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4 January 2009

Did you know – The European Union is made up of 27 member countries.  It is smaller than half the size of the US, but its population is 50% bigger.  It has the 3rd largest population in the world after China and India.

It becomes more and more difficult to find time to write things when you are in a country where there are a lot of sightseeing to do, because you are out the whole day and a bit tired in the evening and the last you want to do is sit in front of the laptop for a few hours…

The difference between Russia and Estonia was apparent almost immediately.  More people spoke English, you can use your credit card for almost anything and people are friendlier as well.  This became apparent when we stopped at a little service station and out of the blue, someone knocked on the window to see if everything was ok.  He said he saw us sitting there and just wanted to see if there is anything we needed.  Luckily we didn’t have any problems, but I did happen to mention that it seems difficult to find a place where I can change the oil, because it was a Saturday and everyone seems to be closed for the Christmas holidays.  As it turned out, this guy was a 4wd fan and owns an old Range Rover (with endless problems apparently).  After a couple of minutes on the phone, he said its all sorted.  We can go to the Landcruiser club and one of the mechanics will help us out.  We got there around 6pm and after chatting for a while and after quite a struggle to get Pumbaa in the air with their hydraulic hoist, we managed to change the oil and stayed there for the night.  Yes, the hoist couldn’t lift the car higher that about 50cm.  This was a combination of cold oil apparently (it was –5 outside) and because it was made in China.  I think Pumbaa must weigh in excess of 2.5 tons, maybe more (don’t tell him his overweight!).  Could even be 3 on the day, because we had 2 full tanks of diesel and a full water tank.  Anyway, got it in the air with the help of a big high-lift jack.  We will put their details on our links pages if anyone wants it.

We spent most of the following day in Tallinn, Estonia’s capital.  Not a bad place, but quiet and small.  I think you can probably spend a few days there, but we found 1 to be enough.  From there we went to Riga where we booked into a hotel for New Year’s eve.  We didn’t know if there was going to be fireworks and street parties.  Luckily it turned out that they had a firework display, but celebrations were very low-key.  There weren’t that many people, maybe 10,000 at the most.  Riga is also a very quiet town and we also saw this the following day with most places closed and only a few tourists walking around.  Maybe not the best place if you looking for big New Year’s celebrations.  We did however managed to ski a little bit in Latvia, in a small town called Sigulda.  They had a few small slopes around and also a beginner’s slope which was perfect for us to prepare us for our skiing in Italy.  We could however feel our lack of exercise the following couple of days with stiff arms and legs.

We hit the road again after New Year’s and pretty much drove straight through Lithuania to Warsaw, Poland’s capital.  We were very lucky to have some locals invite us to stay with them.  Romek and Stella are both Polish and live and work there.  They are motorbike enthusiasts and do a lot of traveling as well.  We stayed with them for one night, which was excellent.  Had some good Polish food and a nice warm bed, after spending a few cold nights in the car.  They very kindly showed us a bit of the Warsaw and its old town the following day.  The Nazis and also the Russians destroyed almost the whole of Warsaw in WWII.  They did however manage to rebuild most of the old town, using old paintings, because there weren’t a lot of photos available to see what the old town looked like.

WWII started in Sept 1939 when the Germans invaded Poland.  Not long after Germany invaded them form the west, did the Russians start to attack them from the east.  They had nowhere to go and hundreds of thousand people lost their lives.  Almost half of Warsaw’s population was killed.  You almost cannot avoid speaking about WWII, because it is so evident of what happened to Poland.  Their immense struggle to stay alive and to fight for their freedom.  Their fight for freedom and subsequent uprising efforts in Warsaw was squashed by the Nazis after some fierce fighting while the Russians where waiting on the other side for them.  The wounds of the war are still very raw in Poland, but people try to forgive and carry on with their normal lives.  One thing that should never happen though is to forget, because if you forget history, then what will stop people from maybe making the same mistakes again.

