A month in Berlin, Warsaw, Kraków, Budapest,Bratislava, Vienna and Prague


Level 2 Member
Eastern Europe Trip Journal #1
Written October 6, 2016

PDX >> SFO >> IST >> TXL Outbound
A week in Berlin
TXL >> WAW 2 days in Warsaw
Two weeks of travel on the ground: Warsaw, Kraków, Budapest, Bratislava, Vienna, Prague
PRG >> VIE 2 days more in Vienna
VIE >> EWR >> PDX Return home

Hello Saverocity!

First of all, I want to thank all those who gave me travel tips and advice. As I sit at the gate waiting to board, I am very grateful for all I've learned here at Saverocity, in general and specifically as I planned this month-long trip to Germany and Eastern Europe.

This trip will be different from just about all of our previous ones, because it includes this:


After a week in Berlin and two days on our own in Warsaw, we will meet the tour group. The tour ends in Prague, and we'll spend three more days there, before flying to Vienna for another two days.

Why would a travel hacker and relatively frequent flyer book an organized tour? Basically for the same reason we did two organized safaris in South Africa in the middle of a month-long trip there. We felt that our experience would be enhanced with the benefit of professional guides. And it definitely was. In the case of Eastern Europe, we wanted to cover a lot of ground in countries where we had no language skills. We also had a shorter time to plan the trip, and other obligations that had to take priority. So we picked a highly rated tour company, which offered a tour with lots of free time and no shopping ;) .

We are now taxiing after a 35 minute delay so the first leg of this trip has begun. I hope the dog in the row behind me will be as well behaved as the little girl across the aisle. So far, so good. The rest of this saver award ticket will be in business class, but this short hop from PDX to SFO is economy plus. It is just fine.

I always look forward to this very moment at the start of a trip - the travel choices have been made and the on-the-ground planning is done; the packing decisions are behind me and the house is closed up for the month we'll be away. I'll have to make due wIthout anything I forgot and deal on another day with whatever I postponed. All the points I've been assiduously accumulating are being put to terrific use, and we are starting a new adventure in places we've never been. Here's hoping we'll have safe and stimulating travels. More soon!


Mountain Trader

Level 2 Member

Have a great time!

I'm especially interested in your experience with Odysseys Unlimited. We are thinking of using a small group tour for many of the same reasons you mentioned. We haven't joined a group since our last trekking trip almost 20 years ago.

Safe travels.


Level 2 Member
Would love to hear about your experiences too as we're looking at some of the same places next year. On our current trip we found out tours don't work well for our husband. He needs to be on his own schedule and go at his own pace. :)


Level 2 Member
Greetings from Kraków! Not much time to write, but here is what I sent to friends and family recently:

October 14, 2016, 11PM, on board flight AB8210 from Berlin to Warsaw

Hello from Eastern Europe!

A week ago tonight, we arrived in Berlin. Before we begin a new set of adventures in Warsaw, I am eager to write about Berlin. Too many days have passed to attempt a detailed chronological account; instead I will share some impressions, experiences and highlights.

With apologies to those folks who may not be interested in a journal entry about "a Jewish American in Germany," I promise that my trip journals won't all be Holocaust and WW2 - but I simply can't write about being in Berlin without that overlay. Just skip those parts or hit the delete key now. I am also happy to remove anyone's email address from my list if you'd prefer not to get more of these missives, which in all honesty will focus on what I want to write and to remember. They are really more for me than for you, but I am very happy to share. It is totally your call if you want to read.

The last time I was in Germany it was 1973; not even 30 years from the end of the catastrophic Second World War. I could not help but look, with some horror, suspicion and anxiety, at anyone who looked to be the age of my parents or grandparents. Was I queueing behind a holocaust survivor, a ex-German army officer, or a righteous Gentile who risked her life to save Jewish neighbors? What awful thing may have happened at the very spot on which I now stood? My comfort level was non-existent and I just wanted to leave.

Not so this time. I was quite struck and impressed with the frank, honest and unvarnished history that is everywhere in Berlin, ever present and unable to be ignored. From the plaques and historical markers that are on so many blocks, buildings and street corners to the cobblestone-sized stumbling stones, set amongst the more ordinary cobblestones at the last known address of individual Jews who were arrested, deported and ultimately murdered; from the cement blocks of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, which occupies a large and central area in the very heart of the city, just a few steps from the Brandenburg Gate, to the young non-Jewish Berliners who saw us looking a bit lost, and stopped to help, volunteering the suggestion that we must visit the Jewish Museum before we leave.

