Orava: visiting family history

It’s the middle of October, and I am on a train snaking its way along the Orava River in Northern Slovakia. I am about four hours into a five-hour train ride from Bratislava to the village of Podbiel. What’s in Podbiel? Apparently, proximity to the Western Tatra mountain range and a great deal of outdoor activities, as well as beautifully preserved heritage houses. I am going, however, because my maternal grandfather was born in Podbiel in 1911. I’m going to go further into why I decided to take the trip out to this place, but I have held one of the less rational reasons for a few years now.

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New Places, New Faces

Hello readership!

I thought it would be remiss of me not to have a small informational update about what’s going on over on this end.

I moved! To the beautiful and mysterious Brooklyn, NY!

Which is great, because it means now I have a job and a room and a wealth of new and awesome places to explore. But moving is rough, especially when you were living out of a suitcase and didn’t realize that you might need things like curtains, clothes hangers, a mattress, and blankets, drycleaning, and more sweaters while you’re ducking between a few different job interviews.

Because my update schedule is fairly light to begin with, this transition shouldn’t interfere with rroaming content going up on time. But as I’m planning to hopefully incorporate my explorations of this new city into some features here, I thought it would be best to announce it here.

If anyone has any tips, tricks, or recommendations for the New York City/Brooklyn area (nightlife, food, beverages, parks), please comment or send them on over!

 

x Rachel

How We Travel

Travel is an experience that is paradoxically personal and constantly shared. From looking at so many different travel blogs and social media posts, as well as from talking with other travelers, I have noticed that many people have the idea that there is one “real” or “authentic” way to travel, and try to convince others of the same. A lot of people that I met seemed to labor under the idea that if you aren’t filling a certain set of criteria when you visit a country or city that you might as well have not been there at all. Yet almost all of these people have hilariously different ideas of how that particular way looks.

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What I Learned While Volunteering

Most people who have approached me about my traveling experiences express the most interest in volunteering abroad. Volunteering was one of the most valuable educational experiences I had while traveling, despite the brevity of the work. This post, therefore, is about the lessons I learned while volunteering overseas.

 

CAVEAT

Bear in mind that these observations are drawn solely from my own experiences, and are not to be taken as universally applicable to all volunteering circumstances. These lessons may have differed vastly if I had volunteered elsewhere, or not with refugees headed into Europe. I encourage readers to do their own research and view this as a reflection of a personal experience, instead of a research piece.

 

WHAT I DID

I volunteered twice: at a resource center for asylum seekers in Belgrade, Serbia, and on the Greek island of Kos. As is to be expected, the bulk of the volunteer work I did was with refugees of many nationalities (mostly Syrian) who were headed for Europe. The flux of refugees into Europe from Syria and other conflict zones is not fresh news, but the media attention does not diminish the seriousness of both the conflict in Syria and the humanitarian crisis centered on refugees fleeing to Europe. According to one BBC article, well over a million migrants have entered Europe in 2015 alone. A few additional resources will be included at the end of the post.

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Graffiti near the old town square, Kos, Greece (December 2016)

HOW I STARTED VOLUNTEERING

I happened to meet people in Belgrade who were volunteering, and who inspired me to do the same. My reasoning, at the outset, was that I wanted to understand the implementation of international humanitarian aid provision, after learning its theory for four years while working on a Bachelor’s degree in Peace and Conflict Studies. I had also been traveling for almost a month at that point and kind of eager to do something instead of float about, exhausted, with no agenda.

Next, my reasons:

 

REASONS

I met a lovely woman at my hostel in Belgrade who stated that when working in humanitarian endeavors like aid provision, one must be clear on what one’s reasons for doing so. The reason for this being that in that situation, you are on the high end of an imbalanced power relationship. Through the smallest actions, you can have a potentially huge effect on the wellbeing of those you are trying to help. After this discussion, I thoroughly considered why I had decided to go through with this.

A few years ago an article about negative aspects of volunteering had made the rounds among the social media pages of my friends in the International Studies department. Going into volunteering, that was what I was most concerned with – being helpful and effective, and not just volunteering for my own personal gratification.

