. I wanted to turn back. But I didn’t.

As the height of the wall increased, the feeling of being trapped did as well. The cement walls were not smooth, but had random, rough curves and outcroppings. Is was if there was a plasticity to the stone and the undulations of huge numbers of people pressing against it was frozen in time. With each step I took, there was a hollow “ping” echoing against the engulfing walls. Barely audible, but there. I listened closely to each ping, recognizing it as a footstep from the past. Ping. Ping. Ping. I don’t know how many steps I took – I wasn’t counting. But each of those pings was like a message from those behind the wall. Remember. Remember. Remember.

Never Forget.



My adventurous, travel-y side is embarrassed to admit that I spent our entire first day in Warsaw sleeping. The side of me that battles an auto-immune disease in this almost-50 yr old body says, “only one day?’ It has been a leisurely four days here in Warsaw and we have had a great time.

Sunny skies dotted with fluffy white clouds have been replaced with a steady drizzle of rain and a layer of overcast this morning. In spite of the amazing weather, we haven’t strayed far from the old section of Warsaw. A bit of history: almost the entire city was destroyed – on Hitler’s personal orders – during the Warsaw Uprising at the end of the WWII. The Russian army waited across the river as the city was bombed, shelled and burned.

After the war a portion of the city was rebuilt. The rebuilt northern section is New Town and the southern Old Town. It’s about a 2 mile walk – not a very large area. Our apartment is on the northern edge of New Town. A cute little studio with three large windows, cheery yellow walls, and light wood floors. Although we have a kitchen, we haven’t used it except to make tea and coffee and store a little cheese and yogurt snacks in the fridge. Al says he’s on vacation so he’s not cooking. And yeah, like I’m going to cook. It’s no coincidence I booked an apartment close to restaurants.

It’s a 2 minute walk from our apartment (Zakroczymska 5, Warsaw if you want to check it out on Google Earth) to where the streets are lined with several restaurants and coffee shops. Three minutes further and we’re in the square where we have 10-12 restaurants to choose from. We’ve indulged in such classic Polish fare as Greek salad, spaghetti, salmon tartare, baked chicken with sun-dried tomatoes and feta cheese… and a couple of actual Polish dishes as well. Al really likes the rye soup that includes sausage and hard-boiled eggs. Last night he finally tried a pierogi! A hearty dumpling filled with meat, onions, and mushrooms, Al reports it was delicious and filling. I’m trying very hard to stay on my plan so I don’t have inflammation, but it’s tough when so much of Polish food is wheat-based! Salads, roasted meats, potatoes, etc. have kept me nourished, happy, and full.

Yesterday we visited the newly opened Museum of the History of Polish Jews. So far they only have a basic exhibition open, but it was quite interesting. Gave a good overview of how, for centuries, Poland was home to the world’s largest Jewish community. The text of the Statute of Kalisz, in beautiful illuminated manuscripts, is exhibited throughout one room. I would encourage all to read about the Statute of Kalisz which was implemented by the Polish King in the 13th century. It is a far-reaching document codifying the rights of Jews within Poland is and quite impressive. I’m glad we visited the museum; it was a welcome change to see the historical Jewish community in Poland in a positive light. As heroes, not as the oppressed.

I woke up relatively early this morning, about 8:30, and let Al sleep until 9:30. He ran down to the coffee shop to enjoy his usual morning cup of cappuccino, then popped over to the pharmacy to grab some ibuprofen for me before finding a shop where he could buy an umbrella. It was raining when we woke up and really just stopped raining an hour or so ago as I write this (10pm). Al came back to the apartment around 10:30 to find me sound asleep again. Yeah, we’re not really morning people.

Heading out the door at about 1pm, we had two goals: visit the Warsaw Uprising Museum and see the small part of the Warsaw Ghetto Wall that still stands in its original state.  With the handy use of a taxi, we found the Warsaw Uprising Museum right away. There was an incredibly long line to get in and that is when we learned that admission is free on Sundays. Very interesting exhibits, but it was crowded and the museum’s layout is a bit awkward. We were unable to get into the 3-D movie that’s a digitized re-enactment of the German’s final bombing of the city during the uprising, but there was a sort of open theater with seating where you could watch newsreels from the time. The newsreels focused solely on the Uprising and kind of brought that period of time back to life. Young kids, some 8-10 years old, acted as couriers and passed out newspapers. Just about every Pole in Warsaw had a role. While these brave people fought the Germans, the Russians waited on the other side of the river. If the Russians had advanced to support the city’s residents… many more would have lived.

