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Entries about holocaust

Chapter 24 - Peace and War (Bordeaux to Krakow)

By Neil

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Bordeaux – The Vibe and the Vine

France was country 25 of the trip and I scratch my head to think of somewhere that is more perfect than Bordeaux. Or more precisely, Chateau Rigaud, Castillon-la-Bataille. After 218 days on the road, it was fantastic to meet up with the Bramley (Nikki’s sister-in-law, Helen’s family) and Dolling families and friends, at this shack:

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Chateau Rigaud, near Castillon-la-Bataille, Bordeaux, France

The company, of course, was fantastic….

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At the Dinner Table, Chateau Rigaud.

As was the food….

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Homemade pizzas and local wines on the groaning table at Chateau Rigaud.

For five whole days we walked, talked, read, relaxed, ate, and drank, including the Swedish Single Malt Whisky, Lithuanian Gin, Russian vodka and Latvian Balzam that we had picked up along the way. There may have also been one or maybe two bottles of vino and we melted the bearings off the washing machine.

We off-loaded our winter clothes to Nik’s parents as well as our second passports (we can only get Cameroonian visas through the Australian Cameroonian Consulate, so back to Australia they go. Hopefully we will see them again when we get to Greece!).

The Chateau was beautiful (thank you to Helen and Justin!):

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Chateau Rigaud at sunset.

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Me a little too excited about the four-poster bed.

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Dawn from our bedroom window.

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Dolling-Croquet at the Chateau. I lost track of who cheated the most, but most likely John. A proud Dolling trait.

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And the countryside was wonderful.

A week later, refreshed and recharged, we started out to the east, but not without celebrating Nik’s birthday in Bordeaux with Nik’s parents.

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First bubbly wine of the day, 7th August 2017.

Alas, there is no photo with Nikki’s folks but we do have one of the Place de la Bourse and Mirror d’Eau at night taken that evening after dinner.

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It was beautiful and romantic, BUT!

We can’t let a location go by without a bit of history!

The location of the Chateau, was close to Castillon-la-Bataille, or Castillon-the-Battle. The town changed its name from Castillon-sur-Durdogne to Castillon-la-Bataille in 1953. A bit late I reckon. The battle they’re referring to was in 1453. It was the POMs and our French friends again (Yawn! The French and the Brits need each other! I mean, you start off with a nice pint of English Bitter and some frogs legs, then move onto a solid French Red Wine with a Beef Wellington and some French goats cheese salad, then move onto the Creme Brulee with a nice Scotch Single Malt Whisky, and finally to finish off, a French Brandy. Anything less would be like drinking a decaffeinated coffee. I mean, it would only be half the experience!)

Anyway, it was the 100 year war between the French and the Brits and this was the last battle. The Finale, if you will.

In the Brit Corner we have John Talbot, 1st Earl of Shrewsbury and 10,000 of his merry men.

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John Talbot, 1st Earl of Shrewsbury, b. 1384 – d. 1453.

In the French corner we have Jean Bureau and 10,000 of his hommes contentes (merry men).

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Jean Bureau, b. 1390 – d. 1463.

Er, the Brits got their asses kicked in a decisive way. Partly because Johnny-Boy did a ‘valiant but ill-considered charge’ at the Frenchies. 4,000 dead and the Brits running away as fast as their legs could take them. The French lost only 100 men and went off to drink some wine and brandy.

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Bit later than 1453 but ……

The upshot by the way was that the Brits got kicked out of France, the British Nobles got really cranky about it which led to the War of the Roses, where the House of Lancaster (red rose) and the House of York (white rose) had a big bun fight for 35 years until eventually the House of Lancaster came out on top and Henry VII became the Big Cheese.

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King Henry VII – b.1457 - d.1509.

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The Trains at Big Speed

My Word! Those Frenchies are pretty good with the train thing!

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The ‘Train at Big Speed’, the TGV, or Train a Grand Vitesse.

This little baby potters along at 320 km/h or 200 miles per hour. That is really fast. In South and Central America the buses averaged about 60 km/h. In the US we managed to get trains that averaged 80 km/h. The TGV averaged 190 km/hr. Very cool. And the fastest I have ever travelled on land…..

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Geneva, Switzerland.

Visiting Geneva was important for two reasons. The first was to visit the United Nations Office in Geneva (UNOG), and secondly to visit the headquarters of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. Both of these sites were really high on Nik’s list, particularly with her studies in Humanitarian Aid and Development. Switzerland was not originally on the itinerary, but neither was Germany or France until the invitation to Bordeaux, so now we had the opportunity to divert our trip through the Alps, it was the perfect opportunity to tick these off the bucket list!

The United Nation Office in Geneva (UNOG)

It was in the turmoil of the Second World War that the UN had its genesis. The League of Nations that had been formed in 1920 with the aim of preventing world conflicts had fallen in a big heap when World War II broke out.

In June 1941, much of the world was under the control of the Axis Powers led by Germany, Italy, and Japan. Even at this stage, the Allies were aiming at much more than military victory, they were planning how they might achieve lasting peace and prosperity. In June 1941 representatives of Australia, Belgium, Canada, Czechoslovakia, France, Greece, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, the United Kingdom and Yugoslavia met in St James Palace in London and declared “the only true basis of enduring peace is the willing cooperation of free peoples in a world in which, relieved of the menace of aggression, all may enjoy economic and social security”.

