Archive for February, 2016

I visited Auschwitz

Last year, the wife and I visited Slovenia; Budapest, Hungary; and Krakow, Poland. It was a good trip, I ate plenty of bread and discovered I liked a bunch of foods I never used to.

But for me, one of the things that stands out in my mind is our day-trip to Auschwitz, the notorious Nazi death camp 50 miles west of Krakow in present day Poland.



About 1.1 million people were killed there, out of a total of 1.3 million deported there. Auschwitz was a “work” camp although it was never intended to be a place where serious work was done. The people who ran the camp overworked and underfed them, the goal was to kill as many people as possible by any means possible. At first, the goal of the Holocaust was to deport all of the Jews out of Germany and eastern Europe, kicking them out of the country and sending them to Madagascar. That was at the beginning. However, as the final solution firmed up, starting in 1942, the Nazi government decided to simply kill them all.

Auschwitz was open for 3 years, from 1942 to 1944, closing in 1945. That means that they killed an average of 1000 people per day.

My emotional reaction to seeing the death camp was a mixture of overwhelming sadness at the scope of evil committed there, contempt for the people who committed it, and disgust at what humanity can do.

The Nazis went to great lengths to improve their killing efficiency. On the way to the death camps, they would tell all the prisoners to bring a trunk or bag of personal belongings, leading them to believe that they would get them back after. As they got off the train, they would separate them into different groups and lead the weak ones away immediately – older men and women, and all children, as well as the sick – to the gas chambers which they said were showers, and that they would need to be cleaned (the train ride took a few days).

The Nazis installed fake showerheads in the gas chambers that were never hooked up to water. They would then drop poison gas through vents in the ceiling and wait for the screams to subside, that’s how they knew everyone was dead. They would then go in and paint over all of the blood and human fluid remains with white paint so that the next batch of victims would never know that they were going into a death trap.

They did all of this so that the next group would not suspect anything was amiss, avoiding panic. They wanted to streamline the process of killing everyone.



The bottleneck in the Nazi killing plans was not how many people they could kill per day, it was how many bodies they could dispose of. They resorted to burning the bodies in ovens. The ones they have within the camp today are replicas; the Nazis took them all down as they left the camp.



The thing is that they knew what they were doing was a crime against humanity. When the Soviets started getting closer, the Nazis decommissioned all of the ovens in order to hide the evidence so that others wouldn’t know what they had done there.

They didn’t get rid of everything, and there were still survivors in the camp when the Soviets arrived in January 1945.

A couple miles away from the original camp is Auschwitz II (Birkenau). This camp is much, much larger and it was built specifically for the purpose of being able to execute and dispose of more people. There aren’t as many buildings still standing because the Polish people reclaimed a lot of the materials after the war in order to rebuild the local towns.



As I said above, my reaction to Auschwitz was a complicated mixture. I was overwhelmed by just how much torture the people who lived there were put through. Most of them were there only a short time but some somehow lived for weeks or even months; a handful even got out alive. I don’t know how I ever could have survived there.

That’s the part that saddened me.

But my more powerful emotion was a blend of disgust and contempt. In order to perpetuate the Holocaust, an entire nation (or at least the military leadership and the government) had to have a blinding hatred of a group of people so deep and so irrational that they were willing to undermine their own war effort in order to perpetuate this atrocity.

The Nazis killed about 6 million Jews in War War II in their death camps. This means that rather than putting them to work in the German war machine to help with the war effort, they completely lost all of that potential labor. Moreover, they diverted resources away from the war effort – time better spent building military hardware, or training, or medical services, or anything – and instead built and maintained the infrastructure to round up, transport, kill, and dispose of 1000 people per day, every day, for three years. They were acting against their own interests for years, on purpose.

No empathy, no one stepping up and saying “Um, is this the best use of our resources?” Nothing.

Classical economics tells us that people are mostly rational and act in their own best interests, and people are basically looking to optimize their long term. Markets are efficient at regulating that. But no. Instead, the Nazi government – along with the rest of a nation – decided to optimize death and destruction at their own expense.

That’s the part that disgusted me.

And what else got to me was the helplessness of the situation. The Jews didn’t do anything to deserve what they got, and the Nazi government rounded them up to kill them. What struck me was the realization that if this ever happens to me, there is no one coming to help.


That was a tough part to swallow. We like to think that there is someone watching out to keep the bad people in check – there’s the police, or the government. But when things get out of hand, if you are targeted, there is no one coming to your rescue.