Which, of course, we did. Much of the history was not new to us, but the museum offers a very impressionistic, emotional, and architectural approach that significantly enhances the history it recounts. The building merges an older structure with a new one that resembles a fractured Jewish Star. The lowest level has three long corridors, or axes: for Holocaust, Exile, and Continuity.

At the end of the Axis of Exile is a Garden of Exile, a work of art that attempts to represent the experience of the exiled. You step through a heavy black door, and find yourself on a slope that is paved with cobblestones that are set quite high, such that between the slope and the rounded stones, you cannot take any step that is sure-footed or feels safe. You are always off balance. As you stumble among and around the high rectangular cement pillars, or perhaps they are better described a cement boxes because they double as planters, you are not quite sure where you are; and what or who might be around the nezt corner. Planted atop the cement blocks are olive trees, and you can see the light at the edges of the installation area, but the feeling of being unsettled, uneasy, anxious, and unsteady never leaves you. It really gave me a visceral sense of what it may have felt like when a survivor was liberated and tried to resume life in a foreign land, or a person who never thought he'd leave his native German city fled after Kristalnacht, suddenly an immigrant trying to find refuge in a different and perhaps unwelcoming place. Obviously I could never feel what they have, but the definitions of words like unstable, unsettled, and sure-footed will never be the same for me.

Before we went to the Jewish Museum, we went to the Neue Synagogue, to get the tickets we'd need to attend Kol Nidrei evening and Yom Kippor day services. Unlike nearly all of the other synagogues that were attacked on Kristalnacht, the Neue was not burned to the ground or totally destroyed. While the police and fire departments were ordered to let the buildings burn, a German official instructed the fire department in his neighborhood to try to save the Neue Synagogue. It has been restored, but in a way that allows the visitor or worshipper to see how the building was damaged. It will be a Yom Kippor I will never forget.

Our route from the Neue to the Jewish Museum took us quite close to Checkpoint Charlie, and we explored that area, including outdoor exhibits on the creation, history and operation of the Wall. We continued the detour by walking a few block further, to see one of the city's still standing sections of the Wall. We found ourselves in a very traumatic spot. Just a few meters on the west side of the Wall were remains of basement walls of two buildings that had been taken over by the Gestapo, SS, and Reich Security shortly after Hitler came to power. The only other extant original objects from the war period are a jumble of big concrete stones and crumbling brick sections; remnants of the driveway that led to the Gestapo building.

Behind that is the Topography of Terror, a museum Bob visited, which documents the Nazi apparatus of terror and persecution at one of the main spots from which it was administered from 1933-1945. To stand on the memorial plaza, able to see the Gestapo driveway remnants, the remains of the SS building basement walls, the still standing sections of the Berlin Wall, and finally what had been East Berlin behind it, was an extremely sobering and emotional experience for me. Despite all the historical evidence all around me, it remained hard to believe and take in the enormity of the depravity that took place at this spot and, indeed, all over Europe.

Not all of our time in Berlin was so somber, and I've much more to say, but this is a good point to stop. If you have read this far, thank you. I'll be back soon with more about our other adventures in Berlin.


Level 2 Member
Amazing, sad and hopeful, all at once, Elaine. No matter what's going on, here or in the rest of the world, I can't help but believe that the good guys will win in the end. Given that I have no clue when that end is, though...

It sounds like Germany has, at least for now, realized that it's stronger as a diverse nation than an insular one. And that remembering and making reparations for its past national sins is a good step towards healing from them.

Two lessons for all countries, don't you think?


Level 2 Member
We visited a lot of the same places in Berlin. I think it was especially poignant for us. Tony's ancestors on both sides of his family are German. My ancestors on both sides of my family are Jewish. I couldn't help but think a different time and a different place.....


Level 2 Member
Friday October 21, 2016, en route from Krakow to Budapest

I have clearly fallen far behind because I have not even finshed writing about Berlin, and we have already visited both Krakow and Warsaw! Both for your info and my own, here is what I haven't yet mentioned about our time in Berlin:

- the Holocaust memorial, which is officially called the Memorial of the Murdered Jews of Europe;

- the DDR Museum (more on this one below including just what DDR means);

- Yom Kippor services at the Neue Synogogue, where, shortly before Kol Nidrei, we bumped into friends at an Israeli restaurant, sharing a table and having a good time catching up with one and getting to know his new wife better;

- the Kreutsburg neighborhood and a museum there that documents the history of that quarter, including the activism that saved it from demolition in the years after the war, with wonderful photographic exhibits on display along with a huge model of the area;

