Sunday, September 15, 2013

Krakow, Poland: Death Camps


Krakow, Poland


Boarding the train headed for Krakow, Joy dragged as much of
my stuff as she could, as well as, her own backpack. Climbing the
steps onto the train, we realized this would be a much different
ride. The train was packed, literally, with people. We attempted to
walk anywhere to find a place to sit. With our luggage against
the wall of the small walkway, we stood, as much out of the way
that we could. I am very claustrophobic, so this was no easy task
for me to withstand.


It wasn't long before we met a young woman returning to the
University in Krakow who spoke English. She proceeded to tell
us that the train was full of students doing the same as she was:
returning to school. The next hour was spent listening to her tell
of how the youth of Poland had aspirations of the future and
capitalism, while her parents wanted to return to Communism,
just so they could have some security with any income, regardless
of how meager it might be. Incentive and vision of opportunity
for a better quality of life, was not the issue for her parent’s
generation. It was security and the familiar. Saddened by what
she said was only heightened for me after having stood in Red
Square just ten years earlier, right after Perestroika. I saw no life
in the eyes of the Russian people, having lived under a
Communist regime for over seventy years at that time.
Recognition of that same look was reflected in the faces I had
already seen in The Czech Republic a day earlier. Now, I began
to pay attention to those around me. Many had that same blank
glare in their eyes. She made the trip bearable, intriguing, and
unforgettable.


Arriving at the train station in Krakow, we now were on a
mission to find our hotel. Within walking distance, Joy and I
headed down the main street in Krakow. Such different
architecture, beautiful, old, inspiring. I photographed the images
in my mind where they remain to this day. After settling into our
modest room, we set out to find sustenance. Asking the front desk
clerk about where we might find something to eat, he offered
several suggestions. Joy and I found ourselves sitting in a
restaurant on the square in Krakow, Poland, eating pizza. That
was a bit of comic relief, in what otherwise, had been a day filled
with drama.


Waking early enough to have toast and tea, we set out to our
ultimate destination, the infamous death camp known as
Auschwitz. It was a beautiful fall day. The sky was as blue as I
have ever seen. As we came to entrance of the camp, that moment
was as surreal as any I have experienced. Bright yellow leaves
were strewn in our path, as though inviting us to a place of
beauty. The reality of what we were about to take in was quite a
contrast to this invitation. Walking under the brick arch, the first
thing I noticed was the gallows, where people, countless people,
had hung. A shudder ran through me and it would not be the
last, but the first of many. The gentle breeze caused the yellow
leaves to flutter like butterflies, as we passed the housing for the
many Jews brought to the camp, a few for work and many for
death.


Our guide began to enter one structure at a time which had
housed the many people who were victims of the Holocaust,
carried out by Third Reich, or Hitler's ultimate plan for a "pure
race." As we entered one, and then another, of the quarters,
reverence is the only word I can use to describe those who
entered along with Joy and me. Each unit was a sublime, yet a
gruesome reminder, of just what had taken place during the
Reich's rule. The best description I can offer is that one half of
the 30 x 50 foot area of the single room, was covered with some
kind of acrylic that went from the floor to the ceiling at a 45*
angle. Behind the clear acrylic, was filled with articles taken
from those thousands, millions, who had once lived lives of
beauty and freedom. In silence, we stood viewing millions of
shoes in one building. In silence, we stood viewing millions of
locks of hair in another building. In silence, we stood viewing
millions of watches, in yet another building. In silence we stood
viewing millions of... and so it went. In silence, tears streamed
down my cheeks. One of the most sobering experiences of my
life.


After exiting the last of the units, we headed for the berm, which
housed the gas chamber and the ovens. Covered with green grass
and daisies, once again, the surrealistic picture was quickly
interrupted as we abruptly entered the gas chamber, where
millions had been gassed. Again, silence was the only sound.
Reverence and homage was the only palpable sense among those
who had ventured into the Chamber. Standing for a few, or many
minutes, we then proceeded into where the ovens were located.
Chills run down my spine as I recall the brick that had burned
those precious bodies of many. There are no words in the
English language to describe what I saw, and how I felt. Horror
is the single word that comes to mind. The extermination camp
known as Auschwitz, had revealed itself to this one person, with a
lasting impression of what bigotry, hatred, scorn and loathing is
capable of producing. Death. Tortuous death, after having their
last days lived under a tortuous regime.


