The Democratic Convention

September 2nd, 2008

 We went to Denver for the Democratic Convention, which proved to be the best, and the worst, of times.

Denver Democratic Convention, 2008 046 The highlight was, not surprisingly, Thursday night at Mile High Stadium/Invesco Field.  The atmosphere was electric, and we got there early enough to see the 80,000 seat capacity stadium fill up with attentive and enthusiastic supporters.  Barack Obama’s speech lasted some 45 minutes, but in person it felt like just ten minutes.  My children were seated on either side of me, and they asked lots of questions, and seemed captivated as well. 

What was so impressive about Obama’s speech was that he managed to lay out the case against John McCain (something some were concerned he wouldn’t do) without being personal.  And he did a great job of describing some specifics of what his administration would focus on and achieve.  But most of all, he did an amazing job of addressing a crowd of 80,000 and another 38 million watching on television in a way that seemed personal and connected.  He is, without question, a once-in-a-generation speaker, and is now doing a great job of articulating how his values and vision will translate into governance.

Denver Democratic Convention, 2008 042 Our time in Invesco was pure magic, and we will all be forever glad that we were there in person to witness history.  It was such a great experience, and I have no regrets about going there.  And I’m thrilled that my children could witness history first hand, and hope this will be an experience they can tell their children and grandchildren about.  But as for the rest of our time there . . .

Denver Democratic Convention, 2008 015 We had some personal commitments and couldn’t head to Denver until Wednesday.  We spent most of the day Wednesday there and the full day Thursday.  After arriving on Wednesday we were excited to go to the Pepsi Center (home of Denver’s professional basketball team) for an evening featuring Bill Clinton and Joe Biden.  We took a cab there, or so we thought, but traffic was at a standstill.  So we got out early and walked the rest of the way.  After about a 30 minute walk (much of which was navigating through security and to the arena), we got to the security checkpoint (very tight security everywhere) and eventually entered the arena, not at all prepared for the scene inside. 

Denver Democratic Convention, 2008 005 The Convention Center was jammed to capacity and then some.  Our passes said “Honored Guests” but that didn’t move the needle.  After an hour or so trying to get into the viewing area, we faced reality , gave up, and headed back to the hotel.  Easier said than done.  We walked quite a distance to get to the shuttle buses, only to learn that they wouldn’t start running for another hour!?!?  So we retraced our steps (about a half mile each way) to get back to where we started, only to walk back to the hotel (about a 45 minute walk), arriving just in time to see the last five minutes of Biden’s speech on television.  Ouch!!  This wasn’t exactly what we were hoping for by flying to Denver.

We re-grouped, determined not to make the same mistake twice.  Thursday would be better, if for no other reason than it couldn’t be much worse.

Denver Democratic Convention, 2008 035 I went to a National Finance Committee meeting Thursday morning and got a chance to hear Michelle Obama (always so impressive) and Joe Biden.  It was the first time I’d heard him, and he’s an impassioned public speaker.  I was mildly positive about the initial choice of Biden (my preferred VP was Chuck Hagel), but he’s grown on me, and seems to be stepping into the role confidently and effectively.

Iowa 074 We then had a chance to view a preview of a documentary being filmed on Barack Obama’s implausible run for President.  Two women had heard about Obama in 2004 and decided to follow him in the event he decided to run for President.  They’ve been tracking him since the very beginning, and have over 500 hours of footage already.  We got a chance to see the segment on Iowa.  I was there for the caucus, and these film-makers got it exactly right.  I can’t wait to see the film when it’s released (due sometime in 2009).

Denver Democratic Convention, 2008 016On a gorgeous Thursday, we headed to Mile High Stadium (home of the Denver Broncos football team).  Early.  Very early.  We passed through some very tight security and found our way to unreserved seats at about 2:00 p.m., a mere SIX hours before Barack Obama would begin speaking!!  After missing everything on Wednesday, we left nothing to chance, even though it meant we were some of the first people in the stadium.

