Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Auschwitz: A Look at the Russian Exposition

Soviet troops fought their way into Auschwitz on January 27, 1945. They first learned about the death camp weeks earlier when liberating Krakow, Poland an hour east.

In the 70 years since, the Auschwitz site has been carefully preserved. The memorial and museum are a high-priority visit for travelers to central Europe. I'd been to Auschwitz, myself, in 2004, part of a large conference group and soon realized it was so emotionally intense, I'd need to make another trip: There's a limit to what one person can absorb in an afternoon.

April of 2010, happened that I was in Warsaw waiting for my Russian visa ~ the perfect opportunity to revisit Auschwitz. Dear friends in Warsaw, Lukasz and Nicole led the way. Say, care to join us and see what we saw?

We left Warsaw before dawn that Saturday and headed south on a high-speed train to Krakow. As the sun came up, we were zipping through forested areas of southern Poland.


Deep in thought, fellow traveler in our compartment.(Click to enlarge.)

Zipping through rural areas, heading south from Warsaw.

Several hours later, after a train-to-bus transfer, we arrived in Auschwitz. This time, it was The Russian Exhibition that caught my attention, a work-in-progress at the time of our visit. Since then, it has been finished and dedicated.


Liberation: From RIANOVOSTI, Russian News Service. At the RIANOVOSTI site, a slide show of the exhibition's dedication. (The site is in Russian, but photos are photos!)
But oh, mercy ~  I'm getting ahead of myself. First, at the camp entrance, we meet the orchestra that sent prisoners off to work and then welcomed them home each day.

Imagine playing in the Auschwitz Orchestra. When a trainload of new arrivals pulled in, they were welcomed with folk music from their homeland. The orchestra also performed at the most gruesome times and also on Sundays for the Auschwitz staff and their families.

Under the sign, Work Makes You Free, in German, likely the most photographed site at Auschwitz.

Once inside, fences, barbed wire and barracks.



Well, okay: We won't even think about going there. . .

Auschwitz is near a small town and has a rural feel even now. It's so quiet and peaceful. What a contrast to 70-some years ago when thousands of people were packed together and the air was rank with smoke from the crematoria.

Nowadays, the air at Auschwitz is so fresh, songbirds abound and tiny violets grow.

Insightful video from Rick Steves, Seattle-based travel expert and author.



Billed as America's leading authority on European travel, Rick Steves pretty much wrote the book.


Star of David in wrought iron.

Wall of Execution: In the early days of Auschwitz, it was here that prisoners faced firing squads. But the faces staring back at them so haunted the Nazi solders, that camp switched to mass cremation. 

Visitors to Auschwitz. The gentleman standing, far right intrigues me. Perhaps he's overcome with emotion. Perhaps he's just checking his phone.

Now, on to the Russian Exhibition which opened in 2014. Renovation was in process when we visited in 2010.
Exhibition of the Liberation of Auschwitz. Sponsored by the Russian Federation.


Soviet military leader, V. Sokolovskiy, who planned the Auschwitz liberation.

Precious innocents: Keeping warm in cast-off clothing.

Soviet soldiers visit with Auschwitz prisoners.

Soviet physician examines a prisoner.


Children of Auschwitz: Taken to an orphanage somewhere. . .

Funeral service, attended by Polish church dignitaries and Soviet military leaders.


Yours Truly

Lukasz and Nicole manage an early-morning smile.This dear couple were my hosts. Lukasz made it all happen: He's a Polish national, the ultimate resource on such trip. 

This high-speed train from Warsaw to Krakow.  

Our Auschwitz trip included a side-trip to the nearby Birkenau camp and took a full day. I need to return and take in the Russia Exhibition, completed since my last visit. I'm so grateful to those who liberated the camp. Grateful to those who brought to justice the perpetrators of these horrors. And a bow of deepest respect to those whose lives were shattered by what happened at Auschwitz. May they somehow find strength to move on. May they find peace.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Resurrection of a Moscow Cathedral

On a recent trip to Moscow, a visit to Cathedral of Christ the Savior topped my list of new experiences. Having stumbled across the drama of its construction, destruction and eventual rebuilding, I wanted to learn more. I can't endorse all its teachings, but still, there's much to admire here, including the resilience of the Russian spirit. 