- the Frei University, where we spent a lovely and informative evening with two professors there, whose conversation about their work and their life in Berlin was quite interesting for us, and who hosted us for dinner at a great Italian restaurant on the campus;

- the roof and dome of the Reichstag, at night, where I thought the great views and peeks into the famous dome were worth braving the wind and cold, but Bob did not;

- the Brandeburg Gate during the day, when we stumbled on a demonstraion against war, which included anti-Zionist signs as well as signs attacking NATO as an instrument of war;

- the Brandenburg Gate at night, when the structure served as a backdrop for an amazing light show, as part of the citywide Festival of Lights coincidentally taking place during our visit to Berlin;

- Elaine's time at the Gemaldegalerie where she saw very fine paintings of many German, Flemish, Dutch, and Italian Old Masters; and,

- Bob's time at the Stasi Museum, the Museum of Film, and the Topography of Terror archives;

Those of you familiar with Berlin may have noted that we did not visit the museums on "museum island." We were sorry to skip those, but their focus on the ancient world was not our focus this trip. We also have been fortunate enough have seen the art of Egypt, Greece and the Roman Empire in other places, and expect we will have other opportunities in the future.

What I would like to write about in more detail is the DDR Museum. DDR is short for the German for the German Democratic Republic. The museum illustrates what life was like, behind the Iron Curtain, under socialism. Every aspect of life was controlled and surveilled, and the displays explain the actual mechanics of both. It was quite crowded, but worth the occasional wait to see some of the exhibits because they were both engaging and informative. While sometimes a bit kitchy, the creepy and scary aspects of the surveillance and what happens when one's entire life is controlled by the government is frighteneing clear.

While talking with someone who grew up under socialism in another country, I came to understand something more. If you read my first trip journal, you'll have read about my reactions to being among German people during my first time in Germany back in 1973. The Berlin Wall fell in 1989, but, unlike the efforts to achieve truth and reconcialtion when the apartheid regime fell in South Africa, those who supported the East German state apparatus just melted into the reunified population of the new Republic of Germany. So just as I wondered back in 1973 whether the person next to me on a tram was an ex-Nazi, Berliners who had been so oppressed by the East German government wonder, even today, just 27 years post unification, if those they see and interact with were once STASI employess or informers. More than one person we've met has stressed that it was not unusual for relatives to inform on their families. In Eastern Europe, while the Iron Curtain has become history, this horrific legacy remains prominent for many today.

We were lucky enough to be in Berlin during a Festival of Lights, so each evening, as we walked or rode around, we'd come upon a building or monument that was lit by colored lights or used as a background for a light show. I will eventually share some photos of the Brandenburg Gate, which drew quite a big crowd despite it being a cold night. There, an artist drew images that were projected, along with a light show, on the monument, making for quite a show.

Finally, the site we saw the very first morning we were in Berlin - the Memorial of the Murdered Jews of Europe. In the city center, not far from the Brandenburg Gate, stand 2711 concrete slabs - called stelae - which have varying heights. One can approach from any direction and it takes just a few steps to find yourself "lost" among them. You lose your sense of drection and the tall slabs toward the center take on frightening aspects. They can appear to go on forever and, mindful what might be among the intentions of designer Peter Eisenman, you begin to feel some anxiety: Does a danger lurk around or behind next stela? Will I find my way out? Have I lost Bob? It was a very grey day - in fact nearly all our days in Berlin were cloudy or rainy - so while you can see the sky, even looking up towards the high tops of the stelae and the dark, foreboding sky was pretty bleak. Like the Garden of Exile that I wrote about in the first trip journal, the memorial's design is not representational in the classic sense, but it definitely evokes feelings that grab you and that remain with you.

Underneath the Memorial is the descriptive part, four rooms that recount the history in visual exhibits, many of which focus on specific individuals and identifiable families who were murdered. My use of that word is deliberate. Until this trip, I was accustomed to hearing about the victims who "died in the Holocaust" and those innocents who "perished during WW2" but here the word is "murdered." Although we did not visit them, nearby memorials to gays, Roma, and those euthanized by the Nazis similarly remember and take responsibilty for crimes deliberately committed by the Nazis against the hundreds of thousands of other individuals, families and groups who were murdered before and during WW2.

Next up: Warsaw and Krakow. Spoiler alert: we liked Krakow better ;) . For now, thanks for reading.