The Warsaw Ghetto Wall was harder to find. We had our map, our umbrella, and a general sense of where north was. After about 30 minutes of walking down narrow streets and crossing large avenues while balancing the umbrella and the map, we came upon a narrow opening between two old buildings. The sign indicated the Wall memorial was down a narrow pathway between them. Following a bit of a maze, we found the Wall. It is actually a piece of the original wall with weathered bricks, blackened in some places. There are a couple bricks missing that have a plaque next to the spaces that indicates where those pieces are being displayed. One set is in The Netherlands, another in the Holocaust Museum in Houston, Texas, and two are at the National Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. It looked like there were some other sites as well, but most everything was in Polish so I couldn’t tell for sure. I’m almost positive there is a set of bricks in Israel.

I stood at the wall and recalled scenes from documentaries and movies that were set in the Warsaw Ghetto. Of the films I have seen, the one that has stuck with me through our entire time in Warsaw is The Pianist. If you haven’t seen it, you must. It’s the true story of Wladyslow Spilman, a pianist and composer, who survived the Holocaust here in Warsaw. I saw, in my mind’s eye, the pictures of the small children with emaciated bodies lying against the wall with their hand out for a morsel of food. A morsel, that in most cases, never came. I saw Janus Korzak, the doctor who accompanied the orphans he was in charge of to Treblinka, rather than save himself and have the children go to their deaths alone. The spirit of Irena Sandler was there. But the ghosts of the Nazi SS were there as well. The forces of good found pockets of opportunity, but the forces of evil were much more powerful.

We didn’t spend much time at the wall. It was getting dark and cold. That felt about right.

Never Forget.

The German Kulmhof Death Camp in Chelmno on Ner

I don’t want to write about Chelmno. It’s a lot to process and I haven’t done so yet. Not sure I ever will, in fact. I don’t feel up to the task of documenting this place or my experience here, but here goes.

Chelmno is the name commonly used for this site today. It was the first Death Camp the Nazis built and it is the first of the five we will visit on this trip. It has an especially horrific history in that the Nazis were experimenting in ways to murder large numbers of people. They hadn’t found the most efficient ways yet.

Located on a hill with a magnificent view of the river and valley below, Chelmno was used for killing for two periods. The first lasted between Dec 8, 1941 and April 11, 1943. The killing was done in mobile gas chambers – converted trucks. The trucks were filled with 80-100 people, then driven around the area for about 20 minutes with hoses connected to the tailpipes spewing exhaust into the cargo area. The bodies were taken to the Rzuchowski Forest about 2 miles away.

The second period lasted from the spring/summer of 1944 and continued until Jan 18, 1945. I’m not clear on the chronology, but there were different ways the Nazis tried in their quest to make their killing most efficient. The truck system was developed because they felt that shooting the victims took too much time and could become emotionally difficult for some of the soldiers. They also murdered many victims by forcing them into pits filled with quicklime, then added water. The area where the Rom (Gypsies) bodies are buried is still being studied. When they started to dig in that area, a fine mist rose from the ground. The rubber gloves the workers wore melted when they touched the soil. Efforts to exhume that area were halted and they are raising additional funds to investigate further.

Prior to visiting Chelmno, I hadn’t heard about the quicklime method. In the midst of all this horror, this piece of information hit me harder, emotionally, than I thought was possible. I have read so much about the Shoah, and each piece of information I gained from my reading was shocking. But finding out about this while standing in the very place where this was done to people shook me terribly. The killing was bad enough – but the method so inhumane, so horrific…

Maybe I’ll write more about this later. I will post photos. You’ll notice in the photos that this looks like a beautiful area where you might take your kids hiking or camping. Perfect for picnics and bike rides. The beauty and the normalcy of the area is bizarre to me. I think I had the idea that these places that were barren of humanity would be barren of beauty as well. It took me aback.

