Day 35 – Seegrotte (and moving day)

Given the cigarette smoke the day before, we decided we had seen enough of Vienna, and checked out to move on to Venice.

Ros had spotted a flyer for an underground lake which was along the way, so we set the GPS and headed there first.

The lake was cool. Called Seegrotte, it was actually an old Gypsum mine, that had flooded. It is now one of the largest underground lakes in Europe. Not to mention a pretty big tourist attraction in this part of the world.

It had been used by the Germans as a secret lab during WWII to develop and build one of the first jet fighter planes, and was even used by Hollywood for the movie “The Three Amigo’s”.

Being inside was like being in one of the underground lairs of a bad guy in a James Bond movie or something. It was pretty cool.

We were part of a tour group, but unfortunately the language was not English. Thankfully the guide recognised us 4 lost Aussies, and gave us a quick update in english before or after the group speal – so we managed to get a fair ideal of what was going on.

The lakes themselves were very nice, and they had lighting which made it very romantic. Of course, you couldn’t be all that romantic on a tour with 30 other tourist (not to mention two children) but is was a buzz and we enjoyed our time.

After the lake, we headed on to Venice. A pretty uneventful day of travel and just looking around and enjoying the magnificent country side.

We agreed to return to Vienna another day, because the scenery and buildings are simply magnificent, but will wait for the anti smoking campaigns to kick in a little more.

Day 33 – Vienna

After Auschwitz, we drove back through the Czech Republic to Austria. This was a bit of a novelty as we had managed to visit 3 countries in a singe day. A big deal for a family of four from Australia.

Soon after crossing the Czech border, we found a McDonalds and camped outside. From the motorhome, we logged into their wifi to update emails (and of course FaceBook). This was the first time we’d camped in a car park, so I spent most of the night waiting for a knock on the door and a directive to move on.

Thankfully, no knock came, but as I was up early anyway, I went across to McDonalds for a coffee and to get catch up on some work before the family got up. I was so pleased to be in Austria. For no other reason then a strong and fast internet connection and G R E A T coffee. Even though it was from McCafe, it was the best coffee I’ve had since coming to Europe.

After breakfast we drove an hour or so to Vienna and found our campground. We checked in, set up, then headed straight out to the city centre.

We had a look around and fell in love with the building and architecture. Its hard to explain, but there was something about this city its layout and the architecture, and just its general  “artiness” that was magnificent.

But as attractive as the city was, we couldn’t stay long. Nearly everyone in town was smoking and the cigarette smoke was killing us. There was a haze over the plazas and malls, and for a family of non-smokers, who live in a pretty smoke free environment, this was like walking through the smoking room at an international airport. It was just horrible.

We found caslte or something and went over for a look.

In front of the castle in the middle of the road, were some exposed working from Roman times. Discovered during road renovation in 1990, they were now made a permanent fixture. Right in the middle of the road/roundabout.

All around Vienna city there were people offering horse and cart rides, and there was a large collection of operators in front of the castle. Unfortunately, the horses must have been “over watered” and there was a steady stream flowing through the street and providing a not so sweet smell.

We walked through the castle gates and found a Military display right in the middle of the grounds. October 26 is a National Day in Austria and every year the military put on a display of all their “toys”. Included were 5 helicopters and even a Eurofighter plan. Not to mention tanks, trucks and other gear. It was a pretty impressive display, made all the more impressive to see this modern war machinery inside such and old place.

We continued walking and found two identical buildings (I think they were formally Palaces). Huge, sandstone building, mirroring each other across a landscaped garden.

After a good look around, we continued along to the Museum Quarter, a mix of modern and old buildings and housing a number of museums and exhibitions.

There was full frontal, male nudity on signs promoting a particular exhibition, including a massive wooden structure out the front of the museum of a guy lying side on, with everything bared. Not the sort of thing you would normally see in Australia, but interesting to see their social standards so different.

Intrigued by the promotion, we went to the exhibit titled “Naked Man” which chronicled male nudity in art for more than 600 years. It was actually pretty cool and very interesting, and not at all pornographic. It was just art, and the human figure.

