A TRIP TO EUROPE II
Last year I wrote about my summer vacation trip through the Canadian Rockies. Someone I know chided me, he said, “Nobody wants to read about your vacation, they want to read about silver!” A week later, I got a nice letter from a lady who said she very much enjoyed the vacation article. So that’s enough encouragement to write about my recent trip to Europe.
In the last letter, I chronicled our days in Berlin. I must add to this a few unusual thoughts. When I first got to Berlin, I involuntarily pictured all the men I saw in SS uniforms. I couldn’t help it. I categorized them in my mind as enlisted men or officers. One fellow with a long neck and narrow face brought to mind Eichmann. I mention this because the whole trip seemed to cause reflections on the Second World War. I have several hundred books on the war in Poland, Russia and the Eastern Front. Perhaps, that explains my obsessive curiosity with the events from 193 to 1945.
We were scheduled to fly from Berlin to Krakow, Poland and when we got to the Berlin Airport it was packed and confusing. Lines were long and the gate agents were brusque, if not rude. We finally checked our luggage and went to our gate. Unfortunately, the gate on the screen was changed and we missed our flight. Our party of five was made up of my wife Diane, our neighbors Jim and Bobbi and our dear friend Susan whose husband didn’t want to go on the trip. The girls stood in line for two hours hoping to get tickets on the next flight. Meanwhile, Jim and I tried to retrieve our luggage. That proved impossible and the girls advised us that the next flight was full. We wound up taking a cab (van) on a six hour drive to Krakow. We unanimously concluded that Air Berlin was the worst airline on earth.
In Krakow we stayed at the ancient Hotel Copernicus. Krakow was not bombed during the war, so most of the buildings are old. We toured various palaces and castles as well as Schindler’s factory made famous in the movie Schindler’s List. One afternoon we were driven to Auschwitz and Birkenau. Two million people visit here each year. What you see there is overwhelming. So much has been written about the plight of the Jews, I can’t begin to match what has already been said. You could almost say that dying was the easy part after years of terror, fear, starvation, torture, brutality and horror administered by the Nazis. One of the ladies traveling with us was Jewish and her anguish was palpable. The punishment meted out after the war for the murder of six million people is laughable. It takes hundreds of thousands of people to murder millions and steal their property and goods. For the most part the Nazis escaped justice.
We continued on our journey on the train to Warsaw. After German rule for six years and Russian rule for forty-four more, Warsaw looks surprisingly modern and prosperous. These days immigrants are not allowed into the country. We toured the Royal Castle and admired the magnificent paintings by Canaletto. There was a small section of the brick wall that surrounded the Warsaw Ghetto still standing and we were able to find it. I wanted to put my hand on it for a moment. Among the many modern buildings in downtown Warsaw were two broken down brick apartment buildings that had been in the Warsaw Ghetto. The windows were broken out in these decaying, dark buildings that once were overloaded with human beings in deep despair.
If you saw the recently released move The Zookeeper’s Wife, you’re familiar with the story of Dr. Jan Żabiński and his wife Antonina who ran the Warsaw Zoo. They smuggled many Jews out of the Ghetto and saved their lives. We went to that zoo and toured the house that was featured in the movie. Our evenings were spent dining in interesting restaurants and eating food that was new to us. One cafe was housed in a 600 year old building and the stairway down to the men’s room was like descending into a dungeon. The wooden steps had been worn away to almost half the plank. Another evening we attended a Chopin concert before dining.
We caught an Austrian Airlines flight to Vienna and everything went smoothly. Someone met us at the airport and took us to our hotel. We toured the summer and winter palaces of Franz Joseph and the other Hapsburg rulers. My wife and I slipped away one afternoon to see an exhibit of Gustav Klimt paintings at the palace of the famous military leader Prince Eugene of Savoy, one of history’s most successful generals. The art exhibit included The Kiss, one of Klimt’s most famous paintings.
In the evening we attended a presentation by the famous Vienna Boys Choir in combination with the Spanish Riding School and their renowned Lipizzan Stallions. We walked back to our hotel through the exclusive shops in Vienna’s main outdoor mall, past the fabulous St. Stephen’s Cathedral. We averaged five miles a day of walking. On the last day of our trip, we drove to the Danube River and took a two hour boat ride. This was enough to make us glad we had decided to stay in major cities rather than take the one week boat trip. I was getting homesick so it was a relief to get up early in Vienna, fly to Amsterdam and almost immediately board the Delta flight to Minneapolis. The flight went on without a hitch and by late afternoon we were home and trying to stay awake.