27 January 2010

currently feeling: hopeful

Sixty-five years ago today soldiers of the 60th Army of the First Ukranian Front arrived at the gates of Auschwitz Concentration Camp to liberate the captives. And so in honor of the aching beauty of today, I thought I'd share my Auschwitz story with you. (I went to Prague before Auschwitz, but we'll come back to that later.)

When the Red Army began approaching, the Nazis got nervous and moved about 65,000 of the prisoners held at Auschwitz farther into the Reich. In the months preceding the liberation the Nazis began destroying many of the crematoria and trying to hide the rubble and burn the records. A week before the army arrived they evacuated another 2,000 prisoners by train and 59,000 by forced march. Nine to fifteen thousand of the prisoners died in these death marches, many in mass executions committed along the way. They left behind 9,000 in the camp to be executed, but 7,000 survived until the 26th, when the liberators arrived at the camp. I went to Auschwitz in December and despite my warm clothes, it was freezing. I can't imagine what it was like for those prisoners in January 1945. This is what the army saw when they arrived:

Pulling the story up to 2009, I arrived in the tiny train station at Oswiecim, Poland at 4:30 am. No one in the station spoke English. Darn. However, three Mexican students and a woman from Kazakhstan had gotten off the train as well and thankfully all spoke English and wanted to go to Auschwitz too. The woman from Kazakhstan, Aselya, and I started talking and became instant friends. Aselya deserves a whole story to herself, but let me just give you a glimpse of her.

Aselya Zelenina is from Kazakhstan. But she does not speak Kazakh, only Russian. And English (really really really really well). She is 26, I think. She is married to a guy from Kazakhstan who's ethnically Russian. She has traveled all over the world, some for her business job, but I think some just because her family and/or husband must have money. She is really sweet and confident and well-educated. She is worried about her country. Kazakhstan is increasingly coming under the influence of Iran, which has many dangerous implications, one of which is an increasing anti-Semitism (and anti-Americanism), including disregard for and even disbelief in the Holocaust (thank you Mahmoud Ahmadinejad). So Aselya is working on creating an informative web site about the Holocaust in Kazakh and Russian. She has hired a designer, her mom is helping her translate the Kazakh part, and she was going to Auschwitz to collect content and photos for the site. I admire the fact that she decided to actually do something about the problems that she saw; I admire that a lot.

Anyway, back to the story. We waited in the train station until it was light outside and then tried to navigate our way through town and out to the concentration camp based on a map I'd printed off Google back in the U.K. We made it and Aselya and I went on the incredible tour together with an English guide.

The summary of the day: everything you'd imagine visiting a death camp to be, but ten times more intense than you could have ever imagined. Visiting a concentration camp truly is something that everyone should do if they ever have the tiniest opportunity. It's heavy and aching and insane, but it's right to remember. My friend Luke reminded me that it is written in Ecclesiastes "It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting... the heart of the wise is in the house of mourning."

A concentration camp doesn't feel like a place to take photographs. But I needed to remember. And I want you to be able to see in case you don't ever have a chance to go yourself.

This is the famous entrance to Auschwitz. Everyone's seen it in their history textbook. But it's real. And it's about the most twisted and grotesque motto you could imagine. Arbeit macht frei. Work makes you free.

Some of these brick buildings were used as dormitories, some as jails, some for medical experiments, and so on.

This is a courtyard of death between two buildings. Men and women were led out, lined up against the wall, and systematically shot. Their bodies were then dragged to a pile in the corner and the next round of people were marched out.

This is the gas chamber. You can see the crematorium smokestack rising from the top. This particular gas chamber was only used for one year, but in that year 60,000 people were killed in it. It is a haunting dark cellar into which thousands of people walked and from which they never emerged except as smoke.

Three kilometers from Auschwitz I is Auschwitz-Birkenau, which was built as a massive, efficient death center when the Nazis wanted more killing capacity than they could get at Auschwitz I. And it was certainly efficient. More than 20,000 people could be killed and cremated here every day. Every day. A set of train tracks enters Auschwitz-Birkenau at the front gates and continues all the way to the end of the camp, where the gas chambers and crematoria were located so that the cars that brought prisoners in, just like this one, could more efficiently transport them straight to the death chambers.