It was on the 24th October 1945 that the United Nations came into effect after China, USSR, USA, UK, and France, along with the majority of the initial countries, signed the charter of the UN.

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Ratification of the UN Charter was confirmed on 24th October 1945 and the United Nations came into being.

Yeah, yeah. But what has the UN ever done for us? It’s just a big talk-fest, right?

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Scene from Monty Python’s ‘Life of Brian’ where the People’s Front of Judea (or is it the Judean Peoples Front?) are asking “But what did the Romans ever do for us?”

Well first of all, isn’t talking better than shooting?

Here’s some of the achievements of the UN that I think are important:

1. Food Aid: The UN’s World Food Program provides food to around 90 million people per year of whom 58 million are children. The latest focus areas are Syria and the Central African Republic.
2. Refugee Aid: The UN High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR) has helped over 17 million asylum seekers and refugees. Over 9 million people have been displaced by the Syrian War putting pressure on many countries.
3. Child Protection: UNICEF, the United Nations Childrens Fund has helped reduce the deaths for children under the age of 5 from 12 million per year in 1990 to 7 million per year now.
4. Peace Settlements: The UN is credited with negotiating 172 Peace agreements that have ended regional conflicts.
5. Peace Keeping Forces: The UN has deployed over 35 peace keeping missions and there 16 that are ongoing at present.

There are lots of others but I reckon the key point is that there are 192 members; it’s not a club for the West or the East, for the First World or the Third World, but for all of the World (including North Korea). Interestingly, the Secretary General cannot come from one of the five permanent members of the Security Council (UK, France, USA, Russian Federation and China). The present Secretary General is the recently appointed Antonio Guterres from Portugal.

The organisation is not perfect and has certainly come under fire for being ineffectual and indecisiveness at different times, however I believe it is an important part of the international peace process. The tour was really worth taking. We both felt that we got a sense of the gravity of the issues discussed and the history made in this space.

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One of the conference rooms in the United Nations Office in Geneva.

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Flags of the 192 Members of the United Nations outside of the United Nations Office in Geneva

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International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement:

Despite the Red Cross being one of the most high profile humanitarian organisations of the last 150 years, I was a little hazy on all of the things that the Movement does, but I learnt a lot during our visit to the museum dedicated to the work of the IRC in Geneva.

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The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement Museum, Geneva.

It all started in June 1859 when this bloke:

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Jean-Henri Durrant, owner of a fabulous beard

Visited the battle field of the Battle of Solferino (in northern Italy between Verona and Milan). I mentioned above a battle with 10,000 troops on either side. The Battle of Soferino had 140,000 troops on either side. On one day 40,000 troops were killed or wounded. It was carnage.

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Battle of Soferino, 1859.

Durrant, a Swiss businessman started to care for the wounded and organised local villagers to help also. He wrote a book called A Memory of Solferino (1862) and sent it to leading military and political figures in Europe. In the book he advocated for:

- National voluntary relief organisations to care for wounded soldiers, and
- International treaties to guarantee the protection of neutral hospitals and field hospitals for soldiers wounded on the battlefield.

In 1863 the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was then formed in 1863 by Durrant and Gustav Moynier.

Spurred on by the formation of the ICRC, in 1864 the Swiss government invited the governments of all European countries as well the USA, Mexico and Brazil to a conference to discuss this proposal. The outcome was this:

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The original Geneva Convention, 1864 written ‘for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded in Armies in the Field’.

I’ve never been in, or close to a war. But I don’t need to be in it to know that it’s bloody and brutal. That there was no, or very little consideration for the care of wounded prior to the Geneva Convention I find, well, I can’t get my head around it.

The International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies was formed in 1919.

They work on the care of Prisoners of War. Food parcels. Inspection of the POW camps. Advocacy. Individual national Red Cross/Red Crescent organisations.

Prior to the end of the Second World War the Geneva Convention referred only to soldiers. With the atrocities of the Holocaust, the Geneva Convention was expanded to include civilian populations and later to include civilians and soldiers in civil wars.

Also following the Second World War the Red Cross/Red Crescent became responsible for the Holocaust and War Victims Tracing Centre, that operated a service to anyone to try and track their relatives that may have died/ been affected by the Second World War.

What an amazing visit. An incredible organisation doing extraordinarily important work.

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In the Red Cross Museum, a model of Durrant writing ‘A Memory of Solferino’

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The first Red Cross Flag.

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Vienna, Austria

Da, Da, Da, Da, Da – Tring-Tring, Tring-Tring!

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My word! We are on a bit of a facial hair extravaganza in this blog aren’t we! Johann Strauss II – b. 1825 – d. 1899

Ah, the Blue Danube Waltz. Sublime music! Images of dashing gentlemen and frocked up ladies moving around the floor!

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Marvellous!

The reality proved to be more of a brown drain through the middle of the city, but hey….

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The Brown Danube, Vienna.

But, My Lord! Vienna was all very pretty!

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I want a tessellated roof with a pattern on it for my house.

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It wouldn’t be too much to ask for a new coat would it?

