Sunday, July 7, 2013

Kyiv, The Final Weekend: July 7, 2013

Sunday Afternoon above the Dnipro River (Dan's photo)

This is our last weekend in Kyiv.  We look forward to going home to be with family, friends, and Kali Cat.  May in Kyiv was fun with so many interesting holidays and only the one ABA trip to Dnipropetrovsk.  June was tough.  For the ABA, we went to Sumy, Donetsk, Kherson, and Vinnytsya.  Between work trips we sneaked in a weekend in Lviv, Ukraine, and five days in Krakow, Poland.  That's a lot of miles traveled.

So far, July in Kyiv has been swelteringly hot.  Saturday was no exception, but we schlepped to Andrew's Descent to buy some last-minute souvenirs for gifts.  We also bought a small painting for us.

The American Chamber of Commerce in Ukraine was having a big Fourth of July picnic Saturday afternoon with evening fireworks, but it felt too hot to go.  Instead, about 9 pm we went to the Hyatt Hotel's 8th Floor Lounge terrace.  We had hamburgers and fries and just before 10 pm, we had a great view of the fireworks.  A perfect evening.

 The view from the Hyatt's 8th Floor Lounge terrace

Sunday, we woke to a sky filled with threatening clouds.  The last thing we still hadn't done was take the zip line across the river.  The zip line is about 600 meters running from Khreschatyk Park to the island in the Dnipro River.  From the park, it is all downhill so the zip line is very fast.

I managed to take a couple of photos in the seconds it took to cross the river.  Just under the arch is the starting platform.

Dan went after me.  He looks a little tentative at the start.

But look at him when he landed on the other side.  It was exhilarating.

Then, we as we walked across the pedestrian bridge to return to our side of the river, the sky became darker and darker.  Dan took the photo of the small church (first photo) contrasting with dark sky and water.  Soon, we heard thunder, saw lightening, and within an hour it was raining.

Now, it is time to finish packing.  We leave Kyiv Tuesday morning, July 9.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Vinnytsya, Ukraine: July 3-5, 2013

We just got back from our anniversary vacation in Krakow, and we are on the road again.  We traveled to Vinnytsya located about 3.5 hours southwest of Kyiv.  It is a small agricultural town with a population of about 350,000.

There is not much English spoken here so being a lazy American who knows only one language does not make visiting Vinnytsya easy.  Even the desk clerk at the hotel spoke no English.

I was looking forward to seeing Vinnytsya as I just finished a biography of a man named Stefan Szpuk.  The book is Sliding on the Snow Stone written by his son Andy Szpuk.  Stefan grew up in the countryside around Vinnytsya.  He was 5 years old during Stalin's 1932-33 forced famine.  Next he witnessed the 1937-1938 massacre of mostly ethnic Ukrainians by the Soviet secret police.  He didn't know it was part of Stalin's Great Purge, but he and his friends knew people or had family members who were taken away by the Soviet secret police and never heard from again.  The mass murder of over 9,000 people in 91 mass graves was documented in 1943 when the Nazis pushed the Soviets east. Vinnytsya was in Nazi hands until the Red Army pushed its way west again.  As the Nazis fled west they burned villages and forced the residents to move west with the army.  Stefan, 15, was one of those villagers forced to leave.

While the Nazis were in Vinnytsya, they forced Ukrainians to build Hitler's forward bunker located about 8km (almost 5 miles) north of Vinnytsya.  Hitler may have visited the bunker twice during 1942-1943, and he ordered the execution of the 15,000 Ukrainian slave laborers who were forced to build the bunker.  The Nazis blew up Hitler's luxurious bunker during their 1944 retreat.

And, then when the "Great Patriotic War" ended, Vinnytsya was back in Soviet hands. Vinnytsya had a mostly terrible 20th century yo-yo ing between the Soviets-Nazis-Soviets. While the Nazis were in the area, they even stole the top soil from the surrounding area and shipped it back to Germany.

The Nazis installed a monument to those people killed in the Soviet purge.  When the Soviets resumed control of Ukraine, they replaced that monument with one in memory of those Ukrainians killed by the Nazis.  After independence, the Ukrainian government installed a new memorial for the "Innocent Victims Executed by a Totalitarian Regime" in 1937-1938.

I tried to find a guide or a map of Vinnytsya.  The hotel clerk showed me the map that was in the phone book but did not offer to copy it for me.  I called a phone number of a Tour Company that is supposed to specialize in 2-hour walking tours in English.  She told me she was on vacation.  I asked if she could refer me to someone else and she hung up on me.  I went to the Tourist Office. The young woman did not speak English and knew no one who could take one person on a walking tour.  She did, however, have a map of Vinnytsya that was in English.

The signs in this photo are for trips to the Crimea, Yalta, places other than Vinnytsya.  They are low-cost vacations for Ukrainians.  These travel brokers are all selling the same thing, but not a walking tour of Vinnytsya to be had.

I went to the Regional Museum; I paid my 10 hrv admission but no one turned on the lights for me.  There were the normal museum sitters, but not one looked up at me or offered to light the exhibits.  It was during this dark tour that I heard the church bells tolling and singing outside.  I fled the museum and followed the "pilgrims" down the street around the corner and all the way back to my hotel.  The pilgrims kept going.  They were singing and carrying icons on their chest.  I would have continued to follow, but several had liter bottles of water and backpacks which made me think that it was a longer journey than I wanted to tackle.  Today's desk clerk was more helpful.  She said this is an annual event and the pilgrims were going to a nearby village to visit the icon in a small church.