During this current US Presidential election, one of the candidates (Ben Carson?) said that the Nazis tightened gun control laws and that contributed to the Holocaust. It was a comment about gun control. He got in trouble because the Nazis actually relaxed them in order to allow their supports to get access to firearms, and therefore (so his opponents claimed) having loose gun control is not a good argument because his example was invalid.

That counter-argument fell on my deaf ears. I’m not a gun rights supporter, I think that the US’s prevalence of guns contributes to the outsized gun deaths in this country. However, the Jews who didn’t fight back were sent to the death camps and died. The Jews who did fight back died in battles against the Nazis. Fight back or not, it made no difference.

But at least they fought back. And took some with them and that’s better than nothing. Because no one was coming to help.

That hit me, too – my aversion to violence won’t help me if I get into trouble of this sort because if it happens, I’m on my own. Then what?

The Holocaust did not eradicate all of the Jews in Europe, but it did eradicate nearly all of them in some countries – in Poland, 97-99% of them were killed. I have a lot of Jewish last names in my family history living in Poland, and it’s quite likely if I do, indeed, have Jewish heritage, most of them died in the war.


A couple of days later, the wife and I went to visit the Oscar Schindler museum, the German who is famous for saving about 1100 Jews (and the subject of Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List). However, it was closed.

Fortunately, next door was another museum of contemporary art. It contains reflections of modern artists, and they have a section dedicated to the Holocaust.

The part of this museum that stuck with me is this picture:


You can’t that because my phone doesn’t take good pictures, but they are all pictures with a bit of pain on them, and above reads a line of text “There will be no more Baghdad”, “There will be no more Srebenica”, “There will be no more Darfur”, and so forth, referring to another city where genocide took place. The message is that genocides occur and humanity is shocked by the horror of, vowing that it will never occur again.

But it does occur again. And we repeat the same vows.

When does it end?

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

My experience at Auschwitz was solemn. When I hear US presidential candidates talk about bombing other countries, even carpet bombing, I let out a sigh of sadness. Why do we keep trying to solve our problems with death and destruction?

But at least we have memorials to events like these. We shouldn’t forget that stuff like this can happen. I’ve read up on the problem of evil, and I’m not so sure I can excuse myself from something like this. What side would I have been on?

I don’t know. But I do know that something like this mustn’t happen again.


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I have had my current phone – a Windows Phone 8 – for over three years. There’s a few problems with it:

  • For some reason, the operating system won’t upgrade. The Windows 8.1 update has been available for many months but my phone never tells me to upgrade, nor do it automatically. I don’t know why.

  • I can’t download new apps. Every time I try, it says it can’t connect to the store to get a new app. So I’m stuck with what I have.

  • A few months ago I dropped my phone, cracking the screen. There are also big black blotches in the corner, indicating that the pixels are dead.

I’ve resisted getting a new phone because I got this one and my previous one from work, so I am conditioned to getting free phones. But I finally broke down a couple of weeks ago and headed to my local AT&T store to get a new one.

I was 2/3 of the way through the process of getting a new iPhone 5s when they told me how much it would be. I forget the cost, but it was something like $500 spread out over 24 months.

“Huh?” I said. “Can’t I get a reduced price for signing up for a two-year contract or something?”

“Oh, we don’t do that anymore,” they said at the store. “Now, we spread the price of the phone over two years so you pay in installments.”

I said I don’t want to pay in installments, I wanted to pay for it all at once. Why would I want to spread it out? I asked to do that, and I told me I couldn’t do it at that store. Instead, I either had to get a phone directly from the Apple store or from another AT&T store a few miles away. I said I would do that and walked out. When I walked out of the store, I fully intended to get a new phone.

Except I didn’t.

I don’t really like AT&T. Their international calling plans are way too expensive. I went home and started comparing plans with Sprint but I got bogged down. Comparing cell phone plans is difficult, and they do this on purpose (it makes it harder to switch companies).

So at this point, I still have a cracked-screen Windows 8 phone. I need to get a new one, and I still probably will.

But I just couldn’t bring myself to do it earlier.

Maybe next time.

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Our cats are going high-tech

As you know, a couple of months ago we got a new cat – Esmerelda. She’s a little kitten who is friendly and affectionate… and always hungry. She says “I’M SO HUNGRY!” all the time.

This wouldn’t be a big problem except that we have another cat Ruby. Ruby is a couple of years older and used to have the same hunger problem Esmerelda has, but not anyone. Nowadays, Ruby budgets her food to last throughout the day while Esmerelda (aka Zelda) wolfs it all down whenever we feed her.


This is a problem.

