Saturday, May 11, 2013

The Perils of Being Young

So, I had this grand plan to arrive home from my trip and finish the blogging I was hoping to maintain while I was away; however, the insanity knows as work and life has kept me from being able to do so. Being able to share my travels with so many of you, it is was fuels me to continue my pursuits of the world. I just apologize that my ability to keep up has seriously lacked since my return.

Some of you may understand this...the craziness that is life. Ever since I returned, my life has been a serious roller coaster of emotion, both physical, mental and even spiritual. Don't get me wrong, I haven't and will NEVER lose the desire to travel, but much soul-searching has taken place that has led me to question my ability to travel as often as I would like.

There are multiple opportunities out there for me to take advantage of, where travel is related. Of course, I am talking about opportunities that would allow me to travel (not on my dime necessarily). Unfortunately, I have come to the realization that in most instances, I will never receive this chance. Although I am uncertain of the actual reason, I have a firm belief that due to my young age, many believe I am unable to fully plan and execute a successful trip. Yet, somehow I have planned and executed THREE major trips (i.e. France and Italy, Ireland, and Germany, Poland and Austria). From the airfare, hotels, tours, train rides, inner country flights, and more, I have planned each aspect with no issue or problem whatsoever.

As a young person, this is something I struggle with all of the time...not only with travel but in all facets of life. But in particular with travel, many people believe that you must be older (and wiser) to be able to plan and take a trip like I have. My age apparently makes me "incapable, less mature, and less knowledgeable" about the world around me. This mentality disgusts me.

How many people do you know who look back on their life and say, "Gosh, I really wish I would have done that" or "Man, why didn't I do that when I was younger." Well guess what, I AM doing all of this while I am young. As I've said before, people should not wait until they are older to travel. SO many circumstances can occur that might possibly hinder your ability to do all the things you wish you would have done while you were young.

I realize this has become a soapbox for me, but I feel the need to make this statement...anyone who is young and is being made to feel like you are incapable of doing what society says your older and more "mature" peers are better prepared and equipped to do, don't listen to them. They are jealous that you are living and doing exactly what they have craved for so long but are afraid to admit, and they fall into the mold that believes responsibility means getting a job and paying bills, not "wasting" your money on traveling - a "luxury" that should be enjoyed when you're older and more "mature."

When it comes to traveling, all ages should embrace its power to change a person's viewpoint, thought process, or even one's life. Just because someone is younger does not lessen their credibility. I will never stop traveling this wide world and I am damn proud of my ability to plan unforgettable trips. Yes, things happen on trips that can be detrimental (i.e. getting robbed, assaulted, etc...); however, although many in the older generations would push that off on being "naive," I am certain that naivety occurs throughout all generations and bad things don't only happen to young people.

So, to anyone out there who believes we are ridiculous for pursuing our dreams, or who believe I am irresponsible for wanting to travel, grow up. At least I won't be the one at the end of my life saying, "Man, I wish I would have done that when I was younger."

Monday, April 1, 2013

First Day in Berlin....A Flop

 You know that feeling you get when you arrive in New York City? It's that feeling of knowing you've "finally arrived." Buildings surround you, people rush by, and the only thing you are currently focused on is getting to where you want to be. That is exactly the feeling I felt while visiting Berlin. The one difference though -- I didn't feel like a tiny ant in the middle of the three-ring circus.

Coming from the south, New York can be well...overwhelming, but in Berlin, the only thing that is overwhelming are the massive structures and statues that you pass, not the crowds of people hurrying by and sometimes bumping you out of the way like the tourist you are.

Staying only minutes away from many of Berlin's greatest attractions, we wasted no time in whipping out our map and hitting the pavement. Thankful for the somewhat "warmer" temperatures that first day, mom and I were eager to make our first stop at the Berlin Cathedral. Getting us there rather quickly, we rounded a corner to see this unbelievable sitting near the river. It's green dome shown high in the sky and the bronzed exterior glistened beautifully thanks to the setting sun. 

