Five Capitals and a Concentration Camp, Part One

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December 6th 2017
Published: December 7th 2017
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Travelling again, a week ago I was in Krakow, Poland, on a tour with Grand Circle's "Old World Prague and the Blue Danube." Poland was an extension of the main trip, and several reasons compelled me to travel there. The first is simply that I had never been. Another reason is that my husband Bill thinks he is part Polish. And yet another reason, purely a terribly selfish first world desire, was to add to the growing list of countries I have visited, trying to eventually reach one hundred. Poland is number 65.

Earlier on this tour our group had travelled to: Hungary, Slovakia, Austria, and the Czech Republic, visiting their capital cities along the way. I had been to Budapest, Hungary awhile ago, but returning to Budapest is never a hardship; it is a city I very much enjoy, and where I had wanted to spend more time. Two days here flew quickly by; even those extra days were really not enough time to enjoy this beautiful city.

Then came a wonderful surprisingly enjoyable visit to Bratislava, Slovakia, the smallest of the capitals we visited; even in the pouring cold, windy rain I thoroughly enjoyed walking its streets, peering into churches, finding the peeping Tom on one street corner, and shopping at The Oldest Shop in Town to buy award-winning chocolates (for me) and podkovys, a nut-filled horseshoe-shaped cookie treat highly recommended by our guide, for Bill. By the time we left Bratislava the rain had stopped and the sun was trying to appear, but it was too late for our group as we were already set to sail towards Vienna.

Vienna! I felt the same excitement as I had felt arriving in Paris for the first time, wanting to immediately escape the ship and start exploring; its name alone causes the heart to race. We had a bus tour of the city, riding around the Ringstrasse and then visiting several very famous buildings and well known sights. Here we also found large Christmas markets that had opened early and this was a delight for me, as I had long wanted to experience European Christmas markets, being in the midst of the dancing colors, smelling the varied foods offered for sale, tasting the Gluhwein, hearing Christmas music as we walked through the rows and rows of vendors' stalls, partaking in feeling the spirit of a European Christmas in the crowds of people surrounding us. And, while there was no snow yet, the rain had stopped. A gift. In Vienna some of us took a tour of the Opera House, and one evening we heard a concert performed by Alt Wien Philharmonie; some of us also explored the Schoenbrunn Palace, and saw the beautiful Lippizzaner horses at the famous Spanish Riding School. But again we had much too little time here. On tours like this travellers are offered only a taste of multiple cities, letting us decide which places to return another time, to explore more in depth, on our own.

As we travelled away from Vienna our riverboat stopped at Krems, a lovely little town built at the confluence of the Krems and Danube Rivers. Having only a morning to stop here, an interesting wine tasting was presented, offering a very unusual four dimensional video including scents of apple blossoms and cherries among other enticing (and fairly accurate) smells. 9AM is not my favorite time to drink wine, but here I rose to the occasion and totally enjoyed the whole unique experience. By afternoon we were cruising through the Wachau Valley, passing stunning landscapes and medieval towns built along this gorgeous UNESCO World Heritage site. Such a pleasureable day, the only one warm (and dry) enough to spend time up on the sundeck, but even then most of us were wrapped up very warmly in winter coats, hats, scarves and gloves, such a different experience from cruising during the deliciously warm summer months.

Linz, the capital of Upper Austria, was our next stop. Here we had the option of visiting Mauthausen, the first concentration camp I had ever seen. Born after the war, in my ignorance and innocence I had never heard of Mauthausen, nor knew there were any concentration camps in Austria. We arrived on a windy, very chilly day; standing outside listening as our local guide described the torturous conditions here, and the first "selection" process which helped us to appreciate what the inmates were subjected to as they arrived and had to stand as we were doing, out in the open, but they sometimes stood for three or four days, or even up to a week; new inmates were offered no water, no food, no blankets, no extra clothing, nothing. Those who collapsed and/or died were weeded out from the very start. If one could not work, then s/he was of no use. Suffering from and disliking cold weather as I do now, I think I would not have lasted very long in those conditions; I think I would have just given up and slipped out of my life, as many did. Those who survived this first test were eventually moved to barracks, crowded, unhealthful, uncomfortable, and unheated. Rows and rows of triple bunk beds lined the rooms; prisoners slept three to a bed. In Mauthausen it was mostly men who were brought here: criminals, "asocial elements" such as homosexuals, political dissidents, Romas, Spanish, Soviets, anti-Nazis, and mainly Polish Jews; a few women were brought in to pleasure the officers, being told that if they provided such services for six months, then they would be freed after that time. This, of course, was a lie.

At Mauthausen we also saw the killing areas, the hooks where nooses had hung, the room where men were shot, the individual furnaces, the gas chamber with its ominous hole in the ceiling. I lost it here and could not stop weeping. How this inhumanity could have happened, the ongoing torturing, the intense deprivations, the magnitude of the killings, this was beyond any kind of understanding of how humans could treat other beings, other people. Our guide spoke of what was thought the outside villagers knew, of those who knowingly helped bring supplies to create and continue this horror, of those who brought food, and of those who helped bring materials to build the furnaces and gas chamber; how could anyone participate in what they must have known was happening; how could they choose to be a part of such evil? Purely to make money? Our guide suggested that perhaps their reasoning was that if they didn't do it someone else would; what kind of skewed, corrupted thinking is that? As we exited the enclosed killing areas, there, similar to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C., are long, flat memorial benches inscribed with all of the almost 120,000 names of those who perished at Mauthausen, another extraordinarily powerful preservation at least of names. It is impossible to read them all; there are so many.


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