So after thinking for a while on my reasons, I came to the following conclusions:

  • The kind of large-scale aid provision was something in which I had a keen interest at university, and I had a good opportunity to not only witness its functions and efficacy but to also gain experience in their implementation through direct participation.
  • I wanted to give something back to humanity for this trip I had the opportunity to take. I was having fun, and it felt wrong to just cavort about and enjoy myself without offering what little assistance I could to people who were suffering. This may be skewed mental arithmetic, but it is what I thought at the time

 

CONCERNS

I was at first very concerned with whether or not my reasons were the “right” reasons for getting involved in aid work. This can be debated without end (and therefore will be dissected in its own post), but I am no longer certain that there are really “right” reasons. I agree more with what my friend told me: that you should know clearly why you are doing this work, and not go in without clear purpose.

My second concern was the fact I could not offer a decently long amount of time to help. What can one do when all you have to give is time, and not even much of it? Most people that I talk to about volunteering ask me about this as well, and my usual response is as follows:

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Rough waters in Kos harbor, Greece (January 2016)

 

FIRST LESSON LEARNED: TIMING & NATURE OF WORK

The timing issue was not a problem in my case, for one main reason. Most people don’t realize that 80% of the work that needed to happen at the time were common tasks that don’t really need a specialized skill set. At very least, they just needed a strong awareness of organization and an ability to follow instructions. Almost all the work I did involved sorting donations and in distributing donated goods. Though the work does not seem particularly urgent at first glance, its importance became quickly undeniable. People need fresh clothing, toiletries, and other supplies, which any organization might have in a storeroom. These things are not helpful, however, to those who need them if they are buried in a messy pile of donated goods and cannot be found quickly, or at all.

This may have been particular to the places where I was volunteering and are therefore not necessarily applicable to other situations or organizations, but it was needed at the time. Blessedly, these tasks did not require a specialized skill set, nor did they need someone who could commit several months.

 

SECOND LESSON LEARNED : ASK FIRST

This lesson is very closely tied to the section above, and is even simpler: ask what people need before making an assumption on what you should do to help. Do they want donations? If so, do they want goods or funds? Do they want someone to come help? Ask whatever organization you’re hoping to work with these questions before you volunteer. Be honest: if you want to volunteer in-person, tell them how long you can stay and what you can do.

Here’s the important part though: do what they say. Respect their needs. The organizations doing this kind of work have a much clearer idea of what needs to and can be done than you do. Let go of your presumption that you’re going to be doing something “heroic” or glamorous. Even if you are doing something you think is “boring,” observe how your job functions in the organization’s machinery. You will quickly see that everything is essential.

If you can only donate goods or money, many organizations are up front about what they need people to give in order to provide their services efficiently. Most will have a helpful FAQ or “How You Can Help” page detailing what kind of donations the organization prefers: here are some examples.

 

IN CONCLUSION

I learned so much from the short time I spent in Belgrade and Kos. I discovered new things about myself, about people, and about humanitarian organizations that I never could have known if I had not volunteered. I know now how terrifically easy it is, in our world today, for one person to make a positive difference, as long as they can let go of preconceived ideas of what “helping” looks like. I didn’t do much, but I am grateful for the experience and glad that I could give contribute.

The people I have met during these experiences, as well, are some of the most resilient, self-assured, and kind human beings I have ever known. I thank them once again for their patience and the lessons they taught me (whether they knew it nor not).

 

RESOURCES

For Those Looking for Ways to Help

 

For Information on Refugees:
  • MercyCorps Writeup on Syrian Refugee Crisis – updated February 2016
  • BBC Chart-based article going over numbers in Refugee crisis (referenced earlier in the post)
  • Guardian article on the recent and controversial EU-Turkey deal concerning Refugees:
  • Rebuttal article from MSF (Doctors Without Borders)

 

Organizations & People I Encountered* in No Particular Order:

 

*by no means inclusive, in Kos especially there were so many organizations in close proximity of each other, and who tended to change every few weeks

 

Have you had valuable experiences volunteering, or pointers for people looking to volunteer effectively? Anything you feel I missed or you want to see talked about? Leave a comment or shoot me a message!!