Now, don't get me wrong, there are some impressive churches here in the U.S., but in all honesty, they can't hold a candle to what we were looking at, at that moment. If the inside was as grand as the outside, we were in for a big treat. But, as our luck would have it, our first attempt at seeing the inside of this cathedral was a loss. Here's a tip: whatever your guide book may tell you regarding the opening hours of an attraction you'd like to's not always 100% right. Although my guidebook told me it didn't close until 7 p.m., they stopped allowing visitors at 5 p.m. Go figure. A bit aggravated, we dealt with the change in plans and set off for our next point-of-interest, Bebelplatz.

What is that you say? Bebel-what? For those of you who have some knowledge into Nazi history, Bebelplatz was the site where the massive book burning took place in Berlin during the 1930s. Great authors and poets books were burned in a massive heap, all due to the Nazi's idea that specific teachings and ideas would be corruptive to the Nazi ideologies. 

I spotted the location on the map and watched the street names as we walked by. My mom could tell I was growing frustrated because the area in which it was supposed to be was between two small side streets on the map. Probably wondering where in the world I was taking her, we walked around scaffolding, buildings, through covered walkways and along side streets to come to....nothing. Everything that pointed to Bebelplatz was hidden behind the large amounts of scaffolding that surrounded the area near Humboldt University. 

Now, not only had we been turned away at Berlin Cathedral, but we were now unable to get to Bebelplatz....aggravated? That's putting it nicely. We were at least going to get to go back and see the cathedral, but I wasn't going to get to see Bebelplatz at all. To say I was disappointed was an understatement. Luckily, my mom was cheery and in awe of the architecture surrounding us that it was hard to stay in a bad mood for long. 

Opting that since our first day in Berlin was a flop, she suggested we go for dinner. Sounding like a good idea, we stumbled upon a Mexican restaurant and quickly grabbed a table near the heater. (It had grown chilly outside at this point). Ordering German beer and a drink that had me salivating for more (a lady's sidecar), we ate our cheesy meals and asked for our ticket. Now, anyone who has traveled to Europe knows that they often do not get in a hurry when brining your ticket. So we waited, and waited, and waited.....and waited. Telling three separate people that all we wanted was our ticket, one waiter noticed our tapping fingers and brought us over two tequila shots, with lemon. Happy by this kind act of generosity, my mom quickly asked me, "now how do I do this?" Finding humor in showing my mom how to do a proper tequila shot, I sprinkled some salt on my hand, licked it up, took the shot and bit into the lemon wedge. 

As I watched her, I came to the conclusion that I have never seen anyone take a more dainty sip of tequila in my life. She didn't even take the whole shot! Just as she finished the substance, her phone rang. Her attempts at answering were humorous as her face contorted due to the strong taste of the tequila and sourness of the lemon.

All in all, our first day in Berlin may have been a flop and may have ended on a "sour" note, but looking back, it was all a part of the experience. I love Berlin and I'd grow to love it even in more in the coming days.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Trains -- A Time to Sleep or a Time to Reflect?

Finding myself on a five hour train ride from Warsaw to Berlin, I am finding it awfully difficult to try and sleep. In an effort to try and watch the last episode of season two of Downton Abbey last night, I didn't go to sleep until after midnight. All the more reason why I am fighting to keep my eyes open as I write. 

I've learned through my travels that there are pros and cons to traveling by train, but for the most part, I like to think of it as a time to take in the scenery, and depending upon where you are in your travels, a time to reflect. 

Anyone who has ever planned a trip to Europe, or anywhere outside the United States really, understands the difficulties one can face when searching for hotels, flights, trains, etc... I like to think of it as the pre-trip torture session. Even for me, as much as I love to travel, the planning stages can be a bit aggravating and well, let's face it, extremely time consuming. However, I always manage to find the silver lining. Before I left, everyone kept asking me, "Are you counting down the days?" I was, but only when it was a few short days away. Often, my mind is pre-occupied with last minute packing details, making sure all of my confirmations are printed out and in order, and well, making sure that everything that can be caught up at work, is caught up on. 

