Welcome Friends! I hope you enjoy tasting these teaching and travel tidbits.
Come along with me as I attempt to navigate my way through a new country, school system, and life for a year!

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Trip to Terezín

"Work Sets You Free"

I was aware of Theresienstadt Concentration Camp from Holocaust Museums and movies about the Holocaust, but I didn’t realize until my tour of the Jewish Quarter in Prague that it was in the nearby city of Terezín.   I decided to learn more, so I took a short bus ride out to Terezín to get a tour from a local guide.  Terezín was built by order of the Austrian emperor Joseph ll between 1780 and 1790 as a fortress and named for his mother, Archduchess Maria Theresa.  It was never actually used as a fort, but by the end of the 19th century it was used as a prison for military and political prisoners.  During WWII, the Gestapo used Terezín, then better known by the German name,Theresienstadt, as a ghetto, concentrating Jews from Czechoslovakia, as well as many from Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, and Denmark.  More than 150,000 Jews were sent here, and although it was not technically an extermination camp about 33,000 died in the ghetto itself, mostly because of the appalling conditions arising out of extreme population density.  About 88,000 of the inhabitants were deported to Auschwitz, Treblinka or other extermination camps, including 1,600 Jewish children from Bialystok, Poland who all perished in Auschwitz.   At the end of the war there were only 17,247 survivors in Theresienstadt.

100 prisoners would sleep on each level of these bunks.

Theresienstadt supplied the German war effort with a source of Jewish slave labor, particularly the splitting of locally mined mica.  Blind prisoners were sometimes spared deportation by assignment to this task.  Others manufactured boxes or coffins or sprayed military uniforms with a white dye to provide camouflage for German soldiers on the Russian front while still others sorted clothing confiscated from Jews from all parts of Germany whose baggage had been taken away and sent to Theresienstadt.  Walking through these rooms, I tried to picture the men, women and children who were forced to live in such a place in such terrible conditions, and to imagine what their lives had been like before being transported here.  I  marveled at their ability to survive at all, having no control over their daily lives or their future.  I thought about the parents, who could no longer give their children the lives they had hoped to give them.  I tried, but I couldn't really imagine what that would be like.  

Courtyard where Prisoners would Line up to be Counted

These showers really gave me the creeps after seeing so many   Holocaust movies
where showers were not really showers.

Theresienstadt was also used as Nazi propaganda to show the world it was an ideal place for Jews to live.  In 1944 the Red Cross was invited here to dispel rumors about extermination camps.  They were treated to an elaborate hoax.  The Germans intensified deportations before the visit to reduce the extreme overcrowding and planted gardens, painted houses, erected fake shops and cafes, and “beautified” the pre-determined route of the visitors to the camp.  They staged well-orchestrated social and cultural events for the visiting dignitaries, including the children’s opera “Brundibar” (which Carl and I went to see a few years ago and found really interesting) which was written by one of the inmates.  Amazingly, the Red Cross did not divert from the official tour route and was taken in by the deception.  Do we only see what we want to see?  As soon as the Red Cross left, things went right back to the way they were until the end of the war.  

SS Officers' Quarters

My last stop in Terezín was also the last stop of many of the residents during WWll; the crematorium.   It was built by ghetto prisoners on the orders of SS commanders. The crematorium is comprised of 4 incinerators and an autopsy room.  The front of each incinerator has a space for loading corpses that rested only on the board they were attached to so that the coffin lids could be used repeatedly.  Crematorium workers, who were Jewish prisoners, tried to get all human remains out individually and place them properly in urns, but his was a difficult task, as they had to pick out fragments of gold and broken dentures to hand to the SS officers who oversaw the operation.  The urns were all labeled with information copied from a card attached to the foot of the deceased because the SS officers wanted prisoners to believe that the remains would be given proper burial after the war.  Prison guards accompanying transported corpses were careful not to let the prisoners working in the crematorium catch glimpses of the bodies, however they could tell from the blood seeping through the coffins and sacks holding the bodies that many had died a violent death.   From 1942-1945, 30,000 bodies were cremated here by continuous shifts of 4-18 prisoner workers.  It is a very sobering place

Passports of some of the Terezin Prisoners

Residents of Terezin were shot or hung if they did
not follow SS orders.


