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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)

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