As if that scene was not enough, we boarded the bus that took us
to Birkenau. Stark in contrast to the brilliance of the yellowleafed
path that lead us into the camp at Auschwitz, the guard
tower, built to represent the one that stood in the same position at
the time of the heinous rule of the Third Reich, symbolized power
and control. Walking under a simple wooden beam, the most
striking image forever embedded in my mind was the shear
vastness of landmass that was, the death camp of Birkenau.
Historically, the Germans, learning that the Russians were
quickly making their way towards the camp, began to burn what
they could of the evidence of their crimes. Unable to finish their
attempt to cover what had taken place, in a place and space in
time, reserved only for the torture and murder of millions of
Jews, the Russians proceeded to burn what was remaining of
Birkenau.


The only structure on the hundreds of acres of land known as
Birkenau, was a replica of what the housing had been for the
prisoners. Stark, cold, devoid of color, is the image I recall as I
entered the unit. Unlike Auschwitz, these units were very large,
capable of housing hundreds of people at a time. I would not be
so pretentious to act as any kind of historian, but I know enough
in regard as to the conditions the prisoners "lived" in day to day.
Filth, disease, and hunger were but a few of the adjectives I've
read that describe what that building represented.


Lastly, before boarding the bus back to Krakow, we stood in the
guard tower, looking over the immensity and emptiness that, had
once, been a bigger version of what we had seen at Auschwitz.
"They" say the skies were always raining soot from the ovens
that burned every hour of every day for years. Heaviness and
weight were what I felt, inside, and an oppressiveness was
lingering in the fall air on the outside. The memory has had as
much impact on me as any memory of a moment in my life.
Sobering the thought of the depravity of man at its worst.
Leaving was a relief. The next day, we boarded the train that
would traverse from Poland, The Czech Republic, Austria and
back to Switzerland. Joy returned to the safety net of
L'Abri, filled with her young, but astute, observations made of
our journey across four countries, each filled with their own
unique flavor and memories. As I drove away, she waved from
her tiny chalet. I knew she had grown as a woman, making this
mother proud for what she was doing at such a young age:
Searching for Truth.


The drive around Lake Lucerne, seemed much more beautiful
this time. I felt lighter and heavier at the same time, full of the
knowledge of good and evil, the very thing God attempted to
shield us from in the Garden of Eden. Enriched with the
experience of the journey and the destination, had been a small
chapter in what I now know as my life.


sarah beaugez_krakow, poland_(c)2013

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Traveling to Krakow, Poland


Traveling to Krakow, Poland

In 2002, my oldest daughter, Joy, decided she would spend a
semester in Switzerland at L'Abri. Small chalet's situated in the
Swiss Alps overlooking the French Alps and Evian, France, she
went to search her soul and spend time in a, somewhat,
commune situation. Her living conditions were confined to
sharing a small room with someone that showed up in Huemoz,
just as she had decided to do. Her dad escorted her to her
destination, and the plan was that I would meet her for fall
break. At eighteen, she expressed a desire to go to Rome to just
play and see the sites.

After a month or so studying all manor of philosophers and
different religions of the world, her Christianity soon was
becoming more of a focal point. Her fall break was in October
and she had arrived at L'Abri in August. By September, her
focus had completely changed and she decided that rather than
to go to Rome, she wanted to make the trip to Poland to visit the
concentration camps that were Auschwitz and Birkenau, located
just outside of Krakow.

