The Holocaust: Tour Diary & Photo Gallery - September 2017
Tour guided by Professor Tim Cole & diary by Shaun Bartlett
Our afternoon flight from London Heathrow arrived in Warsaw in the early evening and we headed for our first hotel and night one of the tour. Once we had all checked in and found our rooms, we met for dinner in the hotel restaurant and met Mike, Karen, Hannah & Amnon who had flown in to Warsaw on different flights. We spent the evening chatting and enjoying the private area in the restaurant before heading for an early night.
The weather on the morning of day two was miserable but everyone was excited for our tour of Warsaw. We started by visiting two separate parts of the remaining ghetto wall where Tim explained the role that the ghetto played in Warsaw, which started the tour off perfectly. The lovely Polish lady who lived directly next to the wall didn’t like Tim’s explanations quite as much however and we made our way back to the bus to be transferred to the Nozyk Synagogue.
We spent some time inside and outside the Synagogue which is the only surviving pre-war Jewish house of prayer in Warsaw. It was built between 1898 & 1902 and was restored after World War II. A part of the small ghetto, the reason it still stands today is because the Germans were using it for storage during the war.
Our next stop was at the site of the bridge between the small and large ghettos. Although not intact, the plaques on the floor and the kaleidoscope of images that show what the bridge looked like gave us a sense of what life was like here during the war.
We then headed for the Umschlagplatz, the site of a holding area set up by Nazi Germany adjacent to a railway station where the ghettoised Jews were assembled for deportation to death camps. Some 254 – 265,000 Warsaw Jews were deported from here to Treblinka between July & September 1942. We also learned that at this time there were 300,000 Jews living in Warsaw, today there are just 600.
Walking from the memorial at the Umschlagplatz to the POLIN museum of Polish Jews, where we would spend a few hours, we stopped at the grave of the fighters of the Warsaw uprising which was built from the rubble of Mila street, one of the liveliest streets of pre-war Jewish Warsaw.
At the amazing POLIN museum we got to see what life was like for Polish Jews from the middle ages, all the way through to today with some brilliant exhibitions and most of us were able to grab some lunch here too.
Our final stop of the day was to the Jewish cemetery in Warsaw which is one of the largest Jewish cemeteries in Europe, and the world, covering 33 hectares. Walking through the huge site, Sabina, our lovely Polish guide took us to a quite remarkable site. A ghetto survivor had recently shown local authorities where he had hidden during the war and the site had been partly excavated. Here we could see a small brick structure underground where as many as 12 people had hidden from Nazis and had survived to tell their story.
That evening we took the 15 minute walk to our restaurant, Alioli, where we were shown to our table that had already been decorated with charcuterie boards, breads and dips. This was followed up with steak, pasta or a vegetarian bean dish that was thoroughly enjoyed by all. After dessert we headed back to our hotel for a night cap and bed.
The following morning, after checking out of our hotel, we were greeted by even more rain and this time it was much heavier. Luckily we were jumping straight on the bus to our first destination of the day, Treblinka.
Spending some time in the small but informative museum, Tim talked about the role that Treblinka played during the Holocaust around a small model of what the camp would have looked like in 1942/43. We learned that an estimated 700,000 to 900,000 Jews lost their lives here, the largest number of death camp murders apart from Auschwitz.
On route, Tim had told us that there wasn’t too much to see at Treblinka, so I think we were all surprised to see some of the monuments that had been created here. The concrete blocks that marked the former railway line and the 17,000 quarry stones that symbolise gravestones, inscribed with places of Holocaust train departures had been beautifully created. The shock, certainly to myself, was just how small the area was here and even more shocking were the lengths to which the Nazis had gone to create a train station that looked real. Fake timetables and signs pointing passengers to different platforms hid what was really happening from the unsuspecting prisoners.
After spending 45 minutes looking at the memorials the rain became very heavy so we headed back to the bus for short a drive to lunch, which had been superbly arranged by Sabina. Chicken, vegetables and potatoes warmed us up ahead of our drive to Lublin where we would check in to the famous Europa hotel. After some members of our party enjoyed a walk around beautiful Lublin we headed for dinner in the hotel and then for an early night.
Majdanek was our first port of call the next day and most of us couldn’t believe our eyes. Located on a main road with people passing by was a vast and perfectly maintained concentration camp. Tim took us to the “gates of hell” memorial which sits close to the main road and talked firstly about the camp and then about the meaning of the memorial itself.
