Coming Soon: Dad, Budapest & Prague

My dad returned home to the States yesterday from a 9-day trip to Europe. He came to Rome, and we also visited Budapest and Prague. I had been to Prague before, but Budapest was a first. It was a great time! It still amazes me how in Europe you can fly a few hours and be transported to a completely different culture, history, and language. I’m going to blog about the trip in a few upcoming posts. For now, here is a picture of me doing my trademark handstand in Budapest’s Heroes Square.

Erica

Auschwitz-Birkenau, Part IV

So, here we go.

I feel like I should coin the acronym IDKWTS – I don’t know what to say… and I don’t…

Ahhh Erica it’s not about YOU and YOUR feelings! Of course it’s not.  But how else are we to “interpret” this horror? Answer: There, of course, is no way. There is no translation in the history of humanity and the history of any language ever uttered on this planet. Because this is not a “human” crime or crimes, is it? …But isn’t it ALSO deeply “human?” And by that I mean, (and I’m NO expert on any mammals or other species), aren’t we the only species to hate because someone’s last name is “Klein” or “Aaronovich?” Aren’t we the only ones that condemn someone for having a Torah portion (bar/bat mitzvah) instead of a first communion? This is nothing new. I am far from the first to say this.

But here are my pictures of Auschwitz II.

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The actual place. That picture we’ve seen so many times. The train tracks…

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I thought this trampled-on rose was “thought-provoking” – in an awful way – to find…

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The ruins of Crematorium II-V from afar:

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For the rest of this post, I can only show pictures and the inadequate words of the signs displayed – in English and Hebrew (on purpose) – sorry I cut off the Hebrew in the second picture.

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Maybe more to come in a future post. Not sure. Not sure what can be said.

Erica

 

Auschwitz-Birkenau, Part III

How is it that I’m on “part 3,” and yet I hardly feel like I’ve begun? Because this is the part that, unsurprisingly, I have always been and still am hit the hardest.

My interest bordering on obsession with the Holocaust, Jews, and Israel began when I was 7 or 8 years old. I was at the school library at Holy Family, my grade and middle school, and the librarian recommended that I try the book “Number the Stars” by Lois Lowry. It’s a story of a Jewish girl escaping Denmark during World War II. If I remember correctly, I had said something to the librarian (Mrs. Hall) like I had “run out of books I want to read” because I was always, always a voracious reader and apparently because I’ve always had a bit of an attitude (haha).

I remember starting it that day and not being able to put it down. I remember that my Dad called me and my sister to dinner, and I went into the bathroom Greta and I shared to wash my hands. I remember literally sitting down on the floor of the bathroom (it was an odd bathroom, with carpet), and having to be called again and again to dinner. (Note: sorry for this next mouthful of a sentence, but I’m not sure how else to put it.):  I remember thinking as an (about) 8-year-old – if I was going to tell someone – namely if I would have told myself a day ago that humans gassed other humans “in bulk” – this is awful, but I thought of Sam’s Club, where you buy bulk products and not “regular size” – if I would have told myself this, I would never have believed it. Except it was true. It was real. If it were a made-up novel, it would be too ridiculous to be real. But it was real.

Even at 8, I remember very “child-like” questions that entered my mind. For example, I wondered that if the Nazis truly believed Jews were “sub-human” like they proclaimed, why would they do experiments on them? Because, I thought, if Jews are not the same, then why would they think experiments on Jews would have the same results on “real” humans? Didn’t the Nazis see the fault in their reasoning if they truly believed this?

So I begin this post with the infamous sign – “stop” both in German and Polish with the skull and crossbones (with a guard tower behind it):

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“Crematorium 1” is mostly preserved in its original condition. It started operation in August 1940 in what was originally an ammunition bunker. The largest room was changed into a gas chamber. There were three furnaces or incinerators for burning bodies. After the Nazis completed Birkenau (also known as Auschwitz II, which I will cover in the next post) in July 1943, the operation of this building ended.

