Auschwitz and Birkenau

The weather definitely changed today and instead of heat and humidity of the past 10 days we had rain, wind and cold. Just what you would expect for a trip to Auschwitz and Birkenau, the factories of death where 1.3 million people were deported.

700-1,000 people were housed in each of these barracks.

Yet when we arrived a little after 1 pm after taking a city tour of Krakow, the sun came out and there was a beautiful blue sky. I must admit being taken aback by all the hordes of visitors—it reminded me of the masses of humanity like you see at Disneyland on a summer day—it was an absolute zoo! 

I momentarily got separated from my group since there were so many crowds of people. The first part of the tour took us through a museum with a number of large photographs of prisoners. We passed several huge mountains of shoes—110,000 in all, and then the horror of it all started to sink in. The museum also houses a collection of 3,800 suitcases and almost two tons of human hair which was shaved from women in the camp.


It was at Birkenau, though, that when we walked through the gas chambers and saw the ovens that the inhumanity of it all hit me. 

The crematorium

Inside the gas chambers

Community toilets

The barracks

As I was taking pictures, my phone kept defaulting back to my home screen which has a picture of my sweet grand baby. The cruel irony of it all!

My home screen

Our guide said she has been giving tours here for 40 years!

We all wondered how our guide could come to work day after day and not let depression overtake her. She told us that it is important for her to show us this place to ensure that this kind of mass murder will never happen again. This was truly a place of hell on earth!

The question was, how was it these people took the trains to Auschwitz and willingly walked into the gas chambers? It was because they were promised a better life than the one they experienced in the ghetto. They were asked to pack their prized possessions only to have the Nazis steal it from them. Some people did not even survive the train trip in which people were packed in like cattle.

Surprisingly several people in our group have visited this place of horror before, and have come back to see it again.

It was impossible not to be affected by all this, so it was a relief to go back into town to have dinner in the old town square of Krakow. We peeked into St. Mary’s Basilica where we marveled at the colorful walls and ceiling. 

A pipe organ in the gallery

Even though we had been here in the square this morning, I ended up retaking all my pictures since it had been gray and dismal and now it was sunny with blue skies.

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Karol: A Man who became Pope

Today was a travel day, and on our 9-hour bus journey (which included lunch and bathroom breaks) from Prague to Krakow, our tour director Paul Vladu showed us the movie made in 2005 about Karol Wojtyla, the Polish priest who became Pope John Paul II and served from 1984-2005.

It was a stark introduction to Poland as we will stay the two nights in Krakow and two nights in Warsaw (I will actually stay an extra night in Warsaw while most of the tour group moves on to Berlin.)

According to Decent Films:

Karol: A Man Who Became Pope isn’t the first TV movie on the life of Karol Wojtyla, the future Pope John Paul II, but among the crop of 2005 Pope TV movies released in the wake of the Holy Father’s death, it was the first, if not the best, and the only one to be seen and praised both by Benedict XVI and John Paul II himself.

Brian Lowry of Variety wrote:

Nearly the entire first half of the production chronicles Karol as a young student during World War II, a stout lad who literally carries his ailing father on his shoulders once they become refugees. They take up residence in occupied Krakow, where Karol spends part of his time debating the best paths to resistance and discussing man’s capacity for evil with a noble priest (“Under the Tuscan Sun’s” Raoul Bova).

Evil, alas, is there en masse, personified by Nazi governor Hans Frank (Matt Craven, one of the few U.S. actors in this English-language production), whose brutality results in several grueling moments as innocents are gunned down,

Amid all the violence shown in the movie, what I remember most was when Karol says: “We will win with love, not guns. The Nazis will disappear. Evil devours itself.”

Prior to seeing this movie, I was somewhat unaware of all the suffering the Polish people had to endure over the years of the Nazi and Soviet occupation. Tomorrow, in fact, we will visit Auschwitz, where 6 million Poles lost their lives; half of those were Jewish.