Although my visit to Terezín was not a fun trip, I think such places are important to visit.  It's crucial for us to remember what can happen if we don't open our eyes to the plight of others and hold all human lives as precious.  I'm glad I came.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Kutna Hora

In my previous post I mentioned Kristin, the American I met on the train from Budapest to Bratislava.  When I told her I was heading to Prague she told me that she had been there the previous week and had really enjoyed it, particularly a day trip she took to see Kutna Hora.  I had never heard of Kutna Hora before, so I was intrigued.   I found a bus in Prague that went out there every day, (it’s about an hour from the city) and hopped on.  Kutna Hora has an interesting history.   From the 13th to `16th centuries it was a very wealthy city, due to the profitable silver mines in the area.  The name of the city is derived from the word that means “hood” in reference to the hoods that were worn by the miners.   The money from the mines helped to finance the beautiful 5-naved  St. Barbara’s Church, which I had a chance to visit.  This church was started in 1388 and has lovely stained glass windows and some well-preserved frescos depicting life in medieval times, but I think my favorite thing in the church is the statue of a silver miner from that period.   I learned there that St. Barbara is the patron saint of silver miners. 
St. Barbara's Church
Inside St. Barbara's
Silver Miner.  They wore white
hoods so they could be more
easily found if there were an accident.
Fresco of Daily Life
Lovely Stained Glass Window


Now I’ve told you before that I’m a church-girl, I do love a good church, but I was hardly prepared for the next stop on my journey, Sedlac Ossuary, located below All Saints Church in a suburb of Kutna Hora.  Services are only held in this church once a year, on All Saints Day, which just so happened to be the day I went there!  Such a coincidence!  All Saints Day is much bigger in the Czech Republic than it is in America.  I also noticed that was the case in Hungary, as when I was there many people I talked to were preparing to go to their hometowns for the weekend to visit the graves of their loved ones.  I think that’s a great tradition.  Like Dias des los Muertos in Oaxaca, people were decorating the graves outside the church with candles and flowers.   I only wish I had been able to stay until dark to see the cemetery all lit up, but my bus to Prague was heading back too early for that.  
Decorating the Graves for All Saints Day

This on top of the church should have been my first warning......

.......and this should have been my second.

Now I don’t know about you, but “Ossuary” wasn’t a word in my vocabulary until last week.  I didn’t know it means a final resting place for human remains used where space is limited.  Bodies are buried, then later the bones are unearthed and stored in an ossuary. Who knew?  Well in 1278 the King of Bohemia sent the abbot of this church to the Holy Land and he returned with some earth from Golgotha which he sprinkled over the cemetery, so this became the “in” place to be buried.  They just didn’t plan on the plague hitting the town and things getting so crowded in the small burial ground, so they had to get creative.  In 1511 the task of exhuming the skeletons and stacking their bones was given to a half-blind monk with a flair for the dramatic.  Rather than just piling up the remains of 40,000 people, he created artistic arrangements to form decorations and furnishings for the chapel.  Later a prominent family of the town hired a woodcarver to continue the tradition and he arranged the bones in the current configurations.  It was fascinating!  Coats of Arms made of bones, bunting made of bones, chalices and candelabra made of bones, and most spectacular of all, a bone chandelier containing at least one of every bone in the human body.   This takes recycling to a whole new level!
Chandelier of Bones
Coat of Arms
Crown of Bones