Denver Democratic Convention, 2008 011 On the way in, we saw a very remote area designated for protesters.  The fence was quite high, and it was actually hard to figure out what their concern or cause was.  In general, we came to Denver expecting to see lots of discord.  But there was almost no evidence of unrest, and we were struck by the widespread level of harmony and fellowship.

Denver Democratic Convention, 2008 029The schedule began at 3:00 p.m., and contained a bit of everything — entertainment, comedy, some moving speeches, some great musical performances, and some pretty dull speeches.   Highlights were Sheryl Crow and Stevie Wonder, Al Gore’s speech where he noted that he knew a bit about close elections, andDenver Democratic Convention, 2008 032 six “everyday Americans” who shared their experiences in a very  moving and passionate way.  The one I’ll always remember is a gentleman named Barney Smith from Indiana, who had lost his job and was having a rough time with health insurance.  He concluded his remarks by saying, “I want a President who cares more about Barney Smith than Smith Barney.”

Denver Democratic Convention, 2008 038 Our seats ended up being about ten rows in front of where Hillary Clinton was sitting.  I wasn’t in Denver to see her speech on Tuesday night, but was impressed with how graceful and supportive she was during the convention.  Having come so close, it’s inevitable that she would have very mixed feelings about the outcome, but she seemed radiant as she took in the proceedings, and gracious when her presence was recognized. 

After Barack’s great speech, we returned to the torture zone.  Getting back from Invesco was challenging beyond belief, and we patched together a miserable combination of waiting, walking, taking the light rail (crammed beyone belief) and a shuttle bus (even more crammed).  It took an hour and a half to get back.

We left on Friday morning, but not before another highlight.  I went down early to buy a newspaper and a cup of coffee and ended up in line behind Tom Brokaw.  We talked a bit about the convention and the chaos in security and logistics.  He’s such a wonderful person, and I’ve often thought how great it would be to have him in office.

Friday’s other noteworthy event was learning of McCain’s choice for Vice President.  If his goal was to shift media attention from Obama’s great speech to the Republicans, he accomplished that.  If his goal was to manage a thorough and careful process to pick an outstanding running mate, he botched it beyond belief.  I work with tiny little start-ups and if a CEO ever told me, “I’ve just hired a VP that I’ve heard really good things about and met once for fifteen minutes,” I’d fire the CEO on the spot.  But somehow John McCain can completely fail to do his homework for his most important pre-election decision, and then blow his stack when reporters question his judgment. 

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Thank You!

August 22nd, 2008

We have many people to thank for their help during this most unusual year in our lives.  Without this help, we couldn’t have pulled this off, let alone had such a great and successful year.

The original inspiration for this trip came from Dick and Patty Simon, who took their family around the world over a decade ago, and generously shared with us their experiences and perspectives.  Also, many, many others were happy to take time to provide us with advice and suggestions about places they’ve traveled.  The only way we can possibly repay such kindness is to do the same for anyone who approaches us.

Long-time family friend Kristie Jochmann, now living in Milwaukee, did so much to help us on our trip.  She managed all sorts of logistical things for us during our travels.  And she worked tirelessly to make our baseball efforts a big success — finding teams to meet, setting up the meetings, and making sure the hats and equipment we were donating made it to the recipients.  The challenges of working with customs officials throughout the world are enormous, and Kristie made everything happen flawlessly.

We could not have made this trip without the great assistance of Jacqui McCoy, Kate Bragg, Jayne Casey, and Maria Cella of Paul-McCoy Family Office Services.  Historically, they have handled all sorts of tax and financial issues for us, but went above and beyond during our year abroad.

Our travel planners, Samantha (Sam) McClure and Maggie Harshbarger of Small World Travel in Austin, Texas, took on the challenge of planning out this trip with very little lead time.  They worked tirelessly to put together our itinerary, and let us focus on our travels, instead of trying to pull together all sorts of complicated logistics from the road (generally from a third-world country).  While there were some bumps in the proverbial road during this trip, we really appreciate everything that SWT did for us.   This amazing experience would not have been possible without them.

