Sunday, July 30, 2017

Baltic Sea Cruise 2017 - Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp

I have always been interested in history. From the perspective of a writer, the events that happened before our lives began are similar to the background stories of characters in a book.

The chance to explore the historical aspects of World War Two was something I couldn't pass up. Particularly, I have always wanted to visit a concentration camp.

Why? I used to feel strange or ghoulish when I would tell people such a visit was on the top of my "bucket list." Having visited once, I will no longer feel as though I have to apologize. I am proud that I want to remember, that I want to empathize, that I consider the horror and the agony to be too profound to ever forget.

I now feel the same way about my visits to the Mohawk Residential School in my own hometown of Brantford or the museum in Dresden, ON. I won't let myself forget.

I'm not Jewish or black or native or homosexual or poor. I'm the mother of half-black children, I love people of every race, creed, size, colour, sexual orientation and so on. I am the granddaughter of a man who was harassed and fired for his Catholic religious background. I see poverty in my streets.

If you judge the book by the cover, though, you see a well-fed, well-dressed, middle-aged white woman. (If you see me at all, that is—since I am pretty much the majority in my circles and in an age bracket that's becoming invisible.)

Yet I feel a compulsion to explore others' experiences, to empathize with others, and to share my perspective.  Sometimes to try and "walk in their shoes" in order to deepen the understanding of the characters who live on my page.

Chris is our guide on the way to Oranienburg, where Sachsenhausen awaits. One of the very first concentration camps, Sachsenhausen was also relatively small in comparison to others that were built in Poland and Germany. Deemed a work camp, its primary purpose was to provide free workers and to silence political dissenters. It devolved into a killing machine in several ways as the war progressed.
Our guide, Chris, in the cap.

Chris is charming and speaks English well. He's interested in why the people in our car have chosen to visit a camp. Through learning last names and their origins, he can often discern their motivations: ah, you might have been related to a prisoner; you may have a guard in your ancestry and so the stain of guilt rests upon you. The rest of us have motives like mine.

It's an eerie feeling as we speed through the tunnel of trees. So many movies have shown those cattle cars racing to death surrounded by this very greenery.


In Oranienburg, we meet Eva, our local guide. We walk from the station to the camp under hot sun and blue skies, through the lovely little city with its cafés and people on bicycles. Eva tells us that this march would have been similar to the one the prisoners took. And every day, they would have gone back and forth to the factory, ignored or avoided by the townspeople, who were convinced they were the worst of mankind. Pedophiles, psychopaths, murderers. From most reports, it should have been the guards they feared.

An example of a prominent prisoner was Reverend Martin Niemoller, who survived his imprisonment, and is best known for this poem:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—
and there was no one left to speak for me.

Once the Nazis began to reveal their true purposes, the Reverend was outspoken and a member of the resistance, which led to his imprisonment.

We enter the gates of Sachsenhausen with a keen awareness that others who walked through here would know they might not walk back out again.

The infamous sign, Work Sets You Free, and the design of the camp became the blueprint for all the others to follow.

The building under which we enter and go through the gate housed the armed guards. Because the camp was laid out in rows within a certain distance from the entry, the guards could shoot anyone from their perch.

Many of the prisoner barracks have been removed, but there are several that have been reconstructed to show how they were forced to live.

Eva explains the Nazis' methodic breaking of the human spirit as she leads us through the barracks. Without proper access to toileting or keeping yourself clean, or making your own decisions, or having any sort of privacy, people were systematically stripped of all dignity. In most cases, the prisoners became too dispirited, weak, and numb to be able to resist any longer.

If you were kept inside
with barbed wire...

If you only saw the
sun through the
bars of your cell...

If you
were deprived of
food and worked
until you fell on
your knees...

If you slept in filthy

If you shared a
wooden bunk
and a thin blanket
with three or more other
dirty, degraded

If you had to toilet
and clean yourself in these rooms
with a hundred or more others...

Would this bed - all by yourself and a blanket of your own -
start to look good? Would the opportunity to toilet and wash
before anyone else entered the room begin to sound enticing? The chance for more and better food?

Would you then become a Nazi pawn? Would you herd your
neighbours and friends and become a gopher for your captors?