Chalice of Bones

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Practically Perfect Prague

Prague looks like it’s straight out of a fairytale.  It is so, so beautiful.  I arrived in Prague quite late at night and was glad that my hostel, the Art Hole, was easy to find.  Even my cheap digs were in a lovely building, shared with the Embassy of Congo, just a few blocks from Old Town Square.  Old Town Square is a hub of activity, especially when the Astronomical Clock strikes the hour and figures of the Apostles take turns coming out little windows in the tower.  At the last chime, a red and yellow clad trumpeter appears at the top of the tower to play a tune and wave to the cheering crowd below.  I climbed to the top of the tower for a panoramic view of the city including the Church of Our Lady Before Tyn, a stunning 14th century Gothic church which dominates the other side of the square.  
Our Lady Before Tyn as seen from Tower

Clock Tower at Night

Up in the Tower

Tower Trumpeter

Astronomical Clock

Just a short walk from Old Town is Wenceslas Square, the site of many political demonstrations and historic events throughout Prague’s history.  Another brief stroll took me to the famous Charles Bridge, with 30 statues mounted on its balustrade.  Several of the statues have legends associated with them and can grant you a wish or assure your turn to Prague if you touch them.  Walking across the bridge, I noticed an ornate structure where people were attaching locks.  I asked why they were doing this and found that if you put a lock here you will be eternally locked to your true love.  Well I was travelling really light, but of all things, I just happened to have a padlock!  I brought one in case the hostel lockers required you to supply your own lock, but the Art Hole lockers came with a lock and key, so my little blue padlock was still in my backpack.  I took this as a sign and snapped it on with all the others and tossed the key into the Vltava River.  I suppose I should tell Carl that despite a year apart, he now has no chance to escape.  Maybe I'll just wait and see if he really reads my blog.  After crossing the Charles Bridge, I went off in search of the John Lennon Wall which is filled with portraits of the beloved musician, wishes for peace and love, and lyrics from many of his songs.  The artwork on the wall has been continuously changing since it was first started in the days of communism, painted by followers of “Lennonism".  There was even a singer/guitar player there singing Beatles songs to add to the ambiance. Very cool.
Wenceslas Square

The Charles Bridge

Making a Wish

My lock is the little blue one in the lower left corner.

John Lennon Wall

Of course, one of the most significant sights in Prague is Prague Castle.  According to the Guinness Book of World Records, Prague Castle is the largest castle complex in the world with palaces and churches of various architectural styles, including stunning St. Vitus Cathedral.  Like all good castles, this one has a dungeon with a torture chamber.  “Golden Lane” was fun to wander down, as it’s composed of 11 small houses built in the 15th century, one of which was the home of Franz Kafka from 1916-1917.  Some of these houses have been restored with artifacts dating from different periods of the castle’s history and others are now cute gift shops.  

Prague Castle Overlooking the City

Torture Chamber in Castle Dungeon

St. Vitus Cathedral in Prague Castle

One of my days in Prague was spent exploring the Jewish Quarter which was also really close to my hostel.  In the 13th century, the entire Jewish community of Prague was ordered to vacate their homes and move to the ghetto in an area subject to flooding from the Vltava.  The Jewish Quarter contains 6 synagogues, two of which I was able to go inside.  The Spanish Synagogue, designed in the Moorish style, is regarded by many as the most beautiful synagogue in all of Europe.  The handsome Pinkas Synagogue was built in 1535 and used for worship until 1941. After WWII it was converted into a memorial, with wall after wall inscribed with the names, birth dates, and dates of disappearance of the 77, 297 Czech victims of the Nazis. It also has a collection of paintings and drawings by children held in the nearby Terezín concentration camp. The children were given art lessons so they would have some semblance of normalcy and a chance for self-expression.  Each piece of artwork has 3 dates written beside it; the date of the young artist’s birth, the date of their transport, and the date of their death.  Only a very few pictures have the word “survived” beside them.  When you exit the museum, you can walk through the Old Jewish Cemetery, with tombstones that date back to 1439. According to halaka, Jews must not destroy graves or remove tombstones, so when the cemetery ran out of space more layers of soil were placed on the existing graves, creating 12 layers which is why the tombstones are now so close to each other.  One would think that during the Nazi occupation that the old ghetto would have been demolished, but they preserved the area and collected Jewish artifacts here from all over Europe for a planned "exotic museum of an extinct race".  

