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WWII

    Reading Wednesday

    Book Review A Woman of No Importance by Sonia Purnell

    I have read dozens, perhaps hundreds of World War II stories. I thought I had heard it all. But my book review A Woman of No Importance by Sonia Purnell captures a remarkable tale. A story of an amazing, brave and determined American woman, who has gotten lost in history, despite the very important role she played.

    I have never heard the name Virginia Hall. And yet thousands owe her their lives. And countries owe her their freedom. American Virginia Hall was the most unlikely of heroines and spies. The most unlikely of people to lead the French resistance against the Gestapo and live to tell about.

    It’s almost like a dime store novel – a one legged beautiful woman who nearly single handedly takes down a regime. But it’s not a dime store novel. It’s a true story of a significant hero whose story has been left untold until now.

    The odds were against her. She was gorgeous, smart and brave. But she also was a woman, with a disability. Somehow she percivered and changed the course of history.

    My only complaint about this book is it was a bit dry…lots of detail. I wish it could have been written less in a chronological historic tone and more in a spy novel thriller tone…because it was all of that, but some readers might find it too detailed.

    I enjoyed learning about this amazing woman, and wish she could have been recognized more publicly before her death.

    ****Four stars for A Woman of No Importance by Sonia Purnell.

    Read last week’s review of The Magic Circle

    My current read Stamped from the Beginning

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    Europe Travel

    They March On To Die

    My Time in Poland Learning About Hitler’s Extermination of European Jews

    Location: Poland

    No, God will not save them. Nor you, friend, nor I.
    But let us not flinch, as they march on, to die.

    -Wladyslaw Szlengel, Polish Jewish Poet of the Ghetto

    They March On To Die

    Auschwitz famous gate

    Why I Came to Poland

    For many years I have wanted to come to Poland.   My first realization of that desire was when I saw the movie Sophie’s Choice.  My god.  That movie changed me.  I was only twenty-two years old I think.  Very naive.

    “Is it best to know about a child’s death, even one so horrible, or to know that the child lives but that you will never, never see him again?”
    William Styron, Sophie’s Choice

    I don’t remember learning much about World War II or the Holocaust in high school.  Was I absent that day? I remember Anne Frank however.  We read that in junior high.  We discussed it in class, but my memory of it being a bit edited as perhaps they thought we were too young.  They were trying to protect us.  But who protected Anne? No one.

    What is done cannot be undone, but one can prevent it happening again. – Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl

    They March On To Die

    Shoes of the Auschwitz victims

    I don’t think you can be too young to hear these stories.  How else can the facts sink in, in a way that it becomes a part of our daily conscious where we naturally abhor intolerance and speak out against it? How else can our youth be fully informed, aware and not jaded – as the horrors of that time in history slip farther into the past?

    Complacency

    WWII had only been over for 15 years when I was born.  It’s been longer than that since September 11th happened (17 years).  Time is a convenient blanket, smothering the memories and protecting complacency.

    They March On To Die

    Jewish families being herded out of Krakow

    Complacency is the world’s evil and our world is full of it today, yesterday and always.

    They March On To Die

    Auschwitz

    Human Numbers

    I am by no means a WWII or Shoah expert.  But I have a place in my heart that aches for what happened here in this beautiful country of Poland that I have fallen in love with these past two weeks.  I want to think of what happened here in human faces and real lives, but the numbers haunt me and I need to share;

    • Three MILLION Jews exterminated in Poland, half of the six million killed in total
    • Only 10% of Polish Jews survived
    • Another estimated but undocumented 1.5 million ethnic Poles killed – many for helping, aiding or hiding Jews

    They March On To Die

    Suitcases of victims

    Human beings like you and me. People with names. Birthdays. Lives. Goals and dreams. Doctors and lawyers.  Teachers and housewives. Students. Rabbis. Men, women, children and entire families. Grandmothers.  Beautiful young women. Little boys. For no reason other than hate.

