Tag Archives: Holocaust

The train to Berlin

The Brandenburg Gate taken through a wet window

We caught a train to take us from Warsaw to Berlin. We were in the first class carriages, but as Pete said, “If that’s first class I’d hate to be in economy”.  I can’t say it was a train journey to remember, just a track through Eastern Europe on an overcast and drizzly day, stopping now and then at a station. Once again, Tomas had suggested bringing along some food, since there might be a restaurant car – and then again, maybe there might not. As it happened, there was a a restaurant car, and the service did provide coffee and a cake. You could buy beer and wine, and food, but we were happy with our roll. It’s a long trip – most of a day, which I spent reading, or playing solitaire. But, since this trip was a series of unfortunate events, I wasn’t really surprised when something went wrong.

Tomas was at pains to tell us we shouldn’t get off the train at the first Berlin station (Berlin East). We would be going on to the central station. However, it seemed we’d arrived just after tropical storm Xavier (the remains of a hurricane that had hit the Caribbean a week or two ago) had cut a swathe through Berlin. We’d noticed the tops of trees whipping around in the wind, but it had been much worse. Trees were down, power lines were cut, and the normally reliable rail service in the city was in chaos. We couldn’t get to central. So we all hopped off the train and mooched around the railway station while Tomas organised a bus to take us to the hotel.

Storm damage from Xavier

If you’ve travelled much in Europe, you’ll know most hotel rooms are tiny compared with Australia. That wasn’t true in Eastern Europe, where I think the hotels are more recent. That’s especially true in Berlin, which was flattened in the war, and the Eastern parts stayed in a pretty parlous state until after reunification in the nineties. Our room was almost a suite, with enough room to host a party, and a splendiferous bathroom. The down side was that the cost of a shot of Scotch was in keeping with the surroundings – we bought a bottle at a supermarket for about the same money.

By this time we were both tired and ill from constant coughing and lack of sleep. The bark was so bad we could have hired out our services to a security firm. I was sneezing a lot, too. This was not flu – no aches and pains and fever, but even so, we had an eye on the long haul flight back to Oz in a few days’ time, so we asked to see a doctor. He arrived in due course, and prescribed a decongestant during the day and pills to reduce the coughing at night. So off we went to find an apothecary. In fact, we had to do that twice. The first time the assistant gave us smaller packages with not enough pills to cover the doses, and (of course) we didn’t notice until we sat down for coffee (which was at least good coffee). Back to the pharmacy. The pharmacist apologised, and said they didn’t have the items we needed, but she could have them in by 3pm.

Since it’s warm and dry in shopping malls, we stayed there for some time, and pinpointed a couple of places to buy lunch, and dinner. We noticed a big food item in Berlin was ‘sausage with curry sauce’. I’m partial to sausage, but not with curry sauce, so I asked if it came without the sauce. I was told it wasn’t a good idea, because the sausages weren’t very nice. Like the coffee in Slovakia, this was a cold war leftover. You hide the horrible sausage with curry sauce, and now it has become a Berlin staple. The waiter did tell us where we could get good sausage, though, at a nearby restaurant. So we had dinner there.

Sans Souci palace. Yes, just a single story

Once again we missed the city tour which had taken in Checkpoint Charlie, the remnants of the wall, and the Brandenburg gate, but the next day we passed all those places on the way to the leafy suburb of Potsdam, so at least we got to see them from the bus. We also got to see the extensive damage from storm Xavier, with trees down in many places. Well-heeled Berliners live in Potsdam and around the Wannsee. So did the aristocracy in the past, and there are a number of palaces. One of the best known is Frederik II’s  (the Great) bijou palace, Sans Souci. It’s quite small, but elaborately decorated. Frederik loved the place, and wanted to be buried there. That request was not honoured – until 1991, when his remains were interred in the crypt Frederik had prepared. (You can find the story here – it’s short) He was a fascinating man, a King of Prussia who came close to uniting Germany before Bismarck finished the job in 1870, a scholar and a soldier, and very likely gay. It’s well worth reading a little about him. Oh, by the way, no photos allowed inside the palace. But you probably worked that out. The tour was conducted with precision, with groups waiting until the previous group had left a room before being ushered through.

Some of the lovely gardens at Sans Souci

After our visit to the palace we went to  Potsdam, a nice little village with cobble stoned streets and old houses, where you could buy a sausage-in-a-bun with mustard. Then it was back to Berlin.

Potsdam High street

As the Holocaust featured so much for me on this tour, I have to say something about Berlin’s holocaust memorial. We drove past it in the bus, and Pete took the picture with his tablet. There’s no immediate recognition of what this thing is – it looks like a collection of packing cases, or shipping containers, arranged in lines over several acres – 4.7 of them, as it happens. “What’s that?” I asked.

The Holocaust memorial

“The Holocaust memorial,” the guide said. “Kids use it to jump around and take selfies.”

I was seriously unimpressed. To me, the place is unrecognisable as a memorial, certainly not from this angle. It seems I’m not the only one who was underwhelmed, as evidenced in this article in the New Yorker. The author says what I think, only better, and I urge you to read it. As I mentioned in my post on Auschwitz, people of my generation know about the Holocaust. The challenge is to make the next generations understand. This monument isn’t helping at all. Yes, kids take selfies there. The particularly disturbing aspect of those selfies is that the kids tag them as ‘jumping on dead Jews’ or similar. That means they have at least a rudimentary knowledge of what those blocks represent.Not enough is being done to ensure they understand the reality.