 I'll admit, usually, and it's always about 2 days before I leave, I get a small hint of hesitation....always. Although I've traveled many times before, I believe it to be a small sense of fear that hits me just shy of my departure date. So many world travelers jet off without feelings of homesickness or fear, but I guess that is what makes me somewhat different. Close with my family and friends, I do get somewhat homesick while I am away. Granted, I've always had a traveling companion, whether it has been my sister or my mom, but knowing that I have family, friends, and of course, my pets waiting for me, keeps me yearning for home at times. 

This hint of hesitation may always appear, but it always dissipates the day of departure. Stepping onto the plane and knowing that within hours (many hours usually), I'll be on the other side of the world, experience a culture far different from my own, now that's why I travel. There is so much left to the imagination when you are at home. We turn on our TVs to see what people in other parts of the world are experiencing when we could be experiencing it for ourselves. 

Before leaving on this trip, I had many people ask me, "Why Germany and Poland?" My answer... why not? Why not step outside my day-to-day bubble of home, work, and gym, and take 2 weeks to see, experience, and learn about another country? 

I'll admit, I had an agenda when planning this trip, and that was to see where much of the Holocaust happened. Everywhere I go, I want to know more about the history of a place. When I traveled to Ireland, I knew very little about the country and its past; however, because of that trip, I learned more than I could imagine. Not only its history, but its view on life, its traditions, food, and its people taught me that Ireland is a true hidden gem of Europe. 

Back to the train though. Here I am, sitting across from my mom, who is desperately trying to sleep and being forced to sit next to a man, who although nice enough, provides a bit more of a cramped atmosphere than the open seat next to me. 

Snow covers the ground in Poland this time of year and with each turn of the wheel, we pass homes that look as if they should be condemned, trees that are waiting for spring to bring them back to life, buildings that are charmingly decorated in colorful graffiti, and railway cars that sit on abandoned train tracks. Traveling to towns that have steeped in so much history and devastated by war, it makes me appreciate the life I have back home, in a country that has been so fortunate to have escaped the trials that war can bring upon a country and its people. Now, this is not to say that I have forgotten about the Civil War, Pearl Harbor, or 9\11, but to stand in a city like Warsaw, having been completely in ruins at one time, you are a fool not to appreciate that life you have been given. 

Each city I visit brings has its own character, whether charming or depressing. Munich is a city of life and full of fun. Expensive in its cost of living, the people there know how to have a good time and appreciate the tourists who visit their lively city. Although portions of its history prove dark, it does not overshadow the way of life for people today. 

Krakow proved to be much different. A beautiful city, in parts, one can feel the remnants of a city torn apart by war. I found myself wondering if every elderly person I passed on the street had been involved, or witnessed, the horrors of what occurred in World War II. When traveling to Auschwitz, I wondered if the young people living in the small city nearby knew or even cared about what took place more than 75 years ago. 

Then there is Warsaw...a city that will literally blow you over if you're not careful. At night, I tried to imagine what it would be like to travel to this city during the summer months. Its hidden streets full of boutique shops and bistros, and open squares full of people, I have no doubt that in the warmer months, it would be an enjoyable place to visit.

The weather can play a huge role in your ability to enjoy a trip like this. Although it may be significantly cheaper to travel during the winter months, it can often make for a bitterly cold time, which can often be somewhat miserable. However, as cold as I have been, and as sad as traveling to places like Auschwitz have made me, this trip has been a blessing. I have seen first-hand what so many only read in textbooks. I have yet again, checked off a few more destinations on my personal bucket list, and most of all, I have shared my experience with one of the most influential women I know, my mom. While I don't expect her to share my deep-seeded passion for all things history or travel-related, she appreciates the passion I posses and encourages me to pursue it every single day. 