Never Forget.

Lodz Jewish Cemetery

August 20, 2014.

Our guide, Slav, picked us up from our hotel at 9:30 and after a bit of trouble with the GPS and several wrong turns/dead ends we arrived at the entrance to the Lodz Jewish Cemetery – the largest Jewish cemetery in Poland. Established in 1892, about 160,000 people are buried here.

Entering the large entrance gate you immediately encounter rows of old, closely spaced headstones. Most have Hebrew writing, some have Polish as well as Hebrew. Once you get past the first few rows along the grassy area you enter a heavily wooded area. The headstones are placed even more closely and are almost jammed together between the trees and amongst the undergrowth. All of the headstones are several feet high and most are almost completely covered in writing with designs at the top. A broken tree, or oak leaves are popular motifs. The stones are weathered and many lean to one side, giving the cemetery a much older feel than it actually is.

Slav led us through the paths, pointing out the different headstone motifs and translating some of the writing for us. At one point we had to step over a large fallen oak tree as we made our way to Ghetto Field.

Ghetto Field is the area of the cemetery where those who died in the Lodz Ghetto, from starvation, disease (usually typhus), or being shot or beaten to death by the Nazis, are buried. Many who died in the Ghetto, but were not able to be buried here, are memorialized by plaques placed in Ghetto Field.

Stepping out of the heavily wooded area on to the huge open clearing that is Ghetto Field is a jarring experience. The graves of those behind us are the graves of people who died in the normal process of life. Old age, disease, accidents… these are the risks and challenges of the human experience. The graves and markers in front of us are people who were murdered by individuals serving evil. The scope is chilling. It is one thing to look at a sign saying approximately 43,000 victims of the Lodz Ghetto are buried here; it is quite another to look out on a field with 43,000 or so graves and markers.

As my eyes scan the rows upon rows upon rows upon rows of markers I think of the portraits I have seen of Shoah victims. I try to grasp the inviduality of each of the people buried or memorialized. That unmarked grave to my left is perhaps a teenage girl who, in her last hours, was surrounded by family members; her mother gently stroking her hand across her daughter’s hot forehead, her father pacing with terror in his eyes, her older brother sitting at the foot of her bed consumed with grief and rage as he holds their older sister’s hand as they all helplessly watch typhus drain the life from this girl.

The unmarked grave in front of me is perhaps that girl’s brother. He was shot in the street of the Ghetto by Nazis for no reason other than the he was Jewish and the Nazi soldiers were bored. Or he died when a large section of crumbling roof fell where he stood.

After 9-11 I remember someone saying that it wasn’t that 3,000 died in the attack, it was that one person died – 3,000 times. Taking the numbers, especially when they are so horrifically large as 43,000 and translating that into the idea that a single life – a normal life of laughter, love, sorrow, anxiety, boredom, dreams, fears, simple pleasures, and every day experiences – was horribly snuffed out. A single person was murdered. 43,000 times an individual was killed with malice and intent. Right here, in this cemetery, I look upon 43,000 of these people.

Never forget.

Mowi pan po angielsku?

Mowi pan po angielsku? Do you speak English? A very handy phrase. Like most Europeans, a lot of Poles speak English. I’ve tried a few of my Polish phrases and I get an amused smile from most… apparently my pronunciation needs a little work.

This is the start of our second full day in Poland and this is my first post. I railed against United Airlines on Facebook, but I have to say that although the trip was longer and more arduous than originally expected the folks at United were really great. Our flight out of Phoenix to Chicago was delayed due to mechanical issues, but they booked us on a later flight from Chicago to London, then on to Warsaw. Unfortunately, our flight out of Chicago was also delayed due to mechanical issues and so we arrived in London too late to catch our flight to Warsaw. On to Frankfurt, Germany where we were able to get on a Lufthansa flight to Warsaw.

