Tag Archives: Jews


Day 32: Molochky, Ukraine to Berdychiv, Ukraine

View Larger Map

Start: Molochky, Ukraine
End: Berdychiv, Ukraine
Distance: 49.5km
Elevation Gain: 561ft
Elevation Loss: 608ft
Time: 3h24m
Reading Material: The Good Soldier Švejk – Jaroslav Hašek; Ukraine: A History, 4th Edition – Orest Subtelny
Audio Material: Diane Rehm; WBUR’s Only a Game

A short day but I had already targeted a stop in Berdychiv. The morning was hot, hazy sun and humid. There wasn’t much shade while I filled up on Anatoyli’s fish stew breakfast and I was pretty tired from only getting 4 hours of sleep the night before.

The Ukraine road is starting to get to me. Straight and paved but with bumps, ribbons and potholes to make smooth riding nearly impossible. My hands continue to vibrate for a good five minutes after I get off the bike and some gear (camera lens filter, thermos, kickstand) is starting to get beat up from the conditions.

Stopped for a morning coffee and watched a turtle attempt the cutest escape ever from its water bowl (like watching a puppy try to climb over a small fence). Stupidly left wallet behind while watching turtle but was saved by the waitress.

Did a little exploring in Berdychiv before the afternoon thunderstorms rolled in. Berdychiv was the second-largest Jewish city in the entire Russia Empire in 1860 (~45,000) and 80% of the population was Jewish. While I’m not versed in the various Hassidic sects, it is a popular pilgrimage town for the followers of Levi Yitzchok. Berdychiv is also home to the laziest dogs I have ever seen. They lie in packs on the sidewalks and appear dead.

I was able to locate the only remaining synagogue but couldn’t figure out a way to get inside. There’s a Jewish cemetery somewhere outside of town but my energy flagged and I might try to find that tomorrow on the way out. Took a nap. At dinner, I was joined by Alexander (a criminal defense lawyer), his pregnant girlfriend (not wife, “I don’t want to locked up like that!” she said convincingly) and her friend (all age 30) since tables were tight. Super friendly and inquisitive. We finished with cognac toasts and I wandered off to get some more rest.



Tarnów is an interesting city. Pretty large (over 100,000 population) and located at the intersection of major rail and highway routes, it still features a cute town center and old town. They do an excellent job informing tourists and highlighting their Jewish heritage.

Before WWII, nearly 25,000 Jews living in Tarnów. During the German occupation, nearly all the Jewish building were burned and the ancient cemetery desecrated (in addition to serving as the location of a mass grave for 3,000 Jews massacred in the cemetery). All that remains from the original synagogue is the brick Bima which has been preserved and highlighted in a nice courtyard. The cemetery is about 2km outside the city center and when I arrived I found the front gate locked with a sign that the key is always available…but back in the city. Instead of walking an additional 4km, I scaled the wall figuring I would be forgiven since technically the cemetery was always open. Found many old graves and a memorial column from the rubble of the old synagogue.

Very impressed with Tarnów’s history and friendliness (and hopefully lenience) to visitors.


Tour of Terror: Auschwitz

Next up on the tour of terror: Auschwitz. Auschwitz actually refers to several camps located near the Polish town of Oświęcim. I was able to tour two camps: Auschwitz I, the original and smaller camp retrofitted from Polish army barracks; and Birkenau (Auschwitz II), a much larger overflow camp created in a giant field 2km away.

The Nazis experimented with gas chamber and cremation oven design at Auschwitz I, but Auschwitz II was really where they implemented an industrial scale version of their “Solution.”

This is the second WWII Concentration Camp complex I visited, and I found my impressions formed mainly in relation to my first visit at Terezin. Terezin was an ancient fortress, long used both before and after the Holocaust for terror. Terezin isn’t on the main tourist circuit and you can wander the grounds at your own pace unguided. Auschwitz I entrance requires guided tours most of the day (the guides are excellent and very knowledgeable). Birkenau is included in the tour but I also returned on my own later in the day.

20130519_1104_DSC_2367-reduced3020130519_0900_DSC_2316-reduced30Being built out of brick and stone, most of Terezin remains standing. My entire visit evoked ghosts and an invisible cloud of evil with empty buildings and no other people around. The only part of Auschwitz which really provoked a similar feeling was the single extant gas chamber and crematorium. Walking into the chamber, seeing the ceiling slots where the Zyklon B canisters were dropped and then (unlike the victims) being able to walk out of the chamber to the room where the ovens were used gave perceptible chills. And, you could tell by the way others on the tour reacted that this was a shared feeling.