Tomorrow, we go to Krakow and then to Auswich and Birkenau concentration camp…

08 January 2009

Did you know – More than 1.5 million people, most of them Jews were ‘exterminated’ by the Nazis at Auschwich and Birkenau during WWII.

It was quite cold in Krakow.  The wind was blowing a bit and it was overcast.  The temperature must’ve been about –10 with the wind chill, but we braved the cold and did a bit of sightseeing.  Krakow was one of the few towns not to be bombed in WWII.  The old town remains in tact and the rest of the town as well. 

Krakow was one of the main areas where the Jews were settled in the so-called ghetto areas where dreadful things happened.  The ghetto was an area of about 16 blocks or so where all the Jews were relocated to.  Krakow is also the town were a lot of Steven Spielberg’s ‘Schindler’s List’ movie was filmed.  We walked through some of the Jewish quarters and the Jewish ghetto areas and went to the factory Oscar Schindler bought where most of his workforce was made up of Jews.

We got to Auschwich the following morning.  It was weird driving to the concentration camp, especially when we got close to it, because you know exactly what happened there. I got a feeling of not wanting to get there and go in because I knew what was waiting there for us.  Life around the area seems to carry on as normal, or on the surface at least.  There are houses located close to both camps and people go about their daily business.  I suppose that is all you can do.  A lot of the Polish people came back to the area after the war because they had nowhere else to go and it was the only place they knew.

Auschwich is not as big as you would think.  Birkenau, which is about 2 km from there is the bigger camp where a lot more killing and gassing took place.  All around the place are electric barbed wire fences, with lookout towers every 50 meters or so.  The buildings here are mostly made of brick, unlike Birkenau where most of the building were made out of wood.

Standing in front of the gate (with the slogan of ‘Work will free you’) really sent a chill down my spine.  I can’t even begin to think how and what the poor people must’ve felt and how scared they must’ve been when they got there.  Not knowing what the next hour, never mind the next day, will bring.  The constant fear and not knowing if you will be shot and become one of the victims who, for example, did not walk fast enough to the place where they are suppose to work for the day or for saying a few words to the person next to you.  They got completely stripped of the little self-respect they had left, and the little bit of hope got ripped away from them the instant they walked through those gates.

We went into a few of the buildings with our guide.  One of these buildings is called the ‘Block of Death’.  People who went in there most likely did not come out alive with the exception of leaving through the side door to the inner courtyard where they faced the firing squad.  This block also had the prison within the prison where people would go to confinement, 4 people spending the night in a 1 square meter area.

Birkenau was the main camp where the so called ‘extermination program’ took place.  There were 4 gas chambers and the ‘killing capacity’ and cremating capacity was for about 6000 people per day.  Astonishing!  They even extended the railway track from Auschwich so that the victims didn’t have to walk the 2km from there and get to the camp quicker.  Selection of who lived and who died was made in about 2 seconds by doctors.  Old people, most woman and almost all children with the exception of twins went straight to the chambers.  Twins were used in medical experiments where they had to endure torture and gruesome medical experiments.

We walked down the road where the people got of the train and where their fates were decided in a matter of seconds by the doctors.  It’s a longish walk of about 5 – 10 minutes.  I tried to imagine what went through their heads on the way down to the chambers.  Some knew what was going to happen, and some still believed that they were going to have a shower. 

It’s hard not to be moved by it all.  It was also very hard not to get tears in your eyes even if you don’t know or have no relation to any of the people who suffered so much.  It’s such a sad, sad place but we consider ourselves very lucky to be able to have gone there to see and learn how cruel humans can be to each other.  All because we are all different and there are so many people who can’t or maybe don’t want to accept that everyone is not the same.  This is so true of our own country as well, with our tainted history.  People who loose the plot and think they are better than other people of different colour, nationality or religion.  As hard as it was to go there, I think it was good to go to Poland and Auschwich to learn about the loss and devastation.