We had the same crew – different plane – on the London/Frankfurt and Frankfurt/Warsaw flight. Loved them. We sat next to a young Polish guy named Piotr who is working on his PhD in physics. He described himself as the Polish Sheldon Cooper (Big Bang Theory). His personality was nothing like Sheldon’s, but he is working on string theory. I mentioned my son is interested in that… then we moved on to other topics. I know nothing about string theory!

My feet were my biggest enemy on the trip. Ended up on Percocet almost the entire journey & could still barely walk a few steps. The nice part of that is that in every airport I was wheeled around in a wheelchair by someone who knew the airport and took us directly to our gate. Tried to tip my “driver” in Frankfurt, but he refused. “They pay us enough that we don’t need tips,” he said. What a concept! We got early boarding on every flight, then when we arrived in Warsaw the wheelchair driver arranged for us to skip the taxi line and grab a cab minutes after we arrived at the curb. Normally I might have felt a bit self-conscious, but I was so exhausted and in so much pain I didn’t care.

Pulled up the the Hotel Airport Okecia and was a little taken aback at first. They are doing a lot of renovation and the front of the building is all torn up. Inside it was lovely though and the staff were very friendly. The room was relatively large by European standards, clean, and really comfortable. We arrived too late for dinner room service, so we ordered off the late night menu – a Greek salad and hot chocolate for me. Weird mix, but I really wanted hot chocolate. OMG. The food was amazing. Best tomatoes I’ve had since my grandmother grew them in her garden. Insanely fresh. And the Chocolate God must be Polish because the hot chocolate was perfect. Rich, but not too rich; sweet, but not too sweet; chocolate-y, but not too. I died and went to chocolate heaven.

Took a taxi to the train station Monday about 11am with no idea what time the trains were scheduled for Lodz (pronounced wood-dzh). Fate smiled upon us and we took the noon train. Arrived in Lodz at 2:30. None of the taxi drivers at the Lodz station spoke English so I promptly launched into my practiced Polish by pointing to a piece of paper with the hotel address on it, rubbed my fingers together in the international sign for money and asked “zloty?” The zloty is the Polish currency. He conferred with the other drivers for a minute then turned back to us and said, “dwadzescie.” Twenty. We smiled. Our three taxi rides here in Poland have each been about twenty zloty. To paraphrase Oh Brother Where Art Thou, we’re in a geographic oddity where everything  is a 20 zloty taxi ride away. That amount, by the way, is about $6.40. Same rides in Phoenix would have cost $20-25 each. And as long as I’m rambling on this morning… next topic is: Poland is cheap!

Holy smokes the dollar goes a long way here. Our hotel in Warsaw was $54, our room here at Boutique II Hotel in Lodz is $34/night. And these are nice places! Boutique II is kind of funky with artsy furniture in the lobby. The room is good sized, very clean, with a comfortable bed and soft linens and pillows. In Phoenix you’d expect to pay $150 or so for this place.  It’s located about 50 yards from the south entrance of the Piotrwkowska promenade. We were told there are over 100 bars and restaurants along the promenade and I think we passed about 50 of them on our stroll. Stopped for a beer at one and ended up meeting Enzo, an Italian who is a big fan of Poland! He introduced us to a drink that was amazing. It’s an almond flavored vodka with milk. Kind of like a White Russian, but without the Kahlua and with almond. Okay, so not really like that drink at all. But it was delicious. Al noted that the beer has a higher alcohol content here, but I think that it wasn’t the three beers he drank but the lemon vodka shot and the almond vodka/milk shots he and Enzo enjoyed. I had a sip of Al’s shot. Next time I’ll order my own. New favorite drink.

So yeah, it’s 6:38 am and breakfast service starts at 7. After breakfast we’re taking a taxi (20 zloty?) to the Jewish Ghetto here in Lodz and also to the Jewish cemetery. I understand the Ghetto is pretty well preserved from WWII. It was the 2nd largest Ghetto, after Warsaw, in Poland. The Jewish cemetery here on Lodz is the largest in Poland. Tomorrow morning our guide, Slav, will pick us up at the hotel at 9:30 and we will visit the death camp at Chelmno. So we pause our touristy part of our trip to engage in the core purpose of our trip: Holocaust remembrance.