The other parts of the Auschwitz I tour were informative (lots of facts, dates, numbers, pictures) but didn’t have this same feeling.

20130519_1510_DSC_2427-reduced30Birkenau was an entirely different experience. Here the term “camp” is apt. Imagine a giant, cleared field (~750 acres) laid out with a perfect barbed wire grid and regularly spaced barrack structures. Most of the originals were made of wood, so the only parts left standing are the brick chimneys and a few reconstructed structures. The entire space is bisected by a railroad track which is how prisoners were brought into the camp and the last thing most saw before they were immediately herded to their death. Unlike Terezin, Birkenau wasn’t build to be permanent. The barbed wire posts, the wooden building, it all looks as if the Nazis expected to be able to completely annihilate their enemies in the space of a few years at which time the camp would be superfluous.

And that was my main takeaway from Auschwitz: the industrial scale of the Holocaust. Human history is replete with evil. Every era is filled with wars and torture and death. But, the Nazis were the first to combine this instinct with the efficiency of logistics. 20130519_1532_DSC_2467-reduced30Census records, registration cards and centralized rolls allowed them to meticulous track down every single individual targeted for death. Without a comprehensive railroad network, it would have been impossible to aggregate the more than 6 million people in concentration camps (Johnson finds evidence that the railway timetables gave absolute priority to transporting prisoners even at the expense of the war effort). And, finally, Auschwitz itself is an industrial killing machine. Like a modern, commercial agribusiness, Auschwitz was built for one purpose. But, instead of profit it maximizes death.


Day 13: Slup, Czech Republic to Poysdorf, Austria

View Larger Map

Start: Slup, Czech Republic
End: Poysdorf, Austria
Distance: 80.1km
Elevation Gain: 2120ft
Elevation Loss: 2245ft
Time: 8h23m
Reading Material: A History of the Jews – Paul Johnson; Attempting Normal – Marc Maron
Audio Material: Marketplace; Channel Orange – Frank Ocean; West – Lucinda Williams

I’m getting my sea legs under me. Probably should have trained a bit before starting, but these first 12 days have done the trick. I covered 50km before lunch, aided by flat beautiful asphalt track. Supposedly, these narrow and straight tracks were created by the Soviets as a means to enforce the Czech border zone but someone has been spending time and money keeping them in great shape.

In addition to making it easy to spot humans, the tracks are favorite hangout spots for large bunny rabbits and snails. The bunnies are adept at running away from bicycles, I can’t say the same about the snails.

Transcendental moment zooming along at 35km/hr, listening to Lucinda Williams and turning my head to watch stands of trees covered in yellow leaves blur.

Stopped in Mikuluv for lunch and a quick tour of the local sights. After Prague, Mikuluv was the second largest Jewish community in Czech lands — nearly 50% of the town was Jewish in the 1750s. A few buildings remain along with a giant cemetery with its final burials coming from inhabitants killed in WWII.

Crossed the border into Austria where the crossing (thanks to Schengen) has been dismantled and only a few abandoned buildings and a sad museum remain. European border crossings no longer involve document checks (or electrified fence, for that matter) but now they require SIM card switches and ATM runs. Accomplished both at Poysdorf, a Napa Valley for Lower Austria, before finding a place for the night.


On Terezin and Terror

While I have been taught about the horrors of the Holocaust since the days of Wednesday afternoon Hebrew School, I have never visited a concentration camp. I have seen the piles of shoes in the DC Holocaust museum. I have read the names of those who were lost. But, I have never been to such an evil place as Terezin.

"Work will make you free" slogan painted over the entrances to many Concentration Camps

“Work will make you free” slogan painted over the entrances to many camps

Jewish education has created a curriculum that effectively communicates the enormity of the Holocaust. By taking abstract numbers like 6 million and rendering them physical (shoes, names intoned, Anne Frank’s Diary), the Jewish community tries to pass down the sheer scale of suffering and death faced by a community for those who were lucky enough not to be there. But, for me as an American Jew whose family emigrated from Europe well before WWII, it was the sense of place, of being there which had the greatest impact.