At the cathedral on a recent December evening.

Close up: Golden cupolas up there somewhere. . .

Life in the USSR grew darker still when Joseph Stalin looked out his Kremlin office window and was displeased by that cathedral, that Christ the Savior Cathedral which dominated the mid-distance. For one thing, he agreed with mentor Vladimir Lenin, that religion needed to be quashed. Another thing, the cathedral was a czar-era accomplishment, an era Stalin wanted erased from history.

Besides that, he had other plans for that very spot, plans bigger and bolder than had ever been imagined. And, so, December 1931, Stalin ordered the cathedral destroyed. Because he could.



Eyewitness account of videographer who captured the destruction.

Of course this wasn't the only Russian cathedral Stalin demolished. There were hundreds. But the Cathedral of Christ the Savior was exceptionally dear to the national psyche: It was built to celebrate surviving Napoleon's invasion. In fact, on Christmas day, 1812, as Napoleon's troops staggered out of Russian in defeat, Czar Alexander I, a contemporary of Thomas Jefferson, ordered a cathedral built . . . to signify our gratitude to Divine Providence for saving Russia from the doom that overshadowed Her

Generations later in 1883, the cathedral was finished and for the auspicious occasion, ~ drum roll please ~ Russia's legendary composer, P.I. Tchaikovsky, was pressed into service to write the Overture of 1812. To this day, the overture is popular, even in the U.S. where it is often played during Fourth of July fireworks displays, complete with the sound of cannon fire.

During its 50 year history, the cathedral witnessed seismic political upheavals. Protests of the early 1900's, led to the the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, the end of the Czarist monarchy and the Russian Civil War. Then, under Vladimir Lenin, the Russian Empire evolved into the Soviet Union during which massive military parades were staged in Red Square, just blocks from the cathedral. After Lenin's death, Stalin  had dramatic changes in mind for the structure itself.

In place of the cathedral, Stalin envisioned a massive Palace to the Soviets, planned to be the tallest building in the world, topped by Vladimir Lenin himself, his right arm extended in his favorite hail-a-taxi pose.

And so, on December 5, 1931, as per Stalin's decree, the cathedral was demolished. Only thing, after all that, Stalin's Palace to the Soviets never materialized: The spot stood empty for years while Stalin dealt more pressing concerns including Hitler's invasion in 1941. But on to Plan B for the site: After Stalin's death in the early 50's, Nikita Krushchev transformed the crater into a heated swimming pool, and in typical Soviet style, it was huge.

In the early 1990's, after perestroika and waves of political changes, the Russian Orthodox church requested permission of the Russian government and city of Moscow to rebuild the cathedral. The request was granted. First, the swimming pool was dismantled in 1994 and work begun on the cathedral. Six years later, the new cathedral was finished and dedicated.


Care to join me on a tour? Here's the backstory, reconstruction and dedication. Thrilling, indeed.


Current view from the Kremlin. The cathedral has been rebuilt.As for Stalin,
his grave is in Red Square, just yards from Lenin's Mausoleum. (Photo from book, below.)

The cathedral bookshop sells this book in several languages. Copyright in 2005, published by Ivan Fiodorov. Printed
in Russia. Photos by N Rakhmanov and V. Korniushin.

In  the closing words of the video, Maybe now, the future of the church's place is assured in the minds and hearts of the Russian peoples. History will surely tell.

We are told that God is the Rewarder of those who diligently seek Him (Hebrews 11:6). May this magnificent cathedral serve to point searchers to God and to His truth.



Monday, December 22, 2014

Spotting Ronald Reagan in Warsaw

In Warsaw and looking for adventure, I headed out from my hostel near the Copernicus statue into the drizzle in search of Ronald Reagan. And sure enough, at the edge of a small park across from the U.S. Embassy is a monument honoring our 40th president.

Cast in bronze, the statue of Ronald Reagan captures him in 1987 at the Brandenburg Gate, Berlin, when he challenged Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to Tear down this wall! The statue project was initiated by Polish business community, funded by private donations and sculpted by a national artist.