    “You kill yourself when you hate. It’s the worst disease in the world.”
    William Schiff

    After I saw the movie Sophie’s Choice in 1982 I began to search out books and movies about the topic.  Not just about Poland but about the war, and the death camps.  As you are aware I read a lot.   I have been deeply  touched by many books – in fact many recently, that have come out about this topic. Although some of these books and movies are fictional, many are not.  And there is so much to learn from both the non-fiction and fiction stories.

    They March On To Die

    Jewish Cemetery Kazimierz (Krakow)

    The Nazis

    The Nazis invaded Poland in 1939.  That first year they stripped Jews of their possessions and their jobs and herded them into walled off ghettos.  The Warsaw Ghetto was the largest and contained more Jews than in all of France.  More than 100,000 people starved to death in the Warsaw ghetto. Many more died of horrible disease such as typhoid, cholera and dysentery because medical care was unavailable.  If you haven’t seen the movie The Pianist it’s a must.  Haunting story of the Warsaw Ghetto.

    “Humanity seems doomed to do more evil than good. The greatest ideal on earth is human love.”
    Wilm Hosenfeld, The Pianist: The Extraordinary Story of One Man’s Survival in Warsaw, 1939–45

    By 1941 Hitler’s right hand man Himmler began his calculated plan to

    They March On To Die

    Bullet riddled ghetto wall Warsaw

    annihilate the Jews of Europe through genocide.  Within two years 800,000 people had been shot to death and buried in mass graves.

    But it had only started.  The 1943 Wannsee Conference launched the final solution of the “Jewish question”.  Six death camps began the mass extermination through gas chambers using Zyklon B.  Auschwitz-Birkenau was one of these.

    From the ghettos in Krakow, Warsaw and around Europe the Jews were loaded on trains – told to take minimum belongings and their valuables for their new life in the East.  Thousands would die on the trains, suffocated and

    They March On To Die

    The selection process at Auschwitz on arrival by cattle car

    starved. Their valuables? Pilfered and to this day most unaccounted for.

    Have you seen the movie The Women in Gold? It addresses the issue of the things the Nazi’s stole from their Jewish victims, particular a painting in this case by Austrian artist Gustav Klimt.

    They’ll never admit to what they did, because if they admit to one thing, they’ll have to admit to it all.

           – The Women in Gold

     

    They March On To Die

    Cattle Car that brought victims to Auschwitz

    Death Camps

    Those who arrived at the death camps were quickly processed through selection.  Most were dead within their first few hours at the camp, stripped and taken to the “showers” which of course were not showers.  Anyone lame or old or young or unable to work was exterminated immediately.  The rest would work to death.

    The Paradise of Death

    It was like an old religion
    Dividing the saved from the damned.
    Only that the saved went to hell.
    The damned- to the paradise of death  – Raquel Angel Nagler

    Auschwitz was also home to the notorious Doctor Mengele who did unspeakable things to children, twins and other unusual “specimens” who he used as human guinea pigs for his “research”.  Have you read the book Mischling? One of the most astonishing stories I have ever read.  Astonishing and sickening.

    “The whole world will never look back. And if they do, they’ll probably say that it never really happened.”
    Affinity Konar, Mischling

    It’s disgusting to me there are still those who believe it never happened.  Same people who think we didn’t land on the moon?  Same people who don’t believe in Global Warming?

    Idiots.  This is fact;

    1.5 million Jewish PEOPLE died at Auschwitz; 200,000 of them children

    They March On To Die

    Memorial in Krakow for 65,000 Jews killed from that city

    3 million Jewish PEOPLE exterminated in Poland

    6 million Jewish PEOPLE murdered in WWII

    150,000 Non Jewish Polish PEOPLE died

    23,000 Roma Gypsy PEOPLE killed

    15,000 Soviet POW PEOPLE killed

    25,000 others GONE

    They March On To Die

    Where the death camps were

    Ignorance

    Before the war began Poland had the largest Jewish Population in Europe.  More than 3 million citizens whose ancestors had been in Poland for more than a thousand years. Only 10% of the Polish Jewish population survived WWII and the genocide.