Flying into Lucerne, Switzerland, I rented a car and drove from
the East side to the West side of Lake Lucerne, into the small
village of Huemoz to pick her up for our journey. Leaving the
comfort of, what had become her very small world, we began to
drive through the Swiss Alps. For any of you that might know me
at all, this was quite an adventure, as I may be the single most
directionally challenged person on the face of the planet. The
vistas were expansive and breathtaking, to say the least. Having
lived in Colorado and driven in the High Country, I was used to
switch backs and rocky cliffs on either side of the road. Without a
doubt, these cliffs were much more dramatic than any I had
driven in Colorado.

Our goal was to drive across Switzerland, into Lichtenstein, into
the Austrian countryside, ending up in Salzburg. Between the
two of us and my not-so-expert skills at navigation, we finally
found ourselves in the beautiful city of Salzburg. We stayed at a
quaint hotel in the downtown area called The Goldener Hirsch.
We ate at the hotel restaurant and walked the streets the next
day. 

No matter where I have been around the globe, I have
managed to collect a fair amount of street art for no more than
$35.00 for a signed and numbered print. This was no different.
As we strolled across a small bridge that spanned a stream
running through Salzburg, I found a common watercolor image
of cobblestone streets, lined on either side with brick flats. People
were walking those cobblestones in the print. Just as I paid the
artist, it began to sprinkle rain. It was time to head back to the
hotel.

The next day, we boarded a train that would take us to Prague,
Czech Republic. Interesting would not be a descriptive enough
term for that train ride. We spent a day walking the streets of
Prague, and again, found the street artists lining the famous
bridge that spans the River. I was drawn to a particular piece of
work that showed the bridge and the surrounding buildings that
were centuries old. I didn't buy anything that day, but decided to
wait until the following day to make a final decision. As we
walked the bridge, looking at dozens of artists attempting to sell
their work, I returned to the place where the one piece I had been
drawn to the day before had been located. He wasn't there.

Amazingly, I located him in a different place and bought the
same thing that had spoken to me initially. As the day began to
close, we got on a bus in order to return to our hotel, thinking we
would hear our stop as it was called. After driving around the
rehabbed side of Prague post-Communism and the non-rehabbed
side about four or five times, we finally realized that whatever
was being announced, we could not understand what was being
said. Finally recognizing the hotel, with great relief, we got off
the bus and headed to the hotel.

The next night, we boarded a train that would take us into
Poland. Neither of us had ever been on a sleeper train, especially
sharing a tiny birth with eight strangers. At this juncture, it
would be appropriate to mention that Joy had only her backpack
to carry. I, on the other hand, had brought way too many shoes
and who knows what else, all to say I did not travel lightly. All
night long, the guards banged on the door, entering with guns
and requiring we show our passports. Having been to Russia just
after Perestroika in 1993, I wondered if Communism was really
eradicated or not. It was a bizarre night with no sleep.

As the train chugged into Poland, once again, Joy and I thought
we would hear our stop announced to change trains, boarding
another that would take us into Krakow. Pulling to a stop, again,
we didn't understand the sound of the town we were in and didn't
get off of the train. At the last second, I realized we should have
gotten off and hurriedly attempted to get Joy and all of my
luggage off of the train. It was too late. The train began to move
and I got back on. 

We were in the last car and had no idea that, late on a Sunday 
afternoon, this was the end of the line. After moving several hundred yards, 
a few cleaning women showed up in the doorway to our car, excitedly
motioning for us to get off, speaking rapidly in Polish. They weren't
kidding and we, literally, got off the train dragging my suitcase across tracks that
were overgrown with all manner of weeds, not knowing whether
to laugh or cry. About the time that I was going to panic,
miraculously, a little engine that shifted train cars around,
manned by an engineer, saw our plight and stopped. He
motioned for us to climb into his tiny car and took us back to the
platform. We got on the train headed for Krakow just in time.

To be continued...




Thursday, September 12, 2013

Moscow: Red Square


One night while in Moscow we went to the Moscow circus. It wasn’t like any circus I had ever been to before. There were several rings with different things going on, but the one I remember the most was the one with the elephants.

We had had two interpreters while we were in Moscow. Both were beautiful people and very engaging. While we sat in front of the elephants, one of the interpreters, Svetlana had a spiral notebook of drawing paper. She drew what the elephants did as they did it. I was as spellbound by her ability to draw as I was by the elephants themselves. Never before or since have I seen anyone do what she did. It was almost like animation.