In the rest of this post, I’m going to post mostly pictures because this part of the “experience” was and is not only indescribable but incomprehensible, unimaginable, unfathomable
Note: The “captions” for the pictures are above their corresponding picture.

Crematorium 1:

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Sign/plaque when you walk into the building (English and Hebrew on purpose):

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Actual canisters that contained Zyklon B, a pesticide used for killing people in the gas chambers:

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The gas chamber itself:

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Hole in the ceiling where the Zyklon B was inserted:

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Incinerators:

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Enough seen. Enough said. Never enough seen. Never enough said. 

 

 

And I’ll leave you with a  picture of the fencing containing “Auschwitz I”:

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Erica

Istanbul: Topkapi Palace & the Hagia Sophia

I arrived in Istanbul on December 26, 2018, at about 6:30 p.m. from a flight from Bucharest, Romania. I had flown from Rome to Bucharest and then to Istanbul. (My first time “in” Romania! Yay!)  I got off the plane and waited with a mob of other people to go through passport control. I had my Turkish visa printed and ready…

I stayed in the Fatih area of Istanbul, which is on the European side. I picked the hotel and the area because it’s the neighborhood with famous historical sites such as the Hagia Sophia and Topkapi Palace.

I set up a 2-day guided tour with a company I found suggested on TripAdvisor. I thought it was a small-group tour, but when the guide came to meet me at my hotel in the morning at 9 a.m., I found out the tour was just me and my guide. I almost would have preferred a few other people, but it ended up working out fine.

I love taking guided tours when I first get to the city. I will have already done a lot of reading and research on the history and culture of the place, but I like how I get a broad overview of the city and its important places on a tour. It allows me to familiarize myself with the surroundings and figure out what I want to go back to or see later. I’ve found this is my favorite way to enter a new place, and I’ve done it in many countries around the world. Because I’m such a history buff, it gives me an orientation about the historical and cultural aspects of a place as well, which is one of my favorite parts of traveling.

Our first stop was Topkapi Palace. This is where the sultans lived with about 4,000 of their closest family, friends, children, servants, concubines, eunuchs, and courtiers between the 15th and 19th centuries when it was the court of the Ottoman empire.

Although the palace compound extends around much further, the “museum” opens with the Middle Gate, also known as the Bâbüsselâm or the Gate of Salutation (below). It leads into the palace proper, and with the two towers flanking the gate, it was supposed to serve as a symbol of the pomp and majesty of the Ottoman empire. It has subsequently become an icon for the whole palace.

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Middle Gate, also known as the Bâbüsselâm or the Gate of Salutation

On the upper part of the gate, there is a calligraphic inscription of the Muslim profession of faith: “There is no god but God; Mohammed is the prophet of God.” (below)

Only the sultan was allowed to pass through this gate on horseback. Other state officials such as the grand vizier had to dismount their horses before entering.

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Muslim profession of faith: “There is no god but God; Mohammed is the prophet of God.”

Inside the gate lies the Second Courtyard which includes the Imperial Council Chamber (below), where the Dîvân (Council) made laws, citizens presented petitions, and foreign dignitaries were presented to the court. The sultans were said to have eavesdropped on proceedings through the window with the golden grille.

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Imperial Council Chamber

One of my favorite things about mosques and Islam art is the decoration. In Islam, depictions of the prophet Mohammed and of God are forbidden, so much of their architecture and decoration is mosaic tiles of geometric or floral patterns and fanciful or elaborate script. Here are some examples from Topkapi Palace:

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I explored the rest of the palace grounds, which included palace kitchens, the Imperial Treasury, the harem where the wives and children of the sultan lived, the Marble Terrace, and much more. I could go on with various pictures of buildings, but suffice it to say it was definitely a fascinating glimpse into the lives of the sultans and the Ottoman empire’s ruling class.