Level 2 Member
Trip journal #3
Started Nov. 2, 2016 en route from Prague to Vienna
Finished on Dec. 20 in Portland, Oregon

November 2 to December 20 seems like an awfully long time - time enough to finish a journal of only a page or two - but none of us expected our daughter’s baby to arrive three weeks early, when her parents were not quite ready and her grandparents were still pretty jet-lagged. Lots of things were set aside as we pitched in to help give our very tiny granddaughter a good start. In fact, she and her mom are here with me now; they’ve just heard me read aloud the following, as I finally put the finishing touches on it. Now it is your turn.

Nov. 2: Our trip is nearly at an end, and the pace has been such that there was precious little time to write. It has really been a fabulous trip full of many adventures and lucky surprises. We've enjoyed both the time on our own and the time on tour, and while I can't promise to keep to my usual chronological reporting, I will try to put myself back in Warsaw.

Although the Odysseys tour we would join started in Warsaw on Oct. 16, we chose to arrive there two days early, because we wanted a full day for the Polen Museum, which is the Jewish history museum of Poland. Sadly our ultimately unsuccessful search for a laundromat ate up a lot of time the first morning - unlike just about all the places we've visited, we did not succeed in finding one - but we did finally make it to the Polen.

The exhibits begin with the first written records of Jews settling on lands that would become Poland, and cover roughly 1000 years, going up to current times. The museum suggests a visit of two to three hours if you want to do all eight galleries. We were there for closer to five, and still bumped up against closing time, missing some of the final exhibits on the revival of Jewish life in Poland after the fall of the Iron Curtain. So if you go, allow yourself some extra time, especially if you typically want to see everything.

I was quite struck with some of the early drawings of Polish synagogues, which from the outside looked like little fortresses. King Zygmunt III, who ruled Poland from 1587 to 1632, actually ordered the Jews who he'd permitted to live in Luck to equip their synagogue building with weapons and to purchase a cannon. There is also an extraordinary reconstruction of a painted wooden synagogue that once stood in Gwozdziec. The project is described at http://www.polishsynagogue.com if you are curious.

The exhibits at the Polen were our introduction to the imperial families that, for centuries, ruled, fought over and divided up the forerunners of the Central and Eastern European countries we would soon be visiting. In each country we would revisit the history as we toured the imperial castles and palaces the royalty built or occupied. We saw at the Polen how the rivalries and dynasties they established impacted Jewish life specifically.

Nov. 4: As I expected, the exhibits on the Warsaw Ghetto were the most heart-wrenching. Its creation, geography, regulations, living conditions, round ups, the uprising, its liquidation and finally how it was burned to the ground are documented in excruciating detail. For now, I will just focus on two of the many exhibits that moved me.

There was a footbridge that connected the two sections of the ghetto. The exhibit for that tries to put you on that bridge. After climbing a dark staircase, the steps of which are inscribed with the names of ghetto streets and neighborhoods, I think in their order of liquidation, you cross a small footbridge. As you walk across, you can look down, just as ghetto residents did, on scenes of "normal" life in wartime Warsaw. An apparently well fed woman crossing a street; a bus chugging down the boulevard. Even to the museum visitor it is an eery experience.

The opposite view is possible too: there is a mock-up of the tram that crossed through but did not stop in the ghetto. You can actually take a seat and imagine what it may have been like to be a Polish rider or a Nazi soldier, who perhaps tried to avoid looking at the obviously poor, malnourished, and very cold Jews just outside the tram windows, who are sullenly trudging, adults and children alike, heads down against the wind, through the snow, as it falls and accumulates on the ground.

Dec. 20 - As I mentioned above, we “closed down” the Polen. Staff members actually came to find us and urge us out; they were a bit impatient with my slow stroll through the final exhibits of post Iron Curtain Poland, as I tried to at least get a sense of their displays. If I were to do it again, I’d move more quickly though galleries on the bottom level.

I’d also recommend using the audio tour headsets. There is so much to see and so many interactive displays that even the most patient and persistent museum goer who typically reads everything can get overwhelmed. We enjoyed it a lot more we went back to get audio sets. And while a medieval scholar may appreciate the careful chronology of how Jews settled in the many different locales that would become Poland, the picture you get after learning about a few settlements and a few time periods does not change dramatically as you make your way through the early periods of Polish history.

