We just returned from ten days touring Helsinki, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland. The weather was incredible - sunny skies, cool breezes, and big puffy clouds in the sky. Except for Helsinki, each city we visited had a Medieval past. The walled "old cities," castles, and hundreds of churches were all so impressive.
We learned a lot about the Soviet Occupation of the Baltic States and of Poland, something I knew very little about. One of the most moving museums we visited was The Museum of Genocide Victims in Vilnius, Lithuania. Housed in the former KGB headquarters, we were able to tour the actual KGB Prison in the basement of the building. It was a prison and a place of torture and terror for 51 years (from 1940 until 1991). We saw the cells (including a padded cell and isolation cell), shredded KGB documents, the guard look room, and the execution room. On the upper floors, the museum chronicled (with writing, pictures, and artifacts) the Soviet Occupation of Lithuania. Pictures inside the actual prison and museum were not allowed. We also visited the Museum of Soviet Occupation of Latvia which was extremely interesting.
As a "vacation" from our vacation, we spent a night and day at the Estonian Baltic Sea Resort in Parnu. We stayed in an old hotel built in the 1930s (during the brief period of Estonian independence sandwiched between the Russian and then the Soviet-Nazi-Soviet occupations). We were the only American tourists there, which made it kind of cool!.
In Poland, we spent a day visiting Auschwitz and Birkenau (Auschwitz II). It happened to be on the 4th of July, which made us all extremely grateful for the freedoms we enjoy daily. The grounds of Auschwitz were originally a Polish Military Base. During their occupation of Poland, the Nazis turned into a work/death camp. It is the third Nazi Concentration Camp we've visited and it was still so hard to see. We saw the room in which the Zyclon-B gas was tested to see if it could be used for mass killings, barracks, and the execution or "death" wall, but the most moving exhibit, to me, was the collection of the belongings of the people sent to Auschwitz. There were cases of eye glasses, dishes, personalized suitcases, hair, and shoes. There were even cases of baby clothes and of children's shoes. It was so difficult to hold Harper in our arms and stare at those shoes, just thinking of all the children, just like Harper, to whom those shoes belonged. We finished the visit at Birkenau. The Nazis built Birkenau as primarily a death camp. It was built to hold up to 200,000 prisoners. Some of the original buildings are still there. We saw the wash and toilet room and one set of barracks. The crematoriums were burnt to the ground by the Nazis near the end of WWII, and the museum as left the ruins of them as they were. We walked past the infamous dividing platform where a doctor stood as the people exited the train cars and pointed to the left or the right. If the doctor thought the person was fit to work, he was sent to the barracks. If the doctor did not judge the person fit to work (i.e. elderly, pregnant women, and children), he was sent immediately to be killed. We saw the Holocaust Memorial and the plaques written in every language spoken by the prisoners. Even though it was a difficult place to visit, I'm thankful that we did. Ellie Wiesel said, "for the dead and the living, we must bear witness."
We ended the trip touring the Old City in Krakow Poland. We stayed in this very nice hotel (thank you Graham and Cathy!) overlooking the Main Market Square. We could open the windows and hear the bell tower each hour and even the live trumpeter who, every hour, plays to commemorate the trumpeter who lost his life playing from that very tower warning the Krakow citizens of the Tatar invasion.
It was an incredible trip!