My next stop, the Hagia Sophia (Church of Holy Wisdom), is what originally drew me to Istanbul from having studied it in school. I was attracted to it for its historical, religious, and cultural significances. It was commissioned by the Byzantine emperor Justinian, consecrated as a church in 536, converted to a mosque by Mehmet the Conqueror in 1453 (and renamed Aya Sofya), and declared a museum by Atatürk (the founder of modern Turkey) in 1935.

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It’s famous for its mosaics, which the Muslims covered up with plaster when it became a mosque. It was only after being declared a museum that they began to recover some of the mosaics that were hidden after the conversion of the structure. Below are some of my pictures.

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The dome

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Ottoman medallions (below, and seen in the pictures above) are inscribed with the gilt Arabic letters with the names of God (Allah), Mohammed, and the early caliphs Ali and Abu Bakr.

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More to come!

Erica

Istanbul: Coming Soon…

Hello!

Happy New Year and Buon Anno! I’m having trouble downloading all of my Istanbul pictures to my computer, so for now, here are a few of my favorites I’ve been able to download so far.

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  1. I get excited when I get new stamps on my passport. It’s not as “fun” in Europe anymore when you don’t get stamps when you’re anywhere in the EU.

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2. Europe (our left), and Asia (our right)

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3. Not a great picture, but the inside of the Hagia Sophia. It was the place I wanted to see the most in Istanbul because it used to be a church built at “Constantinople” in the 6th century (532–537) under the direction of the Byzantine emperor Justinian I. When the Ottoman Turks conquered Istanbul in 1453 under “Mehmed the Conqueror” they converted it into a mosque (in 3 days!) – not really 3 days, but more to come. They covered the Christian mosaics with plaster (or something – I’m not good with materials). Muslims don’t believe in depictions of Mohammed, God, or holy people, so their mosques are decorated mostly with Arabic script and floral or geometric patterns.
It was changed into a museum in 1935 under Mustafa Atatürk, the founder of the current Turkish republic. He wanted it to be a more secular representation of the country.

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4. One of the mosaics that hasn’t been fully restored.

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5. The Blue Mosque from a window in the Hagia Sophia

That’s all for now. More to come!

Erica

P.S. For those readers who talk to my dad, he has pledged to come (to Europe) in the spring now that he has so much time as a retired person. 🙂 He came to Europe a few years ago when I was living in the south of Italy, and we had a great time in Germany together. Let’s put “pressure” on him to come again!

Auschwitz-Birkenau, Part II

I feel like a broken record saying I have no idea how and what to say in these posts. I often don’t know how to start my writing (exhibit A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, J, K, L, etc.: my graduate school essay that still languishes 75% done but with no beginning or unifying theme), but clearly this is in no way the same. So I’ll again preface this: I cannot hope to come close to what has been written about this place, but I will do my best to share what I saw on that cold Polish November day.

So I obviously left off listing some of the “exhibits” towards the first part of the tour. Sobering and horrifying do the “displays” no justice. They don’t just speak for themselves, they shout in anguish. They scream, as if each pair of shoes, each stolen piece of luggage was determined to tell the story of their owner who never got the chance to. Never in a place of hushed horror have I heard such terrified, yet determined echoes. Really.

In one of the barracks, with its recreated conditions (more about this later), the hallway is lined with photos and “information” about people who never got to leave Auschwitz.

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This hit me hard, to say the least. The faces are like mug shots for “crimes” they committed like being Jewish or an “intellectual.” They wear the uniform “striped pajamas” as a novelist once coined the attire. The eyes. Not one of these people left Auschwitz alive. Not one of these people got to ever experience freedom again outside of the barbed wire fences. (Note: There were just as many pictures of females, I just happened to capture the men).

Sorry for the glare (you can see pictures of women in the “background”), but here are two examples: the first I took because (selfishly) like me and my dad, this man’s “crime” was the audacity of being a lawyer (an “intellectual”).