The two cats get different food; Zelda gets kitten food while Ruby gets a combination of 3 different types of adult cat food. If we were to feed them side-by-side, Zelda would gulp down all of her food, while Ruby would eat a little bit, saving the rest for later. However, once Ruby leaves, Zelda would then head over to Ruby’s dish and start eating that too. This leaves too little for Ruby but worse, results in Zelda eating too much.

To remedy that temporarily, we put Ruby’s food dish up on a table that Zelda can’t (?) get to, but Ruby can. At least, we think Zelda can’t get there, I’m sure she could if she tried. We started feeding Ruby there but it is at best a temporary solution.

The fix for this was to get Ruby a high-tech cat feeder. This is a feeding dish that opens and closes automatically. It pairs with the cat’s microchip and when the cat is close enough to the detector, the dish opens automatically after a 3-second delay. When the cat walks away, the dish closes.


It took Ruby a long time to figure out how to use it. First of all, I had to pair it to her microchip and to do that, you put it in detection mode and put the cat near it. Ruby STRUGGLED FIERCELY while I did it, fighting against me as I held her head in there while it put her microchip in memory. Then, for the next two weeks, we had to leave it on the table open all the time so she would learn to use it. Because at first she couldn’t figure it out.

That cat…

But now she has figured it out. When she wants her food, she goes up to it and it opens, and she munches on it. She walks away and it closes. After a week, I finally put it on the floor where it will stay.

The only “problem” is that Zelda knows there is food in there too, so she tries to get into it when it is closed. She tries super hard. She doesn’t succeed, but she knows that is food.

Problem 1 solved.


Problem 2 is how to feed Zelda. Right now, we feed her about 1/4 cup (or slightly less) of kibbles 4 times per day. That’s a lot; it means that if we ever go away for a weekend, we have to get a pet sitter to come in and feed her. We can fill up Ruby’s dish just fine, but we can’t trust Zelda because she might overeat.

Ruby, of course, had the same problem as a kitten.

We don’t want to get a pet sitter every time we go away for a couple of days. So the solution to this was to get a high tech automatic pet feeder. And that’s what we did, we just got a Petnet pet feeder:


This device is also high tech, maybe even more than Ruby’s feeder. This one releases food at a timed interval. However, you program it with your smartphone.

To do that, we ordered it and it arrived in three days (the other one took a month). I set it up, and then first you install the Petnet app on your phone, and then enter in your wifi network and password, and then you connect the pet feeder to your smartphone app.

Next, you program in when you want to have your pet fed, so I did it 4x per day for Zelda.

But the advantage of this device is that people on the Internet complain that pet feeders jam. If we’re away, that’s bad. What this one does is it tells you if the latest pet feed was successful, and more importantly, if it jams. This is important to keep tabs on whether or not Zelda is getting fed. I can check the app to see the latest feeding schedule, and I can also make adjustments to it. I can also do manual feedings – both by pressing the button on the front and I think through the app, too.

Furthermore, the app is smarter than that. You can fill out the size of the pet food bag, how much you feed our cat, and what type of cat food you are using. There is then an option for the pet feeder to automatically re-order cat food when you are getting low.

To me, this is an incredible option. I’ve wanted to automate the acquisition of supplies for a long time. I haven’t used this technology yet, but if this Internet-of-Things actually works, then I can see how it would be expanded to other things, too (e.g., reordering food).

So that’s how we use technology to solve a couple of problems we were having.

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Rounding up the origin of my family’s history is my mother’s mother’s side (my maternal grandmother, the last of my grandparents to pass away in 2012).

This is the side for which I have the most documentation (or second most) but is also one of the most confusing to research due to there being multiple places by the same name in the country of origin.

It maybe starts in Germany, but also definitely Poland

My maternal grandmother was born in Poland in 1920 in a town called Wladyslawow (pronounced Vlad-ih-slav-ov). If you do a search on the web for that town, there are over 25 places on Wikipedia that it could refer to and they are all over the map.

Furthermore, if you go to Bing Maps and type in “Wladyslawow”, the first hit that comes up is Wladyslawowo which is not necessarily the same place. So to figure it out, I looked up where my grandmother’s first husband was born, and that’s in Adamow, Poland. I then looked up where they were married and that is in Chylin, Poland. Adamow is 5 miles from Chylin, and Chylin is 2 miles from the closest Wladysawow. The marriage certificate for the two of them lists their occupation as “bauer” and if that were a last name, it would mean “peasant.” I take this to mean that they were both probably working class people who wouldn’t have been able to move around that much, which would have been normal at the time.


I’ve included Kalisz on the map which is where another side of my family comes from, it is 35 miles away from the likely location of my grandparents.