It is believed that when Karol Wojtyla became Pope, it was a strike against communism. For further reading, I recommend Steven Gertz’ article, “What part did John Paul II play in opposing communism in Eastern Europe” in which he writes, “to understand Karol Wojtyla (John Paul II’s birth name) and his part in the collapse of Communism is to remember this man lived under oppression and tyranny for much of his life.” In fact, he inspired the rise of Lech Walesa, the Polish electrician who formed the only Soviet trade union, Solidarity.

In talking about this movie to some of my fellow travelers, I was reminded of my visit to Rome in November 2015, when I saw Pope Francis only 6-8 feet away from me. Go back and check out my post, “The people’s Pope.”

The entire three hour movie is available free on YouTube which you can view here.

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Dvorak was here!

Today was a free day and we did not have our usual 6:30 am wake up call, giving us the license to sleep in. So what time did I wake up? 4:00 am. Hah!

When we arrived in Prague, I went to an ATM, and tried to choose the lowest amount possible since we will only be in this country for 3 days. The smallest was 5000 Czech koruna, but when I saw the conversion to dollars, discovered it would equal $217! I tried to cancel or go back, thinking I would just try to use my credit card instead of getting cash, but there was only one option, Accept!

So my mission today was to go shopping, so I did! I bought a beautiful art glass piece for which this area is famous, plus some T-shirts. Fortunately the weather has shifted—in fact I got caught in the rain—but it has definitely cooled down.

I also ate a nice lunch at a local Czech restaurant. We have had such heavy food lately so I was glad to eat this delicious salmon in a dill sauce, but also indulged in apple strudel for dessert.

At 3 pm, we boarded the bus and drove to Chateau Sychrov, some 50 miles away from Prague. It took us about an hour and 15 minutes to get to this 200 room estate which was built from 1690-93.

Under the ownership of the Rohan family, it flourished, but it was seized by the government in 1945 because the Rohans cooperated with the Nazis. 40 of the rooms have been restored and are open to the public.

Chateau Sychrov

Right away, our local guide told us that composer Antonin Dvorak was a friend of the Rohan’s and visited here six times. Apparently he also played the organ in the chapel here.

What was remarkable about the rooms we visited was the intricate woodwork in every single room, all done by Petr Bušek and his staff of 50 who worked in the castle for 38 years.

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We next heard an excellent violin and piano concert in a program of mostly Czech music by Antonin Dvorak and Bedford Smetana, after opening with Vivaldi’s “Spring.” This was a program presented just for our group, which tonight numbered 15. Dinner followed before returning to the hotel.

Even though I wasn’t able to play the organ in the chapel, it was still exciting to think the Dvorak himself played and slept here.

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Prague’s Jewish Quarter

Following lunch, a small group of us went on a walking tour of Prague’s Jewish Quarter. At one time, the Jewish population of Prague numbered 118,000. Of these, 80,000 were sent to concentration camps. Today the Jewish population of Prague numbers only 1600.

Our visit included several synagogues, most all of which are now only museums and not working worship centers. One of them has been turned into a Holocaust Memorial, with the names of 80,000 Prague citizens who perished after being sent to the concentration camps.

The names of the concentration camps. Most Jews from Prague were sent to Teresin or Auschwitz.

Each victim’s name, date of birth, and date sent to the concentration camp was listed with the family names in red. It frankly was overwhelming to see all these names.

More sobering was the exhibit of children’s artwork created during their imprisonment in the camps. Even our local guide was choked up when she told us the men and women in the camps tried to maintain their children’s education, especially lessons in art and music. Now we have these poignant reminders that these innocent children perished.

We then made a slow trek through the Jewish Cemetery which actually closed in 1727. You see small rocks on top of the ancient grave markers. This custom arose during the Exodus period when people died in the desert and stones were placed on top of the bodies to protect them from animals. Now people, mostly tourists, place little stones—not flowers—on top of the monuments.