Initial plans to return to the Polen the next day faded as we decided we needed more of a quiet catch-up day - it was our 11th day since we had left PDX - before the tour’s orientation meeting and welcome dinner that was scheduled for the evening. So we slept in, packed up, and in the early afternoon walked a few blocks down the street, moving ourselves and our stuff from the centrally located and modern Hampton Inn which had been our base in Warsaw to the first tour hotel, the more historic and imposing Polonia Palace. A few hours later, we were the first to arrive at the orientation meeting, to start phase two of our Central and Eastern European adventure. More soon!
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Level 2 Member
Trip Journal 4 - Our Eastern Europe Trip: The Organized Tour Begins in Warsaw

Started Jan. 17, 2017 (en route from Portland to Toronto)
Completed Feb. 24, 2017 (on the ground in Portland)
Covers Oct. 16-17, 2016

Once again I am writing from the air. It seems like I do my best journaling in airports or at 33,000 feet. If you’ve seen the previous three journals, you’ll remember that I left us off in Warsaw. We’d just checked into the first hotel booked by Odysseys Unlimited. We were about to meet our congenial and collegial tour group and Agnieska, our Tour Director Par Excellence. Of course at that moment, we knew no such thing. We‘d opted to take a two week organized tour for reasons I probably already shared with you, but we had no idea if the group would include like-minded folks, if the Tour Director would be helpful, gracious and knowledgeable, or if the tour itself would match up to the excellent reviews we’d seen. No suspense here: it was a fabulous experience, all around.

We were the first of the 23 participants to show up at the orientation. Most of the others were also couples, and many had travelled with Odysseys multiple times. That was a great sign to be sure. Another was warm and welcoming Agnieska; in the days to come, we’d get to see how exceptionally good she was at her job, whether it was how well she remembered the individual needs of her charges or how much she knew about the history, culture, architecture, politics, etc. of all the cities and countries we visited. Yet a third encouraging observation was our initial impression of the folks we’d be traveling with for the next two weeks, who were all adults ranging in age from about their early 50s to their early 80s. Most were in their mid or late 60s or early 70s. Their brief comments as we went around the room doing introductions made us eager to get to know them. They were sincerely interested in the places we were about to go, everyone was well travelled, and all appeared pretty agile.

After the orientation meeting which was filled with logistical details, we enjoyed an opening dinner in the dining room of the Polonia Palace, a meal that included some specialities of Poland, like pierogis, which come with various stuffings and can be fried or boiled. We would have more pierogis before departing Poland, and while these, which were served as a side dish, were not the best we’d have, all the food was quite good, the wine was ample, and the conversation flowed easily as we got to know at least our table mates. Most people had arrived just that day, so they retired to their rooms shortly after dinner. I expect that, unlike my husband - who still had work to do on the grant application he was writing - they went directly to sleep.

While the tour did not include every meal - something we liked about it - it did include breakfast every day. The breakfasts were always wonderful; huge buffets we could supplement at no extra charge with omelettes or lattes made to order. And while I am on the topic of hotel breakfasts, I will add that the tour hotels were all excellent too, always 4 or 5 star properties. Odysseys likes to use boutique or historic hotels, often ones that are centrally located in a city’s old town, but they also booked us into a few high end Hilton and Radisson properties in the city center of some of the cities we visited.

The next morning, first up was a city tour by bus. This was the usual pattern whenever we arrived in a new city. Obviously Warsaw was not new to us, as we’d already been there for two days, but we did appreciate Agnieska’s commentary as we rode around the city and stopped at various sites, including the Royal Castle, the first of many castles we’d see or tour. We developed a better appreciation for the architecture of the Old Town, especially the unique three tower structures that stood next to remains of the city wall. The morning tour done, we had the option to stay in Old Town, or go back to the hotel on the bus. This would become another pattern; it was quite typical to have tour activities during the morning or through early afternoon, at which time we could explore on our own, rest or shop, although there were no serious shoppers in our group.

We opted to wander around Old Town, making our way back to the hotel in time to meet the group to attend a late afternoon piano recital held in an old palatial home turned event space. The young pianist was excellent, and the champagne during intermission a nice touch. As dinner was on our own and we were pretty tired, we ignored the options Agnieska suggested, which were either a bit too far or more upscale than we wanted at that moment. The small, local restaurant Bob found (and I initially vetoed) turned out to be terrific. Indeed, it will appear on Agnieska’s list next time around based on our recommendation to her.

The Radio Cafe was a folksy, inexpensive, kind of funky joint opened years ago by ex-Radio Free Europe staffers. In years past, it had been frequented by radio people and other journalists who would have been quite at home in the radio-themed decor. The waiter took us under his wing and brought out plates of pirogis of every variety, carefully arranged in order on platters so we’d know exactly what we were trying. Why had I objected at first? Because there was a man outside in a funny costume trying to draw us in, and I routinely avoid such places as being tourist traps. But in this case, the guy followed us in and became our personal guide to the food and the restaurant’s history. It was chilly outside, so I’m not sure who was happier to, as they said in Radio Free Europe days, “come in from the cold.”

