Berlin, Warszawa, Kraków and Praha

03/13/2011

I have a lot to tell you guys.

I got back on Wednesday from 11 days in Berlin, Warsaw, Krakow and Prague with my Gramma, Grampa and Aunt Amy. It was an absolutely amazing trip.

Berlin

Lets start from the beginning, shall we? I woke up way too early on Sunday the 27th, caught a bus to Basel, Switzerland and was in Berlin by 11am. It was somewhat of an adventure getting from the airport to the hotel, but I eventually got there and oh, was it ever a nice hotel. We stayed at the Hotel Adlon which, alongside the King David which we stayed at in Jerusalem, is one of those hotels whose history is actually a part of history books. Let’s just say the Adlon has its own bunker dating back to the Second World War. I know, right?

Yes, that is the Brandenburg gate in the distance. The green roofed building on the left is the Adlon. You really couldnt get any closer.

Sunday afternoon we met up with some friends of the family who live in Berlin and they took us around to the Reichstag and Checkpoint Charlie and such. We also went to the Topography of Terror which is a museum on the block where Gestapo headquarters used to be. It was interesting, but mainly photographs.

We went to an italian restaurant for dinner which, because it was turkish owned, was also halal.

Monday morning we got a tour guide who took us around Berlin and showed us places like where they burned books in 1933 and other various memorials. We also went to KaDeWe which stands for Kaufhaus des Westens (or deparment store of the west) which was basically one fancy shopping mall. The best part of Monday however, was after we went back to our hotel in the afternoon.

About two blocks behind my hotel was the street on which Hitler’s New Chancellery built in 1938 by Albert Speer once stood. Though nothing remains of it now, I went on a walk to go see it anyways. That’s the corner, by the way. But the building itself was huge.

From there, I went to where the Führerbunker is. For those of you who dont know what that means, it was the bunker in which Adolf Hitler spent the last weeks of his life and where he later committed suicide. The bunker is still there underground but the public, like me, dont have access to it. I seriously wish I could see it. Imagine the history. But anyways, that apartment block on the right is sitting on top of the bunker.

Tuesday morning we did more touring around Berlin with our guide. We went to a couple different Holocaust memorials, the 1936 Olympic Stadium and a pretty palace of some old royalty. We stopped briefly at the Bendlerblock where von Staufenberg and other plotters of the 20. July 1944 assassination attempt were shot. If that doesnt mean anything to you, they made an awful film about it with Tom Cruise a couple years ago.

In the afternoon we went to the Holocaust museum behind our hotel. The museum is underground, and above it are these large grey blocks of stone or concrete in rows. The museum was really well done and I found a book in the gift shop which is honestly already one of my favorite books I own.

The book is called Adolf H. by Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt, its in German and I’m completely in love with it. Its fiction, and it starts in 1909 when Hitler applied to art school in Vienna. The reason this book is so amazing is that it tells two stories, the first is based on the truth and Adolf Hitler is rejected from art school. The second story is about Adolf H. who is accepted.

The story switches back and forth every couple pages and the events that happen in the novel are all things that shaped Hitler into who he was. Both Adolf Hitler and Adolf A. go through roughly the same situations (women, WW1, friendship etc.) but they deal with them in different ways. It’s an amazing book.

Wednesday we went to Potsdam. On the way there we went to the Wannsee house which I was personally really excited about. Before I left for Berlin I made a list of places I wanted to see while I was there. I had written the Wannsee house down but because it’s like a half an hour outside the city I didnt really think I’d actually get there. I was thrilled when I found out we were going.

The Wannsee house is so important because in Winter 1942, Reinhard Heydrich Adolf Eichmann and other Nazi officials held a conference here to decide not that the Jewish Question needed to be dealt with, but rather how it should be dealt with. I dont think I need to tell you what that decision meant for 6 million Jews.

Also, if you’ve ever read Robert Harris’ alternate history novel Fatherland, the plot revolves around the fate of those who attended this conference. If you havent read it, you really should. They also made a pretty alright TV movie out of it in the 90’s.