Our last visit was to the Spanish synagogue, billed as the world’s most beautiful synagogue. Of course, my eyes were drawn to the pipe organ in the gallery!

We have a mostly free day tomorrow with no more wake-up call. Hooray!


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Highlights of Prague—in 24 hours

Astronomical clock has been continually operating since the 14th century.

Despite being extremely tired after a long day on the road, most of our group went out after dinner to see the famous astronomical clock in old town Prague (by the way, old time Prague dates from the 14th century; “new” town Prague dates from the 15th century!)

We were too late to see the 30-second performance which occurs every hour from 9 am to 9 pm, but marveled at all the illuminated buildings. As it was a Sunday night, I couldn’t believe the hordes of people walking around this area at 10 pm. We have been warned repeatedly about pickpockets so we have been holding onto our bags tightly.

The clock was first installed in 1410, making it the third-oldest astronomical clock in the world and the oldest one still operating. You can see a lot of scaffolding on the tower as it is presently undergoing restoration.

This morning we had our usual 6:30 am wake up call in order to eat breakfast and be on the bus by 8:15 am.

We spent the entire morning at Prague Castle which is a complex of buildings and structures. The palace was the home for the Hapsburgs for hundreds of years and now serves as the residence for the country’s president.

St. Vitus’ Cathedral

King Wenceslaus’ tomb.

The “defenestration” window where martyrs were thrown out of the window.

I was of course most interested in St. Vitus Cathedral where King Wenceslaus (yes, the same one from the Christmas carol) is buried. I also decided that this was my favorite stained window:

Stairway to the organ loft.

I knew there must be a pipe organ in the cathedral when I saw a telltale stairway. But I first spotted the choir organ which was remarkable for its red painted case and very high bench. (The keyboard was closed up.) In fact you can see a step to get up on the bench.

I was handed a fundraising pamphlet for the main organ which apparently is not big enough for a cathedral of this size. Seems like all over the world organ projects are in need of money!

Before walking down the hill back to the old town, we took in a spectacular view of the city below.

There was a wonderful view of the city from the Prague Castle complex where everyone took pictures. I was especially taken with all the red rooftops. We started the long walk down the hill including walking across the famous Charles Bridge. There is a legend that you will return to Prague if you rub the bottom of the statue of St. John of Nepomuk.

In the afternoon we toured the Jewish Quarter which I will write about in the next post. Already though, my feet were numb from walking all over the Prague Castle complex and down the hill. Also, even though rain was forecast, it was again a very hot and sunny day, with the humidity very high, making it very sweaty and uncomfortable day.

The price of going on vacation!

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On the way to Prague

It took us 6-7 hours to drive 200 miles because of terrible traffic jams due to road construction—on a Sunday yet!

It was a travel day so we left the hotel with our bags to drive to Prague, about 200 miles away. A few days ago, our tour director, Paul Vladu, took some time to tell us about life under Communism. He was born in Romania and someone mistyped his last name on his birth certificate, adding a ‘U’ to his family name of “Vlad.” You see, his brother and father have the last name of “Vlad,” but Paul’s last name is “Vladu” because that is what his birth certificate says, and nothing can be done about it!

He said that there were only two good things about Communism: 1) Everyone gets a good education; and 2) Everyone can be guaranteed a job so there is no unemployment.

Paul trained and worked as a civil engineer for ten years. But because there were 10 other civil engineers at his place of work, he spent his whole time reworking plans for the same building.

The economic fallacy was that all people are equal and all people should be paid equally, whether you are an engineer, a teacher, a policeman or a waitress. Because of this policy, people tended to have a very negative attitude—no motivation and no creativity to do a good job.

The motto was “You can pretend to pay me and I can pretend to work!”

Ever since the fall of communism in 1989, Paul has worked as a tour director. Before 1989 no one was allowed to travel. Now he has visited over 100 countries in the last 25 years, but unfortunately he has never visited Hawaii.

At lunch in Mikulov at a restaurant with a grapevine pergola.