We loved working on our blogs and website as we traveled.  We couldn’t have pulled that off without great technical help from David Cancel, Andy Payne, and Julia Holland.  Julia runs a small consulting firm in California (Blue Penguin Consulting) and really took care of so many things on the fly.  We’ll have a lasting cyber-memory of our trip, and couldn’t have possibly pulled all of this together without such great help.

All of our family members, especially our mothers, were so supportive during our travels.  Not seeing grandchildren for most of a year is not the easiest thing to be enthusiastic about, but they were so excited for us and our adventure, which made the trip a joy.  And special thanks to the Yandow’s for taking care of our fifth family member, our dog Scallop, who couldn’t make the trip with us, but had a great home in Needham for the past ten months!

Finally, we want to thank the many thousands of people we met along the way.  People everywhere were just incredibly kind and enthusiastic, and helped enrich our trip in so many ways.   It was a great privilege for us to learn so much about the lives of people throughout our great world, and we thank the people who shared so much with us.

And, now that we’re back, we will thank in advance everyone who will help us with re-entry to a normal life.  We suspect we won’t adjust all that readily to it, but our family and friends here mean so much to us, and we hope they’ll be tolerant of this wayward family returning to life in the U.S.

Fenway Park!

August 22nd, 2008

On a memorable Saturday night, August 16th, we were fortunate enough to be a part of the Boston Red Sox pre-game ceremonies at Fenway Park.  We had kept the Red Sox up to date on our around-the-world trip, particularly the baseball aspect.  And they had helped us initially with a set of overseas contacts that we pursued to find the right groups to meet with.

Summer, 2008 439 We were lucky in that the night before’s game was rained out.  Our game had one brief shower around the third inning, but otherwise had gorgeous weather.  We got there early, and were able to go down on the field to watch batting practice.  Gibson got Vernon Wells’ autograph, and we got great looks at many of the players, including David Ortiz.  And I for one was relieved to go to Fenway without the prospect of watching Manny Ramirez, and loved watching Jason Bay.

Summer, 2008 461 Before the game, they put a few of the photographs from our trip up on the scoreboard.  I’m not sure how many of the fans knew what the context was, but it was exciting for us to see some of the kids we had given hats and equipment to featured at Fenway Park.   I wish that the many kids we had met along the way could have been there to see their own photos in an American baseball park.

Summer, 2008 465 The highlight of the night for us was having Gibson throw out the first pitch.  They gave him the choice of throwing from in front of the mound, or throwing from the regulation location.  He opted to throw from where the pro baseball players pitch.  The first pitch took place just a couple of minutes before the start of the game, so the park was almost at capacity.  And with more than 30,000 people looking on, Gibson wound up and threw a strike from the same mound where many great pitchers over the year have stared down at batters.  He left the field beaming, and it was a great moment for all of us.

Copy of IMG_2296[2] I got several e-mails during the game from friends who were at Fenway that night by coincidence and had watched the pre-game ceremony.  One came from Ross Garber, who was at the game with his son.  Ross lives in Austin, Texas, and I first met him when I invested in his company, Vignette, about ten years ago.  Vignette went on to be a big success, and Ross and I have stayed in good contact ever since.  He had tracked us on our trip, and it was great to have him at the game.  And they were sitting right on top of the Green Monster, and he was able to get this great picture of Gibson throwing out the first pitch.  Minutes later, Ross caught a home run hit by Alex Rios, so Ross had a great visit to Fenway.

Summer, 2008 468 The night at Fenway was a complete thrill for the four of us, and a great way to end the baseball phase of our trip around the world.  We thank the Red Sox organization for their enthusiasm for what we did, and we especially thank our contact, Adam Grossman, for his interest in our initiative, and his being kind enough to arrange for us to be part of August 16′s pre-game ceremonies.

