Tag Archives: Holocaust

Ugly past of a beautiful place

September campsites in the Ahr valley are full

September campsites in the Ahr valley are full

The second leg of our Grey Wave adventure took as across another border – this time between Belgium and Germany. Just a short drive, less than 150 kilometres, but since we took to the scenic roads rather than the highways, including a small stop at Signal de Botrange, the highest point of Belgium and one of the weirdest spots on the continent, it took us the best part of the day just to get there. The roads here wind through dark forests and deep valleys, the bottom of which seemed one big campsite at times, as one infinitely long camping seamlessly converged onto the next. And they were all full to the brackets, with elderly wine-drinkers I presume, as the last week of September is the time of wine-festivals here. The Ahr valley, where we camped, looks (and smells) as if it could be in the mountains of Switzerland or Austria, with the steep gorge flanked by numerous vineyards, that, in September, spread an unmistakable odour of rotting fruit. Castle ruins on hilltops and abandoned fruit trees terraces make the romantic setting complete.

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The next morning we took the bicycles for a ride down the valley, to the pittoresque little town of Ahrweiler, the capital of the wine growing in the area, where I had a rather curious encounter with the ugly German past. I have visited Germany on many occasions, and I have even lived in the country for several months. I’ve seen and experienced a number of Holocaust sites and of course I am aware of the history. For me as a Jew, Germany will inevitably be connected to this most ugly chapter in human history. But I don’t hold a special grudge against modern-day Germans, nor do I think that the Germans of the past are more accountable for the horrors than all the other people of Europe. Except the Danes, perhaps, who deserve special credit for their courage and success in saving almost all the Danish Jews.

As I’ve said, I know my history and am not often overwhelmed by emotions about the Holocaust. But as we strolled through this peaceful, sunny little town, we’ve come across the old synagogue, which in the Jew-deprived Ahrweiler is now being used as an art exhibition space. This is where it hit me. I stood there and read the plaque, telling about the desecration of the synagogue in 1938, and how not a single of the town’s Jews survived the Holocaust and I just didn’t get it. I could somehow acknowledge that in the relative anonymity of a big city, where you don’t even know your neighbour’s name bad things can and do happen. But here, in this small remote town? How could it happen in the 20th century, in a wealthy European country, that the town’s people, educated, cultured folk, who lived together with their Jewish neighbours for 7 centuries, who probably knew each and every one of the several dozens of the town’s Jews by name, got together and burned down the synagogue, and send their neighbours to the gas chambers? I just couldn’t fathom it, I still can’t, and I was most surprised how despite all my knowledge of the Holocaust, I still fail to understand, and probably will never be able to understand, how otherwise nice and decent people can be capable of unspeakable cruelties to their closest neighbours.

We haven’t stayed too long in Germany. The weather became cold and rainy, and we’ve made our escape, stopping briefly in ancient Trier, before heading to the next country on our list. Attentive readers will probably have already guessed which one it was.

Golden decorations on a Trier palace - how German can it get?

Golden decorations on a Trier palace – how German can it get?

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Jewish Rotterdam

Small European countries are known for their stability. For a great deal, a small European country looks and sounds the same as a few decades ago – the trams, universities, cafe’s, parliaments, all were there a century ago, are still around and will probably be there in another 100 years. There is, however, a major “ingredient” that is virtually absent from modern small European countries. Its the Jews. Just 75 years ago, most countries in Europe had a significant Jewish community. Then… well, I guess you know the history.

After WWII and the Holocaust, the little Jewish presence remaining in Europe dwindled further due to immigration to Israel and the USA. Nowadays, the only countries in Europe with a sizable Jewish community are France, UK, Russia and Germany – all large countries. Only 3000 Jews live in Poland, that before WWII was home to more than 3 million Jews, the largest Jewish community in the world. But although there are Jewish lawyers, comedians and politicians, Jewish communities are just too small to be a factor in the daily life of any small European countries.

The Jews may be largely gone but their presence is not entirely erased even if it is sometimes not tangible. A good example of hidden Jewish presence are Hebrew words integrated into European languages like “mazzel” or “lef” in Dutch, meaning “luck” and “courage” (“lev” actually means “heart” in Hebrew). Actually, all European languages use “amen” and “hallelujah”, words that come from Hebrew.

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Even though Amsterdam was synonymous with Jewish life in the Netherlands, Rotterdam has a long history of Jewish presence, too. And I’d like to contribute to preserving this history by proposing you a tour of Jewish Rotterdam. Rotterdam had a Jewish community from the early 1600’s. In the 1930’s Jewish refugees from Germany and Austria came to Rotterdam as to the rest of the Netherlands, Anne Frank of course being the most famous of those. In Rotterdam some refugees were hosted in the Quarantine on Heijplaat. During WWII Rotterdam’s Jewish community was hit double hard. The centre of the city, where most Jews lived and that contained the historical Jewish buildings like most synagogues was bombed by the Luftwaffe on 14th of May 1940. Then the Rotterdam Jews were gathered at the infamous Loods 24 and deported to the extermination camps, from where almost none returned. A small number of Jews still live in Rotterdam, like myself or these guys. But as elsewhere in Europe, most Jews in Rotterdam are dead Jews. Jewish cemeteries are not emptied, but remain sacred ground forever (or, at least, until Judgement Day). So the Jewish graves are still there at several locations around town. Right next door to me, for example, are the oldest Jews of Rotterdam, buried at Bet Hagajiem cemetery. Another one is not too far away at the Oostzeedijk. As you can see, there’s not much left of Jewish Rotterdam. But this just means there’s even more reason to preserve what remains.

