Archive for November, 2011

It’s just history -Auschwitz -April 2011

After the highlights of bright and wonderful Sicily, one of the jewels of Europe, it’s time to move onto the opposite end of the spectrum.

Poland is a wonderful and interesting country, full of history and culture, good food and an appetite for driving towards a better future.

However, like many parts of Europe, it has a dark past.

One would be hard pushed to find a darker history then the horrors of the concentration camp Auschwitz.

I won’t go through an in depth history of the holocaust, but here are a few impressions of the sights that await any brave visitors.

Basically, when it comes to the concentration camps during the Second World War, Auschwitz was the first, the original and sadly the best of the lot.

The twin camps, Auschwitz and the second instalment, Birkenau (which was never completed) speak of German efficiency at its most ruthless.

The camp extends for  a greater distance then Auschwitz and there were plans to make it nearly twice as big.

At its peak, the camp was burning thousands of bodies every day.

Today, the camp is kept as an eerie reminder of the worst of atrocities in recent history.

As you are guided through the various buildings, each lined up perfectly in order, the eerie feeling of death is very tangible.  The barbed wire, the watchtowers couple perfectly with the fog that creeps through the camp and looks unlikely to ever leave.

The fence-no man’s land

Various areas were used as torture or slow death facilities.  Methods of suffocation and starvation were used as well as the basic firing squad when the victims had suffered enough.

Moving onto the registration and accommodation buildings, the faces of the first batch of prisoners are arrayed the full height and length of stretches of corridors.  The photo concept of record keeping was abandoned as it was quickly realised that the prisoners were soon unrecognisable after weeks of harsh treatment in the facility.

A horribly impersonal numbering catalogue system was used instead to keep track of all the prisoners, although ironically, most of the records were destroyed by the retreating Nazis just before the end of the war.

The corridor of cold faces stares back at you as you peruse the stunned expressions.  Hundreds of photos line the walls with the person’s name, date of arrival, and date of death.

Few of the dates on display are more than a few months apart.  Some deaths occurred in a matter of days.

To start with, the camp was actually intended as a work camp.  However when the motivation changed to complete and utter genocide, the process of accepting the prisoners changed in a grisly fashion.

It eventually got to the point that train loads of exhausted prisoners were unloaded out of their carriages and unceremoniously herded to the left or right at random.  One direction meant the gas chambers, more or less dead on arrival, the other direction meant working.  Merely a slower way to die.

One tenth of ‘the shoe room’

So many people were being gassed and burnt that the huge furnaces couldn’t be totally effective.  This has led to rooms such as the ‘shoe room’.

Thousands and thousands of pairs of shoes, piled up behind glass walls.  Each shoe not only represents one person, it represents the thousands that were successfully burnt and only this one shoe remained.  And this room of thousands of mix matched shoes, each shoe representing thousands upon thousands of lives simply wiped away goes a fair way to telling the story of this horrific facility.

The luggage room displays mountains of luggage piled on top one another.  Each suitcase has painted in crooked nervous hands, a name, date, address and identification numbers.

That way their belongings could be sent to them when the prisoners reached their new homes.  They were lied to from the beginning about being relocated to new homes, right up to the end when they were told to strip down and enter the rooms that were ‘only showers.’

The living conditions of the ‘stables’ speaks more of the efficiency of the camp.  There were literally animal barns torn apart and relocated, now used for human ‘storage’.

Mass toilets in a long row of holes sitting right next to each other.  Rows and rows of bunk beds with mattresses of straw.  The lack of sanitation, the infestation of flesh eating rats all added up to some of the worst conditions imaginable.

Is it all doom and gloom?

Not quite.  Stories of bravery and mateship shine through the darkest of dark.

And a philosophical point of view to conclude.

As you look over the sight of pain and suffering, looking beyond the barbed wire fences, within a stone throw of the facility, you can see newly constructed buildings.  Houses constructed from the very materials of the torn down death camp.