Check out a video of Gibson’s first pitch or our Fenway Park picture album.


June 20th, 2008

IMG_1662And just like that, it was over.  We hopped on a plane in London’s Heathrow, had an uneventful flight to Logan, and touched ground again in New England, more or less exactly where we left from ten months ago.  In some ways not that much had changed.  Same four people, same eight suitcases.  To the right above, we have the before photo, and below right the “after” photo.

North America on Big Trip 001In other respects, a lot had changed.  During this ten month journey, we did the following:

  • Continents: 7
  • Countries: 37
  • Airplane trips: 99
  • Lost luggage 0
  • Late flights 2
  • Air miles: 103,128
  • Places stayed: 112
  • Items stolen 0
  • Bird species: 1204
  • Mammal species: 166
  • Reptiles and Amphibians: 175
  • Red Sox hats given away: 760
  • Continents in which Gibson lost a tooth: 5

North America on Big Trip 007 Once on the ground, we headed out the Needham, MA, to the home of Elizabeth’s cousin Julie Hazard Yandow.  The Yandow’s were kind enough to take care of our dog Scallop during our time abroad, and gave Scallop a fabulous and loving home.  We were a bit worried that our dog wouldn’t recognize us, but she seemed to still know who we were.  Anyway, we are most grateful for the Yandow’s for taking care of Scallop, since we could have never left without being sure she was in great hands.  And Scallop will get to see her second family from time to time this summer in Rhode Island, which she very much looks forward to!

So we’re now back in Jamestown, Rhode Island, and are catching up with our friends and family.  We got back in time to see the Celtics trounce the Lakers for the NBA Championship.  And I’ve already made a trip out to Chicago, and gotten reacquainted with the misery of domestic airlines.   I wish I could say unequivocally that it’s great to be back home, but it’s not.  But if we had to pick a place to be, Jamestown is the best place we could spend the summer! 

Wanted: A Great Generation

June 20th, 2008

I may be wrong, but I believe the world is in grave trouble.  I felt this way before our trip, and am more convinced now.  I fear that our nation lacks the wherewithal to make the hard decisions and sacrifices to reverse so many troubling trends.   I fear our generation will be the first in our country’s history to pass on to the next generation a future that’s impaired, not improved.

During this past year, we had a wonderful opportunity to explore the world.  We wanted our trip to be educational, not an extended vacation.  We wanted to see for ourselves the greatness in the world, but also to see its challenges, its sadness, and its horror.  And we did.

We saw nature at its most spectacular.  We saw stunning accomplishments of ancient civilizations.  We saw beautiful cities, remarkable works of art, and advanced technologies.  And we saw the joy and hope in so many people, many of whom live in poverty.  It was inspiring. 

We also saw the unmistakable signs of global warming.  Acute deforestation.   Pollution in places like Beijing, where air quality gets worse by the minute.  The oppression of Tibet.  Indescribably poor townships and villages.  Children growing up without education, struggling to find daily food and water.  Auschwitz.  And the damaged state of our country’s standing abroad.

I was born in 1952.  Elizabeth’s and my parents were part of America’s Greatest Generation.  All four parents sacrificed immensely during World War II, with both fathers in combat and both mothers working in the U.S. to support the war effort.  Their lives have been ones of dedicated sacrifice to make sure their children had a better future.  They succeeded at that goal. 

I am embarrassed that my generation may be the first in our country’s history to hand our children a degraded future.  We’ve swept a pile of dirt the size of Mount Everest under the rug, while the planet is in peril.  It’s like living in a house that’s burning down, while we bicker over whether to watch “American Idol” or “Wife Swap.” 

As I said, I may be wrong.  Why worry about global warming?  Our addiction to foreign oil, in a nation of gas-guzzling SUV’s?  The staggering U.S. debt that threatens our financial underpinning?  Increasing foreign control of our economy, jeopardizing our ability to stand up to atrocity?  The fool’s errand called “Operation Iraqi Freedom” that has poisoned the world’s view of the U.S.?  The accelerating divide between the rich and the poor?  