 

xx Rachel

**featured image is of the waters between Bodrum, Turkey, and the Greek island of Kos. All images taken by the author.

Auschwitz-Birkenau

WARNING: While it does not delve too deeply into the minutiae of the Holocaust, this post does handle a subject that is quite disturbing.

 

Before you read the title of this post and panic, let me explain why I decided to visit the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial Museum. World War II and the Holocaust was a frequent topic in my history classes from seventh grade onward, for a variety of good reasons. As an unintended consequence of this frequent exposure, the events that I was learning about existed only as grainy black and white photos and statistics floating between my textbooks and my memory. It was a faraway concept that had nowhere near the emotional currency it deserves, and I wanted a more tangible understanding of this history from which I now felt distant.

Put shortly, I succeeded in my mission. Visiting the former camp was horrifying. It was a slow-creeping horror, similar to the way one doesn’t notice shadows lengthening until the sun is almost gone.

As a historical refresher, the older portion of the Auschwitz concentration camp (called Auschwitz I) was a converted Polish Army barrack that functioned as a prison camp from 1940 to 1942. From 1942 until the camp’s liberation, Auschwitz’s function transitioned from a prison to the largest of the “death camps” – a facility designed for the mass murder of Jews and others deemed undesirable by the Nazi state. The secondary camp, Birkenau, was built during this period and was the camp complex’s focal area for mass murder . In total, between 1 and 1.5 million people died at Auschwitz-Birkenau camp.

 

Auschwitz I

 

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Auschwitz I, October 2015
As stated before, Auschwitz I is the older of the two camps, and being a former Polish Army barrack, is mostly full of red-brick buildings that look entirely innocuous from the outside. Auschwitz I is where the main offices of the Museum are, and we were obligated to take a guided tour of Auschwitz I. Entry to the museum is technically free, but there is a fee for the tour.

Our tour guide was amazing – she was very knowledgeable about the camp history, though she had to cover an insane amount of material in ninety minutes and at times was speaking so fast I thought she was speaking in Polish. Though being on a budget, I was glad in retrospect that I took the tour – there were so many things that I had not known about that place. Being able to see and walk through these things also was a more profound exercise in understanding the horrible things that happened there.

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Sign on the fence of Auschwitz I, October 2015
That said, it was jarring to be walking around what might otherwise be an inoffensive-looking compound of brick buildings, while every twenty feet the tour guide pointed out places where different atrocities occurred. I am not implying that this was done nonchalantly, but when these things are being objectively described by an informed guide, the sheer scale of human violence becomes abruptly and horrifyingly present in a way it previously wasn’t. Even though it all looked very different than the picture I had constructed in my head from numbers, survivor stories, old photographs, and history lessons, the visit grounded my prior knowledge in the physical experience of the place.

For example, in many of the buildings in Auschwitz I contain physical exhibits that include items confiscated from the detainees. There was a room where seven tons of human hair removed from prisoners was piled high behind a glass wall. To my horror, some of these were braids still intact and tied with ribbons, neatly snipped from someone’s head over seventy years prior. One of the things that I found most disquieting about that room was that I found a clump of hair that was the exact same shade and texture as my own. Photography was prohibited in the hair room for good reasons, but I cannot forget those sights.

 

Birkenau

 

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Memorial in Auschwitz II-Birkenau, October 2015
Birkenau was on a whole separate level from Auschwitz I. It is a few kilometers away from the first camp, but there is a Museum-run shuttle bus that runs between Auschwitz I and Birkenau. You are not required to have a tour guide to look around Birkenau, but we were given the option to continue with our tour guide into Birkenau, which we did. Watching the rebuilt and modern town of Oswiecim pass by on the bus after spending ninety minutes in the well-preserved Auschwitz I was surreal.