What is new for Vinnytsya is the fountain built in 2011 on the southern Bugh River.  It is billed as Europe's largest floating fountain.  Music plays and when it is dark, there are colored lights.  During our first, daylight glimpse of the fountain, it didn't seem so impressive.

We returned to the fountain on July 4th to see the show called "Inventions."  It was truly impressive.  Besides having choreographed water displays and lights, the center spray morphs into a fan that is used as a screen for rear projected images.

It was a pretty spectacular way to spend the Fourth of July.  When the show was over at 10 pm, a Vinnytsya lawyer who was part of Dan's class said in his graveled voice, "Now, lets drink whiskey!"  He took us to an out-of-town, in-the-woods restaurant.  The whiskey, moonshine, was made by him.  Fortunately, food, excellent food, was part of this Ukrainian moonshine evening.

The last day in Vinnytsya, I checked out of the hotel and put our luggage into Sergei's (ABA driver) car.  Then, I wandered around like a homeless person trying to fill my day until Dan finished his class.

It was really warm and after lunch, I ended up in the shady city parks.  I wondered how bad it would look for me to simply lie down and sleep for a few hours, but really didn't want to be mistaken for a homeless person.

Running out of ways to fill the hours, I went back to the museum.  This time, I went into the art museum.  My faith in museums was restored.  This museum had a young woman who gave me a lecture tour in English of the 6 or so rooms of art.  She was lovely and I think she had to translate her memorized script into English.  Periodically, the cashier would yell at her from the end of the corridor.  The cashier wanted to go home at 5 pm. The official closing time was 5:30pm and my museum guide was adamant that I should get the full lecture.  It was kind of a surreal experience.  Each time my lecturer was interrupted by the cashier's yelling, she would have to regroup to find her place in the script she was delivering.

Finally, it was 5:30 pm and I was no longer homeless.  We picked up Dan and Tanya and 3.5 hours later we arrived in Kyiv.  Four nights and three days to go in Ukraine.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Auschwitz-Birkenau Tour: June 29, 2013

Yesterday we visited the Museum of Wartime Krakow (1939-1945).  The museum is housed in what was once Oskar Schindler's Factory.  Schindler is the same Schindler from "Schindler's List" movie fame.  It is a worthwhile visit and a good education before visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Today, we took a tour of Auschwitz-Birkenau. It was hard to hear/read of all the brutality suffered here. It is estimated that 1.1 to 1.5 million people died in Auschwitz-Birkenau. I can't even begin to put those details into words.

The sign over the entrance to Auschwitz I says "Arbeit Macht Frei" (Work Sets You Free).  This was a ruse.  These were death camps.  

Another sign at the museum states:
"From 1941 to 1943, the SS shot several thousand people at the wall in the courtyard between Blocks 10 and 11.  Most of those executed were Polish political prisoners, the leaders and members of clandestine organizations, and people who helped escapees or facilitated contacts with the outside world.  Those shot here also include men, women, and children who had been taken hostage in revenge for operations of the Polish resistance against the German occupation.  Prisoners of other nationalities and ethnic origins, including Jews and Soviet POWs, were also shot at the wall.  Nazis dismantled the wall in 1944; after the war, the execution wall was partially reconstructed by the Museum."
This is a detail from the reconstructed execution wall.

The crevices of the execution wall are filled with small stones, crosses, or other remembrances.

The camps were ringed with high-voltage electric fences.  Some prisoners, rather than continue their daily tortures, committed suicide by throwing themselves into these fences.

Several of the "barracks" now contain exhibits.  Some of the items in these exhibits are the personal effects taken from those who were murdered in Auschwitz-Birkenau.  These personal effects: human hair, eye glasses, suitcases, shaving items, prostheses, shoes were stored in warehouses in preparation for sending the items back to Germany to be distributed among German citizens or recycled.  Prisoners referred to these warehouses as "Canada" as many had relatives who pre-war had moved to Canada--the land of plenty.  When the camp was liberated by the Red Army on January 25, 1945, the warehouses contained only a small fraction of what had been confiscated by the Nazis.  The huge piles of human hair, some still braided, are on exhibit, but cannot be photographed. The hair was packed in bags with the weight (200-250 kg) of each bag scrawled on it. The Nazis sent the hair back to Germany to be used in the manufacture of "hair cloth."  Human hair was also used in upholstery.

Photography of the other personal effects was allowed. The suitcases inscribed with the owners' names were the most affecting lending an identity to the statistics.

 Braces, crutches, prosthetics 
Piles of suitcases with the owners' names--names with the hope of survival

 Women's shoes
Brushes of all kinds: shaving, shoe, clothing, toothbrushes

Next our guide took us to Birkenau.  This was the arrival point for deportees from Polish cities and other countries.  Deportees were transported from as far away as Norway and Greece.

The deportees arrived at Birkenau in overcrowded, barely ventilated railway cars.  If they survived the transport, they were lined up outside of the railway car, where an SS officer quickly decided who was able to work and who could not.  Those who were judged unable to work (women, small children, the disabled, elderly, or frail) were directed to go to the showers. This was another ruse because they were walking into gas chambers. Those who were judged able to work, were worked to death, starved to death, tortured to death.

This railway car has become a shrine with small stones piled on every horizontal surface.

The wooden barracks have decayed leaving only the brick fireplaces that provided insufficient heat to the prisoners.

Brick structures built using bricks recycled from Polish villages from which Nazis expelled the residents.

The sign at the memorial to those who died at Auschwitz-Birkenau: "For ever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity where the Nazis murdered about one and a half million Men, Women, and Children, mainly Jews from various countries of Europe."

Each year, 1.5 million people visit Auschwitz-Birkenau.  I hope we come here because we want to make sure this terrible history will never be repeated.