Sixty-four years ago,  our greatest generation led the way to saving the free world, built the U.S. economy, and re-built Europe.  Now, our government earns the scorn and enmity of people all around the world for our failed foreign policy and our lack of discipline or resolve.   We are on our way to being one of the most irresponsible generation in the world’s history.  In contrast to Saint Luke’s words, “Unto whom much is given, much shall be required,” we have been given much, but just want more. 

What will it take to reverse these trends, to pass on to our children a future better than what we inherited?   Certainly not business as usual.  Not if we continue to focus on our own narrow self interests.  And not without compelling objectives that we achieve through ingenuity, shared sacrifice, and collaboration.  We need, more than ever before, a great generation to step forward, to lead us, and the world, forward to create a better world for the future.

So we are now at end of our ten-month round-the-world journey.  But we also mark the beginning of our next, less-defined journey into the future.  I struggle today to say what impact our trip will have on each of us.  My fervent hope, though, is that it will influence each of us to stretch, to help fight immense challenges, and to begin turning back a tide that threatens to sink our future.

The Bloody Beaches of Normandy

June 17th, 2008

Normandy 291 The Normandy coast of France is so beautiful that, even if it hadn’t played a unique role in the world’s history, it would be worth visiting.  The countryside is so idyllic, spotted with gorgeous historic chateaus, beautiful pastures, lovely meadows, and stunning beaches.  We spent three days exploring this area, and had a great time at our last stay in continental Europe.

Normandy 098 The beaches of Normandy lie about 150 kilometers from the southwest coast of England, in a sparsely populated area of France marked by a few small villages and the important town of Cherbourg.  This area is about 200 km. of Calais, which is where the Germans assumed the Allied invasion would land.  The beaches are generally flat and wide, often abutting steep cliffs of moderate height (10-50 meters). 

Normandy 103 We walked the beaches that the Allied forces code-named Utah, Omaha, and Gold — names that will live forever.   Each has lots of resources explaining its role in the Normandy Invasion, including some informative museums, statutes, and plaques.  But the highlight is just walking along the beach and imagining what it must have been like to land there on the morning of June 6th, 1944, and making your way through landmines, enemy fire, barbed wire, and every conceivable obstacle slowing your advance.

Normandy 039 The U.S. troops landed on Utah and Omaha, the British on Gold and Sword, and the Canadians on Juno.  Losses were quite asymmetric.   For instance, the U.S. lost just 197 troops at Utah, while losses at Omaha totaled some 3,000. Canadian forces lost some 500 troops, and the British lost over 2,500 soldiers on that fateful day. 

Normandy 025 At Utah, losses were contained by two factors.  The pre-landing bombing at Utah was very effective, largely immobilizing the German line of defense.  And high winds and a strong northerly tide resulted in the landing at Utah ending up a mile or so to the north of the target location, which — fortunately — proved to be a safer spot.  At Omaha, in contrast, the pre-landing bombing inflicted more damage in inland villages than on the German forces positioned on the coast, and casualties were high.

Normandy 187 We also visited the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, which is a place every American should visit.  It underscores the debt of gratitude we owe to our military, who willingly sacrifice lives to protect the free world.  There are almost 10,000 graves at this location, and it’s hard to walk the grounds without being moved.  

Normandy 043 What also struck me about our time in Normandy was the nature of the military effort behind D-Day.  The level of planning was exceptional.  The Allies had to keep their plans secret, and actively worked to reinforce the German’s view that the landing target would be Calais.  The future of the free world hinged on holding this secret, held to some degree, by more than a million people.  And the military commanders understood the importance of invading with an overwhelming show of force.  In a relatively short period of time, more than 1,000,000 Allied troops landed or parachuted into the Normandy coast area, enabling them to drive out the Germans and establish a strategic position that proved pivotal to re-taking Europe and defeating Hitler.