Before I wrap this up, I will return briefly to the people who were our fellow travelers on this tour. Most were married couples where one or both were retired, with multiple attorneys, nurses and educators in the group. One gentleman had been a child in Holland during the Nazi years, after which his family ultimately came to the US; our conversations with him were most fascinating. Another was a cultured Bostonian who was on her first trip since her husband’s recent death, but her extremely well-traveled friend, a Physicians Assistant IRL, was an excellent companion for her, having done extensive research on every place we visited so they could maximize every second of free time. There was an odd little man, the only person I never got to know, whose hobby was photographing lion statues, and Agnieska always made sure to facilitate his getting as many new lions as possible to add to his collection.

We enjoyed getting to know an Indian couple, who shared their story of coming to the US just weeks after an arranged marriage. From the looks of it, while the bride went through serious culture shock when she accompanied her new husband to the midwest, where he’d gone to school and now had a job, they clearly were, 40+ years later, living happily ever after. My husband was the only college prof and also the only one who had serious work obligations, although the lawyer half of a couple celebrating their 30th anniversary did do some work on the bus. There was also a foursome who frequently traveled together, two American couples who had met in Hawaii while attending school there, and remained fast friends. Although there was very little political talk, it was clear from the carefully phrased side comments made occasionally in small groups that there were few if any Trump supporters among the 23 travelers. And while everyone who can take a tour like this is decently well-heeled, it did seem that at least a few, like us, had once traveled as 20somethings, with a far tighter travel budget that was better suited to one star hostels than 5 star hotels, and to hitch-hiking or a Eurail Pass; a copy of Europe on $5 A Day clutched in their sweaty young hands.

Our first day on tour done, we went back to the Polonia Palace, to pack and get ready for the next day, which promised to be a very somber one: the drive to Auschwitz; seeing Auschwitz One and Auschwitz-Birkenow; and then an evening in Krakow, our next destination city. While I was unsettled and uneasy about the next day’s visit to Auschwitz, I was reassured that the next two weeks of organized touring would go just fine. See you in the morning!


Level 2 Member
Public Service Announcement: This is not an easy read.

Trip Journal 5 - Our Eastern Europe Trip: Auschwitz
Covers Oct. 18, 2016
Written April 28, 2017 (en route from Portland to Austin)

The spectacular views of the gorgeous mountains in the Cascade Range - Mt Hood, Mt St Helens, Mt Adams, Mt Rainier - are behind us, as we make our way from PDX to Austin and, in a few days, San Antonio. Which means that yet again I am writing from the air.

My last journal introduced the organized tour part of our Eastern European trip, and left off on our last night in Warsaw. October 18 dawned appropriately grey and it would be the somber and at times excruciating day I was expecting, for we drove all morning as we made our way first to the Polish town of Osweicim - known more commonly by its German name of Auschwitz - and from there to the concentration camps of both Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II/Birkenow.

I had little appetite when we stopped in Osweicim for lunch. It was just as well; the meal was not very good, but apparently there were few options that could accommodate 25 of us for a midday meal. After lunch, we drove to the parking area at Auschwitz I, to meet our guide. Agnieska - you’ll remember she was our terrific Tour Director - suggested we use the facilities. As we entered the building where the rest rooms were located and where tickets and souvenirs were sold, I was astonished and very unsettled to see a pizza concession! I could not get my mind around the fact of a small stadium-style snack bar installed in one of the original outer buildings on a site where roughly 1.3 million starving men, women and children spent time and where at least 1.1 million of them were murdered.

Although it was not peak tourist season, there were many, many people there. Auschwitz is visited by lots of school groups in this part of Europe; in some it is a mandatory excursion that is part of the curriculum, and we were struck by the number of HS and college age groups as well as how respectful they all were.

The iconic "Arbeit Macht Frei” (Works Makes You Free)” Gate you may have in mind from Schindler’s List or other Holocaust histories is actually the entrance to Auschwitz II/Birkenow, which is about a kilometer away from Auschwitz I. During the annual March of the Living, many Israeli and other Jewish teens walk the distance between the two. We’d do that as well, but we began our visit at Auschwitz I, walking through a similar “Arbeit Macht Frei” gate and towards the brick buildings that had originally been Polish army barracks and offices. The trees and grass around the site startled me, much as the pizza did. How could there be green grass and pretty trees at Auschwitz?