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Or a new car for Nikki…

We went to see the Crown Jewels (the fabulously called ‘Kaiserliche Schatzkammer’). I said to Nikki, if it’s under 2,600 carats, I don’t want it.

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The 2,680 carat emerald in the collection.

You’ve heard of share trading?

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Share Trading…

Horse trading?

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Horse Trading…

Little did I understand before we visited the Kaiserliche Schatzkammer, that in the Old Days it was all about Child Trading. No, no, no. I don’t mean selling the children. Well, not directly anyway. I mentioned in an earlier blog about the infant mortality of the tin lids (cockney rhyming slang for kids) of Peter the Great of Russia. 14 kids. 11 died before the age of 4 years old.

So, Hoorahh!! You’re the King or Empress of Austro Hungarian Empire (aka the Habsburg Empire) (aka the Holy Roman Empire) and you have a kid that doesn’t die. Hoorahh! What do you do now? Of course, you marry them off. But to whom?

Well, someone useful of course. Someone who might bring you a duchy or two, or maybe a whole new empire....

Take this chick for example:

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Mary, Duchess of Burgundy

So there she was …… got a nice fiefdom of Burgundy all of her own. She marries Maximillian, Archduke of Austria and it gets rolled into the Habsburg Empire. Then again, if I could marry off one of my kids and get Burgundy as well, I’d do it too….

But seriously, I hadn’t understood the enormous amount of chopping and changing of empires and fiefdoms that went on between say 1,000 AD and 1,900 AD due to intermarriage vs wars. And the number of children with two heads. They were an incestuous lot….

It did all cause a bit of palaver during the First World War. You see, this person:

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King George V of the British Empire – b.1865 - d.1936

…had to subtly (and quickly) change his surname from the Germanic Hannover to the more acceptable Windsor....

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Prague, The Czech Republic

You’ve gotta remember this scene don’t ya?

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Crocodile Dundee overwhelmed by the number of people in New York City, climbs a lamppost.

Well, it was less people than in Prague. Great city. Shame about it drowning in tourists. We had been warned but wow!

But we did arrive in Prague in time to enjoy the local pride march.

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And then a long, somewhat boozy, lunch in honour of the end of week 33 of our trip/day 230 of the trip/Nik’s birthday/any other excuse you can think of… (I think we just wanted to pretend we weren’t scruffy travellers for a while!)

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Frogs legs and truffles at Le Terroir Restaurant, Prague

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Goats cheese and beetroot salad – food porn for food porn’s sake – Le Terroir, Prague.

And then a day of enjoying the sights of Prague….

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Spooky gothic grotto in Waldstein Garden

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The absolutely amazing astrological clock that tells you what colour socks you’re going to wear today…

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Us enjoying the view of Prague from St. Vaclav’s vineyard near the Prague Castle (and taking another really bad selfie!)

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The John Lennon memorial wall. Surprising not only for its existence in Prague, but that it has continuously existed since the year Lennon was murdered, surviving the soviet era despite its more revolutionary leanings.

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The view of Prague Castle at night and the Charles Bridge.

But, for me, the attraction of the city followed on from buying this book in the bookshop in Mendocino in 2012.

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To the Castle and Back by Vaclav Havel – Writer, dissident, President. Born 1936, died 2011. President of Czechoslovakia, 1989 to 1992, President of the Czech Republic from 1993 to 2003.

After this:

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The Prague Spring. A period of political liberalisation in Czechoslovakia that started on 5th January 1968 until being brutally put down by the Soviet Union on 21st August 1968.

The Czechoslovaks were a tad cautious during their protests. So the uprising which started on 17th November 1989, became known as ‘The Velvet Revolution’ due to its slowly slowly approach. The Russians had not put down the Solidarity Union Movement under Lech Walesa in Poland, but the Czechs were still scared.

Then enter Vaclav Havel and 500,000 protesters in Prague and by 29th December the Communist leadership had resigned and Havel was President.

He also managed the split of Czechoslovakia into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993.

And for you rev heads out there, prior to Iron Curtain coming down in 1989, Czechoslovakia produced this car:

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A 1986 Skoda. It really was a piece of, well, …. It wasn’t very good.

The Czech Republic and Slovakia now produce 2.3 million cars, still under the name of Skoda but they are now owned by VW.

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A Car. Made by Skoda. It now includes an engine. In the front…..

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Krakow, Poland

Just thought I’d put in a little map so you could see that we were doing a bit of a wiggly path from Bordeaux, France to Geneva, Switzerland to Vienna, Austria to Prague, the Czech Republic, to Krakow, Poland.

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Wieliczka Salt Mine, Krakow, Poland.

The Wieliczka Salt Mine is located 30 minutes southeast of Krakow and has been in operation since the 13th century. It only stopped large scale production in 2007. And it’s very very big, over 390m deep. There are tours of the first three levels, down to 135m. Over the years, the salt miners not only mined salt, but excavated chambers to act as churches and accommodation. After all they lived in the mine full-time. As did their horses used to carry the salt (once lowered into the mine the horses lived out their lives down in the dark until they died – which felt unpardonably cruel). The miners also became salt sculptors and the mine is filled with amazing statues, reliefs and ornamentation, all made from salt.