So, I guess in answering my question, I'd say trains are a great time to reflect. Besides, sleeping is overrated when you've got a warm seat, a beautiful view, and another destination just waiting for you to arrive.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Warsaw: The Other Windy City

I've decided that I can sum up Warsaw in just a few words: windy, cold, and blistering. Now, this may sound as if I am saying that I dislike the city...not true. However, I am saying that for anyone who is thinking about traveling to Poland in March, please wait until April or May. That is, unless you like walking around a city bundled up like Ralphie in "A Christmas Story."
From the moment we arrived, the temperature has never gotten above 28 degrees F. My lips are wind burn, as well as my cheeks, and my thighs look as if they have been beaten with a wooden paddle they are so red. The wind cuts like a knife and the cold will chill you to the bone. Unfortunately for us, our hotel dates back to the 16th century and if there is heat, we can't find it. The only way to warm up is to take a hot needless to say, we have been taking at least 2 showers a day.

But apart from the cold, Warsaw is a city of history -- a true tale of ruin and what can become of a city so destroyed by war. During the Second World War, Warsaw was completely demolished by German bombings. The people of the city rose up to fight against those who literally destroyed their homes and livelihood. Thousands upon thousands died in the Warsaw Uprising, and many more perished at the hands of Nazi SS guards in extermination and concentration camps. Never could I imagine my city being in complete ruin.  To see Warsaw today, one could never imagine that at one time, it was nothing but a pile of rubble; however, sadly, it was. 

Our time spent in Warsaw saw us visiting the original Gestapo Headquarters, where members of the uprising were brought for interrogation, or death. Torture devices were used to get people to talk, and if that didn't work, death was always the other option. I must say though, as a woman, it makes me proud to know that so many women during that time decided to take up arms to fight for their city. Women fought right alongside men, learning to aim and fire at the enemy. Everyone worked together for a unified cause...much unlike today. 

The Gestapo Headquarters was not the only remnants of World War II that could be found in this city. Small portions of the original Jewish Ghetto wall serve as reminders of the exile that so many felt during days of uncertainty. Feeling cast out from the rest of society, the conditions in which the Jewish people lived were unthinkable. 

Of course, their lives inside the Ghetto were not long lived when they were forced to line up at the Umschlangplatz to wait for the railway cars that would deport them to camps throughout Poland, Germany, or other portions of Nazi-occupied Europe. 

Even for those who are not captivated by history, it is hard not to understand why as humans, this would not capture the attention of anyone who sees the injustice that so many faced during the Second World War. 

In an attempt to make our time in Warsaw less gloomy, we visited Holy Cross Church. Here lies the heart of Chopin, and the sight of which Pope John Paul II spoke to the masses. Inside, its altars shined with gold and brass, depicting images of the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ. The images alone and the enormity of the altars were enough to make us sit for a few moments and thank God for allowing us to make this trip a reality -- for the many blessings he continually gives. 

Staying in the heart of Old Town Warsaw, our hotel is situation next to the Royal Castle, which, from the exterior, is beautifully built. Set afire during the Warsaw Uprising, by enemy bombs, it is impressive how the Polish people devoted their time and money to helping rebuild such a beautiful structure. The sounding of the clock bell rings each night while the citizens and tourists stand outside in the square, admiring its beauty at night. 

Unique shops and quaint cafes line the street with lavish pastries and homemade breads capturing the eyes of onlookers. Buying a baguette and various pastries, including the famous Warsaw Cake, we managed to treat ourselves to a post-dinner dessert each night. However, I must say that the Warsaw Cake looks like a meringue and it tastes like what I would imagine almond-flavored packing peanuts to taste like. So if you're interested, I wouldn't's not worth it. 

All in all, Warsaw is definitely a city I would warmer weather of course. The buildings, memorials and structures are beautiful to look at, but unfortunately, the chance to enjoy it all has been hindered by the bitter cold. 

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

A Day of Sorrow and Remembrance

Auschwitz is not a place only for history buffs like myself. It is a place that each and every human being should see first-hand. It is about humanity, humility, perseverance, and ultimately, mortality. 

An hour outside of Krakow, our bus led us to what would become a day full of sadness, despair, and shock. Knowing through textbooks and memoirs, the horrors of Auschwitz-Birkenau, nothing anyone can read can truly capture the feeling one feels when stepping on the grounds of this horrific place.

