Tag Archives: Holocaust

Wandering around Amsterdam

The city centre

It’s always nice to be shown around a city by a native. Irene van der Rol and I are distant cousins, having a common ancestor several generations back, but we’d met and corresponded through Facebook. The app does have its uses. I’ve re-connected with a number of people through FB – but that’s another story.

Irene lives in an apartment in South Amsterdam, a neighbourhood known as ‘de Pijp’. We walked there from the hotel, passing through a park and over a bridge. It’s a typical neighbourhood, with three-storey apartment blocks lining the roads. They still have corner shops in these parts. Irene’s local supermarket, run by people of Turkish descent, occupied one corner and a baker (I think) on the other. We had lunch with Irene, sitting out in the lovely little terrace garden she’d created behind her apartment building. We also had dinner with her in a nearby Indian restaurant, one of the best Indian meals I’ve ever had. Amsterdam is a very cosmopolitan place.

Amsterdam school art deco style sculpture

She took us to places in the city that we hadn’t seen before. One such was the Amsterdam School, its buildings constructed in a style of architecture popular in the 1920’s and 30’s. I thought it had similarities to art deco.

The oude kerk

We saw the neighbourhood around the Oude Kerk, where canals had been filled in after the war. There had also been quite a lot of rebuilding, not, apparently, up to the standard of the old city. Before the war many Jews lived in this area of Amsterdam. I mentioned in an earlier post that 5th May is Liberation day, but 4th May is Remembrance Day, when the Dutch commemorate those lost in war. Among those were the one hundred and seven thousand (approx.) Jews who were murdered by the Nazis. That’s around seventy-eight percentage of the Jewish population before the war. The Dutch commemorate that tragedy in many ways. One is the poster on this house, which reads that this was one of the houses where Jews had lived and were taken away. They were all over the city. I don’t think the Dutch will ever forget what happened to the Jews in those years.

Amsterdam has lots of museums. The Rijksmuseum was closed for renovations at the time and we’d been to the Maritime Museum, so we went to the Amsterdam Museum, a gem which shouldn’t be missed. It’s close to the main shopping district, so quite central. Its theme is (wait for it…) Amsterdam. It showcases the history of the city but it includes some wonderful ship models and art. Amsterdam’s Golden Age in the seventeenth century was based on trade, after all. It also has an impressive art gallery, including works by such luminaries as Rembrandt. What I liked about the paintings, though, was they showed the city as it was in the past before everybody had a camera in their pocket.

Rembrandt’s painting of an autopsy

Buildings under construction

A busy harbour scene

Amsterdam’s old city is relatively small. It’s wonderful to wander through the streets, having a look at whatever was around the next corner. Everywhere there are little shops with their goods displayed on the pavement, and we spent an hour or so browsing through a market where you could buy clothes, books, art, food – all sorts. Amsterdam is well known for its laid-back attitude to sex and sex work. We didn’t go to the Red Light district on this visit but you don’t have to go far to see the casual acceptance of sex as part of life. You don’t have to go far to experience the acceptance of cannabis, either. Walk past a coffee shop and you’ll smell it. But both drug sales and the sex industry are strictly controlled to prevent any influx of organised crime, and to ensure safe, healthy conditions for workers.

Narrow streets

A fish shop

Offerings at a market

fresh fruit and veg

 

High fashion

The Dutch love their flowers

We visited the famous flower markets which operate from barges moored in the Singelgracht. Here you can buy plants and bulbs from everywhere, particularly tulips. I did ask about taking bulbs back to Australia, but the shopkeeper shook his head. Not a chance. The import restrictions for Australia are so stringent it’s not even worth talking about.

A cannabis starter kit to grow your own

Bulbs, corms, seedlings

It’s also a good place to buy souvenirs such as Tee shirts, fridge magnets, heap Delft pottery, off-colour postcards. And, of course, coffee.

All sorts of souvenirs – and a casual acceptance of sex. You wouldn’t see something like this in Australia.

On our last night in Amsterdam we dined with friends from KLM at a French restaurant in the south of the city. The Dutch like to be outdoors whenever possible to the advantage of the good weather when it happens. Many restaurants offer tables outside on the pavement. It was a great meal – good food, good company.

Tomorrow we would be off to Copenhagen.

Do we ever learn from history?

It’s Spring racing carnival in Melbourne and the Melbourne Cup will be run next Tuesday. In celebration, this week I was going to write a little article about the wonderful mares who have graced Australia’s racetracks – Makybe Diva, the only horse to win three Melbourne Cups, Black Caviar who won twenty-five races on the trot (or maybe gallop) only to be surpassed by the incomparable Winx, who is the only horse to win four Cox Plates among her twenty-nine straight wins. And I couldn’t leave out the wonderful little mare Light Fingers, who won the first Melbourne Cup for the legendary Bart Cummings – and came a gallant second in the following year. Her jockey, the late Roy (professor) Higgins, loved his little girl. As Cummings’s chief stable jockey he could have ridden the favourite, Galilee, to victory, but he stuck with his little mare and brought her in a gallant, wonderful second.

Sigh.

But then a middle-aged white guy toting an AR-15 automatic rifle and three glocks stormed into a synagogue in Pittsburg during the Saturday service and gunned down eleven elderly  worshippers. The youngest was 54, the oldest 97.

It is hard to conceive of a more cowardly, gutless, despicable act. He was targeting Jews, shouting ‘All Jews must die’ as he sprayed bullets.  Anti-semitism is alive and well in America. And never really went away anywhere else. I despair. Go and visit Auschwitz, as we did last year. Here’s my article on that. Or think about young Germans leaping around on the Holocaust memorial in Berlin as though it was a theme park. Or actually look at the little plaques set into the pavement in German (and Dutch) towns, recognising the lives of people who did nothing more than be a little bit different.

The holocaust memorial in Berlin – youths ‘jumping on dead Jews’

The names of Jews outside the homes where they lived before they were taken away to be murdered.

And there are people who try to say the Holocaust never happened. Chief among them is the president of Iran, who of course opposes anything to do with Israel. But David Irving is British and he’s well-known for his views.

I’ve just read that Robert Bowers, the man who pulled the trigger at the synagogue, has been charged with eleven murders and a host of other offences. He has pleaded not guilty. Here’s the story. If that man gets off on some technicality I will have lost all hope for the US legal system.

Needless to say, US politicians will tell the world that the victims are in ‘their thoughts and prayers’. And nothing will change. Disaffected white men will still be able to purchase AR-15’s as substitute dicks and kill people who are no threat to anybody. It makes me sick.

And to answer my own rhetorical question – you can’t learn from history if you don’t bother to learn any.

And here are a few photos taken with my new Nikon P1000.

 

 

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