The next day we went to Red Square. Quite a moment to remember as we got off the bus in front of St. Basil’s Cathedral. It was extremely colorful, just as in the pictures I had seen and quite an architectural wonder. It was not a structure that did not demand attention. Awe-inspiring would be the catchword of the day.

Walking across the large square on bricks, so many bricks it seemed never-ending, we made our way to the Kremlin. Such history those walls held and continue to hold; the place where Communist leaders dictated a hard life for the Russian people; disallowing the Russian people freedom in all things. I felt more than one shudder run down my spine. Stalin and Lenon had been inside these walls as dictators to the people of Russia; a dictatorship that crushed the will of the people leaving them devoid of hope.

After Perestroika the Russian people had no point of reference as to how to employ capitalism or any kind of free market enterprise. This was demonstrated upon exiting the Kremlin we walked across the vast brick square to a few retail shops attempting to make money. The shops were eerily devoid of merchandise. It was as though it were a ghost town.

I remember walking out of those shops and just stopping in the middle of the square knowing I could only photograph this scene in my mind’s eye; so many people around me with blank stares seemingly going nowhere. With the Kremlin on one side of the square, St. Basil’s was on the adjacent side. So beautiful was the structure built on the order of Ivan the Terrible in 1555-61; its beauty very telling of the beauty of the Russian people themselves.

Making my way back to the bus, there were several street artists selling their work just outside of St. Basil’s. As I made my way to look at each one’s work, I was in a very somber mood. The contrast of the many faces I had seen was great when I looked at all the color in St. Basil’s. As much as color has pulled me in, I was drawn to a black and white rendering which fit my mood. For ten dollars I bought a beautiful drawing of the Cathedral.
  
Once on the bus, I began to talk to Svetlana about her artwork. I suggested that she send it to me in the States, I would sell it and send the money back to her. She burst into tears and ran off of the bus. I stood with my mouth hanging open wondering what I had said to illicit such a response.

Later, after she had calmed down a bit, I asked her what I had said that upset her so badly. She began to tell me that the government would never allow her to receive any money. They would intercept anything of value. My spirit sank as I realized the iron fist these people were continuing to be under. Although Communism was supposed to be dead, it was not.

My mind went back to the ghost-like terminal and the armed guards. Communism had officially been taken down, but the hearts and the minds of the people were still held captive by reality. Seventy years is a long time and several generations. It would take more than a few years to change the hearts and the minds of the people, but it could not change those who were in a position of power. They would continue to hold onto their ideology, sacrificing the will of the people.

It would be a decade later until I learned just how incredibly artistic the common peasant was in Russia. It was when I purchased a crystal chandelier that I bought in Jackson, Mississippi. I asked the shop owner about the history of the chandelier. Supposedly, a local Russian artist, who made one-of-a-kind pieces for the aristocracy, created it. Appreciating the cut of the glass by the hands of artisan, I learned a lot about glass.

I also learned about how a repressed people survived by appreciating simplistic beauty in all that surrounded them. I learned how very fortunate I am to be an American.























Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Off the Beaten Path: Moscow, Russia


Moscow, Russia

It was 1993, just after Perestroika. Russia was very unsettled and the Ruble was at, or above 5,000% inflation. The Russian people were wondering what to do with a post-Communist, open market, capitalistic, economy after 70 years of a government ruling everything. The Christian Church had been isolated, shunned, and even persecuted under a Communist government attempting to dictate there was no God.

My sister lived in Virginia at the time. She called and said that her church was going to take a group to Russia, Romania, and Hungary on a mission trip. Knowing that I loved to travel, and that I loved to meet new people, she asked if I would like to tag along. Of course I jumped at the opportunity.

We met and flew out of Atlanta, making our way through Heathrow in London, on to Amsterdam, only to board yet another plane headed to Moscow. As we made our way into the terminal in Moscow I realized that the only other people that were there were armed soldiers escorting us from the last gate, down the terminal, to baggage claim. Yes, I did say armed guards.