We started at Auschwitz, inside the museum. Walking towards the entrance of the camp, we were met yet again with the infamous words, "Arbeit Macht Frei." A replica, the original was stolen in 2009. Our guide led us to various buildings, informing us that many of the blocks feature exhibitions; however, it would take more than a day to see every aspect of Auschwitz. 

Electrical barbed wire could be seen to the right of us -- the immediate death for so many prisoners who sought death inside Auschwitz. Walking along the pathways, the large, red brick buildings surrounded us on both the left and right. Each building was labeled with block numbers.

Providing background details on the number of prisoners inside Auschwitz-Birkenau, more than 1.3 million people were in Auschwitz: 1.1 million Jews; 140-150,000 Poles; 23,000 Gypsies; 15,000 Soviet prisoners of war; and 25,000 other ethnic groups. 

Individual cards containing inmate information could be found under plexiglass within the rooms we entered. Each prisoner was given a number (which was tattooed on forearms and for younger children, on their leg). Photos showed Hungarian Jews filing off one of the railway cars, unknowing of what lie ahead -- selection.  Making them believe that this was a temporary place of residence, a sense of calm was portrayed by the guards. Two lines formed -- women and children in one line and men in the other. Often, the women and children were immediately directed to the gas chamber. Told they would be taking a shower and would receive food and water after the shower, none of them hesitated, but actually felt somewhat relieved. After traveling in such horrible conditions in the railway car, the idea of getting a shower seemed heavenly. Little did they know, they were walking to their death. 

The camp doctor threw his thumb left or right to determine those who were fit to work and those who were not. 

Continuing on our tour, our guide gave us more insight into the chemical that was used to kill so many -- Zyklon B.  Seven kilograms was enough to kill 1500 people. Originally used to kill rats, the Nazi's believed that if it could be strong enough to kill rodents, it could be strong enough to kill humans. Before us stood a large pile of zyklon-B canisters, emptied of their contents.

Entering another block, we were shown the various personal items that prisoners carried with them upon entering the camp.  When exiting the train, they were told to discard their belongings, that they would get them back at a later time. Of course, within half an hour, many were either undressing or already in the gas chambers. Inside the exhibition, glass separated visitors from walls of Jewish prayer shawls, eye glasses, bowls, suitcases (complete with the names and addresses of those who arrived at Auschwitz), thousands upon thousands of shoes, and even hair and shaving brushes. 

It was an emotional experience to see all of these personal belongings on such a massive scale. What was even more haunting was the hall in which we saw rows upon rows upon rows of inmate photographs. Each inmate was photographed in the blue and white clothing, complete with date of birth, arrival date to Auschwitz, and of course, the death date. Many only lived within the camp 3-4 months, many much less. 

Coming down the stairs, we passed a group of girls, maybe four. One was sobbing and weeping heavily and we wondered if maybe some of her family had died inside this place.  I could never imagine, nor would I ever want, members of my family enduring this type of tortured living.

Exiting each building exhibition, my heart felt heavier and heavier. I realized that although my tears were not evident, my emotions grew stronger internally. Being inside Auschwitz changes a person. In some way, you are not the same person as when you entered the gate. Arriving at Block 11, we were told this was the camp prison. It seemed odd that a prison itself would have an actual prison for "criminals."  Inside, we saw the small "courtroom" where inmates sentences were delivered. Many entered the room unknowing that the decision had already been made. There was no "innocent until proven guilty." It was usually automatic death.

Our guide informed us that this was the only block within Auschwitz that was in its original state. What we saw inside is what the camp prisoners saw in the years they were here. That made this all the more eerie. Passing by various cells, we were told about 3 rooms specifically: the starvation cell, suffocation cell, and the lastly, what I would call the exhaustion cell. 

A famous priest, Saint Maximilian Kolbe, died in the starvation cell, opting to take the place of a married man. Those imprisoned in the suffocation cell were forced to sit in a small area where the fresh air was constricted, and lastly, as many as four individuals were forced to stand in a very small area, upright, all night with no food, before going to work detail the next morning -- proving to be exhausting for those who endured this punishment. However, for those who received immediate death sentences, they were taken to the execution wall next to the building. Here, a concrete wall stood before us. Today, flowers and candles lay at its base, honoring those who were shot. While viewing this horrible scene, a small group of girls lay candles in remembrance. It was a beautiful sight.