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This second person doesn’t even need a profession to be a “criminal” – he is a Jew. The black eye he has goes without saying.

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You can’t see it in the picture above, but all Jews had their Star of David stitched into their clothes above their prison number (below).

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The audacity of being born a Jew. How dare they.

Because there is too much for me to begin to write about, I will conclude this post with a sign outside this particular barracks. Only at Auschwitz would this be reduced to a mere sign. I took a picture of both the English and the Hebrew on purpose.

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Erica

Istanbul (not Constantinople), oh… and my Roma

This is a short post because I am excited to tell everyone that I’m going to Istanbul from December 26-30 as a “gift” to myself. Much to my parents’ dismay (Erdoğan, Khashoggi (RIP), among others), it has been on my “list” for a long time because it’s a literal gateway between Europe and Asia. And winter is the “down” season, so prices are much more reasonable. I go with full knowledge of the risks of a country known as a gateway to Syria, a border country to Iraq, a country in conflict with the aspiring “Kurdistan,” and not the most stable government. But travel and history and culture is the love of my life so far (to be vulnerable: hopefully, someday that love of my life will be a guy – who (must) accept that travel will always be my first love!). All I can do is be grateful, thankful, and in awe of the privileges life has bestowed on me in terms of seeing the world. All I can do is be smart, experienced, and cultured in pursuit of what I love – and that is to see the world through my own eyes, with the privileges of the formal education so valued and gifted to me by my parents as well as the the informal education my life’s journey has sometimes unwillingly dragged me through.

As for Christmas day, I will go to St. Peter’s Square for “Urbi et Orbi” Blessing at 12 noon in St Peter’s Square. Not sure what this is, but I want to experience it.

Also, New Year’s is one of my least favorite days/nights of the year. So even though I usually try to fall asleep as early as possible and miss it completely, I won’t miss a chance to see this at one of my favorite places in the world… A version of this scene was the background on my laptop for years. And here I am. Chills.

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So grateful.

Erica

Auschwitz-Birkenau, Part I

As I wrote in my pre-visit post, I have visited this place so many times in my head through books and survivor accounts, documentaries and movies, that I both knew what to expect as in what I would see, but no idea what to expect about how I’d feel seeing it.

Of course, this is and was never about me and my feelings except that I was able to proverbially “bear witness.” This post will be about me, though, in that I can only write through my eyes, education, experiences, and biases. And honesty.

When we arrived at Auschwitz, I got off the mini-bus with 6 or 7 other people. We walked a little way before taking a left and beholding… throngs of people in lines guided by those dividers they have at the airport and Disney World. More on this later. I checked my bag into storage because it was too big according to the guidelines, passed through a metal detector, and was directed back and forth among employees who eventually gave me a headset (but no sticker – I went back to inquire why I didn’t get a sticker) and told me to wait outside for the English tour. I saw people with various colored stickers depending on the language of their tour: Polish, Italian, French, German, English, Spanish, etc., and after about 10 minutes the English tour guide arrived. I had to find her amid a sea of groups forming in different languages with color-coded stickers.

In many ways, I think this is good. The more people that see and are educated by this place, the better. I recently got an update on my phone from CNN that read, “A CNN poll finds anti-Semitic stereotypes are alive and well in Europe, while 1 in 3 people surveyed know “little or nothing” about the Holocaust.” …Impossible for me to believe… except that … it’s real.

I want to stop and say that this is NOT what the majority of my Auschwitz-Birkenau posts will be about, but the atmosphere was something I felt was – I don’t know the word (s) – inauthentic, inappropriate, too much like an “exhibit.” I knew that this was not the “experience” for me, so at times that became more and more frequent throughout the tour, I separated myself from the group and walked alone with my thoughts. More on this later.

Before I begin, the most startling fact that I learned at Auschwitz-Birkenau was that the camp was largely created for the annihilation of Hungarian Jews. For all my reading, watching, and learning, I never knew that Hungarian Jews were specifically targeted. I have never visited Hungary (I hope to soon!), but for certain reasons, Hungarian Jews are always in my mind.