Literally tons of overwhelming evidence – documents, designs for the gas chambers, eye witness accounts from such people as Eisenhower and Patton as well as survivors, photographs taken in secret, and photographs taken proudly by the SS – attests to the fact that the Nazi regime deliberately set about exterminating the Jews. Despite that, there are Holocaust deniers, people who suggest that the whole thing was a conspiracy by the Allies to demonize the German people. Let me direct you to Snopes, where denial of the Holocaust is examined,

I’ll finish this post with one small observation. The Nazis killed about 6 million Jews, but they deliberately targeted many other groups, as listed in this article from the US Holocaust Memorial Museum site.  If you require context to absorb those figures, in 1938 the population of Australia was about 6.8 million people. The Nazi regime deliberately murdered many more than the whole population of Australia.

And here, dear reader, I will leave behind talk of the Holocaust. From Berlin we travelled to Prague, and from there home. But before we left Europe there was one last unfortunate event. That’s for next time.

Rudesheim, the Rhine Gorge – and Miltenberg

The Rhine Gorge enveloped in mist

The thing about having done parts of this trip twice or three times is that sometimes I don’t have much more to say than I did in my previous blogs. That was the case with Rudesheim, where we visited the wonderful Siegfried’s Musical Kabinet in 2015, and the Germania monument (via chair lift over the vineyards) in 2016. If you’re interested, you can read all about it via the links. Same thing with the Rhine Gorge. For sheer beauty, a warm late October in 2015 resulted in the best pictures, but we were there again – with a LOT more water in the river – in 2016.

We’d also seen glass-blower Hans demonstrating his craft in 2015. But this one IS worth adding to. Last time, I ducked out rather a lot to admire the glorious beauties of the river. This time it turned out that an elderly couple on our cruise could trace their ancestry back to Hans’s village of Wertheim, just a few generations ago. Hans was entranced, and arranged with our tour director, Jude, to take them with him when he left the ship at the next lock so he could take them back to his village to meet his family and have a look around. He brought them back to rejoin the ship further down the river. I thought that was simply awesome.

Needless to say, Hans used his long-lost relo to help him make a blown glass ornament, just as he’d done with our mate Bruce a couple of years ago. That couple will have had an adventure they’ll never, ever forget.

Although we’d been to Miltenberg before, our visit this time was different in many respects to the last time in 2015, because the guide was different. Each guide has his/her own interpretation of what’s important to show, I suppose. Our guide was Raul, a septuagenarian Canadian who had married a German lady and lived in a nearby village. He was dressed in the costume of a medieval night watchman, complete with halberd and Bavarian flag. The basic structure of the visit was the same as last time – a sort of treasure hunt where the guide explained some of the features of medieval life, including an opportunity to sample some of the food and drink. Of course, the history hasn’t changed, but no guide can tell everything.

The witch’s house, using the town wall to reduce building costs

The steps to the Jweish cemetery

Raul took us away from the picturesque main street with its seventeenth century half-timber facades and up away from the river, where the streets are steep and narrow. Miltenberg has a town wall, and Raul pointed out a building he described as ‘the witch’s house’.   He was quick to clarify that it wasn’t really a witch’s house, but it’s easy to imagine it in an illustrated version of Hansel and Gretel. Raul pointed at the archway further up the hill. “The old Jewish cemetery is up there.” Then he took us back down into the town, stopped in front of a house, and pointed at five brass plaques set in the cobbles. These weren’t book titles, though. These were lives. Five Jewish people had lived here until 1942, when they were deported, and murdered. Miltenberg was the site of one of the oldest synagogues in Germany. Later (he pointed) a new synagogue was built there. It’s gone, along with the Jews. One hundred and forty Jews called Miltenberg home before the war. Now there are none, and there is no synagogue.

Brass plaques all that remains of lives. For a closer look, right click on the image and select ‘view image’. Then make it larger using ctrl+

After Raul finished his formal tour, Pete and I retraced our steps to that archway up the hill to see the Jewish cemetery. The town council cuts back the grass twice a year, but apart from that the tombstones linger in the shadow of the town wall, the markings fading with each passing season. Even so, these Jews have a memorial, unlike the anonymous ashes blown on the wind from the belching chimneys at the death camps. The brass plaques in the cobbles outside the houses where they lived at least bear their names.

The Jewish cemetery

Strange. When we started this trip, one of the reasons was to take the extension into Poland and Germany. Auschwitz was on my bucket list, but long before we reached there the spectre of those events seemed to beckon us on. Starting with the book burnings in the square at Bonn.

One other thing Raul said has stuck with me. I’d always thought Miltenberg had been rescued by the rise in tourism along the river. I couldn’t have been more wrong. There’s plenty of work in light industry in the Main valley, unemployment is low. Nobody lives in Miltenberg’s old town anymore. All the ground floors of the buildings are shops and all the upper stories are empty. The cost of renovating these old heritage-listed buildings for 21st century living would be astronomical, and even with modern flood walls, the danger from the rising river waters is always there. So when the tourists leave, the street is empty.

People living in the surrounding villages don’t want the tourists, thanks. The buses hardly fit the narrow streets and the increased traffic belches fumes that damage the old buildings and help to break down what had been an idyllic way of life. That meshed nicely with what we’d heard in the Rhine gorge. Fewer and fewer vines are being planted. Each year the harvest is less. The work is back-breaking and hard to automate, and the young people are moving to the cities. It’s as if the boats cruising down the great European rivers are catching a last glimpse of something that is rapidly fading into the mists of history.

Raul in the old town square

A more modern monument, celebrating (I think) the town’s nickname. Grown up versions of Brussels’ mannekin pis

Swans. There are always swans