Normandy 189 As a citizen of the U.S. in 2008, it was impossible to walk the beaches of Normandy without contrasting D-Day to the Iraq invasion.  D-Day was planned by military experts, many of whom were on the line and lost their lives as Normandy was taken, including Teddy Roosevelt, Jr. (gravestone at right).  The Iraq invasion was planned by arrogant bureaucrats like Donald Rumsfeld, who had no  personal exposure to the dangers, but rammed an ill-conceived strategy down the throats of the military leadership.  Normandy was about protecting the interests of the free world, while Iraq is about a set of lies propagated by the Bush Administration to justify a war that should never have been waged.  Normandy preserved the life and freedom we love.  Iraq jeopardizes the future of our country and the world.  The differences couldn’t be more stark.

Click here to see our photos of Normandy.

London’s War Museums

June 17th, 2008

London 160 In London, we took in two different museums that are part of London’s Imperial War Museum complex.  The first was the Churchill Museum and Cabinet War Rooms Museum, located at the bunker compound used by Winston Churchill and the top British military during World War II.  And the second was the main Imperial War Museum complex (photo above).  Both played important roles in our tour through Europe’s World War II history.

Winston Churchill wrote a six volume history of World War II.  You’d have to be highly motivated to learn more about that period to take on these works, but an afternoon at the Churchill Museum provides just the motivation for learning more about such an important person in history.

The Churchill Museum provides full background on Churchill’s fascinating life.  He was head of the British Navy in World War I, and failed so miserably in this role that he was removed from his duties.  He scraped and clawed his way to some level of political redemption afterward, and then in the 1930′s was the British politician most consistently pointing to the dangers posed by Hitler.  As Hitler’s power rose, Churchill’s credibility soared.

London 171 As Hitler’s empire expanded and Germany conquered Poland, Britain declared War on Germany.  Churchill again ran Britain’s Navy, and the first major World War II naval encounter was another major British disaster, but the blame was allotted to then-Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain.  Chamberlain resigned, no other leader was willing to step up, and Churchill became Britain’s new Prime Minister.  He worked round the clock on the war campaign, provided leadership around the globe for the free world, and developed close working relationships with U.S. Presidents Roosevelt and Truman. 

Did Churchill’s effective leadership solidify his political standing in England?  Hardly.  In 1945, he was defeated in an election for Prime Minister, a defeat hardly in keeping with his contributions to save the free world.  He retreated from the political limelight, but re-emerged over time as a powerful voice throughout the world.

As we walked the halls of Britain’s World War II bunker compound, it was quite clear the sacrifice made by everyone in England during World War II.  The top military commanders worked round the clock and were often in harms way.  Churchill himself demanded to be part of D-Day’s landing brigade but was over-ruled by others.  And the English population, exposed to daily bombing raids, fought valiantly across the board, with deep sacrifices.

London 163 We saw a great exhibit at the Imperial War Museum called “The Children’s War” which described the impact of World War II on the children of England.  Some 7,700 children are estimated to have been killed during the war, a similar amount seriously wounded, and about 1,000,000 children in total were relocated from London and coastal areas to safer locations — ranging from Britain’s countryside to other countries.  These childrenLondon 166 were parted from their families for periods of years to lifetimes.  And some enlisted in the British military at ages as young as fourteen.  As we stood taking this in, with our almost-twelve year old boy and ten-year old girl by our side, we could only be thankful that they’ve not been exposed to such wartime horrors, and pray that they never are.

And the Imperial War Museum has a very powerful display on the Holocaust.  We had already walked the grounds of Auschwitz, so seeing the very powerful photographs and short documentary films at the War Museum was all the more moving for us.  They featured interviews of several Auschwitz survivors, as well as some of the only surviving photographs of daily life in Auschwitz. 