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A carving of King Casimir the Great made out of salt (as are all of the walls and floor).

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The largest cathedral in the salt mine. The crystals on the chandeliers, the walls, stairs, floor, alter and all of the statues are carved from salt.

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A relief carving of the Last Supper on the Cathedral wall carved out of salt!

Salt has been important for thousands of years for preserving meat and is essential for life. Civilisations depended upon it; Salt Caravans across the Sahara, up the Silk Road, Greeks trading it, etc. Part of its importance is because it was difficult to obtain (having to be obtained through manual processes such as salt panning, boiling, or mining) and hence the price remained high.

Well, sort of. The other reason was that sometimes is was taxed highly. There was this bloke called Louis XVI of France. He introduced the gabelle, a salt tax. Increased the tax to 140 times the cost of production. Yeah. Didn’t go too well for him.

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Louis XVI of France has a bad time at the guillotine, 21st January 1793

The tour was three hours and was very well done. A must-do if you’re in the area.

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Krakow is a beautiful town, however, the most common reason that most people visit this location is because it is close to the museum and memorial at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration and extermination camps. We did a day tour out to the memorial and the next day a walking tour of the Jewish quarter in Krakow to better understand the history of what occurred here and pay our respects. It was as difficult as you would expect. Birkenau in particular was soul-crushing. It was a place that you could feel what had happened there. Walking though the site of the Jewish quarter and former ghetto in Krakow was also a profound experience. Even a remote knowledge of what happened there is challenging. Being there in person imprints it on the memory for ever.

I know I said it in my previous blog, but the notion of ‘lest we forget’ is difficult to process when we have continued to see genocide the world over since the Holocaust (43 ‘recognised’ crimes against humanity from 1956 to 2016, let alone those not ‘recognised’). That said, I came away more disturbed than I expected, as I better understood how gut wrenchingly vicious, planned and systematic the Holocaust was.

At the Wannsee conference in January 1942, the Nazis decided on the details of the ‘Final Solution’; the extermination of the Jewish race. Everyone brings their own perspective to things, and as an engineer, I found the mechanisation and detailed planning for murdering all of these people particularly difficult.

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Auschwitz-Birkenau Crematorium No. 2

Take the gas chambers. There were 6 in Auschwitz-Birkenau that together had a capacity of murdering about 5,000 people per day. The victims were told they were going in for a shower (there was a chimney, it looked like a bathhouse) and were told to undress. They entered the gas chamber. The gas chambers were of different sizes. One had a capacity to kill 1,500 people at once. The Jews (and others) were murdered with Zyklon B gas, a poisonous fertilizer.

The bodies were then transferred by the SonderKommando (Jewish “Special Forces” – Jews that did not take part in the murder, but had to move the bodies. The Sonderkommando were also exterminated after they finished being useful.) from the gas chamber to crematorium. But not before the heads of the victims had been shaved and gold teeth removed. They were then cremated in specially built ovens at 1,000 C, fired by coking coal. The tonnes of ashes were spread around the local countryside.

Filip Muller, a member of the Sonderkommando described a gassing:

“You see, once the gas was poured in, it worked like this: it rose from the ground upwards. And in the terrible struggle that followed – because it was a struggle – the lights were switched off in the gas chambers. It was dark, no one could see, so the strongest people tried to climb higher. Because they probably realised that the higher they got, the more air there was. They could breathe better. That caused the struggle.

Secondly, most people tried to push their way to the door. It was psychological – they knew where the door was, maybe they could force their way out. It was instinctive, a death struggle.

Which is why children and weaker people, and the aged, always wound up at the bottom. The strongest were on top. Because in the death struggle, a father didn’t realise his son lay beneath him”.

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Scratch marks on the walls of a gas chamber at Auschwitz-Birkenau made by Jews trying to get away from the Zyklon B.

And as inconceivable as anything else about these shocking crimes, is that human beings sat down and deliberately designed these machines to murder other human beings, in the same way they might design a new train or piece of factory equipment.

Between 1941 and 1944 approximately 1,100,000 Jews, as well as hundreds of thousands of others, were murdered at Auschwitz Birkenau.

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The railway line into Birkenau Extermination Camp.

The walking tour of the Jewish areas of Krakow, celebrated the long history of the Jews in this region, took us through the Jewish Quarter where they had lived for centuries, followed the path of the expulsion to the ghetto and finally the extermination of ninety percent of the Jews who had lived in and around Krakow. Understandably there are very few Jews remaining in Krakow, however the community has experienced a revitalisation of recent decades, which was both sad (for the size of the now tiny population) and wonderful (for the spirit and determination of the community) to see.

Prior to the Second World War there were about 2.9 million Jews living in Poland. This was partly because the Polish had limited involvement in the Crusades. Countries that had more significant involvement in the Crusades tended to be more anti-Semitic. This tended to encourage the Jews in Europe to move to more enlightened countries, and many moved to Poland.

Prior to the second world war, there was a vibrant Jewish community of about 70,000 in Krakow.

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Entrance to Synagogue Wolfa Poppera in Krakow, Kazimierz (Jewish) Quarter.