Doors leading to solitary confinement cells in the Small Fortress

Terezin is an evil place. Located about 70km north of Prague in the Czech Republic along the Elbe river, the entire town is a walled fortress built by the Hapsburg’s in 1780 for the purposes of war. I visited on my last leg while spending the night in Litoměřice across the river. To give you a sense of evil, even if we subtract the years from 1940-1945 when Terezin was used as a staging and starvation camp for Jews on their way to death sites, we are left with the following:

• Two days after the end of the Austro-Prussian War, the entire Terezin garrison unaware the war was over, attacks and destroys the Neratovice bridge.

• The small fortress in Terezin is used as a solitary confinement prison for political prisoners during WW1.

• Gavrilo Princip, assassin of Archduke Franz Ferdinand (and if you believe your 5th grade history progenitor of WWI), dies in 1918 from Tuberculosis as a prisoner in cell #1 at Terezin.

20130421_1703_DSC_0621-reduced30• After WWII ends and the Jews in Terezin are liberated, the camp is overrun with disease and quarantined with over 30% of the survivors dying.

• Once the Jews leave, the Czechs turn the small fortress into a prison and torture chamber for revenge on Nazis and ethnic Germans on their return from occupied lands to Germany.

Which brings us to WWII. Terezin (called Theresienstadt by the Germans) was meant to be a forced Jewish ghetto for Jews of “privilege” (distinguished WWI service, ties to the West, cultural importance, elderly, Jews married to Aryans). A gas chamber was built in Terezin at the end of the war but never used. Instead, death in the camp came from starvation, disease and torture. Those that survived were shipped to actual death camps such as Auschwitz. Less than 5% of the Jews forced to live in Terezin ultimately survived.

20130421_1510_DSC_0580-reduced30Terezin is often remembered for its cultural artifacts. Most harrowing are the drawings made by children during clandestine art lessons. A large collection are displayed in the Terezin Ghetto Museum and Prague’s Jewish Museum. The Nazis tried to use the camp for propaganda purposes, spending much effort on sprucing the camp up to fool Red Cross inspectors in 1944 and producing a “documentary” film intending to show the world how much the Jews were flourishing under German internment. About 20 minutes of the film exist, and I was able to have a private showing in Terezin. The original soundtrack is replaced by the intonement of transports from the camp and ultimate survival records (“Transport AA. 3304 to Auschwitz, 5 survivors”). The combination of the film, the voice and the empty theater was chilling.


20130421_1448_DSC_0578-reduced30But, most chilling was just wandering through the deserted town. Well, the first shock is that the town isn’t actually deserted. A handful of people still seem to live there. So, as I bicycled into the fortress, there was a family playing on the lawn and a few old men walking on the streets. I can’t imagine what it would be like to live in a place with Terezin’s history and being confronted with it every day by every building and every visitor to your town.

There are several museums and a loose tour of buildings. While ghost town evil pervades the entire town, bicycling over the dry moat to the small fortress adds both a sense of size (it’s a good 5 minute ride) and confinement as you are now standing inside a massive prison built inside an even larger prison.

20130421_1707_DSC_0636-reduced30As opposed to the Jewish Quarter in Prague, there are almost no other tourists which greatly adds to the solemnity of the experience. With few signs and almost no staff, you are left to explore the prison space on your own. I actually bicycled through the main gate and into the prison yard before being requested to leave the bike at the entrance our of respect for the place. I totally understand, but I also felt that a Jew bicycling freely around a space the Nazis intended as the heart of their master plan was maybe one of the best statements I could make.20130421_1751_DSC_0697-reduced30

Even farther outside the town, I found the old Crematorium (by following the somewhat creepy directional signs featuring a Jewish star–”this way to the Krematorium Jews!”). While at first the Jews were allowed to bury their dead, eventually there were too many and cremation became standard procedure. Towards the end of the war, the Nazis dumped all the ashes in the river, worried that the sheer amount of death would be discovered.

But, that’s the ultimate horror of Terezin. A place this evil with this much death can’t be hidden. And, maybe that’s the point of visiting. Terezin didn’t just terrorize Jews; it has an unbroken history of evil nearly 300 years long. The standard way to close an essay like this is with the phrase “Never Forget” lest history repeat. Well, history has already repeated several times at Terezin and even if the people forget, it will be a long time before the place forgets.20130421_1751_DSC_0702-reduced30

Photo Gallery