The ghost-like terminal served as a reminder as to just how oppressed the Russian people had been. We had come to their turf to tell a story of a man named Jesus, who He was, and why He came. It is a simple story of Redemption for all, but not a concept to be grasped. Godless for over 70 years, the Russian people had long since given up on any kind of hope. Hope for any kind of capitalist economy, hope for the Christian Church, who had long since gone underground due to persecution, and hope that tomorrow could be a better day.

We stayed in a hotel, which we found out was one of the nicest hotels in Moscow. An interesting fact: Every room had a vent hole in the floor to allow the methane gases from each bathroom to have an outlet. The beds were twin size with a simple cotton covering. The room was stark, as I recall, undefined space. It was cold and unremarkable. It was as though there was no time, place or space that was definable. It was a representation of the Russian people and their lack of freedom for so many years.

Once settled, we were on our Mission to preach the gospel, in any place someone would listen. We were told that the Russian people were put off by the bright colors of clothes worn by those from Western countries, such as the United States. We were told to wear clothes that were understated in style and dull in color. We were told to blend in. While attempting to be compliant, I still managed to find a bit of trouble.

One night we were to go to the Olympic village, where the games had been played in 1980. Once again, we were told that the Russian people did not like loud music such as was listened to in the Western world. Accompanying us, was a gospel group, Truth, out of Mobile, Alabama.. They were a group who sang contemporary Christian music. They also did not dress like the rest of us had been told to dress. They looked extremely in style and very much like the Western cultures.

Once at the Olympic village, we were in a somewhat small venue. The group known as “Truth,” was going to sing to some of Russian people. Our crew was to be available if any of the people needed to talk to someone after the service. We were sitting at the top of the venue when Truth did their warm up. It was loud, very loud. It was not what we were told the Russian people would be receptive to hear.

Of course, there always must be someone who tells the truth, no pun intended. No one in our group was willing to tell the leader of Truth just how loud the music really was. I took it upon my not-so-shy self to go to the stage and let the leader know. As I stood at the edge of the stage waiting on the leader, I didn’t think that what I was going to say would cause such a stir.

The leader finally made his way to me, and I proceeded to tell him the consensus in regard to the volume of the music. Let’s just say I was not well received. Let’s just say that the next morning at breakfast, I was accused of being in the garb of Satan himself. It tore my heart out, as all I was attempting to do was the correct thing. Sometimes I wish I were more afraid of telling the truth.

At some point in our 5-day stay in Moscow, we went about an hour and a half outside of the city to a small village and an even smaller church that met in a very small house. Upon arriving we were all shocked at just how time-warped the living conditions had been for the Russian people. When we got there several of us had to go to the bathroom. It was a 3-seater outhouse with the men’s side directly attached by a thin wall to the women’s bathroom. As we exited the outhouse there was a very small aluminum water holder and a clean cotton towel for washing and drying our hands.

Entering through the back door, it took my eyes a minute or two to adjust to the lack of light in the very tiny kitchen. There were probably ten or twelve of us in our group. We were told to sit at the table in the kitchen, although it wasn’t very big. As we squeezed ourselves onto the bench against the wall and on the outside side of the table, the Russian women began to bring us something to eat.

Through our interpreters we learned that the women had prepared Blini bread. As they served it to us with great pride, with their very dirty fingernails quite visible, the interpretors went on to say that this was a “thank you” from the people of this church because we represented America. Also, the interpreters told us the Blini was made of American flour, sugar and butter.

If I had been anywhere else I would have refused to eat because of the lack of cleanliness. But, these women just stood there grinning, not eating, as though they were presenting food to kings. As I did eat, I was most humbled by their humility. It was in my spoiled ignorance that I had come to a country filled with hurting people in so many ways. No freedom to go to church, the school of their choosing, or have opportunity for improving themselves. All incentive had been removed.

This would not be the last of humbling experiences while I was in Eastern Europe.

To be continued…