With our amazing guide, we learnt about the history of the Sapharidi and Ashkenazi Jews. And the setting up of the Kazimierz town in Krakow in the 14th century.

We learnt about the expulsion of the Jews from Kazimierz town to the Podgorze Ghetto across the river. About 30,000 people at a time were forced to live in the walled ghetto, in a space designed for 5,000 inhabitants. From here most of the population were sent directly to Auschwitz. Those determined to be suitable for hard labour, were sent to the nearby Plasow Concentration Camp when the ghetto was liquidated in 1942. It is estimated that 10,000 Jews were murdered and buried in mass graves in the local area during this event.

Below is a picture of the main square in the former ghetto where the Jews were processed, and deported for extermination. There are 68 chairs set up in the square as a memorial, with each chair representing 1,000 Jews (68,000 in all) that were held in the ghetto.

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The Memorial of Chairs in Podgorze Square in Krakow. There are 68 chairs, one to represent each of the 1,000 Jews from Krakow that were exterminated in the camps.

We also visited the factory of Oskar Schindler, on whose story the film Schindlers List is based. Schindler was a Nazi who saved 1,094 Krakow Jews from the ghetto from certain death, by paying to have them certified as ‘essential workers’ and transporting them to Czechoslovakia where they worked out the end of the war in another factory. All of the other Jews from the ghetto were killed.

The Jewish Quarter of Kazimierz was left to decay until Stephen Spielberg came to film Schindlers List there. With the notoriety that the film brought, the area was finally revitalised. After the walking tour, we headed back there to have dinner in the main square, surrounded by three synagogues and an awful lot of history. While we sat there in the square, both silently taking in the atmosphere and thinking about all that we had learnt over the last two days, a nearby band started playing traditional Jewish music. Out of the twilight came a crowd of young twenty-something Orthodox Jewish men who started to clap and sing along, encouraging the band to play louder and faster. They stayed for 2 or 3 songs entertaining the crowd and then moved on. It was so poignant to see the vibrancy of this community reasserting itself, while sitting among the heavy history of their past.

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Posted by capetocape2017 07:50 Archived in Poland Tagged france poland red chateau cross holocaust united krakow nations rigaud Comments (2)

Chapter 23 - Riga to Berlin

By Neil

semi-overcast 28 °C
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Riga Rocks!

In the time it took us to get half way from the plane from Moscow to the baggage carousel in Riga Airport, Latvia, Nik had connected to the Wi-fi, and downloaded all of the email we had been unable to access for the last couple of days.

In Russia, you have to go through the Russian run server that requires you to fill out a form, have a Russian phone number and give important details like the colour of toilet paper you use before you can access Wi-fi in any public places. It had been a little frustrating over the last month…

We were back in civilisation.

“For one of the first or second times on the Big Trip”, said Nikki, “I’m in a place where I feel like I could really could live!” as we walked around Riga.

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Riga Street Scene, Latvia.

But where were we?

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Map of Europe showing Russia and the tiny Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania (north of the red-and-orange-striped Belarus).

"Riga feels really European, even Scandinavian”, I said to the receptionist in the hotel in Riga. She positively beamed.

“I’m so pleased you think it feels European”, she said, “and not Russian. We have put a lot of effort into making it this way”.

“Why?” I asked.

“We were under Soviet rule for over 80 years and, whilst Russia is just over the border, we don’t feel that we are Russian. We feel that we are European.”

“Are you scared of Russian?”, I asked.

“We’re a country of 2 million people and although we’re a member of the European Union, have the Euro, and are a member of NATO, we’re still concerned the Russians will walk over the border. The eastern half of the population is Russian, almost 50%. That’s why every single Latvian soldier is on the border with Russia”.

And in light of Russia’s arguments in favour of the annexation of Eastern Ukraine, being the population was predominantly Russian, the fears seem well-founded. We found it amazing that this 20 something year old woman was so crystal clear in her thoughts, and so willing to share them. Her views, however, were not unique.

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Riga, Latvia.

In light of our foodie adventures during our short stay in Latvia, we have to start with the markets. They were a close stroll to our hotel and the centre of the old town. And the produce was absolutely astounding! There were four halls the size of aircraft hangars crammed with local produce, including an amazing array of cured meats, olives, fish, cheese, bread, mushroom and berries. We arrived right in the middle of the berry season and the smell of the strawberries, blueberries, raspberries wafted through the streets as we walked past the stalls. It was mouth-watering!

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The aircraft-hangar like buildings are the Riga Central Market

And I have never seen such a selection of honeys for sale. Probably 40 different varieties! (Nik says I need to just visit the Giant Bee in Queensland but I think she is pulling my leg!)

And the fruit and veg was just too good!

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Riga Central Market, Latvia

And for me, the meat and seafood selection was not huge, but there was fabulous, and enormous salmon, and beautiful herring.

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Look at the size of that salmon!

Riga Old Town itself is very pretty. Small. Friendly. And really artistic. The souvenirs in some of the places we have visited in Eastern Europe have looked a little like someone has let in a mad man with a fretsaw, all wooden kitsch and terrifying Christmas-eske decorations. In Riga, a lot of the art had a modern Scandinavian feel, with beautiful woods, pottery and textiles. There were collectives where you could see and buy the works of local artisans and the bars and restaurants had some amazing fits outs and art.