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Europe’s hidden treasures unveiled

First of all, I’d like to congratulate myself with a blogging landmark – this is the 100th post! Kudos to me!

Having spend quite some time in Europe, I’ve had the chance to visit some of the more remote corners of the continent. As a traveller, I like finding the hidden spots, the places not yet tramped by mass tourism. Often, these are places that are very close to those flooded with visitors, but take the left turn where everybody goes right, and you’ll be rewarded with unique experiences, great sights and, often, a thicker wallet. These hidden spots are, of course, not hidden at all, they’re just a tiny bit off the beaten path. I’d like to make them a bit less hidden, by sharing with you some “hidden” spots I’ve had the pleasure to discover.

1. Rago National Park, Norway
On the Norwegian mainland, opposite the well-visited island chain of Lofoten lies the Rago National Park. There’s not much plant life diversity, nor are there many birds and animals. There is, however, plenty of magnificent nothingness and the views are amazing.

Rago

These views are all yours in Rago – no one’s around for miles

2. Texel, Netherlands
Called “mini-Holland”, this small island has plenty to offer. Unlike Rago, Texel actually has the highest biodiversity in the Netherlands. Birds, marine mammals, insects and most of all, sheep, all are present in great variety (except the sheep). Also on Texel – beautiful sandy beaches, a unique piece of WWII history and a wacky beachcombing museum. There are no coffeeshops though, so the “mini-Holland” experience is a bit incomplete.

Texel

Holland in a nutshell – Texel

3. Ghent, Belgium
Say Belgium and people will name Brussels (and Manneken Pis), Bruges and perhaps Antwerpen and Liege. Ghent? Never heard of, right? Well, wrong. Ghent has everything all the other Belgian cities have to offer plus a huge extra – the Gentse Feesten. In July the city is host to one of the biggest festivals in Europe, as the streets are taken over by theatre and music performers of all kinds. As a bonus, Ghent has not one, but two Manneken Pis! Eat your heart out, Brussels.

Ghent

The Belgian sense of absurdism is well-suited for Ghent’s street theatre

4. Alpstein, Switzerland
The Alpstein (otherwise known as Appenzell Alps) is a mountain range in the East of Switzerland. While not as high as its bigger cousins in Valais or the Bernese Alps, Alpstein is just as rugged, and offers all extreme activities known to man, without the altitude sickness. Aplstein gets huge amounts of snow in the winter, the summer sun is abundant, the tiny mountain lakes are clear and cold, and if you’re looking for more sophistication, the charming medieval town of St. Gallen and the jet-set of the Bodensee are a short train ride away. And my favourite Swiss cheese – Appenzeller – is made here! No wonder I love Alpstein.

Clear mountain lakes, plenty of snow and hot summer sun - Alpstein

Clear mountain lakes, plenty of snow and hot summer sun – Alpstein

5. IG Farben Building in Frankfurt, Germany
Germany abounds with Holocaust monuments. The impressive Holocaust Memorial in Berlin and concentrations camps like Bergen-Belzen or Dachau all serve well their purpose of keeping the memory alive. But the one I was most impressed by was an office building in Frankfurt, which nowadays hosts the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University. During WWII this building was the headquarters of IG Farben, the firm that developed the Zyklon B gas, which was used to kill millions of Jews and other “unwanted elements”. The irony of the headquarters of IG Farben now hosting the department of Cultural and Civilization Studies of a university named after the greatest German artist is mind-bogging. As is the building itself, by the way. If you’re in Frankfurt, don’t miss it.

The IG Farben building holds the "Smell of Guilt"

The IG Farben Building still holds the “Smell of Guilt”

6. Kiev, Ukraine
The Ukrainian capital is one of the ten largest cities in Europe, yet not even the final of Euro 2012 was able to put in on the tourism map. Which is a shame. Because in addition to the glister of golden onion domes everywhere you look, Kiev, one of the oldest cities of Eastern Europe, has trendy art galleries, exotic night life, iconic Soviet-era monuments and all that for a bargain price. Hurry up and go there before this rough diamond has been cut, set and tamed.

Golden domes of churches are everywhere in Kiev

Golden domes of churches are everywhere in Kiev

7. Vall de Boí, Spain
Taüll, the biggest village in this remote Pyrenean valley has only 273 inhabitants. What Vall de Boí lacks in numbers, though, it makes up for in style. From outside, the nine Catalan Romanesque Churches of the valley are splendid examples of Medieval architecture. From the inside, they are decorated with frescoes of amazing colour richness and of a style I can only describe as avaunt-guard. Pretty neat for the 12th century, if you ask me. As an extra, the valley is one of the access points to the Aigüestortes i Estany de Sant Maurici National Park, so it’s definitely worth a detour.

Sant Climent de Taüll, the engineers will surely appreciate the window design

Sant Climent de Taüll, the engineers will surely appreciate the window design

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