A short walk, we came to the only standing gas chamber and crematorium in Auschwitz-Birkenau. The chimney stood high as we made our way around to the entrance. Much like how I felt at Dachau, my apprehension to enter was great. This gas chamber was only used for a short time, mainly because Birkenau became the main extermination camp, not Auschwitz. Entering the building, my inner emotions became almost overwhelming. The room where prisoners undressed left a horrid images of thousands of people standing and waiting for death. As I stepped inside the gas chamber, I literally felt as if my body temperature dropped drastically. The concrete walls surrounding me, my imagination providing me with the sounds of screaming men, women, and children, and my eyes looking around, imagining lifeless bodies before all became a bit too much. People snapped pictures all around me, but I could not find the ability to lift my arms to do the same. In my mind, this was a place of respect...I could not take photos of a place where so many died...I just couldn't. I felt the same the moment I passed into the crematorium.  

Exiting the gas chamber, I felt my tears welling, thinking of how lucky I am to leave this building when so many did not. Our tour finished at Auschwitz and were told to gather back on the bus and prepare for the short ride to Birkenau. 

Most people who read about Auschwitz-Birkenau have seen the infamous image of "The Gate of Death" and the railway tracks leading into Birkenau. Rounding the corner of the road, my eyes were fixated on this image. Before me was the large brown, brick building. Directly in the center was what looked like a tall tower with an archway below. On both sides lay two long brick buildings. Railway tracks followed straight ahead through the archway -- leading to a camp so full of misery and despair.

The ground at Birkenau was wet and muddy, much different than at Auschwitz. Prisoners dug drainage ditches to prevent the grounds from flooding -- backbreaking work for many exhausted souls. The railway tracks were old, yet, maintained their solid structure. A railway car sits on the tracks as a reminder of what prisoners traveled in -- cramped and undignified conditions. 

On our tour, we passed by a group from Israel. Each member waving the Israeli flag with pride. It made me feel good to know that they wanted to see this place. 

Standing on the tracks, our guide told us a story of one mother who exited the train with her son. Two lines were formed and she hurriedly pushed him into the other line. Saddened at the fact that his mother was pushing him away, he kept trying to come back to her but she continuously pushed him back into the other line. Finally staying in the other line, he looked at her and she said, "I hide you." Hearing this, it was almost more than I could take. That boy's mother was taken immediately to the gas chamber, along with others in her group. 

Famous author Elie Wiesel, arrived at Auschwitz with his mother and sisters. Once separated from his mother and siblings, he admits he never got to say goodbye due to the hurried nature of everything going on. He later tells that his mother and sisters were marched to the gas chamber -- he never saw them again.

Far in the distance, our guide directed us to the gas chambers and crematoriums -- their ruins. Torn down and bombed in the weeks before liberation, all that exists are mounds of rumble. 

What seemed to be more disturbing was the nearby barracks -- both men and women's barracks. Brick barracks remain standing as a reminder of where the women of Auschwitz lived. Stacked three high, new incomers had to fight for their place. As many as four to five women slept in one bunk area and nothing but a concrete floor lay beneath them. The men did not have much better conditions in their wooden barracks. The heating systems within each barrack served as more of a decorative feature because there was never any coal to fuel the fireplace-like heating systems. 

As cold as we were on this day, bundled up, I simply could not imagine the cold these people felt in those days. Our guide ended our tour in the wooden barracks, reminding us that this place changes everyone who enters its gates. The fear and possibility of the Holocaust remains today and should never be taken lightly. His words, reminding each of us that something like this could very easily happen again, resonated loudly within me. "Do not treat others as if they are beneath you. We are all human beings," he said. 