Let’s zoom in a bit and see the distance involved. Notice that there’s a place (district?) called Kamionka which is the same name as where my maternal grandfather was born. Is this the actual Kamionka and not the one from my other blog post? Who knows.



Now, I’ve said all of this is Poland, but remember that the borders of Poland shifted after World War I. Because Kalisz is a border region that was definitely part of Russia before the first World War (but Prussia before 1795), and because these towns above are so close to Kalisz, here’s a pre-World War I map where I estimate where these places were in regards to Prussian territory. You can see I’ve put it near the border but that’s a guess. Its proximity to border likely accounts for the family’s German heritage.

In either case, after World War I it was definitely Poland and that’s where my grandmother was born.


My maternal grandmother, and her parents, each spoke German (and Polish) so that would explain a lot if they were indeed living in Prussia before World War I (as in, her family was living in Prussia, and her first husband was born there; and after the war the family didn’t move but the borders did, but the culture and language similarly remained).

My grandmother’s birth surname is of German origin according to Ancestry.com and so was her first husband’s. However, my grandmother’s mother (my great grandmother) had the last name “Simon”. From Ancestry.com:

English, French, German, Dutch, Spanish (Simón), Czech and Slovak (Šimon), Slovenian, Hungarian, and Jewish (Ashkenazic): from the personal name, Hebrew Shim‘on, which is probably derived from the verb sham‘a ‘to hearken’…. In the Greek New Testament, however, the name occurs as Simon, as a result of assimilation to the pre-existing Greek byname Simon (from simos ‘snub-nosed’). Both Simon and Simeon were in use as personal names in western Europe from the Middle Ages onward. 

This is the fifth last name in my family history where I have one that is of German + Jewish origin.

And if you go back to my maternal great-grandmother Simon’s mother (my great-great grandmother), her last name was Kotke. Kotke is a variant of Kot, here’s what it means:

Polish, Slovak, Czech, Belorussian, Jewish (eastern Ashkenazic), and German (of Slavic origin): from a personal name or nickname based on Slavic kot ‘tom cat’. As a Jewish name it is generally an ornamental name.

That’s the sixth last name in my family history that is of German + Jewish origin.

Anyhow, coming back to geography, the above is the most likely origin of my family, that they were living in Prussia which of course was part of Germany at the time. It then became part of Poland after World War I, and then became part of Germany again right before and during World War II, and then became part of an independent Poland again after World War II. While the borders today make it look like it is close to the middle of the country, it wasn’t always that way.

Coming to Canada

This side of my family’s history of coming to Canada is crazy, so I better tell it so it can live on in cyberspace.

My family’s ancestors were living in Germany (the Prussian part, which then became Poland) in the 1920’s when my great grandfather Hinz (who married the Simon) came to Canada. He went ahead of time to get things ready to prepare to bring the rest of the family over.

Then the Great Depression hit.

This forced him to have to wait until the economy could recover so he could afford to bring the rest of the family over – his wife and children. My grandmother would have been 9 at the time, and my great-grandmother would have been 39. Since they were peasants (or farmers) they would have needed to save up for a long time in order to afford to bring over the rest of my family.

The Great Depression lasted a few years but eventually it began to lift. Then another massive disaster struck – World War II. At that poit my great grandfather definitely couldn’t bring anyone over.

My grandmother got married in 1940 and as I said before, they were living in Germany. Her first husband was called up to the military (he had no choice) but he died during the war. Doing the math I think it was nearer to the end of the war. My grandmother became a war widow with two small children under the age of five – my aunt and her younger brother whom I never met.

I never met him because when it became clear that Germany was losing the war, the population had to get up and move further west to escape the wrath of the Russians for were coming from the east. My great grandmother managed to make it back further west to Germany but my grandmother did not. She was deported to fricking Siberia for three years as part of their “Guest Worker Program.” Of course, the workers were anything but guests. But unfortunately, along the way, my grandmother’s young son died.


My grandmother and aunt spent 3 years in a work camp in Siberia before they finally returned to Germany. My great grandmother emigrated to Canada in 1948, and my grandmother plus aunt emigrated in 1949, finally arriving in Canada in July of that same year. She became a Canadian citizen but I am not sure when because the date is not on the naturalization certificate, but also acquired a German passport in 1967. So I guess she was a dual citizen? I know that when she came to Canada she was given a temporary travel document in lieu of a passport for a stateless person.

My grandmother came straight to Winnipeg where she met my grandfather (also from Poland) where they got married the next year.


And with that, it wraps up my family history. You can see I have a lot of roots in Germany going back several generations, but the most recent ones are in countries other than Germany – notably Poland and Russia. I also was surprised to discover just how many last names in my history are of Jewish descent.