When the prisoner were brought into the camp, they were first sorted. About three fourths of them were sent immediately to the gas chambers. The other fourth that remained were those deemed fit for work, and they lived here at Auschwitz-Birkenau and watched the trains come in and the smoke pour from the crematoria, knowing that as soon as they became too weak to work they would join those sent to their deaths. The workers lived in rows of cabins lined up in the vast field that is Auschwitz-Birkenau. These are some of the bunks in one of the women's cabins. Four to five women would be crammed into each bunk.

No one really knows how many people died here. Records were destroyed, and families and entire communities were taken, leaving no one to remember. Estimates range from one to five million people. Which means that up to four million people were so effectively exterminated that not even a name remains.

The beginning of the memorial plaque at Birkenau reads: "Forever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity..."

But liberation came. And because of this, I have a shred of hope. That one day hatred, death, and brokenness will no longer have power. That we will be rescued. That this too will be made right.

"It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of every man; the living should take this to heart." Ecclesiastes 7:2

26 January 2010


Two weeks ago it snowed in my beautiful city. About 6-8 inches, but that's special for Oxford. My neighbor Hannah said it was the most snow she can remember seeing. It was g l o r i o u s.

I feel like a dwarf should have come striding out of this house.

Some unidentified fiend constructed this five-foot diameter ball of snow right in front of our driveway before any of us woke up. Props to him or her for serious early morning action.

I walked through the Parks on my way to college and obviously everyone under the age of 20 had gotten off school:

Everyone in town got into the snowman spirit! I saw two guys in a pickup truck cruising around town with a five- or six-foot snowman in the back of their truck. Somebody else built eight snowmen on the steps of the Martyrs' Memorial. And this chap was in front of Greens Cafe:

My neighbors and I were totally into the snowman building spirit. Until we realized our snowman skillz were weaker than we thought. Our snowman ended up being a snow tower, but it was a victory nonetheless because we got it taller than the boys! :)

Here are Andy and Hannah, who along with Rowena and Andrew, assisted me in this architectural masterpiece:

Oh, and unlike Narnia, this winter did have a Christmas. And I was present for it. I stayed here in Europe instead of going home, so my Christmas day involved lots of cooking, lots of eating, and lots of movies with my sweet friends Karen and Rebekah.

This is the Christmas extravaganza box of joy I got from my family:

And some of the delightful contents:

Domestic goddess whipping up something yummy:

I am absurdly skilled at grating cheese:

Oh golly gosh they are c-ute!

"God's voice thunders in marvelous ways; he does great things beyond our understanding. He says to the snow, 'Fall on the earth,' and to the rain shower, 'Be a mighty downpour.'" Job 37:5-6

21 January 2010

how lucky am i

I get to talk to this beautiful girl on Sunday:

And in three and a half weeks, this special person will be at my house, in my actual physical presence. I can NOT wait. She has been like an older sister to me (As if I don't have enough sisters already!) and my joy is rich because she shares in God's grace with me.

Yep, I am a lucky lucky girl.

"If one falls down, his friend can help him up. But pity the man who falls and has no one to help him up!" Ecclesiastes 4:10

20 January 2010

the british language part three

living out=living off campus
in college=on campus
sorted=worked out/organized/settled
reading=majoring in
jumper=general category encompassing sweatshirts, hoodies, sweaters, jackets, etc.
literally=we might use seriously. they really don't mean literally at all.
trackie bums=sweatpants
lad="a man who is boisterously macho in his behavior or actions, especially one who is interested in sexual conquest"
laddish=acts like a lad
stroppy=pouty, having a bad attitude
mash=mashed potatoes
mess you around=mess with you
nail varnish=nail polish

"The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard. Their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world." Psalm 19:1-4a

18 January 2010

this is brno

Brno is in the eastern half of the country, known as Moravia (Prague is in the other half, Bohemia). It is the second largest city in the Czech Republic, after Prague of course, and is absolutely enchanting. Stunning architecture, delightful Christmas markets, beautiful kind people, and an almost complete lack of tourists. It was incredible and I loved it. I actually enjoyed it far more than Prague, but that's another story for another post.