If you were a guard, would you swallow the drugs they gave you? The belief that made the prisoners rats to be exterminated?

I can't say for certain what I would do. I hope I'd be strong. All I know for sure is that my admiration for the courage of those who continued to resist despite everything is now boundless.

We look back at the menace of the barracks and the cruel heat of the yard. Here, prisoners were marched back and forth along various ground covers to test military footwear. Experiments with drugs were forced upon them.

Here, prisoners suffered so much abuse that thousands of them died.

Several of the local companies who exploited slave labour or profited from working for the Nazis (in other camps, not just Sachsenhausen) still exist, such as Siemens, Bayer, IBM, BMW, Audi, Daimler-Benz and Hugo Boss.  Most of these companies worked to compensate laborers after the war. For many, that initiative was far too late.

We walk around the long, intimidating wall and are punched, emotionally, in the chest.

Here is the death trench. Here - particularly later in the war - prisoners were lined up and shot and shovelled into the ground. In the beginning were the political dissenters, the resistors, the homosexuals, the disabled, the mentally ill - and later, Romas and Jews.

Inside the building, the ramps lead to ovens where the overworked, starved, or murdered bodies were disposed of.

Here is the place many in our group dissolve into tears.

We walk out of the camp subdued and sad. Yet as we face the sunshine, the bustling little city, and the comfortable bus to Berlin, hope buds inside us. Eva's tour of the facility, this museum of remembrance, helped to change the grief, horror and guilt into determination to do whatever we can to stop evil, even in our own little corners of the world. No kindness or good deed or smile or charitable work is too small. That is the point of this tour, the reason for doing it. To bolster the strength of love and goodness in our world, one visitor at a time.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Baltic Sea Cruise 2017: The Ship

I thought I’d spend this post on the ship, instead of referring back to it from the various tours. This was only my second cruise. Maybe because I knew what to expect, I enjoyed this ship a lot more than I did the other (who shall remain Nameless). I liked the way Norwegian Cruise Lines planned meals, for instance: there were lots of restaurants to choose from and you didn’t have to sit in the same place with the same server every night. The crew seemed happier, perhaps better treated by their employers, than the staff on Nameless. The entertainment was far superior. The ship was probably not full, because the few line-ups were short and fast.

Something I didn't know, but Wendy made sure we were aware of: you can bid on an upgrade. Rita and I followed Cugina's advice, but I made a mistake and bid $10 more than Wendy and Carolyn. We all got upgraded! (Probably more proof that the ship was not full.) However, Rita and I got a bigger cabin - that $10 made all the difference, I'm sure.
Our room was awesome. Lots of space, even a pull-out couch along with our two beds, and a huge bathroom.
Not to mention the glorious balcony. It was warm enough in Germany to have breakfast on the deck, though the rest of the cruise, the wind and cool temperatures kept us from spending too much time out there.

Even though the weather was cool, I would  recommend doing this particular cruise in May.

The destinations were still crowded, but nothing like they are in the summer, according to our local guides. And you can move around the ship more easily, partake of the amenities and entertainment without too much elbowing for a spot.

Here's a prime reason for taking the cruise in May. No one else is brave enough to swim! You can have the entire pool to yourself all day long. The pool was heated and gorgeous and the sun was shining. So what if you shiver for a few seconds when you get out? (My answers to that dilemma are to get out as seldom as possible and to drink Bahama Mamas when you do.)

 The pool area on the ship was awesome. If only I'd had Zoe or Catey or Sydney or Livi or any of the boys to go climbing and diving with!
Everyone else lounged at the sides or sat in the hot tubs. Chickens!

They had big, comfy chairs to lounge in as we listened to music. Someone always appeared to ask if we wanted drinks.

Wendy and Carolyn.

Even Rita got her money's worth.

 The (alcohol) drinks package was the best bargain we ever made. Every day they had a drink of the day.

Rita and I discovered a delicious red wine that we've since purchased when we got back home.

Music by Into the Drift was especially great.

There be casino winners on this trip!

 'Twas not I, alas.

Too bad we couldn't bring our bartender back with us, too. 

Our husbands said no.

Views of the ship!

Centre deck chandelier and some fine dining areas.