    Many ethnic Poles died trying to help the Jews. But others turned against them.  It was similar in other countries.  While there are many stories of resistance fighters in France and Poland there were other citizens who helped the Nazis.  Recently I read the book Sarah’s Key and learned about the French Jewish Roundup in Paris in July 1942.  I had never heard of this horrible thing before.  Shame on all those whose smugness, prejudice and hate killed so many.

    “The truth is harder than ignorance.” – Sarah’s Key

    They March On To Die

    Where they burned the bodies

    The thing I keep asking myself is why did we not help them? Where was the United States? Where was the League of Nations? Where was the Catholic Church? As early as 1941 it was common knowledge in the world leaders what was happening.  People and governments looked away.  Partly because they were afraid, or busy fighting other battles, but this was genocide.  Pure and simple. And no one came.

    They March On To Die

    The remains of the incinerators the Nazi’s destroyed at the end of the war

    My time in Poland has been both lovely and gut-wrenching.  The Poland I see as a visitor is beautiful.  But I know, like all nations, there are underlying problems and anti-Semitism is here.  As an American I am painfully aware of how ignorance begets hate and intolerance – rampant in my country.  In the past, in the present and more likely than not in the future – there will be hate.  People who can’t or WON’T tolerate anyone who is different from them.

    I don’t believe hate is something you are born with.  It is learned.  Hate and prejudice is learned.  Just like empathy and tolerance is also learned.

    Educate Yourself

    It brings me back to two things I promote on this blog;

    1. TRAVEL –  My message through this blog has always been one of inspiration.  And inspiring anyone to pack a bag and go to an unknown place is my greatest goal.  You will be changed.  You will be full.  You will be amazed, what travel can do to your life, your prejudice, your tolerance and your happiness.  Just go.

    “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” – Mark Twain

    They March On To Die

    Those who didn’t die on arrival lived in hell

    2.  READ –  My other message on this blog is to read, read, read.  And if you can, learn to read outside your comfort zone.  Read history, and fiction and non fiction and more.  There is nothing so simple as reading a book that can open your mind to the world outside your door. Just read.

    “Reading is an exercise in empathy; an exercise in walking in someone else’s shoes for a while.” —Malorie Blackman

    Poland and Auschwitz are sacrosanct now.  Everyone should come here to feel and remember the human lives.  The very real human beings who became ashes.

    They March On To Die

    One women.

    But of course it’s not possible for everyone.  So read.  Watch films. Learn.  And most importantly, remember.  Remember a little girl. An old man.  A family.  Most importantly remember what we humans have allowed to happen in our recent past.  Think about the Holocaust in names and people’s lives rather than numbers and dates.  Don’t let that die.  Otherwise, nothing was gained and we all are lost.

    Books

    (This is nowhere near all that is out there.  Just some suggestions)

    • The Boy in the Stripped Pajamas by John Boyne
    • Mischling by Affinity Konar
    • Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
    • Night by Elie Wiesel
    • The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
    • The Reader by Bernhard Schlink
    • Sophie’s Choice by William Styron
    • Ireana’s Children by Tilar J. Mazzeo
    • The Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman
    • The Pianist by Wladyslaw Szpilman
    • Number the Stars by Lois Lowry
    • The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah
    • We Were the Lucky Ones by Georgia Hunter
    • Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly
    • Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay
    • Maus by Art Spiegelman
    • All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

     

    They March On To Die

    Where victims were sent

    Movies

    • Schindler’s List
    • Sophie’s Choice
    • The Boy in the Stripped Pajamas
    • The Hiding Place
    • The Diary of Anne Frank
    • The Pianist
    • Life is Beaiutiful
    • Son of Saul
    • Maus
    • Immortal Bastards
    • Europa Europa
    • Au revoir les enfants
    • The Women in Gold
    • Fiddler on the Roof (not WWII but spectacular anyway)

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

    Europe Travel

    Berlin for First Timers

    The Grand Adventure

    Location: Berlin Germany

    Click on any photo for an enlarged version.