There was also some more traditional glass art, some of which was quite different from anything else we have seen. We saw, and bought, some of this beautiful glass made by a Latvian artist called “Elfu”. And Nikki’s mum is the lucky winner of trying to get it home in one piece, thanks Jan!

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An example of the Glass Art from the Elfu Fabrika, Latvia.

Then there was the great food; modern, inventive and varied. It really was a treat after the more limited options to the East!

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How about that for a soup? Beetroot soup and a Splitpea soup with goats cheese

And finally there was the bitters. Black Riga bitters are a local delicacy, a digestive liquor made from an array of herbs and berries. It is an acquired taste that is for certain, but over a plate of cheese, who could say no….

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Beautiful lunch with Duck for me and Polenta with a mushroom sauce for Nikki with the rather interesting Blackcurrant Balzam….

Here are some more photos of Riga to whet your appetite….

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Riga Street Scenes…

In the afternoon, Nik went to the Latvian Occupation Museum by herself as I wanted to get blogs loaded up. Out of the many memorials of the events of WWII, this is one that Nik said she found most moving, particularly as there we had little knowledge of the impact of the German and Soviet occupation of Latvia (or Estonia and Lithuania) before this trip. Latvia was occupied for over 50 years and during this time the proportion of ethnic Latvians dropped from 75% to 52% of the population. Many Latvian citizens were deported to Soviet Gulags, from where as little as 1% of some villages ever returned.

Vilnius, Lithuania

Vilnius is not quite as pretty as Riga, but certainly had its own charms. For example, look at the menu:

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How could I possibly resist “Rustic beaver meat stew with Champignons and tomatoes”?

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Beaver stew, Vilnius, Lithuania.

We stayed in an old monastery where Nikki was convinced there was an unhappy ghost (or ghosts of past church sins perhaps….) and she slept badly. I slept like a log.

Before Vilnius the best meal that I had had on the trip was a ceviche (raw seafood marinated in lemon juice) in Valparaiso, Chile. Yep, in month 1! However, in Stikliai restaurant in Vilnius I had some pickled Herring that was just fantastic; beautifully flavoured with salt and oil with the perfect texture. The onion, paprika and mayonnaise sauce was exquisitely prepared, and the baked potato was perfect. Wow. A new favourite!

Nikki says hers is still the Moqueces in Salvador, Brazil. A beautiful ”coconut limey heaven” is a direct Nikki quote, and will be pretty hard to beat!

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Best meal of the trip for Neil so far; Herring in Vilnius, Lithuania

Vilnius also had an interesting artistic vibe, mainly jewellery. Nikki actually saw a piece of jewellery that she liked, which is a pretty rare occasion - so Happy Birthday Nikki!

We only had one afternoon in Vilnius and so took to the streets after lunch to look around, but the weather had other ideas and it started to bucket down, in a very, very persistent manner. So we took refuge in the closest building, and you’ll never guess, it was a gin and whisky bar… Some Italian gin and Swedish Single Malt Whisky jumped out at us to warm us up and, well, we had to buy it.

“So mate”, I said to the bloke behind the bar. “Have you seen signs of global warming?”.

“Bloody Oath, Cobber”, he (perhaps not) said. “It used to be that it would get down to minus 30 centigrade for at least 2 weeks a year, now it only drops to minus 20 C”.

“What the? I can’t image minus 30 C”, I said. Then I asked, because I am me, and this is what I do….

“What’s your view of Lithuanian independence and how do you feel about the Russians?” So not a hard-hitting or controversial question to ask an innocent bar keeper on a rainy afternoon then. Nik just rolled her eyes.

“Independence is good, as is being a member of the European Union and having the Euro as the currency. As for being a member of NATO, the Russians keep a large army in Belarus and in their Russian protectorate on the coast to our south. They regularly hold exercises close to our border and if they came over the border would NATO come to our aid? I don’t know. We hope so, but….”.

An amazing fact about the fight for independence by Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania that Nik and I had previously missed, was the symbolic protest, “the Baltic Way” which occurred in August 1989. Some 2 million people from these countries joined hands forming an unbroken chain from the capital of Estonia, Tallinn to Vilnius in Lithuania (approximately 600km!) to protest for their independence. It took another 6 years for Russian armed forces to leave….

Russia will shortly be carrying out the “Zapad” exercise with 100,000 troops and the “First Guards Tank Army” in Belarus (the first time the First Guards Tank Army has been used since the Second World War). Again, history for the people in these countries on Russia’s Western fringe is all too recent and their Eastern neighbour clearly weighs on the minds of the people.

Warsaw, Poland

Then, hoorah!!!! Our last bus ride for a long time! From Vilnius to Warsaw in Poland. It was only 12 hours but we were clearly out of practice from South America, as it was pretty tiring. Although, can I just say that it was the poshest bus we have been on for the whole trip! Seat back screens with a better selection of movies than any airline I have travelled with and really good wi-fi for the whole trip! Fabulous!