Ex-residents returning after the war shed new light and hope amongst the death and decay.

So what’s the message?

What you have just experienced in this horrible place is indeed just history.  Shocking history yes, but history nevertheless.  Time rolls on, and life continues, we owe it to those who suffered to never forget and never let it happen again, but let’s not dwell on the lowest moments of humanity, let the hope of a renewed future light our way and again… Never forget.

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Sicily- A Mediteranean cake of culture April 2011

So Sicily is basically a province of Italy.  Yes it is an island, but legally it is linked to Italy like any other area.

In reality however the people are a hybrid of various cultures making up a Mediterranean cake full of interesting ingredients.

Sicilian culture cake:

*Take one part Greek

*Take one part Roman

*Take one part Byzantine

*One part Germanic

*One part Arabic

*One part Norman

*Two Parts Italian

Mix in a football shaped island and leave to set in the Mediterranean.

Mt ETNA tallest volcano in Europe

The result of all this is what at first appears to be an Italian settlement.  Quickly however you start to see the differences in the nature of the people, the food, and the way of life.

Normal Italian food is of course, pasta and pizza.  There is an abundance of such food, but suddenly you start to see spiced rice dishes.  Saffron, nutmeg and cinnamon appear in a variety of dishes and baked goods.

The Arabic influence moved the food more than any other, there is also a seafood element that simply came from the geography and practicality of being on an island.

Perhaps the island Mediterranean thing also brought about a more relaxed approach to life as compared to the mainland Italians.

Some would say a little too relaxed which has led to the current crisis of over 30% unemployment, compared to the 25% in Mainland Italy.

But what does Sicily have to offer the tourist?

First thing that hits you is the impressive coastline.  Flat coastal settlements that go for miles are broken up as soon as you head inland.  Merely a few hundred metres will have you colliding into huge cliff lines that run the line of the coast and give you impressive views of the ocean and the settlements throughout.

As mentioned, amazing coastline!

The small towns and old forts planted precariously on top the huge peaks give the impression of a tough fight ahead for any would be conquerors.

Not too tough obviously as the island has been conquered by no fewer than four different peoples since the Romans were forced out in the 400’s AD.

Moving around Sicily, the history of these past conquerors jumps out at you.

In Agrigento, the ancient Greek temples speak of a time of total dominance.  The flat harsh landscape is broken up by various temples, some intact, some not so.

Agrigento Temple

The old temple of Zeus is in bad shape (it was so big that the foundations couldn’t support the roof!) but the grandeur of the temple is still apparent today.

One of the surviving ‘sleeping giants’ that stood about 7 metres tall gives a glimpse at its size.  There were over thirty of these statues all the way around the temple, ironically holding the weight of the roof that eventually collapsed.

When you climb to the ‘cliff side’ settlement of Taormina and you look down on the spectacle of Sicily whilst sitting in the actual seats of the Greek-Roman theatre, you find your breath escaping, and it’s definitely not the altitude.

A massive theatre carved into the side of the cliff, what amazing showcases were on display two thousand years ago?  What plays and events would have been seen by the Sicilian paying public with the most stunning views behind the stage?

The combination of Greek-Roman architecture and truly amazing nature is unique to Sicily.   But one thing that overshadows the whole lot is MT ETNA, the largest volcano in Europe.

It stands 3329 metres above sea level and towers over the local fertile farm land as it smokes away almost constantly over its snow-capped peaks.

The last significant eruption occurred as recently as August 2007.  Driving up the mountain now you can still see the rebuilding process going as the lifeless craters of volcanic ash still lay there, stretching off, far out of sight.

Waistland after the 2007 eruption of MT ETNA

Sicily is a visually spectacular, historically significant and very interesting part of Italy.  The people are as different from the mainlanders as they claim to be, whilst still keeping that charming Italian appeal and zest for life.

The infrastructure is still catching up, but if you can get a car to make up for the lack of public transportation, then you will see an incredible part of Europe that is more than worth the effort of getting to.