Letter from Krakow, Poland
May 20th, 2002
alnstern @ earthlink.net
Here I am on Day 6 on my motorcycle tour of Eastern Europe. We started in Milan on May 15th, a group of 18 people, 3 women and the rest men. All are experienced motorcyclists and have ridden many bikes during their lives. I am one of the less experienced riders but have had no problem keeping up with them. I'm on a blue Ducati ST4, almost the exact same bike as my one at home -- but a little faster at the top end. The rest are an assortment of BMWs, Ducatis and a few Aprilias.
These guys ride FAST....it's basically a mad dash across eastern Europe, getting lost, stopping for directions and getting lost again. Just like my trip with Eric. The tour leader, Burt Richmond, gives us a good Michelin map of the area, a yellow highlighter and then the best route to get to our hotel in another city 5 hours or so away. Then we split up into small groups of 2 or 3 bikes (sometimes 8 but that doesn't last) .....and we're off. It's NOT a race at all but none of these guys rides slow. I've perfected my techinique of riding in the center of the road, as traffic on either side moves out of the way for you. This can be rather daunting as a semi is coming the other way at you, but the bike's acceleration is so good that it's easy to get out of ticklish situations. One of the guys, now in his 60s, was a world superbike racer in a previous lifetime, and I ended up riding with him yesterday from Trencin in the Slovak Republic up to Krakow in southern Poland. It seems as if I spent most of the trip on the center stripes of the two-lane roads.
The countryside has been absolutely gorgeous. Yellow fields contrast with the green of everything else; don't know the name of anything, only that it's really pretty. There are so many images it's hard to catalog everything in your mind. One of the guys rides with a digital camcorder hanging from his neck, and takes movies with his left hand at times. Wish I had one of those cameras mounted to my helmet like you see in car races -- helmet-cam or whatever.
Today was a free day in Krakow so most of us took advantage of to take a side trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau. We decided to not try to ride motorcycles there but we chartered a car and driver to drive the 40 or so miles. Splitting the cost, it was very reasonable. However, our driver shows up in....a MERCEDES.
The irony of driving to Auschwitz in a Mercedes is almost unthinkable. It's a warm day so the air conditioning is on as well. Talk about a disconnect.
Adding to the disconnection is the fact that this is a gorgeous spring day -- temperature is in the 70's, the birds are chirping, there's a beautiful breeze making the leaves of the trees rustle. And here I am in one of the world's notorious hell-holes.
I had been to Dachau before, to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, done a lot of reading on the Holocaust, seen "Schindler's List" twice (Schindler's factory was actually in Krakow, I was told) so pretty much knew what I was going to see. But it's still an overwhelming experience -- very hard to put into words. The piles of shoes, of hair brushes, of children's clothes, of eyeglasses -- how can you "compute" this in your mind to being real people? The photographs mounted in the buildings help, of course. Those eyes coming out at your from emaciated faces -- the contrast between those faces and the pictures of the people getting off the trains, in their best clothes, the women with long hair is almost too much.
When you first get to the museum, you see a video taken by the Russian soldiers who actually liberated the camp, with British narration. It's all footage we've seen before. I kept imagining all the people in the auditorium with me being shaved, stripped naked and instantly dehumanized.
Then you go out into the camp and see the actual ground where all of this took place.
What brought a lot of it home for me was that I was with fellow rider Joe and his wife Linda for the day. Joe's mom and aunt were from Hungary and survived Auschwitz at ages 16 and 19. But they lost all the rest of their family -- Joe's maternal grandparents, various aunts, uncles and cousins that he never got a chance to meet. It was a pretty emotional day for him...plus many of the photos mounted in the museum were taken of Jews exported from Hungary, and any of them could have been his family. We got to one of the five crematoria and he had a strong feeling that this was where his mother's family had been murdered -- he said kaddish for them. It was pretty overwhelming for all of us.
Our guide has been giving tours for quite a few years and would tell us of a few situations where old men would come on the tour and then recognize themselves in photos on the wall. One younger man pointed at a photo once and said, "That's my father!" They would then tell her tales of how they had miraculously survived, usually by random luck of being assigned to a hospital or supply job, where you would be inside during the terrible winter months.
One fact that I had forgetten was that 70 to 75 percent of the people arriving never made it to Auschwitz, then went right to Birkenau (3 km away) and right to the gas chambers. This would be those unable to perform labor, children, women with young children, old people, etc.
Joe's aunt was 19 when she arrived at Birkenau from Hungary. She has told him that she survived that first day just barely. She was helping a fellow passenger by holding her baby when they got off the train. A Hungarian Jewish inmate who was helping to unload the cars whispered in her ear in Hungarian "Give the baby back to its mother right away!" and she did. The mother and child, of course, were herded off to the gas chambers.
She also got tired once and sat down for a break, only to be told, "Stand up, don't show them you're not well!" So she survived, then found her sister several months later and they both made it through, and eventually to the United States.
Joe's wife Linda and I talked about whether we would have been able to survive....we both concluded that since we were "good little students who did what we were told," that there's no way we would have gotten out of there. You had to have an incredible will to survive, to overcome the dehumanization that instantly was part of the regimen there, not to mention the trauma and the depression, the physical backbreaking work and starvation diet.
It's off to Hungary tomorrow, Budapest on Thursday.....back to my fantasy world.