The Soviets, surprisingly, did a really good job of rebuilding Warsaw after the Second World War. With almost the entire city completely demolished, it is amazing how well the re-construction has kept it’s olde worlde charm. We had some challenges in the train station, and couldn’t for the life of us buy a Eurail ticket to get us to Germany. Fortunately, our friendly hostel staff managed to help us get a ticket to Berlin, where hopefully my German skills would facilitate a better outcome for our onward journey!

We spent a day wandering through Warsaw, visiting the former site of the Jewish ghetto (now a park with a small memorial) and the Museum of the History of the Polish Jews. This was an incredibly detailed museum about Jewish history and did not just focus on the Holocaust, giving important insight to Jewish culture in Europe. However, the imagery and information regarding the Warsaw ghetto and holocaust was appropriately unforgettable. Which is the whole point.

As you know, I have always said that bars are great places to get the viewpoint of every type of person on every type of issue:

The Russian Studies Graduate from America gave his view that Russia will, in some way, annex parts of eastern and southern Ukraine but will stop there.

A Polish woman gave her view that, whilst life was better since the departure of the soviets, there were still not enough good jobs.

And a Belgian bloke living in America gave his view that Europe is being overrun by Muslims who do not have the same values as Europeans.

As Nikki has said on a few occasions, one tends to mix with people who have the same views. Those people become friends, and it is easy to only mix with and hear from people that have the same or similar point of view as oneself.

Coming back the Voltairean quote of the 1700’s, “I don’t agree with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it”, I vociferously, but respectfully, put an alternative viewpoint to the Belgian gentleman, including telling the story about the goat. For those of you that have heard it, I apologise. For others, let me go off on a tangent……

The Australian Goat Story:

I was developing a wind farm in the Australian outback. Desert country. Bloody tough (but stunningly beautiful) country. 270mm of rain per year. On average. Regular droughts. You measure the livestock capability of land using a term called “carrying capacity”. Good land in Victoria in Australia, or the UK, or say Washington State in the US, could carry say 2 sheep per acre of land. This country in the outback has a carrying capacity of 0.08 sheep per acre, or 12 acres per sheep. So you need big farms. Say 100,000 acres. Then you can run 7,000 or so sheep and with the value from the lambs and wool, you can make a living.

I was talking with one of the farmers about goats. He said that 25 years ago, they had no value. They ate everything and bred like, well, goats. The best thing to do was shoot them. And the sheep fences didn’t keep them out, they just wondered onto the land. In Australia, they are called feral goats.

Now let me go off on a(nother) tangent…..

About 30 years ago 2 Lebanese brothers immigrated to Melbourne. After a couple of years someone said to them “Hey mate, you got any goats?”. (Goats, by the way, are the most widely eaten meat in the world. The Hindu’s don’t eat beef (if any meat at all). Jews and Muslims don’t eat pork).

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Some Goats

So the Lebanese bloke said “Dunno. Let me have a look”.

Sure enough, he found that feral goats were available for very low cost so he opened up an abattoir to kill, skin, and butcher the goats. Most of the goat meat went for export. Much of it to the USA.

About 4 years ago, the value of a goat to the Outback farmer was about $35 dollars a goat. To collect and transport the goats to the abattoir cost about $5 per goat. Not much money unless you’re collecting several thousand goats per year! Which they were….

So, immigrants helped create a multi-million dollar industry from an Australian pest! The Lebanese-Australian brothers’ abattoir is now processing 10,000 goats a week and employing about 500 people! And significantly increased the income for outback farmers! Happy days! (Well, unless you’re a goat….).

Oh, and about 2 years ago Australia signed Free Trade Agreements with China and South Korea, and expanded the Free Trade Agreement with Japan. Since then the price the Outback farmer is getting for a goat has gone from $35/goat to $70/goat. By the way, in the same period, the price per kilo of cattle has gone from about $2.50/kilo to about $5.50/kilogram.

Long story short, I have seen the amazing contribution that refugees and migrants have bought to our (and other) countries and there are plenty more stories out there to show it. Although, only the best stories have goats.

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Berlin, Germany

This was the first time for Nikki and I in Germany.

“What?!”, I hear you cry. “But you worked in Germany!”.

No, I didn’t. I worked in a country called West Germany. Yes. When I worked in Frankfurt, there was still a Wall in Berlin. Then again, it was a third of a century ago.

Neither Nikki or I had been to Berlin and German efficacy was shown during the purchase of our Eurail passes. We were loaded up with tickets and passes before we knew it! It is a certainly a country where you can “feel the efficiency”, everything was just easier.

In Berlin we went to the standard tourist sites of the Reichstag:

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Neil (the one wearing the fabulous hat) and Nikki mucking up another selfie in front of the Reichstag.

Brandenburg Gate:

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By the way, I saw this fascinating plaque in front of the Brandenburg gate:

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From a speech given by US President Ronald Reagan at the Brandenburg Gate on June 12th 1987

The site of Hitler’s Bunker:

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Yep. That’s it. The carpark to the left of where I was standing. That’s where Hitler’s bunker was before they filled with concrete and parked cars on it. Highly appropriate outcome.

The Soviet memorial:

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Soviet memorial in Berlin

Very striking was the memorial to the Berlin Wall, including an original section of the wall, left intact.