    I have wanted to go to Berlin for years. I’m not sure why it took me so long. Since we have traveled to Germany, France and Italy several times, we haven’t made those countries a priority on the Grand Adventure so far. But Berlin was different. I had to go. Berlin for first timers was a whirlwind. And worth it.

    We arrived on the Deutsche Bahn train from

    Berlin for First Timers

    Deutsch Bahn

    Brugge via Brussels on a Sunday afternoon. It had been a very long journey involving three trains and  4:30am wake up.  We checked into our Airbnb and headed out to the neighborhood market only to find everything shuttered on a Sunday. So we ate delicious Turkish food for dinner in our very Turkish neighborhood and then fell fast asleep.

    With only three full days in Berlin we hit the ground running on Monday morning. Literally.  We got up and did an early morning run through our neighborhood park. Refreshed, we stopped at the now open market for supplies before heading back to our apartment to get ready for our day.

    Since we are training for the Camino we walked everywhere in Berlin, but Berlin for first timers is easy by subway, elevated train and bus system accessing most of the greater Berlin area.  There is also a wonderful taxi system and Uber.

    Berlin for First Timers

    Brandenburg Gate

    Berlin for First Timers

    The wall

    Our first day we walked and walked enjoying the Tiergarten, Reichstag, Brandenburg Gate, Checkpoint Charlie and several sites where you can see and touch old remnants of the Berlin Wall.  These included the Topography of Terror, Checkpoint Charlie Black Box Cold War Interpretive area, and Potsdam Plaza.

    Berlin for First Timers

    Currywurst with beer

    Since we had already eaten one of Berliner’s favorite fast foods (Turkish kabob) we tried the also famous Currywurst . The invention of Currywurst is attributed to Herta Heuwer in Berlin in 1949, after she obtained ketchup (or possibly Worcestershire sauce) and curry powder from British soldiers in Germany. She mixed these ingredients with other spices and poured it over grilled pork sausage..  You can have Currywurst with skin or without (skin being the casing for the sausage before cooking ).  We tried it both ways and I preferred with the skin – a nice crunchy texture.  That said, Currywurst was not my favorite.  On another day we also had Bockwurst.  Served with potato salad and I really liked that.

    Berlin for First Timers

    Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

    Berlin for First Timers

    Checkpoint Charlie a recreation

    Day two began early with a visit to the Holocaust Memorial, officially titled Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.  This controversial memorial encompasses 2711 concrete blocks of different heights taking up an entire square block of the city.  Underground is a very poignant and somber, yet interesting and thoughtful museum that focuses on families and the humans who lost their lives during this evil period of history.

    Berlin for First Timers

    Black Box Cold War Interpretive Panels

    On day two we also signed up for a Free Walking Tour, always one of the things we search out in any city.  Of course Free Walking Tours aren’t really “free”.  You pay the guide at the end what you think the tour was worth.  And our Free Walking Tour in Berlin was the best one we ever did.  Our guide Georgia was exceptional.  We loved it and I highly recommend New Europe Tours.

    Berlin for First Timers

    Brandenburg Gate

    On our tour we visited a lot of the same places we had seen the day before, but seeing them with Georgia our guide was a whole different experience.  We learned amazing history starting with ancient history of the region right up through the Cold War and the fall of the Berlin wall and of course a great deal of history about Hitler and WWII.  It was fascinating.

    Berlin for First Timers

    Car park over the bunker

    By the way, throughout Berlin there is almost no reference to Hitler. That is by design.  There is a point to not have his name included in most things.  In fact, we stood on a car park that is on top of the bunker where he committed suicide.  There is only a simple sign, added only recently when Berlin hosted the World Cup in 2006.  Did you know Hitler’s remains were dug up from the original burial site in East Germany and dumped in a river?  This is so there is no final resting place for this horrible human being and so no one can ever have a place to go and glorify him in any way.  The Nazi Swastika is outlawed in Germany.