We did a lot of walking on the tours - but on the ship, too.


 Oh my god, am I lucky or what?

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Baltic Sea Cruise 2017: Day 2 - Copenhagen

May 14

Today we perform the Hop-On-Hop-Off trick.  We make a few missteps, as you will see. 

 We walk down Havnegade to purchase our tickets at the Red Bus office and lumber up to the top of the bus. (We’re without Rita, who has come down with a stomach ailment during the night.)

 In go the ear buds and we listen to the relentlessly cheerful voice tell us all about the bright and happy aspects of Copenhagen. Which, when I think about it, is the best way to tour. I don’t really want to know about the warts. All big cities have them, though it’s hard to imagine in this part of Denmark. Even the numerous bicycles – which Ear Buddy tells us everyone rides to work in summer and even winter – are mostly left unlocked.

We stop first at Tivoli Gardens. This area was the inspiration for Disneyland and the similarities are immediately apparent as we walk through the nifty artificial streetways.

One entrance to Tivoli Gardens
Oh what a ride! To be young and scare-free again!

Wendy and Carolyn

It’s a gorgeous morning, cool enough for lots of walking and sunny on our faces. Wendy, Carolyn and I stroll around admiring the rides and the flowers in equal proportions.

We’d love to be young again, just for the moment, for the thrill of the roller coaster or even the tilt-a-whirl.

We have the most delicious hot chocolate and whip cream, run into some pearl hens and a souvenir shop. The latter divests us of some money for Christmas ornaments.

Here comes our first misstep! We walk to the art gallery, but take the long way around and are too tired to spend an hour visiting. So we look for the art gallery stop – which is right HERE. Somewhere. It says so in this brochure. It’s on the map. It’s HERE, dammit.

We recall the long way home from the Trevi Fountain when we spent hours traipsing over cobblestones and bridges in the dark. Is Tripoli another Trevi? Not quite, but we’re still tired when we finally get to a different stop and hop on. Okay, we stumble on this time and sit downstairs.

Where Carolyn immediately makes friends with a banker. I have his address, phone number and email rights here on the map. We are invited to Indonesia for our next trip.

From the comfort of the bus, we eye the beautiful Copenhagen City Hall, which looks like a palace except for its clock tower. Bizarrely, it’s known for its pancakes, which they serve to the constituents whenever there’s a celebration – carnivals, jubilees, special events – and even weddings.

The area is a beautiful shopping mecca, says Ear Buddy, and the Latin Quarter has zillions of cafés and restaurants.

We peer at the Rosenborg Castle, a royal hermitage, but we’re not inclined to find a way inside. It’s surrounded by lush gardens, dubbed naturally, the King’s Garden.

We continue on into the heart of the downtown district. “There’s the ice bar!” I crow, but again we’re not motivated to get out and explore. After all, we have an ice bar on our ship. (Later...there's a story to tell, of course.)

At some point – even this close to the event, I can’t remember the sequence – we pass the Christiania district. In 1971, a group of “hippies” seeking freedom and weed squatted in a deserted military barracks. They proclaimed the area for themselves, set up makeshift homes, and fought it out with politicians over the years. Today Christiania is still a source of controversy and some violence (Pusher Street being a hotspot), but they’re leaning toward yoga and peace as time goes on.

We drive past The Citadel, the Swedish Church, and once again, the Little Mermaid.  Founded in 1626 by King Christian the 4th as a fortress to protect the city at the mouth of the sea, the Citadel still functions as a military base. But the original moat is now a lovely waterway, surrounded by green walkways, trees and flowers.

The Swedish Church was built to serve the community of “Swedens Abroad” and is also known as the Gustav Church.

We lumber past the Gefion Fountain, too. Ear Buddy tells us that the sculpture is based on a legend about the creation of Copenhagen (then known as Zealand). The Swedish king Gylfi promises the Norse goddess Gefjon that he will grant her land of any size – as long as she plows it out. So she turns her four sons into oxen and digs up Copenhagen. Nice mother, huh?

I mention the above for a specific reason, as they figure greatly in our future.