Old Jewish Cemetary
Spanish Synagogue
Kafka Statue

One of my favorite evenings in Prague was spent at the home of Vera and Martin, Servas hosts and parents of two lovely children, David and Ester.  Vera was delayed waiting for a doctor to visit her father (although she said it is rare, doctors still do house calls in the Czech Republic!), so Martin and the children and I ate the delicious chicken dinner she had prepared.  After dinner, Martin and I talked about politics (one of my favorite subjects and as it turns out one of his as well) and he explained a lot of the history of the Czech Republic and what it was like to live there under communism.  I find these first -hand accounts fascinating!  Later, Vera came home and we had a chance to talk about children and art (two of my other favorite topics!) and about her many experiences with Servas.  Vera is very involved with the local chapter, and has traveled all over the world visiting Servas hosts who have become life-long friends.  She recommended that I contact a Servas representative in London, which I did, and I have already been invited to an event there in December.  
Servas Hosts, Vera and Martin

My room at the Art Hole

So Prague was practically perfect, with stunning sights, an interesting history, and new friends to meet.  I’d love to return someday, and if the legend of touching the statues on the Charles Bridge is true, I will be back.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Stranded in Slovakia

I’ve been trying to think of a way to succinctly sum up my Slovakian saga, but I'm afraid there isn’t really a way to do that.  Just skim this if you want, you won't miss much.  I took a look at the map and noticed that the train from Budapest to Prague goes very near to Bratislava, so I decided to spend the day in Slovakia on my way to the Czech Republic.  I ended up seeing much more of the Slovak suburbs than I bargained for.  Shortly before the train reached Bratislava, we were delayed due to an accident further up the track.  After waiting for some time, everyone was evacuated from the train and told to walk through this little village until we came to a main road.  Not having any idea where I was going, I started to follow the crowd traipsing through town.  I had met an American girl, Kristin, about the age of my sons, on the train.  She was on her way to the airport to fly home, and was really panicked about the possibility of missing her flight.  She kept saying that she would be having a breakdown and be in tears if she hadn’t met me.  So I felt responsible for her.  We finally got to the road where we were supposed to wait for busses to take us to the train station.  Since Kristin thought she would miss her flight if she didn’t go directly to the airport, a young Slovak girl called her a taxi.  They said they would be there in 6 minutes, so I assured Kristin that I wouldn't leave her until I knew she was safely on her way to the airport. Well, 30 minutes later, still no taxi, and by then 2 busses (crammed full of former train passengers including the girl with the phone) had come and gone.  There were still a few folks standing there, and I mentioned that it was taking a long time for another bus to get there.  They told me that there wasn’t another bus to the train station, that the 2 that had come and gone were it.   Oops, nobody had mentioned that, not in English, at least.  Not good.  Okay, I had to “keep calm and carry on” as they say here in England, so Kristin wouldn't totally freak.   I figured if we could get a bus to the center of town, from there we would be able to get to our respective destinations.  So we took the next bus that headed to into Bratislava.  We met a young man who told us to follow him and that he would get us to the right busses for the airport and train station.   As luck would have it, the bus we were on broke down, but the young man took us to a tram and we continued on our way.  Several times we tried to explain to people that we had to leave our train due to an accident and then had to leave our bus due to a breakdown, but they would just shrug and say, “Welcome to Slovakia”.  Seriously, that happened at least 3 or 4 times!  So we got to the central transportation hub where the trams and busses meet, and the young man pointed out a bus that would take Kristin to the airport and another that would take me to the train station.  He said it was only a 15 minute ride to the airport, and Kristin had about an hour and a half before her flight which I assured her would be plenty of time in an airport the size that I assumed Bratislava’s would be.  (I hope I was right!)  Anyways, Kristin seemed to have calmed down and she thought she could make it on her own from there, so I headed off on the bus that supposedly went to the train station, armed with the word “Train Station” written in Slovak in my notebook.   I found the word on the map on the bus, but we never seemed to get closer to it.  Finally, I was the only person left on the bus, and I showed the word to the driver.  My interpretation of the gestures and sounds he made that I imagine were Slovak words, was that this was the end of the bus line, so I was out of luck.  The end of the bus line is not a bus station, you know, it’s a big bus parking lot.  So there I was.  Stranded in Slovakia.   In the snow.  Well, it wasn’t actually snowing, but there were patches of snow on the ground, and it was pretty darn cold since I hadn’t packed a coat on this trip, in the interest of travelling light (although I did have my spiffy new rain hat, that I really love, purchased at a craft fair near my UK home).   For some reason, I just rolled with it, as they say to do in Fulbright.   I think once I got in that calm mode for Kristin, I just stayed in the zone.  So I started wandering aimlessly through suburban Bratislava.   Finally……..What’s that up ahead???   Why I do believe it’s a bus stop!!!  Praise the Lord!!    My travelling angel, who had obviously been napping the past couple of hours, must have awoken, as not only was there a bus stop (why that made me so happy, I’m not sure, as busses hadn’t exactly worked out for me so far!) but there was also a young girl who spoke some English and could tell me which bus would take me to Old Town Bratislava.  I'd come this far, I might as well see the sights.   “Lo and Behold” this bus really did take me to the historic district of Bratislava!   The Old Town was really quiet, but quite nice. 
Bratislava--note snow of the roof
The Paparazzi

