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Life and Death in the Forest PDF Printable Version E-mail


U Michala
Puszcza Białowieża
Podlaskie Województwo
Eastern Poland

October 2010 

Dear friends

Life and Death in the Forests of Eastern Poland 

Greetings from the end of the road, in the depths of a forest that is home to bison, wolf, elk, deer, lynx, wild boar and 120 species of birds. Where is this? Canada? The Great Plains of North America? The Rockies? No, it's the largest surviving area of mixed primeval forest in Europe: 460 square miles (1,200 square km) of pine, beech, oak, alder and spruce, straddling the border of Eastern Poland and Western Belarus. It's recognised by UNESCO as a rare combination of Biosphere Reserve and World Heritage Site. The narrow unkempt approach road ends at the Belarus border for us mere humans; the animals are free to roam.

In a 30 km cycle ride from our base camp, on quiet lanes and forest tracks, we saw bison, wild boar and elk as well as zubron (huge hybrid bison-cattle) and tarpans (horse-like animals extinct in the wild). Fortunately, all these were contained in a fenced reserve within the forest where bicycles were charged an extra 3 zloty. It's apt that the Polish word for bicycle is Rower, pronounced 'Rover', and so we did until the Belarus border intervened and brought us to a halt. 

We detoured to Białowieża on our journey south from Lithuania to Slovakia, through Eastern Poland via (no bypasses yet) the towns of Augustow and Bialystok, with Zamosc and Rzeszow still to come. If all this sounds unfamiliar, it would be a very good idea for you to meet the Eastern Poles on their home ground. They welcome faces from the West and you could learn a lot!

Our next detour took us to Sobibor and Belzec on the River Bug, where it forms the present-day border between Poland and the Ukraine. Hard to find, difficult to reach, these two rarely visited tiny villages were scenes of unprecedented mass murder in 1942/43 - 600,000 annihilated at Belzec and 250,000 at Sobibor: men, women and children from the whole of occupied Europe, though a majority were Jews from Poland itself. At a third camp on the River Bug at Treblinka (visited last autumn), a handful of German SS supervised the killing of another 850,000 people, making a total of 1,700,000 human beings, systematically massacred with industrial efficiency.  

The numbers are the best estimates, since the Germans kept few records. These were extermination camps; there was no selection for work on arrival, just direct transfer from cattle truck to an enclosed room, connected directly to the exhaust of a diesel engine.

This total of 1.7 million is 600,000 more than the murder toll of Auschwitz, a place now so popular with tourists that groups have to be formed for conducted tours.

Our good friends and fellow-travellers, Paul and Sheila Barker, also visited all these camps this summer, as well as the Warsaw Ghetto and much else that informs a view of modern Poland and its troubled history. We highly recommend their thoroughly researched and well-presented website at: http://www.langdale-associates.com/poland_2010/part_4/index.htm.

In the spirit of 'Lest We Forget' and 'It could happen again' (remember Bosnia and Srebrenica in July 1995), we follow the example of the excellent American-designed and funded memorial museum at Belzec, and include below a few images of victims and murderers. Which are the Untermenschen? These are our photographs sampled from the many images on display in the museum; they add a sense of reality to the numbing effects of the massive numbers. As Margaret writes in our current Travel Log for Poland, the scale of the massacres is 'beyond imagination, beyond belief and beyond doubt'. 

Before reaching Poland and its wild places, we spent the summer in the wildernesses of Scandinavia: 2,900 miles (4,640 km) during 70 days in Sweden, Norway and Finland, including 1,060 miles (1,700 km) above the Arctic Circle. A two hour, 50-mile (80 km) ferry brought us from Helsinki to Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, and a mere 430 mile (690 km) journey south through that country, Latvia and Lithuania, crossing into Poland in the narrow corridor between Belarus to the east and the Russian Baltic Sea enclave of Kaliningrad to the west.

Onwards from Poland, our intention is to keep east whilst travelling south through Slovakia, Hungary and Romania, aiming for south-east Bulgaria and one of our 'homes': Sakar Hills Camping in the village of Biser, owned and managed by the English family Jeffes. Conveniently located near both the Turkish and Greek borders, Sakar Hills Camping offers the luxury of a level field, a connection to Bulgaria's National Grid, hot showers, Caravan Club standard toilets and - well above Caravan Club norms - a very warm welcome. On our first visit in 2008 we planned to stay a week after a tour of Turkey, but left after only 3 months. 

Tearing ourselves away from the Jeffes family this time, we will no doubt drive south for about 100 miles (160 km) to the Mediterranean and then west through northern Greece towards another 'home' at the tip of the Messinian Peninsula in the Peloponnese. Rod is already settled there in his Swift Sundance motorhome and has written to say that he will keep a warm place for us. Dan is also on his way, after a summer in Glasgow and northern Scotland, and so the epic narrative can continue: 'The Last of the Winter Retsina'.

This may end yet another year on the road, our 16th so far, if the fates and coincidences of the highways continue to let us pass unscathed. 

With our very best wishes

Barry and Margaret

News from the Head Office of MagBazTravels

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MagBazTravels Head Office in the Bialowieza National Park

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  Margaret by the River Bug with Belarus on the other bank

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Bison greets his mate in the Bialowieza National Park

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Shy young female elk looks demure for the camera

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Margaret Highlighted in the Primeval Forest

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Sobibor: The End of the Line

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Sobibor: Site of Gas Chamber and Crematorium Ash Mound

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 Sobibor: One of many individual memorials

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Belzec: The Site of the Gas Chamber and the Slag which covers the Camp

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Belzec: Denounced and taken from an Orphanage to be Murdered

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Belzec: Happy Family Snaps of Future Victims

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Belzec: SS Guards - the Master Race?

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Belzec: Only Three People are known to have Escaped from the Camp

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