Thursday, June 13, 2019

Free Day

Yesterday was our free day, what I dub our “mental health day.”  It’s the halfway point in the study abroad trip and it follows one of the hardest days so far, our visit to Mauthausen.  Students can sleep in, do their laundry, go shopping, whatever they want.

The past two trips I’ve gone to Salzburg for the day, but it’s been a while since I’ve been to the art museums in Vienna and it was time to go back.  Several students expressed an interest in going to the Upper Belvedere Museum, so we went there.

Unfortunately, I turned right into the park when leaving the S-Bahn, not left into the park, and we walked about 30 minutes out of our way until I we realized we were going in the wrong direction.  We took a bus back to where we started and from there another tram to the museum.

To make it up to them for misdirecting them so badly, I personally treated the three students who came with me to the museum.  They loved the views and the elaborate rooms and the art.

The rest of the day, the students went off on their own. Two told me last night that they had gone to the Freud Museum, closed for renovations, in order to pick up some stuff at the gift shop. I’ll find out what the others did today at breakfast.

I went to buy new shoes as I’ve discovered a small hole in the top of one of my shoes.  Unfortunately, the prices were outrageous.  C and A had decent prices (20-30 euros), but no selection.  Footlocker’s prices started at 100 euros and went up from there.  I’ll wait until we’re in Poland and try again there.

After that, I needed a break from the heat and humidity, so stopped into Aida for some much needed kaffee und kuchen (specifically, a “mélange” and a “Eszterhazy Schnitte”), and to read the paper.

Refrshed, I headed to the Albertina, where I’ve seen some amazing stuff before.  The special exhibit was of an artist I had never heard of, and if I never hear of him again, it will be too soon.  Nitsch was a leader of my least-favorite post-war artistic movement:  Vienna Aktionismus.  This involves making art that rips open the diseased body of Western Civilization to reveal its rotting entrails, and thus, somehow, cure it of the illnesses that led to the wars and totalitarianisms of the 20th century.

Nitsch seems to have taken that literally, as he used (animal) blood in his paintings, sometimes ripping out organs with his hands (and his assistants’ hands) to smear it on the paintings.  Some of the rooms had warnings posted about violent images.  In his “brown series,” he used paint designed to look like excrement, smeared with actual blood.  I didn’t spend much time there.

Apparently, I’m no longer all that avant-garde, since I rushed upstairs to see the lovely exhibit “From Monet to Picasso.”  This collection specializes in post-impressionist color-theory art.  Each painting was a delight, with no (actual) blood or (faux) excrement to be seen. 

Perhaps my favorite, though, wasn’t even part of the primary exhibition.  For a limited time, two new rooms have been added with art on loan from the Austrian National Bank.  This art was labeled “The Austrian New Objectivity” – an interwar artistic movement, similar to the one in Germany – but the collection was far too eclectic to fit into that one description.  My favorite piece by far was Robert Kross’ “Terzetta.” 

They didn’t have much information on him or what the painting depicted or even what the title means.  The painting doesn’t much look like the German “New Objectivity” movement, but is rather more expressionist.  The painting depicts a woman dressed to the nines for a night on the town, her thin dress revealing much of her cleavage.  Her blonde hair is done up in the Jazz 1920s’ fashion, and she’s wearing long, elegant gloves.  What struck me, though, is that she isn’t a young woman going out on the town; she’s definitely middle aged, but she’s not going to let that stand in her way.  As far as she’s concerned, she’s just as beautiful, just as sexy as any 20-something flapper out in the clubs with her.  The lighting, which creates a halo around her face, is particularly dramatic.

I wandered around a bit afterwards, getting some pretty good schnitzel at the train station near the hotel.  I met two students in the lobby and heard about their day.  They were hungry and I wanted to get some buchteln at Café Hawelka, so we pooled our resources.  I sat with them and had a beer on the Graben, and then they joined me for coffee and buchteln at Café Hawelka.

One time I described buchteln as a kind of jelly doughnut and the waiter became indignent with me, so I was more careful this time.  “It’s a yeast-based dough filled with plum jam and then baked into pull-apart rolls.”  They aren’t all that sweet and they are particularly good when served fresh from the oven (as ours were).

Slept well last night and today we are off to the Jewish Museum, the Hapsburg out-of-town palace, and perhaps the Welt Museum before we take the night train to Warsaw.

Sunday, June 09, 2019


Lidice is always an emotional day.  Most students have never heard of the town murdered by the Nazis on June 10, 1942.  Tomorrow is the 77th anniversary of the massacre.  Because the numbers are so (relatively) small, the loss is much more comprehensible. 