We rumble past Amelianborg, the palace area that houses Parliament and the Queen, but we don’t stop. Check on Rita, eat lunch, rest and hop back on at the stop just outside our Admiral Hotel.  The plan works well. Rita is better, though not up to hopping, the lunch is rooster (or chicken if you prefer the pedestrian name) and we’re ready once more.

Second misstep: we figure out that if we get on at the stop in front of our hotel, we’ll actually drive past the palace. So we walk the couple of blocks to visit Queen Margrethe the Second. We are certain she’ll ask us in for tea.

This is the view of the Palace-Parliament district. The street side of the compound is open to a beautiful fountain, gardens, the canal, and beyond that, the Opera House.

At the other end, we glimpse the Marble Church and its magnificent dome.

The Queen was born here at Amelianborg, since her daddy was the king and her mom a granddaughter of Queen Victoria. She born one week after the Nazis invaded Denmark. At first, she was not the “heir presumptive” because the law declared only males could ascend the throne. But her daddy and his three daughters were very popular with the subjects, so it was agreed by referendum to tweak the law. As long as she doesn’t have a brother, a woman can inherit the throne. Hmmm. 
Queen Margrethe of Denmark

Margrethe became Queen in 1972 after her father died. Similar to Queen Elizabeth the Second of Britain, the Danish Queen’s role is constitutional rather than political. Margrethe apparently admires Elizabeth and performs her role as a unifier very well.

She’s popular – an artist in her own right – and a chain smoker. Margrethe is married to Prince Consort Henrik.

Why all the detail? You’ll see.

The cobblestone area of the Palace grounds is stunning.

We just happen to arrive as the changing of the guard begins. It’s interesting to watch this solemn tradition and I can’t help but find it a bit ridiculous at the same time.

Apparently, people randomly follow the guards as they march from here to Rosenborg Palace, and sure enough, a trail of tourists takes up the challenge.

Not us, however. We are back to the business of hopping on and off. This time we opt to take pictures of the Little Mermaid, since the bus, our driver informs us, will be stopped for several minutes.

The Mermaid is no happier than she was before.

She's also been pretty much deserted by the hordes, which should have been a clue.

When we return to our transportation, we discover that this was the last round for the big old Red Bus. It will stop at its final destination – cleverly known as Stop Number One. It’s nowhere near Nyhavn or our hotel. The bus driver kindly tells us to walk, because the Admiral is just around the corner.

Uh huh. Our hotel in Rome was just around the corner from the Trevi Fountain, too.

We buy a delicious ice cream to fortify us and start up the waterside path. 

We’re side-by-side with the Citadel moat and the beautiful pathways.

Copper green monuments, hedges, bushes, trees, flowers. 

More missteps: I get us lost again. Just a little. Not my fault. I told the group never to follow me. I have no sense of direction and read maps backwards.

However, we get to see the Swedish Church and the Gefion Fountain up close and personal. Really very impressive. Especially the lovely tourists.

 As we re-orient ourselves and drag along the canal side, two glorious things happen.

First, Wendy and I are reminiscing about our cousin Dave. At home, right about now, his funeral is taking place. We are silent for a few seconds and suddenly, in the shadows of a huge building to our right, stands a replica of Michelangelo’s David.

“He’s here,” we grin and admonish him for flashing.

Second, we glimpse a flurry of activity at the Royal Yacht. Sure enough, we approach and get to watch as Prince Henrik, the aforementioned Consort to Queen Margrethe, walks down the gangway to join a group of military types. He strolls down the same pathway we’d just traversed, casual and largely unaccompanied. Certainly no presence of guns or security in black suits. We enjoy the encounter immensely.

Especially the Royal Dog and Dogwalker.

Henrik, in the picture on the right, reaches out to shake a hand.

Recently, he has "retired" as Prince Consort. According to a newspaper, Denmark "sighed with relief." He's been unhappy with his role as a mere consort and more outspoken than many believe he should be. I kind of agree with his view that not being named King when you are married to the Queen - whereas the wife of a King invariably becomes Queen - is discriminatory toward both genders. I think it's an assumption that a woman would be unduly influenced by her husband if he were a co-ruler, but not the other way around.

Back at the Admiral, we’re too tired from hopping to go anywhere else for dinner. Rooster, anyone?

We’ll board our ship tomorrow for the cruise.