Birkenau is not quite so well-preserved as Auschwitz I. It is a massive field, split down the middle by a train track and covered in long, low wooden barrack buildings. Some of these are still standing, but only the foundations of the majority of camp structures remain today. Since many of the buildings are no longer standing, you can see more clearly just how large the camp was.

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Remains of barrack buildings in Birkenau, October 2015
A brief refresher: most individuals who died in the Auschwitz camp died in Birkenau (90% of inmates). Though building began in 1941, in 1942 the main function of the camp was the mass extermination of Jews. The railroad around the camp was extended and diverted to facilitate the unloading of train cars full of people into Birkenau. According to our guide, Birkenau housed the 10-20% of prisoners who were not immediately selected for the gas chambers.

This statistic made the total death figures for the camp and for the entire Holocaust (1-1.5 and 6 million people respectively) suddenly present in a way that they had not been before. I could look out over this vast piece of land and see that this only held a tiny fraction of those who were brought to this place. Having that small fraction physically represented, in my mind, created a horrifying visualization of the sheer mass of people who did not escape the gas chambers. If this huge area held only 10-20%, then how massive was the remaining 80-90%? Understanding those numbers in such a physical way gave a new weight to the hundreds of thousands of people who had been killed. These people had only existed in my mind as a statistic, or an anecdote, or a smaller story in what had seemed like an impossibly large and horrible historical narrative. I hadn’t realized it until then, but I had no metric or sense of scale for what “a million people” looked like. Let alone six million.

 

Here’s something you won’t hear in conversation very often: I’m glad I did go to Auschwitz. I am grateful that the visit gave me a better understanding of the scale of what occurred there, regardless of how uncomfortable the experience was at times. Even with study, I am unsure if I would have gained the same understanding without visiting.

 

Rachel xx

 

Source List

Sources for specific pieces of information (not including facts from our tour guide) are linked directly in the text.

The Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial Museum “History” Page (accessed 4 March 2016) Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum.

 

The Museum’s historical background on Auschwitz II-Birkenau (accessed 4 March 2016).

 

The Museum website’s historical discussion of the Shoah (Holocaust) and the number of victims (accessed 4 March 2016).

 

Visiting Resources

The Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial Museum’s website, and their page on visiting are very helpful if you want to plan a trip. I would recommend reserving a slot for a tour online in advance, otherwise the wait at the museum can be an hour or two (at least).

The Museum has a comprehensive history section as well, including much more information than I provided here.

 

Poland

In early October 2015, I kicked off a three-month journey through Eastern Europe in Warsaw, Poland. Several people expressed surprise and curiosity as to why I was beginning in Poland. I had a few reasons!

  • The airfare from LAX to Warsaw was cheap (thank you, Air Norwegian).
  • Poland seemed like a geographically logical place to kick off a trip through Eastern Europe and Turkey.
  • I realized I had really no idea what modern Poland was like. Poland was existed in my mind as a collage of grainy black-and-white photographs of the Second World War. I decided that it was a good idea to visit Poland, because it was horrifying to realize that was all I really knew about the country.

 

For the benefit of those who may not know that much about Poland, here’s a highly simplified version of Polish geopolitical history: In the modern era, Poland has been frequently partitioned and conquered by other larger European powers. There were several partitions during the 1700s, and independence movements in the 1800s from Russia. From the late 19th century to 1939, Poland stood as an independent country, before being occupied by the Germans in World War II. The country we know as Poland today became independent after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1990. It is a member of the European Union as of 2004.

WARSAW

Statue of a Mermaid in Warsaw, Poland.
Old Town Square, Warsaw. October 2015

First stop in Poland was Warsaw, the capital. Legend goes, according to Warsaw’s Tourist Information Office, is that the city was named after a fisherman and his wife who sheltered a prince. During the surge of development during the interwar years was known as the “Paris of the North.” Finally, the city is known for having a large Jewish Ghetto during the Second World War, whose inhabitants staged an uprising against the Germans. The rest of the city, as well, staged a prolonged general uprising against the occupying German forces in 1944. Today, there is a popular museum in Warsaw commemorating the city’s uprising.

