First off, I apologize for taking so long to write another post on here. I coordinated my group’s Christmas plans before we left and with booking trains, planes, and hotels, it was very busy. We had an excellent break, but it’s good to be back at our home away from home.
My travel buddies were both first year men: Jordan Dosch and Andrew Burns. We left on the 20th of December as soon as classes were over and flew to Berlin. We were only in Berlin for 1 night, so we didn’t see much when we were there. We took a train from there to Dresden, Germany. This is where we met up with some family friends of mine, Jerome & Werner. My parents ran into them at the Lone Tree Bar of Faith, SD and gave them the full tour of my hometown and the surrounding area. They really enjoy the old west and come over every other summer to tour through cowboy and indian history. They have come to visit our family every other summer now for 10 years. Our group spent 4 days in Dresden with Jerome and Werner. We strolled through the Christmas markets, learned the history of the town, and had authentic German food and beer that really warmed the soul. We even got a little taste of home when Werner showed us around his home and ranch! Werner loves his westerns, so we had whiskey and cigars in cowboy shack behind his house that had many skulls and furs mounted on the wall. He even had a cowboy “man cave” in the top floor of his house. He showed us pictures of SD and we had some bourbon from the States. After that, he took us out to a generator house that he turned into a cabin style house with a fireplace and everything. Werner is quite the character.
Werner, myself, and Jerome
Andrew Burns, myself, Jerome Hotzel, & Jordan Dosch
Now Jerome is a few years older than us and is a police officer in Dresden. He mainly showed us around town and filled us in on a lot of the history of the town. Dresden was the home of the kings of old and is referred to as “Germany’s Jewel-Box.” It was almost entirely destroyed during WWII, but was rebuilt from the ashes afterwards. The churches, castles, and museums were incredible. Jerome also took us through the Christmas markets a few times. These markets had hot wine, homemade toys, brats, and many other items.
Zwinger Palace in Dresden
On Christmas Eve, we said goodbye to Werner and headed for Jerome’s hometown of Bautzen, Germany. After a brief drive on the Autobahn, we arrived in Bautzen. You can probably imagine why the drive was short. 1. There’s no speed limit. 2. Jerome is crazy.
We had a great Christmas with Jerome’s parents and grandma. Even though we had a language barrier, we had a great time with them. Jerome and his grandma took us to their Lutheran service on Christmas eve and then we went to the Christmas Mass at a convent the next day. The churches were both beautiful. We opened all of the gifts on Christmas Eve! Jerome’s family was very generous to us. They fed us great food, took us out for bowling and beer, and even gave us Christmas gifts. We brought them some Italian wine and Swiss chocolate. It seemed like a good idea until one of the bottles broke somewhere in flight and covered the rest of the bottles and chocolate with a nice red, vinegar-y smell. (That’s a whole nother story.) Jerome even dressed up as St. Nick and handed out gifts from a sack! It was a great place to rejoice in our Savior’s coming! After 3 days, we left Bautzen with high spirits. We can’t thank our German friends enough for the incredible Christmas we had. Bautzen is definitely a home away from home now. Jerome is quite the guy.
After Bautzen, we hopped a train to Krakow. Firstly, Poland is very Catholic. We were a 5 minute walk from St. Mary’s Basilica in Krakow’s main square. They had daily Mass there 15 times a day! The Church was beautiful and there was all day Eucharistic Adoration and confession. We went one a few city tours to see JPII’s seminary and university, the Jewish Quarters, the Wawel Castle & Cathedral, and Schindler’s factory. We took an audio tour of the Wawel Castle and catacombs in which we heard all about the old kings and queens. Poland has such an awesome history of kings, castles, and battles! There’s even a bronze dragon that spouts fire every hour because of a polish legend about a dragon that kidnapped the princess.
Krakow City Square
Then we came to Poland’s more recent history: The Holocaust. On our way to Auschwitz, we saw a brief documentary on the bus. As soon as we walked into the gate of what’s called Auschwitz 1, the entire mood of the group changed. Everyone’s eyes were averted and it was dead silent. Auschwitz 1 was more of a work camp than a death camp, which I will explain shortly. There were electrified fences and large brick buildings that housed the workers at the time. This is where most of the museums are where they had all of the collected shoes, luggage, etc., of the people who came into the camps. It also explains much of the history. A great moment on this tour was when we saw the cell that St. Maximilian Kolbe was killed in. In case you don’t know the story, he was a Catholic priest in the camp who volunteered his life in place of a another prisoner who was going to be executed. He and 9 others were put into a cell to starve to death. After praying and singing with all of them as they died one by one, he lived for another 2 weeks without food or water until they executed him by lethal injection. The man he stepped in for made it out and was reunited with his family. He died in 1995. We were able to walk by the actual cell where there was an icon and a candle lit. Please look up the full story; it’s incredible.
Tracks coming into Auschwitz 2 (Birkenau)
After Auschwitz 1, we went to Auschwitz 2, or “Birkenau.” This was the hardest part of the tour. I’d seen movies about the concentration camps, but I’d never realized the “efficiency” of these camps. This was the death camp. Auschwitz 1 was made for housing workers. Many people died of hunger and execution, but this was different. If you didn’t know what it was, you might guess that it was a feedlot or slaughterhouse at first glance. In the middle were the tracks where the trains would come in and unload passengers. When the passengers got off, they got in a line where they received a hand motion, right or left, that decided their fate. If he pointed left, you were going to be a worker in one of the camps. If you pointed right, you were immediately going to execution. I don’t know how to explain it, but the layout of the buildings, trails, fences, etc., was the most disturbing. This was no accident or coincidence, this was simply a place designed to kill as many people as possible and dispose of them as fast as possible.
I won’t go on about the tour in case you want to go someday. Our tour guide was polish and his great-grandfather worked in Auschwitz 1. He told us that every person in the world should visit this place at least once. The feelings you have during and after the tour are summed up perfectly by the monument that is erected between the gas chambers:
The day after this very sobering tour, we went to the John Paul II museum, his hometown of Wadowice, and a few different churches that he loved. After hearing about such death and despair, it was great to learn about the great man that was Karol Wojtyla. There were so many family, economic, and political problems that he endured in Poland that to explain them would take far too long. In short, he lost his mother and brother when he was very young and went to seminary during the communist occupation. He was a man so full of hope and joy! I can’t wait to see his canonization in the coming spring. He is held up as a hero by not only Poland, but by the whole Christian community. The Polish people still refer to him as “Our Pope.” His influence in the country is very strong and has been a big help in keeping the country as Catholic as it is.
John Paul II’s home parish
Young Bishop Karol Wojtyla
I was very blessed on this trip with R&R, good travel companions, and new friendships. I can’t wait to visit these places again someday. My first Christmas away from home was difficult, but I was able to spend the time with close friends. I was even able to Skype with my family on my brother’s birthday on December 28th. I was able to introduce them to my travel partners and show my friends that Uncle Newt guy that I always tell stories about. To my family and friends back at home, I miss all of you and hope that you had a blessed Christmas and Happy New Year! Hopefully it will not be so long until I write again! Happy Holidays!