Our tour started outside the visitor’s center, and I saw it immediately: the “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign at the camp’s entrance, with the stark brick buildings in the background on one side, and the black and white mechanical arm posted in front of the entrance. (Note, The “Arbeit Macht Frei,” or “work will set you free” false propaganda/hope originally came from Dachau outside Munich in Germany. My dad and I went there a few years ago and saw the “original.”)

In what would become a familiar “feeling” – I was both buried in the emotions of screeching injustice, horror, and awe at finally standing “here,” and yet I also felt an utter lack of anything except a hollowness, a heaviness, and a hopelessness. There it was. I was here. It wasn’t a movie set or footage from a documentary or pictures from survivors’ accounts.

We walked down the path to the still-surviving barracks. I had “been” there before.

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I knew much of what to expect from the “exhibits” from my lifelong interest bordering on obsession, but as much as I knew, I was in no way prepared. We went through room after room of old barracks that now housed tens of thousands of shoes, family pottery, luggage, and everything else that could be stripped from the Jews and other prisoners when the arrived at the camp.

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There was a room where photographs were forbidden that was filled entirely with hair shorn off of Jews when the entered the camp and then used to insulate Nazi uniforms.

There were original documents kept by the ever-meticulous Germans documenting their plans and intentions.

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There is so much more to say, and I have only begun to scratch the surface. In fact, I’m quite dissatisfied with this post because I feel as if it is a very clinical overview of the first exhibits in the camp, and I don’t want my posts to be like that. In posts to come, I hope I can convey in some way the impact actually seeing this had on me and my reflections. However, I felt I had to in some way “set the stage,” so I guess that’s what I hope this post accomplishes. For now, I will leave you with this:

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Erica

Oggi sono grato per…

Today I am thankful for 31 things (plus many other things like family, friends, health, etc.)…

  1. Rome
  2. Being from a country that can have 4 former presidents from different parties come together to celebrate the passing of one of them
  3. My (American) passport
  4. Airplanes
  5. International travel
  6. The color red
  7. My iPad
  8. Being able to switch SIM cards from America to Italia and still keep the same phone
  9. How amazing I find it that Italians invented an entire language where basically 99% of words end in an a, e, i, or o
  10. Days starting to get longer on December 22
  11. Cobblestone roads
  12. When I get an end seat on the Metro
  13. Hair clips
  14. Having brown eyes
  15. Amazon Prime
  16. Fruit popsicles
  17. The Colosseum
  18. Podcasts
  19. Piazza del Popolo
  20. “Red days” in Italy*
  21. Living near the San Giovanni Metro stop on the A line
  22. Earphones
  23. How Hannah’s newsletter’s “word” today – athenaeum – was the same as my dictionary.com “word of the day” email (definition: a library or reading room)
  24. Spelling my name Erica with a “c” instead of a “k”
  25. Pearl earrings
  26. The Italian word for “witch,” which is “strega”
  27. English grammar, specifically relative clauses
  28. Did I mention Rome?
  29. The Christmas decorations/nativity scene at the Vatican
  30. Every time I see “SPQR” around Rome
  31. The Christmas lights decorating the street outside the school where I teach (see picture)

* “Red days” are what I call (i.e. only Erica Eve Beinlich, this is not what they are known as in Italy) Italian holidays (no work or school) because the day/date on all Italian calendars is in red. Thus, it is easy to spot no work/school holidays in Italy because the dates are universally (or nationally) colored in red, no matter the color scheme of the rest of the calendar. Every Sunday (Domenica) is a “red day,” and then all national holidays, many of which are religious due to the Catholic history of the country. For example, this Saturday is a “red day” for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception/L’Immacolata. It’s a Saturday this year, so most people already don’t have work or school, but if it was on a weekday, work and school would be closed.

Erica