Stepping outside, I immediately saw white snow falling to the ground. Immediately, my mind went to the scene in "Schindler's List" when someone looks at the sky to see what looked like snow. An SS guard looks at them and laughs, telling them that it isn't snow, but instead it is the ashes coming out of the chimneys -- ironic that it was never in the forecast for it to snow here, yet, it served as a reminder of the souls lost here.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

First Impressions of Krakow

Arriving in Krakow three hours later than we had anticipated, what we saw upon arrival was darkness, which meant we were too tired to make our first attempts at Krakow at 10 o'clock at night. 

Getting up this morning, we went downstairs for breakfast, enjoying incredibly strong coffee, bread, cheeses, fruit, and ham.  Knowing that we had a full day ahead of us, we sat out for the other side of the Vistula River.  Home to Oskar Schindler's Factory, the Jewish Ghetto, and Plaszow Camp, we went in that direction first. Planning to walk, we quickly learned that it was much too far, and well, since it was raining and cold, we opted to take a tram. 

One of the main reasons I chose to visit Krakow because of its place in history concerning the Holocaust. Here, you had the infamous Plaszow Camp where Amon Goth was the horrendous Nazi guard [portrayed by Ralph Fiennes in Schindler's List]. You also have the original Jewish Ghetto where so many were herded out of their homes and into a small area of town. Lastly, Schindler's  Factory at Lipowa 4. 

Oskar Schindler was born in Czechoslovakia. Joining the Nazi Party early on, he decided to come to Poland to make his fortune. An entrepreneur, he took on the opportunity to fund an enamel factory. Hiring poles to work for him, many in the area were Jewish. Inside, factory workers created pots, pants, armory, and more. 

During the occupation of Krakow by the Nazi's, Schindler made sure that his workers had proper documentation that would not allow for any of them to be arrested by authorities. However, Plaszow Camp was not far, and if any workers were caught without papers, they could easily be picked up and sent to the labor camp, under the rule of Amon Goth. 

Providing his workers with a place to sleep [in barracks], running water, bread, and extra food, he also paid them depending on their skill sets. Because of this factory, many Jews were saved from the horrors of the Holocaust. Their lives were saved while so many were lost in the ghetto, at Plaszow, Auschwitz, and others nearby. 

Oskar Schindler was viewed as a hero to many of the Poles and Jews because of his willingness to save lives during such a difficult time. Some of the products made were meant for the German Army; however, they were meant to be sabotaged so they never properly worked.

Entering the factory, you are given a background about Krakow and life long before the Nazi occupation. Jews played chess, children played in the streets, Jewish shop owners flourished, and men and women walked down the street without being hassled. 

As we moved forward, we watched a short documentary featuring some of Schindler's workers, some Polish and some Jewish. Providing a deeper look into the time period, these people's stories told of the true conditions which so many lived, yet, the opportunities they were provided because of Oskar Schindler.

With each room we entered, the closer we grew to the Nazi occupation. Replicas surrounded us of what a normal room in the ghetto would look like -- 5 or more people sharing one room; the material items that were taken away from the Jewish people during the liquidation of the ghetto; the ransacking of rooms as Jews were rounded up and either shot in the streets or taken to various camps. 

Even quotes from Roman Polanski could be found on the wall. Eight years old at the time of the Jews moving into the Ghetto, he remarked of his sadness and fear. 

Learning more of Schindler's motives, we entered his office. Before us stood a floor to ceiling plexiglass mold, filled with the pots, pans, and cups made by his workers. Stunned by the amount inside, it was just a small portion of the overall creations. Pots were not a common item that could be found in the area. Given the opportunity, Schindler gave coupons to workers who wished to sell some of the items made within the shop, for extra money. 

By the time we finished the tour, we walked into a memorial room, complete with polish writings, many of which were translated to English. People shared their thoughts and feelings of those who provided bread, water, cigarettes and blankets in times of need, as well as their thoughts of Schindler. 

Leaving the museum, there was no doubt that people praised Oskar Schindler. By employing so many Poles and Jews, he saved thousands upon thousands of lives. 

One of his final wishes was that when he died [in 1974], he wished to be buried with "his people," which means, if one travels to Jerusalem, his grave can be found in a private Catholic cemetery. 