The Auschwitz exhibit at the Imperial War Museum was our last activity, apart from normal trip logistics, of our ten-month journey around the world.  I’m sure some would question the appropriateness of exposing our children to the horrors of Auschwitz and, at the very least, ending our fabulous trip on this note.  The museum at Auschwitz doesn’t recommend children under 14 as visitors, for example.  But our objective in this trip wasn’t to entertain ourselves, but to educate ourselves.  And we want our children to understand the full range of experiences the world has to offer, from the sublime to the horrific.  And, most of all, we hope they, we, and all readers, will understand that certain things are so consequential, so precious, so fleeting that they are indeed worth fighting for, even dying for.

Diary of a Young Girl

June 16th, 2008

Brussels 120 As part of our exploration of sites in Europe related to World War II, we visited Anne Frank’s house in Amsterdam, after each of us had read books relating to her life.  No photos were allowed inside the house, so I can’t offer much of note photographically.  And, Anne’s father Otto desired that no furniture be left in the house as it transitioned to a museum, so there wasn’t much to photograph in each room.

Somewhat incredibly, I had never read Anne Frank’s diary before our trip.  This book, I believe, should be mandatory for all high school students.  It’s such a powerful story, with the innocence and life joy of young Anne (she wrote this when she was 13-15 years old), and the devastating and sad conclusion of her life.  As the Allies mounted successful initiatives in Europe, and as the German choke grip was beginning to loosen, someone betrayed the Frank family, and they were arrested and sent to Auschwitz.  Anne’s diary stops two days before being captured, and the specifics of her life after that aren’t known in fine detail.  But she, her sister Margot, and her mother died in Auschwitz within weeks of the liberation of prisoners there.  Her father was the only family survivor and went on to live to reach age 91.

In reading the diary, it was clear that young Anne had only a limited understanding of the consequences of being arrested.  She knew the occupying Germans were evil, and that many friends and relatives were being arrested and deported.  But there is no sign that she understood the horrors awaiting anyone who was arrested.  It’s possible the adults in the Frank house had a clearer understanding, but my guess from Anne’s description of household operations is that they were also unaware of the certain death awaiting anyone arrested by the Nazis. 

Many things were imprinted on my from reading Anne Frank’s diary, and visiting the house and museum in Amsterdam.  Among them is the urgency of taking action.  Had Anne Frank survived just one month longer, she might well be alive today.  Had the Allies not turned the tide on the Germans when they did, many more would have died.  Sometimes matters of life and death are exactly that.


June 16th, 2008

On a day when the clouds cried tears, we visited Auschwitz and asked ourselves, over and over, “How?”  “How could something like this ever happen?” 

Auschwitz 056 We flew into Krakow from Vienna, and drove about an hour through simple, yet scenic, Poland to reach the town of Oswiecim, which is German is “Auschwitz.”  This area was an agricultural village in Poland, with a largely Jewish population in the 1930′s  The Germans, though, chose it as the location of their largest, and unspeakably evil, concentration camp and extermination center.

Auschwitz 064 The camp was opened by the Nazis in early 1940, and operated for five years before the Soviet army liberated Auschwitz on January 27, 1945.  There were three large camps in this area, and a large number of smaller satellite camps.  No one will ever know the precise number of people killed, and estimates range from hundreds of thousands to 4 million.  When Rudolf Hoess, the supreme commandant of Auschwitz, testified, his own estimate was that some 2.5 million people were killed during this period.

Auschwitz 010-1 Auschwitz I is the starting point for seeing the Auschwitz site, and its gate is marked with the saying “Arbeit Macht Free” (or, “Work makes one free”).   From what we learned, there was no shortage of work for those who survived the initial screen and weren’t sent immediately to the gas chambers.  But the Germans did all they could to ensure that no one entering Auschwitz was ever set free. 