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Looking out onto the Berlin Wall overlooking a model of the city and where the wall ran (in the foreground)

This section, located at Bernauer Strasse, has been left as a memorial. There are photos of what the area looked like when the wall was in place and a memorial to those that died trying to cross the wall. I loved this graffiti on the wall:

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‘We’ve never had to build a wall to keep our people in”…..

It is a stark reminder of the Iron Curtain (Churchill’s phrase that he first used in 1945) that fell across Europe after the second World War.

And then the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe:

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Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. 2,711 Stelae (concrete slabs) varying from 0.3 metres high to 4.7 metres high.

A lot more graphically detailed than the other memorials we had seen so far, the one in Berlin, while striking, felt distant. It almost felt like the content was so difficult, that the concept was to just objectively put it all out there and let people make their own of it. Perhaps that is the best way, I am unsure. However, these places are very personal and neither of us would have wanted the job of representing this event in a single memorial.

The powerhouse that is Germany

Firstly, Germans are bloody nice people and we’ve been lucky to meet quite a few of them during our trip.

In a previous blog I wrote about the economic behemoth that is California, the world’s 7th largest economy. Germany is the world’s 4th largest economy. Yes, it has twice the number of people as California but still, a US$3.5 trillion economy is nothing to sneeze at.

America has a few skeletons in its closet, but one of its greatest actual and moral achievements of which it should be most proud is the Marshall Plan. This plan, developed by George Marshall in 1947/48 was to invest US$130 billion (in 2016 figures) into devastated Europe. Marshall stated to the graduating class of Harvard in 1947 that “its purpose should be the revival of a working economy in the world so as to permit the emergence of political and social conditions in which free institutions can exist”.

It was, quite simply, a superb plan. Mix the plan with the German work ethic, their desire to do things not just right but superbly, the fabulous approach to workplace relations (where union leaders are on the boards of companies), and the Mittelstand (the thousands of small (less than 1,000 employees) companies, often based in small towns in Germany, that produce a wide range of products that are the best in the world; from pencils to shoes to beer packaging equipment to equipment to shot/ sand blast metals prior to painting/ galvanising), and you have a world leading formula.

Plus, this leader.

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Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany, 2005 – present

Chancellor Merkel is arguably the most powerful, influential leader in the world today. The Chancellor leads the world in many areas including Free Trade, Climate Change, Industrial Might, Leadership of the European Union, and, very importantly, Humanitarian efforts.

It was in the middle of what was called the European refugee crisis in 2015 that Germany opened its doors to a million refugees from, primarily, Syria. My views are that there is obviously the Humanitarian side of this. There is also, the economically smart side of it too.

It’s well known that, on average, as education for women increases, the birth rate per woman decreases. So therefore, if a country wants to maintain its growth rate when the birth rate per woman is decreasing, immigration is the answer.

Percent of Western German mothers having 1, 2 and 3 or more children by educational attainment

number of children

one child 22(Compulsorty Education) 30 (Intermediary Ed) 31 (Highest Ed)
two children 39 (Compulsory Education) 48 (Intermediary Ed) 48 (Highest Ed)
three or more children 39 (Compulsory Education) 22 (Intermediary Ed) 21 (Highest Ed)

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Expected population numbers in Germany with differing immigration scenarios.

In addition, a country needs workers to support the increasing numbers of old people.

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My name might not be Einstein but Chancellor Merkel looks to be pretty smart to me whereas Japan looks to be on the edge of a demographic cliff…….

Also, as shown with the Goat Story, immigration leads to increased economic opportunities.

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The Holocaust, Nazis and Soviet Occupation

In Chapter 5 of this blog, having visited the superb Museo de la Memoria y Los Derechos Humanos (the Museum of Memory and Human Rights) in Santiago, Chile, I wrote:

“How a country deals with its past atrocities is a measure of its level of civilisation”.

The systematic, planned murder of 6 million Jews during the Second World War was, is, shocking, abhorrent, unbelievable.

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Auschwitz Liberation Day – 27th January 1945

The Museum of the History of the Polish Jews in Warsaw, the Museum to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin, the Occupation Museum in Riga, and many, many others, all work towards the recognition of the past atrocities and educating todays population that we must never, never, forget.

We must, as people of the world, be constantly aware that genocide is a heartbeat away. One would have thought after the Holocaust that humankind would have learnt and there would have been no more genocide. Tragically, this is not true. Systematic murder has been a regular occurrence in the 72 years since the end of the Second World War. It’s estimated that between 1956 and 2016 there have been 43 genocides resulting in the murder of around 50 million people including:

- Cambodia – Khymer Rouge – 1.5 to 3 million people – 1975 to 1979
- Rwanda – 1 million people – 1994
- Russia (30 million people murdered in the Gulags),
- China (Unknown millions murdered in the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution)

We must, as citizens of the world, be aware of the Declaration of Human Rights (http://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/index.html), and work constantly to ensure that our own countries abide by the Declaration and pressure other countries to abide by it too.

This trip has educated us more than we could have possibly imagined about events that we were, in the main, only vaguely aware of or were already a part of ‘history’. But this history continues to play out around us in global politics and conflicts today. I think we are both thinking about the ways in which can play our own small part in improving this….

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Posted by capetocape2017 12:33 Archived in Latvia Tagged germany poland russia holocaust latvia lithuania Comments (1)

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