Without the support of Ronald Reagan, we wouldn't have a free Poland, said Lech Walesa, November 2011, as he unveiled the statue. Lech Walesa was co-founder of Poland's Solidarity movement in 1980 and, ten years later, the first popularly elected president of Poland.

Along with flowers and candles, an official bouquet complete with Polish flags and streamers emblazoned Solidarity grace the site.

The statue faces the U.S. Embassy, Warsaw. 

The November, 2011 dedication ceremony included a statement from U.S. President Barak Obama and a message from Nancy Reagan.

Photos of Chicago grace the fence of the U.S. Embassy, Warsaw. The security guard, a Polish fellow, gave me permission to photograph them but only from across the street. Security issues, you know. ;)

When and where did I last see this magnificent flag? Probably right here, on a previous trip to Poland.

A salute to Ronald Reagan for encouraging other countries in their quest for freedom. What a wise leader he was. President Reagan said the right words at the right time, nudging Central and Eastern Europe toward freedom. And what an impact!

How about you, dear blog reader, have you been overseas and happened upon a statue of an American leader? Please do share. . .

Sunday, November 30, 2014

A Thanksgiving with Frankfurters

Did I hear you say Happy Thanksgiving? Well, let me wish you the same. I had completely forgotten that today was Thanksgiving.
I had just started into breakfast at a little hotel in Frankfurt, Germany. The statuesque blond I'd noticed earlier was talking to me. Minutes earlier, I had considered joining her but she was busy with paperwork.

The easiest transfer ever: Exit the Frankfurt railway station, head straight ahead onto Kaiserstrasse Street and there's Quality Inn on the left.

But now, she had come over to my table and was wishing me a Happy Thanksgiving with that unmistakable German accent. How did she know I was American? I try to blend in with the locals, keep my voice low, so how did she know?

Her suit tailored from royal blue tweed caught my eye when I first entered the room. Her blond hair was swept into a classic up-do. Such style hinted at an interesting person. She continued.

Being from Germany, she said, I thought nothing could be better than Christmas. But there really is. America's Thanksgiving is such a simple holiday, just to be thankful. It's not commercialized at all.
Oh, I understood what she was saying about Christmas in Germany. In fact, I was in Frankfurt for an extra day to catch opening night of Christmas Market, having wrapped up four days at the Euro-American Family Retreat in Rothenburg. several hours south by train.

In fact, wandering through Frankfurt's Christmas market the evening before, here's what I saw. . .

Cookies:Baked with intricate designs.

Cookies: With decorative icing piped on. Oh, and candy too.

Cakey confections of some sort. One of each please. Or not. . . Oh, they're busy strategizing. It's opening night, after all.

The pretzel man. Let's call him Prince of Pretzels, pleased with his chocolate-covered treat. I'll take one of those too.

Back at breakfast, Miss Statuesque shared that she's originally from Germany, teaches law at in California and was in Frankfurt for a conference. We talked at length, no worries that eggs and sausages were getting cold.

Finally I asked, How did you know I'm from the US? Seems she had overheard me wishing the dining room attendant a Happy Thanksgiving and giving her the historical scoop about the day.

Our breakfast room conversation that Thanksgiving morning was a delightful gift. Imagine the chances of being in Germany that morning, crossing paths with someone who also cherishes such a special holiday, so uniquely American, a day set apart to give thanks.

* * *

Say, care to join me for a look around Frankfurt?

Frankfurt: Center of baking for western Europe. There's the Euro sign: and yes, we can imagine it flipped horizontally.


Frankfurt Central Station and Yours Truly. Don't you know that site has seen some history.

Thanksgiving Day in Frankfurt: Hard to beat a quick hop-a-bus tour. . .


Friendly Aussies on the bus tour, mother and son. Once upon a time, perhaps a lifetime ago, I lived and worked in Sydney area. They filled me in on all things Australian since. . . since 1978.


Frankfurt on the Main is the city's official name, Oh I get it, just like my Rostov-on-Don, is on the Don River. Here's the view from the bus.