In a future blog post, I’ll get into why my ancestors may have left Germany. In the case of my grandmother, it’s obvious: the family was tired of all the war. For my other relatives it’s less clear. I’ve investigated some major population trends that tries to explain why the Germans left to go to Russia, and how they retained their culture.

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The next step on my family history is my mother’s father’s side. This is the side in which I have the least information going back more than one generation.

It starts in Poland… sort of

My grandfather had a Polish passport and for all intents and purposes, he was a Polish citizen.

I don’t know that much about him – my other relatives can fill in the gaps although I think that they don’t know much about him either, for whatever reason – but I know that his mother (my maternal great-grandmother) had the last name Schulz, which is a variant of Schultz (I won’t give his actual last name because your mother’s maiden name is often used as a security question but I will say it’s not Jewish).

From Ancestry.com:

German: status name for a village headman, from a contracted form of Middle High German schultheize. The term originally denoted a man responsible for collecting dues and paying them to the lord of the manor; it is a compound of sculd(a) ‘debt’, ‘due’ + a derivative of heiz(z)an ‘to command’. The surname is also established in Scandinavia.

Jewish (Ashkenazic): from German Schulze (see 1 above). The reason for adoption are uncertain, but may perhaps have referred to a rabbi, seen as the head of a Jewish community, or to a trustee of a synagogue.

In case you’re not keeping track, this is the fourth last name in my family lineage that has a last name of Jewish (and German) origin. My grandfather’s actual last name is also of German descent. He also spoke German, and apparently he also spoke Polish.

But where in Poland?

Poland is a difficult country to research. It was invaded and sliced up by its neighbors Austria, Prussia, and Russia in 1795. It was given limited autonomy when Napoleon’s armies bulldozed across Europe in the early 1800’s, and then was divided up again between Prussia, Austria, and mostly Russia after the Congress of Vienna in 1815. It stayed that way until after World War I (with Russia’s rulers getting more power during that time in the Russian side).

After World War I, Poland was repatriated back to itself when Russia collapsed and the Germans lost the war. Poland, however, fought a brief war with Ukraine for some disputed regions, and borders again shifted. They would shift yet again after World War II, north and west.

I say all this because my maternal grandfather was born in Kamionka according to his Polish passport. This is not all that helpful because there are lots of possible places this could be, there are many towns, districts, and counties called Kamionka in both Poland, the Ukraine, and even Austria.

The one thing I am sure of is this – my grandfather was born in a region that shifted borders that eventually became Poland, but the country he was born in would have been either Russia or Austria.

He was baptized in the district of Rovno in the province of Volynia in what is now the modern day Ukraine, in the town of Tuczyn. There aren’t any towns called Kamionka around there.

However, I did find a town called Kamionka near modern-day Lviv (formerly Lwow) which at the time he was born would have been in the Austrian empire.

The problem with this is that he was baptized about a week after he was born, and those two places are 140 miles apart. I have a hard time believing my great-grandparents travelled that distance in 8 days just to get him baptized.

Below is a map of modern-day Europe showing the distance, you can see that the towns are both in Ukraine.


However, here is what the region looked like in 1920. You can see that both are (were) in Poland.


And before 1920, the town of Kamionka was located in Galicia, a region of the Austrian empire shaded in purple. I’m not sure what the blue region is as Wikipedia didn’t translate but I think it is Volynia, the border region that kept changing hands and in all likelihood was part of Russia.


Of course, all of this hinges on the guess that Kamionka above refers to this town I found and not to some other one. As I said, it is a large gap between those two towns and it seems unlikely that in 1908, my great-grandparents would have gone all that way.

But maybe they did.

Anyhow, all that to say that my grandfather has a Polish passport, was born in a region where the borders changed, and in 1929 he left the city of Danzig (now known as Gdansk) and came to Canada where he landed in St. John’s, Newfoundland. We don’t have a lot of data on where he went after that, there’s a big gap in knowledge. The first definitive location I have for him is in Winnipeg in 1944. He later married my grandmother in 1950, and my mother was born the next year.

My grandfather was 21 when he came to Canada. We don’t know why he left, but that region of the world was afflicted by war in World War I, and right after that when Poland fought a war with the Ukraine, and then a war with the Soviets in 1920-1921, and a couple of other uprisings in the 1920’s. My guess is that he probably just wanted a better life overseas, away from an unstable region.



So once again, this side of my family starts in Germany by the origins of the their last name, but if my research above is accurate then at some point they moved to Poland. I don’t know when this occurred but I have some guesses which I will get to in a future post.

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