Anyways, from Wannsee we went to Potsdam where we went to the palace where Churchill, Truman and Stalin divided up Germany after the war and from there we went to Sanssouci palace.

That afternoon we went to the German History Museum and it was absolutely amazing. The museum goes chronologically through German history starting roughly 1300. They had so many old books on display, I was in heaven. I’m pretty sure I could spend forever in that museum, there were so many artifacts to see and it was fascinating.

Different exhibits reminded me of different things. One exhibit of knight’s armor reminded me of the last scene from the movie Bedknobs and Broomsticks while another made me feel like I had stepped out of Berlin and into Thomas Mann’s novel Buddenbrooks. I’m sure youre not surprised however when I say that my favorite part was the exhibit on the Nazis.

There were so many things that fascinated me, they had uniforms and posters and the engine of a V2 rocket. There were badges and pins and even an anti-aircraft gun. But the thing that I could spend forever simply looking at and imagining its history was Hitler’s desk (designed by Speer) from the New Chancellery.

In case you were wondering why I keep mentioning Speer, he’s the man I’m going to write a book about sometime in the next ten years. In fact, all I want to do is research him for the rest of my life. But anyways, back to this desk.

I saw many things during my trip that if they could talk, could tell the most powerful stories. This desk is one of them. Just imagine Hitler standing over it with a map of Europe planning out his next move against France or Russia or England.

That’s pretty much a summary of what we got up to in Berlin. I’ll leave you with this photo of me in front of the Brandenburg Gate and then we’ll move on to Poland!

Poland – Warsaw

Thursday morning we took a train from Berlin to Warsaw. At first it seemed pretty nice, we had our own compartment and there was enough room for our luggage. It was only after a little while that we realized the heat was broken. They fixed it eventually, but I spent a good two hours absolutely freezing.

Once we got everything taken care of at the hotel we went for a walk around the center of Warsaw. There’s a huge square in the center and its really very pretty. We went to a nice restaurant for dinner and let me tell you, the Poles know how to cook.

Maybe its because polish food is, in many ways, Jewish food. Things like stuffed cabbage and dumplings, borscht and kasha were on most menus as well as in Jewish kitchens in the states. It was like eating comfort food at every meal.

I discovered a love for borscht. The poles serve their borscht hot and the best one I had had julienned beets and diced potatoes in it. I could have that every single day.

Moral of the story, I’m not sure whether I loved the food because it was genuinely really good or because it was things that are in my blood as a Jew whose ancestors come from eastern Europe. I think it might be a mix of both.

The next day we had a tour all day. We went to a synagogue that had survived the war, saw the Jewish cemetery which has mass graves from the Warsaw Ghetto. We even saw one of the last remaining remnants of the wall that surrounded the Warsaw Ghetto. But the one thing that made by far the strongest impression on me was seeing Mila Street.

Many of you might recognize the word Mila from Leon Uris’ novel Mila 18 about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Though the role this street played in the uprising was in itself enough to make an impression, it is not what made seeing that street so amazing for me.When my Zadie was a boy, his family moved to Warsaw for a while and out of all the streets in Warsaw, the one they lived on was Mila Street.

My Zadie came to the States in 1926 when he was 8, served in the Second World War as a flight surgeon and he and his wife had five daughters, one of whom is my mother. 15 years after he came to the States the street he once lived on became the center of the most famous Ghetto in Poland. Many Jews in the Warsaw ghetto died there of hunger or sickness or during the uprising. Those who did not die in Warsaw were sent to extermination camps throughout the east, most of them to Treblinka.

Fifteen years. That is why Mila Street made such an impression on me. There but for the grace of God…

We caught a train bright and early the next day (the 5th) to Krakow.

Poland – Krakow

We got picked up from the train station and went straight to the Jewish Quarter. Unlike the Jewish sections in both Berlin and Warsaw, the one in Krakow was still somewhat active. There were Jewish restaurants and the one active synagogue had just finished their Shabbat services so there were Orthodox Jews wandering around.