Walking the streets of Krakow, outside of the museum, it was as if the government had done nothing to improve this area of town. Streets remained broken, trash covered areas of the road, and buildings continue to look run down and even abandoned. 

As we walked to the Jewish Ghetto, I looked down and thought to myself, "I could be walking in the steps of those who died in the streets at the hands of the Nazi's." Thinking back to the videos I had just seen, I looked around and envisioned luggage scattered, bodies laying lifeless, and soldiers screaming orders -- an eerie feeling in a part of town that looked as if these things could have happened just yesterday. 

Stepping onto the street of the former Jewish Ghetto, we spotted what looked as if it might have been the former wall of the ghetto. Although not marked, it was the only wall that looked as if it could have been what kept Jews from the outside world. 

On a cold, rainy day, I remarked to my mom, "Look at us. Here we are, complaining about how cold we are and we're bundled up in heavy coats, scarves, gloves, and hats. Think about those who were stripped of almost all of their possessions, made to walk miles and miles, and those who spent winters in much harsher conditions, with much less...I can't imagine."

Monday, March 11, 2013

Sleeping Beauty's Castle: Neuschwanstein

Taking a two hour bus ride to Bavaria, our tour group was led by Mike. Mike was from Minnesota but had married a German girl and had been living in Munich for 9 1\2 years. Having visited Neuschwanstein multiple times, I honestly wish we could have had a bit more enthusiastic tour guide. After all, we had been spoiled with Alun and Keith on our two previous tours. 

Arriving in the small village where Neuschwanstein resides, the Alps could been seen all around us. The castle sat nestled in the mountain, standing tall with its high peaks and white, limestone walls. Before making the trip up the large hill to the castle, we arrived around lunchtime. Opting to take Mike's suggestion and eat at his friend's small place, mom and I consumed a delicious bratwurst sandwich, complete with french fries and a refreshing coke. 

Given only thirty minutes for lunch, we met back up with the group to wait for the bus ride, which took us 3\4 of the way up to the castle. Grateful for the opportunity to ride a bus, the other option was to pay 6 euros per person for a carriage ride  or walk. Now, even for the most fit, this would have been exhausting. The looks on the faces of those climbing the hill looked as if they might pass out or throw up the white flag. 

Although it didn't take us all the way up to the castle, it dropped us off only 1 minute away from the bridge that Ludwig built for Mary, his mother. I never realized my sincere fear of bridges until I stepped onto Mary's bridge. Although the metal felt sturdy, the wooden planks did not. Overlooking the wooded area, beneath us lie water...not exactly what anyone wants to see when feeling uneasy about the bridge they are standing on. 

Informed that I had nothing to worry about, it didn't ease my mind as I stood there and looked down to see that I could see between the planks, as well as feel the planks give just enough with each step.  Quickly handing over the camera to a fellow tourist, we snapped a few photos with Neuschwanstein in the background before I hightailed it off the bridge as fast as possible.

Feeling much more comfortable on solid ground, we began our ascend to the castle. Snapping photos left and right inside the courtyard area, we had to wait until our scheduled tour time to enter. As unfortunate as it was, we were unable to take photos inside the castle; however, the interior was filled with murals from various legends and myths, including: Tristan & Isolde, legend of the Holy Grail, and more. Each room was comprised of ornate woods and brass. King Ludwig was very interested in current technology and gadgets, hence the up-to-date kitchen for its time with a rotisserie, and copper pots and pans. 

Upon exiting the castle, the only way down was to walk, and the descent was enough to tire anyone out. Managing to make time to talk more with Mike, I still was not impressed by his demeanor. Everything we asked about, he played down. He was an odd duck as I would call him. 

Stopping at a small cafe, we had an hour before we needed to leave this quant, little village. Eager to get off our feet, we each enjoyed a latte macchiato, an apple streudel, and a strawberry marmalade mini pie.  The pastries were delectable, savory, and sweet...exactly what we needed. 

Many people believe that Cinderella's castle is modeled after Neuschwanstein, but it is actually Sleeping Beauty's castle at Disneyland. Stepping inside and taking a tour, you certainly felt as if you were in a fairytale.