In and out of the buildings we went; the ones we saw had been turned into somber display areas to tell the grisly story. In one, among the large, almost life-size photos on the walls of roundups in towns and arrivals at the camp, was a wall-size map. A full wall was appropriate, because it showed how large the entire complex was: kilometers and kilometers of out buildings and factories, slave labor camps and logistical depots. When we think of Auschwitz, we, at least I, tend to think of the entrance gate or the barracks; the barbed wire or the guard towers; the bodies of the dead and the nearly dead survivors in the photos of the camp's liberation. This map made clear how geographically large the industrial complex and killing machine at Osweicim had been. Wikipedia describes it this way: "... a network of German Nazi concentration camps and extermination camps...a labor camp to staff an IG Farben factory...and 45 satellite camps." It was huge.

There are many books, articles and blog posts out there describing what one sees at Aucshwitz. I will not attempt to detail it all here. Rather, here are a few descriptions of what clutched at me, and some of my impressions. I’ll start with three: the shoe polish, the stone steps, and the stroller.

The shoe polish - If you have any familiarity with Holocaust history, you have surely heard about or seen pictures of the huge piles of eyeglasses, shoes, suitcases, hair, and the like. Displays of those kinds of artifacts - and please forgive me for calling a murdered person’s hair an artifact, because it is so much more than what that word can convey - are there for sure. Small mountains of artifacts, behind glass, in dark and cavernous rooms in buildings where this factory of killing was administered for five long years. It is gut-wrenching to walk by a 35 or 40 feet long display case that is filled with 5 and 6 foot high piles of human hair, each lock of hair as individual as the person whose head it once adorned. Even now, as I write from the safety of my airplane seat, occasionally glancing out at the awe-inspiring clouds and blue, blue sky, my stomach is clenching and my brain rebels at the unbelievability of it.

But my hands start to tingle when I remember the small case of shoe polish that surely never got used by inmates at Auschwitz - unless perhaps they were ordered to polish a guard’s boots. Told to pack a small suitcase and report to a central square or railroad terminal, I was astonished that some victims chose to bring a tub of shoe polish and a shoe brush; they must have wanted to look presentable for whatever lay ahead. Clearly, while a few may have had an inkling of the rigors of Auschwitz, those sent to the camp had no way to even begin to conceive of the horrors that awaited. The show polish display really brought that home to me.

The staircases - The two and three story brick structures of Auschwitz I have internal stone staircases. I was quite struck by the stone steps and the obvious indentations in the stone. I’d seen similar indentions in stone steps of medieval churches; the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem comes to mind. But those holy steps were worn down by centuries and centuries of religious pilgrims and visitors. The buildings at Auschwitz were originally abandoned Polish army barracks, built not too long before WW2, and repurposed in 1940 as a place to house political prisoners. Soon thereafter it became the concentration camp. That these 20th century stone steps could show such noticeable indentions emphasized the enormity of what had happened there. More than a million souls were extinguished at Auschwitz and I could see that so vividly in the indented steps. I felt like I was in a place as holy - more holy - than the church in Jerusalem.

The stroller - When I came out of one of the buildings, I saw a heavy duty stroller about 20 feet away, parked outside the opposite building. It had obviously been left outside because the building’s many narrow corridors and pathways - and of course the stone steps - would have made its passage difficult. I’m not quite sure if it was parked outside the building where we could only pass through its dark, scary, low ceilinged corridors in tight single file, on our way to see basement jail cells and torture rooms. But no matter. From the bags under the seat and the items attached to the handle, I could tell even from far away that it was the property of Jewish parents or perhaps grandparents. A million babies and small children were murdered by the Nazis in their quest to annihilate Jews, Roma, gays, Catholics, political prisoners, and so many others. For me, this ordinary stroller became a very concrete symbol of three realities: that the innocent little ones perished as soon as they arrived at the death camps; that the Nazis did not succeed; and that vibrant, safe and happy lives must be the birthright of the generations that come after such pain and destruction.

While most of the crematoria are not at Auschwitz I, there is a small crematorium there, and it is quite close to the commandant’s house. Among the many stories we heard that day, we learned about how his wife professed after the war that her life in the years she and her children lived there was quite nice and she had absolutely no idea of what took place within the confines of the camp. I may be imagining this but I think there was play equipment in their yard. There may as well have been, given this ridiculous story; it would totally fit.

We didn’t go in the house, but we did walk through the crematorium. I dawdled through, not wanting to walk with any speed at all. I had the Kaddish - the Jewish prayer that is recited by mourners - already pulled up on my phone, at the ready. Standing in a corner near the oven, I recited it more than once. I would have stayed longer than I did, but our group had gone on. In fact, I nearly lost our group. It was worth it but I was relieved when I caught up, shortly before we all began the walk from Auschwitz I to Auschwitz II-Birkenow.