From there we went to some places where they filmed Schindler’s List. I completely understand why he picked to film there,walking into the courtyard was like walking into the 1930’s. We took a short drive from there to Schindler’s factory which is in the industrial outskirts of Prague. They’ve turned it into somewhat of a memorial but the building looks exactly the same as it did in the movie.

After the end of the tour my Grampa and I went pretty much across the street from our hotel and climbed up to the Wawel Castle. It reminded me a little of the one in Nuremberg.

Our hotel in Krakow was literally right across the street from the house where Pope John Paul II lived before he was a pope. The poles really love their pope!

I’m going to tell you about Sunday in reverse order. Sunday morning we went to Auschwitz, Sunday afternoon we took a tour of the salt mines. Lets start with the afternoon.

The salt mines were started literally hundreds of years ago and reminded me somewhat of the Lord of the Rings’ Mines of Moria. They wound on and on and went hundreds of feet into the earth. I dont have any photos because you had to buy a pass to take them but let me describe to you the main chapel.

The poles are really religious people, I mean like 98% of their population is Catholic and therefore the miners built chapels throughout the mines so that they could pray during the day. The main room is absolutely huge and is carved entirely from salt. The walls, the floors, the altar piece, all of it was salt. It was rather impressive.

Sunday morning we went to Auschwitz.

Auschwitz-Birkenau is roughly an hour outside of Krakow. It was separated into three camps, Auschwitz I, Birkenau and Monowitz which does not exist anymore. We went first to Auschwitz I.

As much as I’d like to tell you all about seeing the camp, there’s really no words to describe what it is like to see a room full of shoes which are there only to show a small sample of what they found after the war. How can I possibly describe the way it felt to walk through a gas chamber where thousands of people were murdered and then walk right into the room in which their bodies were burned? All I can show you from Auschwitz is pictures because words cannot describe a death camp.

The entrance to Auschwitz I

A mountain of suitcases, this is only a small section

The wire surrounding the camp

The gas chamber

From Auschwitz I we took a quick drive to Birkenau (also known as Auschwitz II). Birkenau is the camp you see in films. Its the one with the tracks that go through the front building and straight into the center of the camp. It’s the one with rows after rows of barracks that go on almost as far as the eye can see.

The sheer scale of the camp is overwhelming. If you see the line of trees in the far distance, that’s how far the camp goes. Because the baracks on this side of the camp (the other side is just as large) were made of wood, most of them have collapsed leaving only their brick chimneys behind. Each and every chimney you see was once a shack for prisoners.

That’s the inside of one of the barracks. Everything there was so bare. it was simply impossible to imagine what it was like. It was a powerful thing to see.

It’s one thing to read about Auschwitz, it’s another thing to see it. If you havent read Night by Elie Wiesel, The Sunflower (which takes place in Lemberg, not Auschwitz) or Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz, you really should.

The next morning we took a quick flight from Krakow to Prague.

Czech Republic – Prague

We got into Prague at roughly 8:30am, wandered around for a little while and then got picked up for a tour of the city. We went to the Palace and I got to see the changing of the guards and get a really good view of the city.

We basically had a tour of the city itself and drove around and saw the sites. Prague is a really pretty city.

There were two things that I really liked seeing. The first was the church in which the assassins of Reinhard Heydrich hid in after their attack. I would have much rather seen the corner on which it actually happened, but according to our tour guide it doesnt exist anymore. Too bad.

The other thing that I got a kick out of seeing was the building designed to look like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

I dont know if you know, but I’m kind of obsessed with Fred Astaire films. Each and every one of his films makes me smile every time I see them. If you have never seen Top Hat or Daddy Long Legs you really need to because they’re both absolutely amazing.

After that they took us back to the hotel. Let me tell you about this hotel.

It was music themed, and did they ever take the theme seriously. From the tiles to the carpet, the art to the rooms themselves, everything was music themed. They had a music room with cds and dvds we could borrow and it was rather impressive. The nicest thing was our room.

