Tag Archives: WWII


Day 58: Borovichi, Russia to Okulovka, Russia

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Start: Borovichi, Russia
End: Okulovka, Russia
Distance: 39.7km
Elevation Gain: 947ft
Elevation Loss: 650ft
Time: 2h52m
Reading Material:A World at Arms: A Global History of World War II – Gerhard L. Weinberg
Audio Material: Nerdist (GRRM interview); Bullseye

Making excellent time, so another short day. Left Borovichi in the shadow of Russia’s first arch bridge (1905; currently under repair) and off of the P8 road onto a regional one heading west. Decent surface and some of the first climbing in quite a while. Nothing big, but some sustained grade for more than several kms.

My destination of Okulovka is a small-ish town (~12,000 pop) but with a station on the original Moscow-Saint Petersburg rail line (completed 1851). It was never occupied by German troops in WW2 but situated very close to the front lines. Not sure if it was actually bombed, but the train station was considered a strategic structure and I found this German aerial reconnaissance photo from the war with detailed diagram of the rail-yard.

Dinner was some tasty shashlik in a small roadside stop. In honor of my English, they switched the TV to the BBC World broadcast. There was a story about the Peking-to-Paris classic car rally. I got a chuckle from a participant describing the the “grueling” nature of the race and how they had to spend their “rest” day in Russia doing car repairs. I’m sure the race element adds an extra challenge but try powering the vehicle with your body….

Bicycle Brigades

While researching Soviet WWII history, I came across reference to bicycle brigades used by the Germans as part of the siege of Leningrad (St. Petersburg). Evidently, the bicycle infantryman was seen as a replacement for the cavalry messenger and able to transport supplies in places where truck and tank travel was impossible. There’s a whole lengthy history here (including pics of folding bicycles in action). So, maybe another antecedent for my current trip.



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

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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.