Auschwitz 054 The German practices were barbaric.  They rounded up people throughout Europe, some 90% of whom were Jewish.  The others were political prisoners, gypsies (other non-Aryan races), Communists, homosexuals, and disabled.  These prisoners were told they were being relocated to Poland and told to bring their most important portable possessions.  On the day of deportation, they were packed into boxcars, the door was locked, and they were transported anywhere from hours to days in horrific conditions to Auschwitz (or other camps).   Communications in the 1940′s were such that word rarely reached beyond the concentration camps that the deportation was a death sentence, not a new home.

Auschwitz 032 Upon arrival at the train drop-off at Auschwitz, prisoners were rapidly sorted into two groups.  About 75% of the prisoners were judged as not being able to do hard labor (any children, older men and women, weak or sick, etc.), and these people were told to leave their possessions, and prepare to take showers.  The “showers” of course were gas chambers, and thousands of people were immediately put to death upon arrival at Auschwitz.  Afterward, the Nazis would send the possessions back to the homeland, including cutting off all of the hair from the murdered prisoners and pulling out teeth to get any metallic fillings.

Auschwitz 053 The remaining 25% may actually have been less fortunate.  In many cases, they were separated from their other family members, issued prison clothing, assigned to a barracks, and literally worked to death over a matter of months.  A few of these prisoners (especially those of German descent) were selected to guard the prisoners, knowing that any failure to be as ruthless or despicable as a Nazi guard would result in immediate death. 

Auschwitz 024 Over the course of the five years, there were a tiny number of escapes.  But the Nazis had vicious ways to deal with an escapee.  Generally, they would find and condemn family members of any escapee to the Auschwitz camps.  And they would take several cohorts of an escapee and punish them brutally after any attempt.   Actions included death by firing squad (above), time spent crammed into a tiny standing chamber with other prisoners and starved or suffocated, or having hands tied behind one’s back and being hung up by the hands for days on end (breaking both shoulders and inflicting intense pain on the prisoner before death).

Auschwitz 041 We spent four hours at Auschwitz, which seemed like four months.  We saw the horrible barracks that housed the prisoners.  We saw the “showers” where prisoners were exterminated.  We saw the ovens used to cremate the remains of the murdered.  Most difficult to see, though, were the displays of personal belongings of these victims — eyeglasses, shoes, artificial limbs, combs, and children’s clothes and toys.  Almost all of these possessions had already been shipped back to the homeland at the time of Auschwitz’s liberation.  But the very tail-end of what remained was enough to make quite vivid the scope and scale of the horrors of Auschwitz.  I’m not one to cry, but seeing a broken child’s doll, along with pictures of the many, many families and young children being murdered at Auschwitz was emotionally devastating.

Years ago, Elizabeth and I sat spellbound through a lecture given by Dr. Phillip Zimbardo, a professor of Stanford’s Psychology Department.  The topic was “How to make good people do evil things.”  Over several decades of research, he’s explored how it’s possible that good people can be led to act in hideously evil ways, and the Holocaust is perhaps civilization’s most egregious example.  Zimbardo talked about the many times in history that leaders took quite similar actions to enlist others in their evil cause — indoctrinate children at the youngest ages, emphasize repeatedly the threat posed by the enemy, de-personalize the enemy by continuously depicting them with frightening racial or ethnic stereotypes, hard again and again on the importance of patriotism to defend your homeland’s innocent, and count on the fact that few people will exercise independent judgment in the face of such propaganda. 

Auschwitz 029 We saw Auschwitz first-hand, and began to develop some understanding of the atrocities committed there.  We developed a better understanding of just what kind of forces the free world was opposing in the 1940′s.  And we could begin to imagine the horror that people are capable of inflicting on innocent others.  None of us will ever forget our visit to Auschwitz, and what remains today from civilization’s lowest point.  And we saw the gallows used to hang Commandant Hoess after he was convicted of heinous war crimes (photo above), aware that no punishment on earth could begin to atone for the evil actions of people like Hoess and his accomplices.

Click here for our Auschwitz photos.