    Berlin for First Timers

    Eisbein

    Berlin for First Timers

    Weiner Schnitzel

    Following our tour we headed for lunch.  We wanted some good hearty German food so we ended up at Augustiner am Gendarmernmarkt.  More Bavarian than Berliner but it was delicious.  I had Wiener Schnitzel and my husband had a gigantic Eisbein (pork knuckle).  No dinner was necessary after the delicious lunch!

    Berlin for First Timers

    Site of the Book Burning

    Next we walked to Museum Island, just over the river you’ll find a gathering of Berlin museums.  We stopped at the Bebelplatz, where famously the Nazis burned all the books.  Here a unique memorial to that fateful event lays underground.  Then we visited the Alte National Gallery – Berlin’s best regarded Art Museum.  This is certainly no Louvre or Uffizi, but the museum is compact and easy to tour with a lot of German artists as well as nice collection of Impresionist from Renoir to Monet.

    We ended our day taking a narrated boat ride on the river Spree.  It was a beautiful day and it was fun to see the city from the water and enjoy the narration providing us even more interesting facts about Berlin.  There are numerous locations around the city where you can start these boat tours.

    Berlin for First Timers

    The west side of the East Side Gallery Wall

    Day three was a walking day.  We had over the past couple of days enjoyed seeing some of the remains of the Berlin Wall that are in the city, but the longest remaining part of the wall is actually about six miles from the main city area.  So we walked.  It was hot, but we enjoyed the walk which took us through Alexanderplatz, where Berlin’s TV tower stands – an iconic modern soaring spire that includes a restaurant on top.  You can see the tower from anywhere in the city.

    Berlin for First Timers

    The most famous mural at the Eastside Gallery

    Our destination, the East Side Gallery is the name of the mile long portion of the wall, consisting of 105 paintings by artists from all over the world, painted in 1990 on the east side of the Berlin Wall. According to the Künstlerinitiative East Side Gallery e.V., an association of the artists involved in the project, “The East Side Gallery is understood as a monument to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the peaceful negotiation of borders and conventions between societies and people”, and has more than three million visitors per year.[1] This was something I had seen so many times in photos and I really wanted to see it for myself.  It was amazing.  A highlight of our time.

    Berlin for First Timers

    Eastside Gallery

    You don’t need to walk the six miles to the East Side Gallery.  You can take the subway, busses, taxi or Uber as well as several local tours include it.

    Berlin for First Timers

    Pretzel

    We wandered back along the river and stopped at the Tiergarten Biergarten to enjoy a couple of German beers as our amazing time in Berlin was coming to an end. The Biergarten in this beautiful park sits on a tiny little lake and you can enjoy pizza and pretzels, gelato and beer.  You can also rent a little row boat and row around the lake.  Such a pleasant way to spend a sunny day in this fascinating city.

    Berlin for first timers could include a few
    more things that we unfortunately didn’t have time to do, mainly going up into the observation dome at the Reichstag.  You need to make a reservation to do this, and we just didn’t know that with enough advance notice.  I wish we had because I understand it is really amazing.  Do it if you can.

    With a few more days we also would add some live performances.  Berlin has a thriving theater and musical performance scenes including outdoor theatre, symphony and opera.

    Berlin for First Timers

    Biergarten

    Finally, a great way to see the area would be by renting a bike.  Berlin is as flat as it possibly can be, has literally hundreds of miles of bike lanes and paths, including beautiful paths through forested parks and along rivers.  On a beautiful day seeing the city by bike would be a lot of fun.

    Berlin for First Timers

    The view from the River Spree

    So there you have it, Berlin for First Timers.  I really loved this gritty, indomitable city. Even with all the tourists it felt real and raw.  I can’t think of another European city that has witnessed so much history and hosted so much strife and animosity and come out shining on the other side.

    Berlin for First Timers.  I highly recommend it. Fabulous. Fabelhaft!