Sunday, June 5, 2016

Last Stop in Poland (Auschwitz), and Travel to Vienna

just a few of the many buildings
With mixed feelings and emotions, everyone got onto the bus and traveled to Auschwitz-Birkenau.  We were feeling somber and anxious.  A visit to the memorial site and death-and-work camp remains had always been part of the trip itinerary, and all of the students wanted to see it. Yet, it would be awful.

where people would
disembark from the trains 
The following description of the visit was written by Avital:

"We walked through Auschwitz-Birkenau in disbelief, in pain, in tears.  Auschwitz, the first camp, was intended for concentration of the Jews, and others who were considered enemies of the Third Reich. Although there was a gas chamber, the Nazis quickly realized that the quantity of people being murdered was too much for their incinerators. Thus the Birkenau death camp was built, a short distance down the road.

"Our guide spoke as we silently walked through the camps.  She shared details of each place and each exhibit in the barracks, now turned into a museum. We saw the hair used to make textiles, and hundreds of glasses once belonging to the individual victims.  We saw the confiscated Jewish prayer shawls with which the Nazis would force the Jewish inmates to clean the floors. We walked through the first gas chamber in Auschwitz, looking up at the holes in the ceiling where the gas canisters of Cyclone B were dropped to kill those locked inside.

 While touring Auschwitz-Birkenau, our distinctive faith, ethnicity, nationality, and all other differences melted away. Here we were all simply humans who were horrified by the capabilities of humanity less than 100 years ago.  Here we comforted each other in silence, with a look, a hand on the back, a hug."

Czech lakes
waving at the sunset
At the end of the tour, everyone got back on the bus and we drove to a nearby restaurant for one of our quieter lunch meals.  The afternoon and early evening would be spent driving about 390 km (242 miles) through the Czech Republic and Austria, arriving at Vienna at night.  The countryside was beautiful, with lakes, rolling hills and fairy tale villages, along with modern wind turbines.

Some people say that the journey is just as important as the destination, and so this seems like a good point to describe our bus rides through Eastern and Central Europe.

The bus is very luxurious, large enough for each of us to have a 2-seat row to ourselves.  Some people napped, especially those in the back of the bus who spent nights out on the town.    Some looked at their photos, wrote to friends or in their journals, reflecting on the activities of the day.  The bus was equipped with a sound system, and we sometimes listened to music and often sang along (not always in key).  Profs. O'Sullivan and Myers would start the drive or end it by making an announcement using the built in microphone, and some students delivered their research presentations through the bus microphone also.
not so light reading

Frequently, a group up front discussed (argued) politics, religion, and history while gazing out at the small town buildings and beautiful landscapes.  Everyone munched on snacks and anticipated the next real meal.  It was a time to talk, laugh, and get to know each other.  We built lasting friendships through a once in a lifetime experience throughout Poland and Austria.

Who is in the driver's seat?
Our driver, and often road guide, Darik (Dariusz) genuinely enjoyed and cared for us, and it was clear that he wanted us to have a good time and leave with a positive view of Poland. Getting to know him allowed us to get to know Poland and the Polish people from a different perspective.  He was born during the communist era and watched his country develop into a democracy.  Darik's real training was as a safety inspector, but like many Poles he needed to take on extra work and that's how he ended up as a driver.  After every site we visited, he wanted to hear our reaction and share his viewpoint.  In response to the darkness and sadness of memorial sites, he would say that laughter is the best medicine.  He liked to smile and joke.  Darik had his quirks: he trusted only his GPS, not the paper map, and so he'd try for the shortest route even though the road wouldn't be passable for our huge bus!  After one jolting turn he told us about the bus driver who was treated better in heaven than a minister.  When the minister complained, God told him, "You put people to sleep with your sermons, but the bus driver through his actions prompts his passengers to pray!"  Darik added soul and friendship to our journey, and it is hard to imagine our travels without him.

After getting us safely to Vienna, we bid Darik goodbye.  We'd be using Vienna's public transit for the last two days of the trip.  It was wet and rainy outside.  We checked into our hotel, went our separate ways for food, and called it a day.

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