Yea, that is a complimentary bottle of wine on that table there.

I had beef cheeks for dinner that night. The whole time I was eating them all I could picture was the face of a cow. I think I’ll stick with a steak from now on…

The next day we went to Theresienstadt. Theresienstadt or Terezin in Czech was a transit camp during the 2nd World War. Our first stop was at the Gestapo prison just outside the town.

The prison was almost more powerful than Auschwitz because unlike Auschwitz where everything was all cleaned up and organized, the paint was chipping, the sinks (which were just for show, no water pipes ever connected to the faucets) were chipped. It felt a lot more like what I expected Auschwitz to feel like.

The guy who assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand and kicked off the First World War was imprisoned here for a couple years during WW1.

There was a special section there where they kept Jewish prisoners and in the last days of the war there was a Typhoid epidemic among the prisoners there. The Nazis locked the entrance as a “quarantine” and apparently when they were liberated there were piles of bodies in this open square.

From the prison we went into the town which itself used to be the camp. A transit camp is unlike a concentration camp in that the majority of the people sent there were later sent to extermination camps in Poland or elsewhere. Not all people left Terezin however, some 33,000 died there and were cremated there.

Next to the crematorium is a lawn covered with small stones each marked with a number and each number represents a mass grave. The Jews of the camp were responsible for burning the bodies and therefore they tried to do it with as much respect as possible. Unlike in death camps where the ashes of victims were all mixed together, the Jews of Terezin made urns out of wood and later paper in an effort to maintain each individual’s memory.

After seeing Theresienstadt we drove back to Prague where we took a tour of the Jewish area. Our tour guide went to University with the man who is now in charge of the main Jewish organization in Prague so she called him up and we got to sit down with him and talk about Jewish life in Prague.

It was really interesting to hear what he had to say. It was also good to hear that though their community is quite small, it is active.

We went to a small pizzeria for lunch where I had the spaghetti all spaghetti should try to be. It had roasted garlic and chili peppers and a clear sauce and I honestly had to write about it because it was the closest thing to perfect pasta I’ve ever had. I’m hungry just thinking about it.

After that we went on a tour of the different synagogues. Only one of them is active, the others have been turned into a museum of religious things like torah crowns and seder plates and such. Part of the tour was to see the Jewish cemetery which is unique because due to a lack of space, people are buried there in layers, one on top of the other. You can see that some headstones are really close to each other, that means that in that plot each stone represents someone buried there.

With the tour over, my last day in Prague was almost, but not quite over. Instead of going to dinner and coming back to the hotel, we did something I’ve never done in my life. We went to an opera.

Stepping into the Prague State Opera felt like stepping 100 years into the past. I felt like if I looked closely into some of the boxes I might see Austrian-Hungarian royalty looking back at me.

We saw the opera Madame Butterfly which is a tragedy about a Japanese woman who falls in love with an American sailor. I really liked it.

The next day we took a quick walk around Prague and then it was time to go to the airport and fly back to Basel. It was only an hour flight but it was probably the bumpiest flight I’ve ever been on. I dont like turbulence, it freaks me out.

I’ve been back in Freiburg since Wednesday afternoon and I had intended to write all this about my trip and not really pay any attention to my last couple days here. I assumed that all I’d be doing here was finishing up term papers and while that is mostly true, something that happened on Friday was so remarkable that I just have to tell you about it.

I called the fire department.

Just outside of my window is the roof of the place in which the dumpsters for my building are kept. The roof of this building isnt shingled or anything, but rather covered with grass and weeds and natural stuff.

I was talking to my parents on skype when I looked out the window and noticed a small fire on the edge of the roof. I watched it slowly start spreading, called my friend to get the number for the fire department, called them and then waited until they showed up. By the time they got here it had pretty much burned itself out, but I still got to watch fire fighters hose down the roof which is almost literally right outside my window.

It made my day.

Alright, well I hope this blog makes up for skipping last week. I promised an extra one with lots of photos and I think I did pretty well, dont you?

As always, there are more photos on facebook.

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