And there was the famous - infamous - Gate. Gone were the trees and grass. Now we found ourselves near barracks that were surrounded by gravel and dirt. Not all the buildings we saw were original and some were missing the wooden shelves that served as beds, but it did not matter. What we did see and the stark surroundings laid more and more layers of meaning and dissonance on the experience.

I don’t usually write about bathroom facilities when I travel but I feel I must include a description of the Birkenow barrack that served as the outhouse. Imagine a space as big as an army barrack, with two stone shelves running back to back down the middle. Cut into the stone are circular holes, one right next to the other, basically as far as my eye could see. Inmates were allowed to use these facilities once in the morning and once at night. The stench was said to be so bad that the guards kept out. And so, in the hell hole that was a concentration camp, that made the outhouse a place the inmates were actually a bit more comfortable to be in. Despite the utter lack of privacy or cleanliness, because the guards avoided the place, the inmates could communicate in secret and perhaps see family or friends; they could smuggle food to a sick person and maybe share some news. It truly boggles the mind.

We finally made our way back to the Gate, where Bob and I spoke quietly to the woman who had been our guide along with dear Agnieska. They shared some of their personal family stories; about parents and grandparents who first survived the war and then lived behind the Iron Curtain, and about their fears for the autocrats that are now gaining power in eastern Europe. We heard very heroic tales. Nearly everyone we spoke to about the war years invariably had stories to tell about a grandfather who smuggled food into a camp or a grandmother who sheltered an orphan when the war ended. I am sure that some of these stories are not completely true. But I have nothing but admiration for the people who serve as guides at Holocaust sites and memorials, who have chosen to help convey this history in hopes we will learn from it.

Our time at Auschwitz was coming to a close; once again we made a weird pit stop near the pizza before we were back on our bus, for the short ride to Krakov. Agnieska was from Krakov and she was very excited to be getting to “her” city. She wanted to share its beauty and history with us. Her enthusiasm was just what we needed as we attempted to make the transition from our immersion in the worst of the war years back to the 21st century.

Thank you for making it through this long and serious journal entry. Your attention this far honors the victims, and for that I am most grateful.



Level 2 Member
I was also very impressed with the Auschwitz guide we had. She came from a local family and was a third generation guide there. That personal perspective was important.

We visited in August and it was a blazing hot, glaringly sunny day, no shade anywhere except in the buildings. I withered and became numb from heat and history. I feel my memories are muddled, even though it was only 6 years ago.


Level 2 Member
Your trip report brought back many of the stomach-churning feelings I had at Auschwitz (and also Sachsenhausen and Theresienstadt).

We visited Auschwitz without a guide, but as our visit was ending, I had the most unusual experience: My spouse said someone was calling my name. I brushed it off. Again, Spouse said someone really is calling my name. I brushed it off a second time, saying emphatically "*No one* is call *my* name at Auschwitz." Finally, the message got through -- and I looked up to see a friend from Seattle (and her spouse) approaching us from the gate entrance. She is first-generation Polish-American, and was coincidentally visiting family in Poland at the same time as our short time in Poland. We had the good fortune of hearing her share some of her thoughts about the camp before parting ways.

(Later in our trip, in the crazy way that serendipity works, we again ran into my friend in a leather shop in Florence -- and finally decided that, after two chance meetings, we would agree to meet a third time on purpose, for a lovely dinner in Florence. Amazing!)


Level 2 Member
Thank you for sharing, Elaine. We'll be going to Warsaw, Prague, and Kraków this fall. Ironically I'm 100% Jewish and hubs is 100% German. I know it will not be a "fun" trip but something I feel compelled to do.


Level 2 Member
Thank you for sharing, Elaine. We'll be going to Warsaw, Prague, and Kraków this fall. Ironically I'm 100% Jewish and hubs is 100% German. I know it will not be a "fun" trip but something I feel compelled to do.
Hi GettingReady,

Sorry I missed your reply. I actually felt that the people in Germany were the most knowledgeable and had done the most to face up the events of the past. I expect your shared heritages will just enhance the depth and meaningfulness of the visit. Would love to hear about your experiences.

I saw your reply because I came here to post the following:

As travellers and citizens of the world, it has insights that extend beyond the memorial it focuses on. I will never visit or see a photo of the Lincoln Monument with the same eyes!

Here's a link to the website that inspired the Mosaic article:

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Level 2 Member
you must see the prague ossuary - bone chapel made from 40,000 different people's bones