Following Heydrich’s assassination by Czech paratroopers, Hitler imposed collective punishment on Bohemia and Moravia.  Lidice was chosen because it was small and close to Prague, so that people in the capital would feel it.  The men were shot, the women sent to concentration camp, and 80% of the children were murdered in Chelmno extermination camp.  The remaining children who were young and Aryan looking were given to German couples to adopt.

The letters and postcards from the doomed children to their families begging for aid are heartbreaking.  They were posted from the Lodz ghetto two days before the children were sent to the gas vans.  By the time their grandparents, aunts and uncles received them, the children were already dead.  No information was given their relatives concerning the children’s murder.

The former site of the town is nothing more than green, mowed grass, sloping down to the stream and then up again the other side.  The only structures besides individual memorials are a few fragments of foundations of farm houses.  After the town was burned, the Nazis dynamited all the buildings and bulldozed the rubble until nothing of the town was left.  As one student noted, if a bus dropped you off in the middle of it, you’d have no idea that there was ever a town here at all.

Afterwards, I took the students out to lunch at one of my favorite restaurants in Prague.  I figured we could use a break, and Cukrakavalimonada has a light, fresh menu that appealed to both vegetarians and meat eaters alike.  They also make wonderful lemonades and very tasty desserts and hot chocolate.  The hot chocolate actually tastes like the melted chocolate and mixed it with hot milk, as opposed to pouring hot water over some powder.

For dessert, I had the Hraběnčiny řezy, which roughly translates to “The Countess Slice.”  “Slices,” or “Schnitten” in German, are layered desserts that are served as pieces, as opposed to cut from a torte or cake.  The bottom layer was a simple biscuit dough cake, followed by a layer of chopped and cooked apples, and then the top is covered with layer of meringue and sliced almonds. It was very good.

I had promised all the students I would take them to see the astronomical clock in action, and one still hadn’t seen it.  With only 20 minutes, though, we would have to race from the restaurant in Malastrana to Old Town Square.  It didn’t help that the Charles Bridge was more crowded than I had ever seen it.  With the nice weather we’ve been having, everyone was out for a stroll.  I just bulldozed my way through crowds, cutting off small children and tourists, but in the end, I got the student to the clock with three minutes to spare.

After doing some administrative work for my program, I went off to a coffee shop in the neighborhood to read my novel.  I was startled by hearing some Hebrew as some Israelis came in, talked, and then left.  I think I only met three Israelis in my week and a half in Berlin, but I’ve heard Hebrew every day here in Prague.  Waiting at the Crazy Burrito place for dinner (ok, it’s official name is “Burrito Loco”), I heard some Hebrew and met an archaeology professor from Bar Ilan and his wife, who’s a biologist at the Weizmann Institute. 

I’ve been curious what the students think of Prague.  They agree that it can be a very pretty city, but many of them found the number of tourists off putting.  One was surprised by how many souvenir shops there were.  If you’re on the main tourist drag it can seem that everyone here is a tourist. The strange this is that we’re still not in height of the season yet.  Some of the students also thought that Prague felt a little dirty or seedy, which it certainly can be.

One problem is that I think I bias the students against the city in my perpetual warnings about property crime.  Except, there really is a lot of it here and I want my students to be safe.  It’s a really hard line to walk between telling them to exercise caution and scaring them from enjoying the city. I’m still not sure how to strike that balance. 

Tomorrow, we’re off to Vienna.

Saturday, June 08, 2019


I think the student consensus is that our hotel in Prague is somewhat down market. “It doesn’t feel all that clean,” one student said.  The rooms look like they were furnished in the 1960s and the rather Spartan breakfast is in the adjacent building, which is accessed by walking through the car park.  Still, the price was remarkably affordable (for Prague).  All the other guests appear to be Czech.

We had very good weather for our visit to Terezin (also known by its German name, Theresienstadt).  We began with a visit to the museum in the former boy’s home.  The film they showed this time was a 1965 film that intercut scenes from the Nazi propaganda film with drawings done by the artists showing the reality of what the ghetto/concentration camp was like.  The music at the end was from the “El Male Rachamim” prayer (“God, full of compassion”) for those murdered in the Holocaust.  This is one of those prayers where the melody sounds as if one is crying as one prays.  As it reaches the words “שֶׁנֶּהֶרְגוּ, שֶׁנִּשְׁחֲטוּ, שֶׁנִּשְׂרְפוּ וְשֶׁנִּסְפּוּ עַל קִדּוּשׁ הַשֵׁם” – “who were killed, slaughtered, burnt, and exterminated for the sake of the Holy Name” – the cantor usually sings them almost as a scream, which generally brings me to tears.