Frankfurt Trade Fair: The worlds largest book fair held here. Stay on the bus, Stay.on.the.bus.


Frankfurt Cathedral dominates the skyline. Amazing that it survived the war.

Wonderful gift, that day in Frankfurt after the conference. Oh, but here's some back story. Worst case baggage woes that turned out splendidly.

* * *

When I arrived in Frankfurt, my luggage was nowhere to be found. I'd flown Lufthansa from Rostov-on-Don directly to Frankfurt but the luggage had gone directly to Moscow. Oh yippee. I started to panic, needing to catch a train, then another, then another south to Rothenburg, wondering how Lufthansa baggage folks would ever find me there. But I left the airport to head south.

On the plus side, now I had only my carry-on bag to wrangle, a good thing indeed since this trip was November 2009, before my hip replacement surgery, back when each step was painful. Later that evening, during the opening session of the conference, I was quite pleased to be called to the hotel front desk because, tada, Lufthansa luggage folks had just delivered my luggage. What a relief to have my pjs, my toothbrush, my clothes for the next day. Perfect ending.

After the conference, found that I was already a bit spoiled, already accustomed to this personal baggage delivery. I was less than enthused about dragging my bag back on and off trains north to Frankfurt. The biggest challenge getting luggage up the steps at train stations, as per the Eastern European set-up. But another happy surprise awaited.

The gift of German engineering: A escalator for the luggage.

Thanksgiving in Germany: Off-hand, I don't remember lunch there in Frankfurt but I'm pretty sure it wasn't frankfurters. Dinner would have been airplane food. But I arrived back in Rostov-on-Don with all luggage and a long list of thankfulnesses for an extra day in Frankfurt.


Friday, October 31, 2014

"Falling Back" in Russia: A Government Decision I Heartily Endorse

Thank you, dear Russia for joining most of Europe last weekend and falling back an hour. We're now on standard time permanently, never again to change our clocks. At least for now.

Then again, in 2011 when Russia went onto summer time, as daylight savings time is called here, lawmakers announced it was the last time we would be changing clocks. That decision has been reversed, obviously, and I'm thrilled. This early morning sunlight suits me just Fine.

Freida Sergeyovna, Nina Vladimirovna and I meet weekly to pray. Our Saturday meeting was extra relaxed, knowing it was a 25-hour day.

That notion of staying on daylight savings time through the long, Russian winter was hardly enchanting, the sunrise as late as 9:00 here in southern Russia, as late as 11:00 in St Petersburg, in the far north. Personally, I'd had quite enough of that year-round so-called summer time.

And so, over the #clocksgoback weekend, as dubbed by Twitter, with the luxury of an extra hour, Saturday evening was the perfect time to get zucchini-pineapple muffins in the oven for Sunday tea-drinking after worship. Later, as I was working through that pile of dishes, I asked myself, Are you sure this is how you wanted to use this extra hour? The answer would come Sunday.

Time change weekend has special significance for the clock-tending team who cares for Big Ben in London, three time zones west. Known as the Palace of Westminster Clockmakers, twice a year when they change between British Summer Time and Greenwich Mean Time, the group's routine starts at 9:05 p.m. and continues through 2:00 a.m.. Besides changing the hour, the clockmakers also perform scheduled maintenance on what those Britishers consider the world's most famous clock.

Of course the most famous clock across Russia is the Kremlin Clock which overlooks Moscow's Red Square. We can imagine a Kremlin clock team was quite pleased to change the clock after a three year break. Here's hoping they get lots of experience in the years ahead.




Sunday morning when folks were enjoying these muffins with tea, my Saturday evening efforts were amply rewarded. The gift of time is truly a gift. Muffin-making gobbles up considerably more than an hour's effort, but I figure that's a good use of time, say, once a month for our Sunday tea-drinking. And just FYI, in case there's a turn-clocks-forward weekend in the Russian spring, chances are slim any muffins will be produced in my kitchen.

Zucchini-pineapple muffins are always a hit. On the rare occasion when I spot zucchini here in Russia, I snatch it up immediately for this wonderful recipe.