So today everyone on the tour got up and had the opportunity to say a few words about themselves. We started out with 29 people (one woman had to leave to attend to a dying mother) with all but two from the United States; the other two are from Toronto, Canada. The rest are from Washington, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida, Georgia, New Jersey, New York, and I am from Hawaii. We have a wide range of ages—from a young girl going into the 6th grade traveling with her parents and college age brother to retired people in their mid-70s.

Lednice Castle

Along the way we toured a spectacular castle at Lednice with French-style gardens and interiors with exquisite woodwork which interlocked and used not a single nail! Look at this beautiful staircase!

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Happy music

Happy music. That is how one of my fellow GoAhead travelers described the concert we heard at the Palais Palffy, the very same site where Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart performed here with his sister, Nannerl, in 1762. That would make him 6 years old.

The concert hall seats about 200 people and as far as I can tell, every seat was taken. The building was first mentioned in the 14th century archives and was owned by Count Paul Eberhard Palffy and family until the 19th century. It was damaged in World War II but was restored to its former glory.The ensemble consisted of three violins, one viola, one cello, one flute and on piano. There was also a soprano and baritone, and a male and female ballet dancer. 

The musicians played on modern instruments and were technically flawless. The flute player was absolutely virtuosic with incredible technique to play extremely fast.

They were dressed in period costumes for the first half which was all Mozart and in concert black for the second half which was all Johann Strauss.

As you know I can be quite critical of musical performances and there were two things which were a little strange. The first was the concert ‘A’ sounded by the pianist. She played ‘A’ then added ‘F’ ‘D’ (this is typical in the US at chamber music concerts) but then she added a ‘B’ natural, creating a B minor diminished seventh chord! This I have never heard before.

The second unusual thing was the combination of three violins and flute combining together to play the melody. This made the ensemble top-heavy (a little screamy) in my opinion, against one viola, cello and piano. 

Of course, all the Top Ten of Mozart and Strauss were played, most all in super fast and breathless tempos, especially for the flute player. But, the ensemble was perfect and nobody got left behind.

The concert ended with a rendition of the famous Radetsky March with the audience clapping in unison. Everyone went home happy!

Here is a performance of the Vienna Philharmonic playing this piece.

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A day in Bratislava

The day began with a high-speed ferry boat ride on the Danube River to the town of Bratislava in the country of Slovakia. It just so happens that Bratislava is the capital city of Slovakia, and is located on the border of Austria and Hungary, which is highly unusual. So one of the very first sights our local guide took us to see was across from the Bratislava Castle—and that was a viewpoint in which you could see three different countries in one glance: Austria, Hungary, and Slovakia.

You can see Austria, Slovakia and Hungary from this viewpoint.

We were told several times that there is no more “Czechoslovakia”—that was during the Soviet years. Now there are two separate countries: the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

The Bratislava Castle

We spent most of the day in old town Bratislava and toured the neoclassical Primate’s Palace with its own, rather small Hall of Mirrors. Most of the rooms were empty of furniture but we did see some well-preserved tapestries, which meant that the colors were still intact and had not faded.

A sculpture of a man popping out of a manhole.

I have to say that outside of the first two days, the weather has been uncomfortably hot and humid, and nowhere is the “air conditioning” really cool except in our hotel rooms. By the end of the day, I’m really wilted and wiped out. However we’ve been told that the weather is going to be cooler as we move to the Prague and Warsaw—thank God for that!

Tonight we’re going to a Mozart and Strauss program in which the performers will be wearing period costumes. However it is doubtful that they are using period instruments but we shall just have to wait and see.

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Mission to Einstadt

Ever since I researched the story of Joseph Haydn’s Kleinesorgelmesse which I played for the Hawaii Vocal Masterworks Festival a couple of weeks ago, I was bound and determined to seek out the town of Eisenstadt, especially since I was going to be in Vienna, 26 miles or 42 kilometers away. 