One new thing was that they recently discovered in a currently unused building a set of “closets” that were originally used as living quarters for Jewish forced workers.  These have been restored as has a secret prayer room adjacent to it, which had been painted by one of the workmen to resemble a traditional synagogue (with the texts of important prayers decorating the walls).  It was very moving.

Afterwards, we went to the park in the town square to eat our lunches that we brought with us. One student noted that we were walking through a grave yard, where Jews had dropped dead everywhere, so the park seemed the best place, since it was off limits to Jews in the ghetto, and thus no one died there.

Several of the students said that the creepiest aspect of the town is that there are people living here.  While some of the barracks are used for museum displays, others are vacant, and still others are occupied by Czechs.  The Czech government continued to use Terezin as a military garrison through 1996, so people had been settled in the town during the communist period and into the post-communist period.

On the last trip, I noticed a “pension” located just between the inner defensive wall, alongside the moat that separated it from the outer defensive wall (Terezin was built by the Hapsburgs as a military fortification and garrison in the 18th century).  During the Holocaust, the Nazis converted the adjacent section of the outer defensive wall into a morturary and columbarium (where one stores ashes of those cremated).  The road continues to the ghetto cemetery and crematorium. 

I remember thinking, “who in their right mind would book a room next to the ghetto mortuary”?  It turns out the answer is “no one.”  The hotel is now for sale for the bargain price of 3,400,000 Czech Koruna ($150,500).  A steal.

When we got back to town, most of the students napped, while I went out to find a copy of the paper.  I also wanted to find Czech chlebicki: cheap, open-faced sandwiches.  I finally found some and had two (one salami, one lox), a kremroll for dessert, and a bottle of soda, all for 25% less than I paid for my one sandwich the day before.  Good to know for the future.

Last night was Prague’s 16th annual “night of the museums” (second Saturday of June), where over 70 institutions open at 7 pm and stay open late and are free.  I went with all but one of the students to the Museum of Communism, which has recently changed locations.  We ended up walking in a large circle until we found we had already walked past it (I did stop and ask for directions).  The new exhibits still maintain its tongue-in-cheek approach to covering the communist period, as you would expect from a privately owned, for-profit museum of communism. 

We had some fun in the gift shop after one of the students pointed out a life-sized mannequin of Leonid Brezhnev.  It’s set up with his lips puckered for a kiss, like he would give communist leaders when he visited the satellite countries.  I asked the students if they would like to pose kissing Brezhnev, but only one pretended to kiss him (you don’t know, after all, where those lips have been).

I noticed that it was 9:50, which meant that if we really raced, we could see the astronomical clock’s display on the hour, so we ran the several blocks to the old town square and made it just in time.  The students were very happy.

Several of them still hadn’t had dinner, so we walked to Wenceslas Square, where there are always sausage stands.  “What types of sausage do they have?” I was asked.  “Sausage, sausage, sausage, sausage,” etc., I said, pointing at the pictures. “What flavors are they?”  “Sausage flavors,” I replied.  “If you taste anything else, you’re in luck.”   They seemed to like them.

Today, we’re off to Lidice this morning, and then the rest of the day in Prague is free.

Friday, June 07, 2019

Today, I took the students to the most beautiful café in the world.

Today, I took the students to the most beautiful café in the world.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The train ride today was far better than yesterday.  Not only was the weather just cooler in general, but there was no commotion in getting on the train or in getting our seats.  We had lovely views of the “Saxon Switzerland” as the train climbed up the Elbe towards the Czech border. 

Arrival in Prague was relatively smooth and I was able to get our metro passes without too much difficulty.  The weather was warming up, but it was still much cooler than it had been in Berlin last week. 

Our first stop was to get Czech koruna, which went mostly ok.  Then we got lunch and ate it in the lovely Franciscan Gardens in Nove Mesto.  With food in our stomachs and money in our wallets, we were ready to see the city.

We briefly walked through Old Town Square past the Astronomical Clock.  I promised them multiple times that we would come back to see it in action.  Our goal was the Jewish Museum, which is split among several synagogues.  The Spanish Synagogue is closed for renovations until 2021, but the rest were open, including the Alt-Neu Shul. 