Let's start at the very beginning ("a very good place to start..."). Luke and I flew into Brno Wednesday evening, and although he likes to joke about women empowerment, he did a good job not taking it too far (a pleasant surprise, Christine Capp) and making sure I didn't get lost, kidnapped, or murdered my first night in a foreign country. I hung out at his dorm for a couple hours, and after he got back from his evening class we found my hostel and I checked in.
That last sentence makes it sounds so simple.
When I arrived, I discovered that the hostel was located over a club/bar, so I had to maneuver my way through the dark, noisy, packed, smokey masses to find the check-in desk. When a guy finally showed up at the desk (really just the corner of the bar), he was nice enough, but when he showed me to my room, the trip there was like something out of a horror movie. The pictures don't quite do it justice, especially since I took them in the daylight later. First he unlocked a large iron gate,

then pulled open a big, creaky, wooden door as the gate slammed behind us. I followed him up two flights of dark stone stairs, past seemingly abandoned rooms to another large iron door, significantly creepier than the first,

up some more stairs, down a hallway, and through the third locked door into my empty room. After he left and I locked the door behind him, I decided that having a room to myself was an unexpected bonus, and that Travis Bradburn would have approved of the fact that he made me unlock all the doors myself so that I would remember which key was for which. :) So overall, despite the creepiness, my second ever hostel experience was positive.

The next afternoon I walked in and met Luke at The Red Brick Church. Seriously, that's what everyone calls it, even the Czech people.

Luke spent the semester studying at Masaryk University:

It is named for T.G. Masaryk, the founder and first president of Czechoslovakia, who is nearly a legend to the Czech people.

We walked around for a while, but he had a lot of work to do since he had been gone visiting for a week and was almost at the end of his semester, so I explored most of the city by myself. I hate traveling by myself at night, but during the day, it's great. You can go anywhere you want, be as nerdy as you like, meander everywhere, all without having to worry about entertaining anyone else.

There are some extravagantly lovely churches in Brno. The St. James' Church (Kostel Sv. Jakuba):


And walking back out onto the street:

The Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul (Katedrála Sv. Petra a Pavla), which is on the 10 Kč coin, is up on a hill in the middle of town, with magnificent architecture and perhaps the most stunning stained glass I have ever seen (no pictures allowed inside, sorry):

And as viewed from Hrad Špilberk:

Hrad Špilberk is the castle of Brno. It was built in the mid-13th century and has served as royal residence, military fortress, army barracks, and infamous prison for everyone from French revolutionaries to Hungarian Jacobins to Italian patriots to Polish insurrectionists to Czech opponents of the Nazi regime. An ugly history, but a majestic structure:

The castle has intense fortifications,

and a stunning view.

Thursday night Luke took me to his English Christian Fellowship and I met some beautiful Czech Christians who were so kind and had incredible English and became instant friends. I went on an adventure with them Friday night and we climbed The Old Town Hall (Stara Radnice), which was the seat of the local government from the 1200s until 1935.

The front portal has these sweet famous crooked spires about the origins of which there are all kinds of legends:

We also roamed the Christmas markets and went out for traditional Czech food afterwards. Oh, the Christmas markets. The ones in Brno are freaking awesome. Maybe my favorite part. I'm pretty sure no one in Brno works the entire month of December. They just all pack into the city square to leisurely wander around the Christmas market booths, meet friends, drink hot mead with honey, and eat every ridiculous Czech carnival snack you can imagine. It's so fun.

The last day I was there, I walked all the way out to the western edge of the town, where the city is hemmed in by forrested hills as if to hide it from the rest of the world. Staring up at the hills, my imagination began to fly: "Wouldn't it be sweet to go for a hike in the forests of Moravia?" And so I started climbing. I hiked all the way up, picking my way through silent wintery woods until I reached the summit of the nearest hill. It was so beautiful and so peaceful. And so satisfying.

The charm of Brno is beyond what I can describe. There are so many other wonderful things there (the Alfons Mucha museum, the theater, the streets themselves...), but I'll just leave you with a few more pictures in hopes that I can somehow give you a glimpse of the beauty:

" Your father's blessings are greater than the blessings of the ancient mountains, than the bounty of the age-old hills. Let all these rest on the head of Joseph, on the brow of the prince among his brothers." Genesis 49:26