Bergkirche, Eisenstadt

Today my GoAhead tour activity ended about noon in the old town section of Vienna, so I took a subway ride to the Hauptbahnof (main train station) where I transferred to the train for Eisenstadt, which took about an hour and twenty minutes, including stops. 

It was miraculous that I found the right train platform because nowhere on my ticket or on the departure board was my destination listed. 

From there I took a taxi directly to the Bergkirche, or “hill church,” which was built by Prince Esterhazy in the early 18th century. It was here that Joseph Haydn worked for the Esterhazy family whose palace was just a short walk away. Apparently several of Haydn’s masses made their premieres in the Bergkirche.

Esterhazy Palace

You might know that my reason for finding this church was two-fold: one was to seek out Haydn’s tomb, which is in a side chapel of the church. Haydn’s body (without his head!) was buried here in 1932—his skull was stolen shortly after he died by gravediggers who wanted to study the anatomy of his brain! It has now been returned to this mausoleum with the rest of Haydn’s body. For further information, check out Haydn’s head.

Haydn’s tomb in the Bergkirche

The other reason for looking for this church was that I have signed up for the Hawaii Masterworks tour here next summer and supposedly we will be singing a concert in this very church!

Bergkirche organ

I did take a picture of the organ, built in the 18th century by Gottfried Malleck and now restored to its original state. The original console, though, is in the Haydn museum.

Franz Liszt

While walking around Eisenstadt, I also came upon a statue of composer and pianist, Franz Liszt.

I was also thrilled to find the Hospital Church where Haydn premiered the Kleinesorgelmesse which I played a couple of weeks ago. You may remember it is on the grounds of the Brothers of Mercy.

The Hospital Church

After walking around for awhile, I stopped at a nearby cafe to get something to eat. It was a case of not knowing what I was ordering since the menu was all in German and the only words I recognized were a reference to a kind of meat (I guessed) and potatoes. No one spoke English in the cafe. I was so pleased that I was able to order, ask for a drink and then a refill, then ask for the check—all within the confines of my 50-word German vocabulary!

I was also proud of myself for figuring out how to get on subway and train, and back again, and not getting lost!

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The enchanting city of Vienna

Schonbrunn Palace, Vienna

Our morning started with a little glitch in that the elevators were shut down when apparently the fire alarm must have gone off. Some in our group were therefore late coming to the bus because the stairwell doors coming down were also locked.

Our guide got a little nervous since we had a timed group ticket for Schonbrunn Palace. You see, it is a UNESCO World Heritage site and as such, they have to restrict the number of visitors.

At precisely 8:58 am we were allowed to enter the interior but were not able to take any photos inside. Even though we were at the front of the line a few minutes before, we had to just stand there and stare at the clock.

So I found this short video by Rick Steves (who happens to be a Lutheran, by the way!)

It was a little reminiscent of Versailles without the crowds, particularly the Hall of Mirrors. Somehow though its use of gold was a lot less, at least in the rooms we visited.

We were allowed, though, to take as many outdoor shots as we wanted in the time allotted.

After driving around the old part of the city, we came upon the Vienna Opera House. Although it is closed during the summer months we were told that no production is allowed to be presented two nights in a row. So even though they may do just 60 operas a season, they have to take down the stage set every night and replace it with another opera’s set for the next night. Also operas are presented every night. 

Obviously no private business could operate in this manner—the opera house is run by the state government.

Vienna Opera House

We had a short stop at the Hundertwasser House as you will read from Wikipedia:

Friedensreich Hundertwasser started out as a painter. Since the early 1950s, however, he increasingly became focused on architecture, writing and reading in public .’ advocating natural forms of decay.

In other words he advocated architecture in harmony with nature.

To some in our group the expressionist style of architecture was reminiscent of the Spanish Antoni Gaudi, whose La Sagrada Familia I visited last summer.

Even so I could have stayed a lot longer visiting the shopping stalls here and only came away with buying a magnet!

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