After all that walking, I thought the students deserved a really nice rest break, so I took them to Kavárna Obecní dům, the most beautiful café in the world. A stunning Art Nouveau masterpiece, it nearly moved one student to tears. They all ordered cakes or ice cream and sat enjoying the ambiance and live music (there was a pianist and saxophone player who performed a rather eclectic mix of Ennio Morricone (the main theme from Once Upon a Time in the West) and others. 

After we were fully rested, we headed back outside to see the Charles Bridge and explore a little of the Mala Strana side.  Along the way, we saw a huge group of Bulgarians drinking and singing (the same song, over and over).  I only figured out just now that they were Bulgarians as they were waiving an enormous white, green, and red flag, which the Google tells me is the Bulgarian flag. 

“Here we have the mating call of the drunk human male,” I told the students.  “Notice the prominent display of plumage in the hopes of attracting a female.” 

What I love about Mala Strana is how much quieter and peaceful it is from the mad cap nature of the Stare Mesto.  There are green parks, little canals, and quiet lanes.  We saw a park filled with people picnicking or lying out on the grass and one student asked how it was different from an American park, as she felt there were clear differences.  Besides the length of the grass, you just rarely seen Americans lying out or picnicking in the same way (except perhaps in Central Park, New York). 

I arranged for dinner at a good vegetarian restaurant nearby.  One of the students wanted a Shabbat meal, but it was just too difficult to buy it in advance, nor could I tell online when the meal would even be served.  I asked her if she would be ok with the vegetarian place and she said yes.  I paid for any student who wanted to come.

I asked the students how they felt about the differences and similarities between Prague and Berlin.  Several said they preferred the diversity of Berlin and felt that the huge amount of tourists and tourist traps in Prague made it feel less safe.  One student said that while she felt comfortable walking around Berlin alone at night, she didn’t think she would feel the same way about Prague.

Tomorrow, we head to Terezin (aka Theresienstadt).

Thursday, June 06, 2019

"Go Git 'em!"

After one last sticky night in Berlin, we made our way to Dresden. At the Hauptbahnhof, I was surprised to find that our train wasn’t on the lowest platform (as usual), but on the highest. They also didn’t have a diagram of the train posted (so we could know where our wagon car would be).

I managed to find a place on the platform that turned out to be quite close to our wagon, but the crush getting on was intense. After much pushing we found people in our seats. At first, they didn’t want to leave. One problem was that normally when you reserve a seat, there’s a piece of paper marking it, but none of them were right.

After about 15-20 minutes of arguing, I was able to get all the students into their seats. The aisles were jammed with people trying to get from one car to another with all their luggage. People had thought first class would be in the front of the train, only to find it was at the back. In fact, I think the train was reversed, because I had arranged for most of our seats to be facing forward, but most were facing backward.

A group of 8 German college girls were trying to get into their seats in the rows behind us, but the people occupying them wouldn’t leave. Some of them didn’t speak German, so I volunteered to explain in English that the German girls had seat reservations. They only had train tickets, not reserved seats, so they couldn’t sit in seats that had been reserved by others. “Go git ‘em!” one of the students yelled to me.

Eventually everyone found a seat and the heat lessened on the train. The conductor came around and offered everyone bottled water as compensation for the delay and the trouble.

In Dresden, we had a twenty-minute walk to our hotel. I had thought we were staying in one of the Ibis hotels on Prager Straße, but this is the Ibis Budget hotel, just opposite the Altstadt. I was worried about the quality, but it turns out to be fine. Real beds, A/C, a nice shower. The students couldn’t be happier.

After lunch we went to the New Green Vault in the Residenzschloß; this is the tchotchke collection of the kings of Saxony. Over and over I heard the students go ‘wow’! when they saw all the gold and jewelry. They have 41 carat green diamond on display, the only one of its kind in the world.

One of the students noticed the various racial stereotypes displayed in the art (e.g,, the depiction of “Moors”). She thought they should be put in a separate room where their racism could be critiqued.

For several of the students, their favorite part wasn’t so much the various precious objects in the New Green Vault, but the armor on display in the Rustkammer. Then their jaws dropped when the saw the immense chandeliers in the small ballroom.

Around then the rain started. For a while, we could hear it intensely hammer the roof. I was a little concerned because I had tickets for us to be on a steamship cruise on the Elbe for an hour and a half, but then the rain passed.

The cruise turned out to be rather cool and pleasant. A few of the students were actually cold, a nice change from yesterday when we were sweating. I bought them all desserts and non-alcoholic drinks (I cannot be reimbursed for any alcohol purchases by students), and they all seemed to have a good time.