 

 

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Courtyard of the Warsaw Rising Museum, October 2015.

What struck me most about Warsaw was the way the city’s history was reflected and written over repeatedly in the urban landscape of the city. The ultra-modern was jammed right up against a restored older building, which gave the impression that you were never walking in a uniform neighborhood.

It was jarring to suddenly realize that a part of my mind had preserved the image of Warsaw as it appeared in 1944. It was fascinating for me to see these physical places I had associated mentally with some of the most horrifying things to come out of the Second World War had been completely altered.

Let me be clear that I would not expect these places to be enshrined in the same way that the United States and much of Western Europe preserves and decorates its own historical artifacts and buildings. If anything, it was mostly jarring to realize that the imagery and history of the Holocaust had overwritten seventy years of Polish history after WWII, as well as thousands of years of Polish history before WWII, in my own mind.

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Preserved portion of the Warsaw Ghetto Wall, October 2015

Let me also clarify that Warsaw does a very good job of giving its recent history due recognition. Though awkwardly jutted between two apartment blocks, they had preserved and monumentalized a short section of the old Ghetto wall. On a simple walk around the city after an evening out, there were many memorials and monuments related to the Holocaust and WWII. I am not implying that Warsaw is developing while simultaneously erasing these parts of its history. What was most interesting for me about the city was how these places were situated in a modern and historically rich urban landscape that I had not realized existed.

For examples, the Royal Palace and the Old Town in Warsaw are beautifully and painstakingly restored. The more modern parts of the city as well, for example the city center and the areas just below the massive Palace of Culture and Science reflect a vibrant and modern city. In sum, Warsaw is a city that I felt I would have appreciated much more if I knew how to read landscapes more effectively, and had a better grasp of the city’s extended history.

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Old Town Square, Warsaw, October 2015.
Palace of Culture and Science in Warsaw
Palace of Culture and Science, Warsaw. October 2015

After a few days in Warsaw, I took the super-convenient Polskibus South to Krakow.

KRAKOW

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Snowfall in the Old Town, Krakow, October 2015

A little historical background on Krakow: there are records referring to the city dating from the 900s CE, but it was inhabited earlier. After alternating periods of outside control and independence, Krakow sees great development as a cultural center after World War I. During the Second World War, Krakow housed a large and notorious Ghetto, and was also the location of Oskar Schindler’s factory.

On first glance, Krakow is the polar opposite of Warsaw in terms of its urban landscape. Much of Krakow’s old town is carefully preserved and maintained, and ringed with beautiful (and very Victorian-era) parks. I also might be slightly biased, because there was a delicate and atmospheric snowfall when I showed up in early October. I stayed for about six nights, because there are several day trips you can take out of Krakow.

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Krakow Old Town Square, October 2015.

And I did take a few day trips (to be discussed in a separate post). But most of that time was spent wandering around the city and absorbing life in central Krakow. I spent a day climbing the Krakus Mound and wandering through Podgorze, one wandering all over Wawel Castle and Hill complex, all over the Jewish Quarter (Kazimierz), and spent one memorable afternoon getting lost and tumbling into a farmer’s market. The city is very much walkable, and the neighborhoods surrounding the center are well worth a wander.

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Crossing the river on the way to the Krakus Mound, Krakow, October 2015.

Nowadays, Krakow is famous throughout Eastern Europe as a nightlife hub, and this renown is entirely deserved. Notable are several bars specializing in very interesting Polish-brewed beers. But the frankly awesome quality and quantity of vodka is a blessing and well worth exploring during the evenings.

But Krakow taught me that you can learn much more about a place if you dedicate time and patience to finding what it has to offer. Just walking out the door each day and being open to what’s going on around you in the city or town or desert can introduce you to so many things that you would have never otherwise seen.

 

 

 

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House of Beer, Krakow, October 2015

Sources:

(links to the relevant sources are embedded in the body of the post, but here is a list of the sources referenced and access dates)