These church windows had been broken out, but I thought
this was a clever solution to the problem; board them up
and paint copies of famous works of art!

Cumil,  "The Watcher" at work

One of the few people on the street (actually under the street) was Cumil, “The Watcher”.  This was one of the quirkier statues I’ve seen.  After wandering around the Old Town a bit I decided to climb up the hill to Bratislava Castle, which hovers over the historic district.  I learned that this site has been inhabited since the Stone Age.  About the time the Slovak mass transit system was built.  (Kind of a snarky comment coming from an American, since we hardly have a mass transit system at all in the states, but hey, this was a long day.)   And let me add a little aside; I'm actually lucky that I didn't get hauled off to some Slovak jail for illegally riding busses and trams, because at this point I didn't have any Euros (Hungary uses forints and the Czech Republic uses the Czech Koruna, which I did have, but I didn't see any ATMs or currency exchanges before I got into the Old Town) and if you are caught riding without a ticket, you can be fined 40 Euros, but I didn't have any Euros......  so I really shouldn't complain about the transportation system, since I was riding for free.  

Bratislava Castle
Celebrating my Charge up the Hill

Not sure who this is, but it's a cool statue

The castle was really quite impressive, but I couldn't go inside due to renovations. So I headed back down the hill to look for some authentic Slovak food.  I saw an advertisement for chicken schnitzel on the side of a nice-looking hillside café, so I went inside to order some.  “Oh” said the waitress, “you want the tourist plate.”  Sigh.  It might not have been traditional Slovak food, but I have to say, it was pretty tasty.  I took off my cardigan (note to British friends,  I said “cardigan” not “sweater”, I’m learning!)  and hat and settled in for a well-deserved relaxing meal.   After dinner I continued down the slope for a little more time in the historic district.  Then I caught a bus that took me to….. Ta Da!  THE TRAIN STATION.  Yes indeedy, I actually made it to the train station, about 6 hours later than I had planned, but it was all good...... until I got on the train and realized that my beloved rain hat was still in the hillside café.   (This part is up to you;  imagine Tony Bennett singing in his most melancholy voice) 

♫ I left my hat, in Bratislava, high on a hill, it calls to me………..  ♫