Our guide Monika was ready to begin our tour at 9am and throughout our 2.5 hours here she expertly explained the Majdanek story. There were two or three moments that I am sure will stay with most of the tour party forever. The first being the gas chambers that are still intact and the blue stains of Zyklon B that can be seen on the walls. The next was the 50,000 shoes taken form prisoners that are on display and then the story of “Harvest Festival” where 18,000 Jewish prisoners lost their lives in just 12 hours.
We then visited one of the more interesting restaurants of the week for a spot of lunch where we enjoyed cat fish soup and, for the more adventurous, pike was served. All of the fish had been sourced from the lake directly next to the restaurant.
At Belzec death camp, around 500,000 Jews lost their lives. Much like Treblinka, Belzec was not a concentration camp. People who came here did not work and they did not live. There are only 7 reported survivors of this camp, believed to be members of the Sonderkommando.
The symbolic "death road" memorial, built in place of the former "Sluice" into the gas chambers, evokes the feelings of no escape and the field of crushed stone serves as a grave marker; the entire perimeter contains human ashes mixed with sand.
We entered the museum and then the contemplation room. I don’t think I can give this room justice in words and if you are reading this since visiting Belzec I am sure you will agree. If you haven’t been, then you should go.
We drove then to our hotel in the beautiful town of Zamosc. Our driver was kind enough to drop us off in the town so we could have a short tour before dinner and on a beautiful evening it was just the tonic. We ate in a lovely restaurant on the main square in our own private room and enjoyed a lovely 20 minute walk on the way back to the hotel.
On our long drive to Krakow the following day we stopped at a little town called Rozwadow. The previous day whilst at Belzec one of our passengers, Reisa, spotted the name of this town listed on the memorial, and it was the town where her father had grown up. Although he had emigrated to Canada before the war, other members of Reisa’s family hadn’t been so lucky and would have been transported to Belzec during the war.
We needed to stretch our legs after travelling through the beautiful Polish countryside for a number of hours, so the site of the Wieliczka Salt Mine was very much welcomed. The salt mines here reach a depth of 327 metres and are over 287 kilometres long and we were treated to a guided tour for a couple of hours before having dinner at our Krakow base for the next 3 nights, the INX Design hotel.
Our first day in Krakow began with a guided tour of the Jewish quarter in Krakow. Bartek, our local guide, took us to many pertinent parts of Krakow including a Jewish cemetery. A memory wall had been created here from headstones that had previously been destroyed which was a site to behold. The guided tour didn’t stop here however. Bartket also guided us through the incredible Oskar Schindler factory and explained the role he had in saving many Jewish lives. The bus then took some people to the Old Town and others back to the hotel as the afternoon was spent at leisure.
Our restaurant for the evening was the Klezmer-Hois, a Jewish restaurant in the Jewish quarter we had visited earlier in the day. We were treated to traditional Jewish food and soup as well as a concert in the dining room which was thoroughly impressive, so much so that a number of people bought CD’s.
Our final full day of touring had come around all too quickly but it was the day of the visit to the infamous Auschwitz 1 & Auschwitz-Birkenau. We departed early to ensure we had as much time as possible to explore these two huge sites and the sun was shining for the first time all week.
Beginning at Auschwitz 1, our guide took us to many of the different barracks and explained the role that each of them played, including block 11. This block was used solely to punish prisoners through torture and was where Zyklon B was first tested. There were a number of equally distressing areas and displays within these barracks including suitcases, crockery, shoes and even hair of prisoners.
After lunch, we transferred over to Auschwitz-Birkenau and we began our visit at the top of the main tower which overlooked the camp. Only standing here can you really understand just how big this site is. After visiting a number of workhouses, the destroyed gas chambers and the selection ramp, Tim took us to a quieter part of the camp, the area known as Canada. This is an area where women in the camp would work sorting through the belongings of prisoners.
In the furthest part of the camp Tim was able to show us pictures that the Sonderkommando had managed to take of the crimes that the Nazis were committing. They risked certain death by even having a camera, let alone taking images of the perpetrators.
Everyone then slowly made their way back to the bus and as we all boarded, the heavens opened. Perfect timing for our journey back to Krakow.
Our final meal of the tour was in the Old Town in Krakow and was the perfect setting to reflect on the week that has passed. A number of us walked back to the hotel whereas others used the trams to get back to the hotel quicker for a few drinks in the bar.
All that was left to do the following morning was to check out of our hotel and make our way to Krakow train station for our lovely train journey back to Warsaw. Poland wasn’t quite ready to let us go however as our flight was delayed for an hour when we had all boarded but this was a minor hiccup on an otherwise brilliant week.
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