The kids looked at some of the other art works, but chose not to do the naked man exhibition so sat in the foyer and played on the iPads.

Everyones feet were hurting, and we’d seen about as much art as we were interested in, so we headed home and called it a day.

PS – If you ever get a chance to view the Naked Man exhibit, it really is worth a look.

Day 32 – Auschwitz

We got up and had breakfast, then drove on to Auschwitz.

Ros and I were excited, but also a little hesitant with regard to what we would find. We really wanted to go but at the same time knowing the history of the place didn’t – there was an awful uncomfortableness about the whole idea.

During this time of the year, you have to do a tour with a guide, which wasn’t a concern to us, as we wanted a tour and the story anyway, so we joined an English tour, and headed through the gates of Camp

Camp 1 was the original and smallest of 3 camps, that made up Auschwitz.

We seen the barracks, where people lived, as well as torture chambers and the square where individuals were shot and hung. The stories were horrible. Everything we knew we were getting into, plus more and worse.

A number of the barracks have been turned into exhibitions showing some of the belongings of Jews, found when the Russians entered the camp at the end of WWII. The things we seen included, shoes, suitcases, tooth brushes and combs. It was really quite confronting to see all the personal belongings and possessions of Jews who you knew, were put to death here at the camp.

The most disturbing exhibition was a pile of human hair. 2 tonnes of it in fact.

The Nazi’s had used the hair to make rope and webbing etc. When the Russian’s arrived, they found 7 tonnes of it in storage. This was not all the hair the Nazi’s had collected, just what was left or hadn’t been shipped at the end of the war.

It was estimated the average human has just 200 grams of hair so you can imagine how many people’s hair this was. There in a pile. Right in front of us. It was the most disturbing sight I have ever seen.

We also visited the first gas chamber and heard more stories of starvation, bastardization and torture. The camp doctor (not that he was there for the prisoners), used to do live experiments on the prisoners. His particular field of interest was fertility, and how to sterilize the Jews, but increase the fertility of the Germans.

It was just cruelty of the most unimaginable kind.

We thought we knew what we were getting ourselves into, but the enormity only really hit when we seen first hand the belongings. These were real belongings, owned by real people, their most important possessions in all the world. Just piles and piles of them. It mad me sad. It also made me angry.

After a short break, we were bussed across to Birkenau or the second Camp. It had been made for 100,000 people, roughly the population of Toowoomba, my home town. It had 4 main camps (about 25000 people each), and at one time 5 gas chambers. The train line ran all the way to the gas chamber and towards the end of the war, the Jews were simply shipped in by train, and walked directly into the gas chambers.

The Nazi’s had this charade they played, by first telling the Jews they were being shipped away for a fresh start and a new life; even getting them to pay for the train ticket. They would then pile them into cattle carts on the railway, and ship them directly to Auschwitz (and elsewhere).

When they arrived, they were marched to the gas chambers and told they would be taking a shower to clean up and for disinfection. They even had them write their names on their cases, and when they undressed for the shower, where told to remember the number of the hook they placed their clothes on. This charade was so successful, most happily marched straight to their deaths.

Disturbingly, the Allies knew what was going on here for at least 2 years before the end of the war, yet did nothing directly to stop it. Rightly of wrongly, they believed the best way to deal with Auschwitz and the death camps, was to defeat the Nazi’s, which ultimately they did, but not before, many many millions of human beings were worked, tortured and gassed to death.

At Birkenau there was a group of Israeli students walking through the grounds and doing a tour. Some kind of school excursion or something. As they walked through the grounds, they were waving large Israeli flags.

For me, this stood out as a act of defiance, a kind of we’re still here and your not to Hitler and the Nazi’s. The entire experience, the story, the camp, the belonging and especially the hair, has been one of the most moving things of my life.

As we drove away, lot of discussion around it between the family, as well as some reflection on how anyone could do that, and how an entire nation could support it. It just doesn’t make sense.

NB: I thought long and hard about sharing what we seen at Auschwitz in this blog given the graphic nature of this history. Ultimately I decided to publish my experience to bring light on this terrible set of events in our global history, in an effort to do my small part to ensure this kind of thing never, ever happens again.