A few of the students asked about where to find an expensive place to eat, so I googled and yelped it, and it turned out to be a currywurst place across the street from our hotel. The food was tasty and the students were pleased. At a certain point, a group of people started filming something in front of the currywurst stand. One of them was wearing a mask and they were doing something with the curry wurst, but I couldn’t tell what. One of the woman came out and made them move away from the stand and then leave.

I asked her what they were doing and she said that it was for the internet. I asked what and she muttered that “das ist nicht koscher!” I later asked if it was something political and she said “no,” that they were trying to make it seem like the curry wurst they sold didn’t taste good. I asked if the mask was of a famous person and she said no.

I’m so tired. Even though I had nearly 8 hours of sleep last night, the last week of poor sleep due to heat and humidity has really sapped my energy. I’m going to go to sleep early tonight (I hope), so I have more energy when we get to Prague tomorrow.

Wednesday, June 05, 2019

Hot and Cold

Today we had some of the coolest indoor experiences mixed with one of the hottest outdoor days.

We started with a visit to the “Trains to Life/Trains to Death” sculpture at Friedrichstraße Station.  This train station was used both for the Kindertransport of some 10,000 Jewish children to the UK between December 1938 and September 1939, but also for the deportation of some 45,000 Berlin Jews to the ghettos and death camps after October 1941.

For the morning, we visited the Information Center beneath the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.  It wasn’t that we had that many people in front of us, rather larger groups and reserved entry and were able to cut in front, pushing us back in line.  Next time, I’ll have to make my own reservation.

The Information Center is fully air conditioned, something we needed on the hottest day of the trip, when the temperature hit 94.  The students were all deeply moved by the individual stories on display.  One drew a connection between the stelae of the memorial above with the blocks of text on the floor of the Information Center (they are the same dimensions).  It was if, he said, that each stele represents one person or family of those murdered.

When I was in the book room with some of the students afterwards, one of them pointed out a German high school student who was sobbing and being consoled by one of his teachers.  I had to leave the room or else I would have burst out crying myself. 

I took all but one of the students to a bakery near Museum Insel for lunch (the afternoon was free and included an optional visit to the Pergamon, but one of the students wanted to do something else).  I noticed that the bakery had the sounds of jungle birds making bird calls and I asked why.  “It scares away the sparrows,” they told me.  Only a little, however, as many flew in and out. 

To keep cool, the bakery had both doors open to create a cross breeze (something I so wish I could do in my hotel room).  But there’s so much tree pollen in the air, there was a lot of it floating inside the bakery.

Even though I wasn’t able to reserve a tour, the Pergamon Museum accepted the letter from the chair of my department and let us enter for free.  I felt a little like I was rushing them, but they still were able to see everything in a little more than an hour.  Two gasped when they exited the stairs and saw the Ishtar Gate from Babylon.  Another student gasped when I told her not to turn around but led her up to the observation platform opposite the market gate for the city of Miletus. 

I pointed out paleo-Hebrew inscriptions for the two students who had a little familiarity with Hebrew (though not paleo-Hebrew).  I also made sure they went upstairs to see the red room from Aleppo and the treasures of the Islamic collection.  One student later told me that he doesn’t really care for museums of ancient art but he really liked these.

I wanted to take the students for ice cream, but we only had 45 minutes before we had to meet our guide for the refugee-led tour.  We passed a frozen yoghurt place and bought them whatever they wanted.  It helped against the heat.

We made it to the u-bahn stop for the meeting with just a minute to spare.  The fifth student was waiting on the platform and we climbed the stairs into the hottest part of the day to meet our guide.  Only he wasn’t there.   I kept going up to random people and asking “Mohammad”?  After five minutes, he arrived.  They missed their train.

The tour was very similar to what we did two years ago, down to the same guide. I had heard his story before but it was new to the students.  I found it moving, but several of the students felt he had soft pedaled the horrors experienced by migrants coming across the Mediterranean.  He said that he didn’t want to see himself as a victim.  Meanwhile, the heat, even in the shade, was nearly unbearable.

Hashim took us to the Syrian restaurant in Wedding.  Before we left, however, I arranged a bathroom break.  We were next to Rausch and I knew they had bathrooms at the café level, so I told the students to go up use them.  They came down after a few minutes having been deflected by a waiter.  “Don’t give up!” I told them.  “I’ll take care of it.”  “No, no, it’ll be all right,” they answered.  “Just follow me!” I told them.

We took the elevator up to the café, which was mostly deserted.  Now, I remembered where they were and I just walked firmly through the café as if I were a customer and deserved to be there.  The students followed and I pointed out the women’s room, while I went to the men’s.

Back downstairs I talked to Hashim.  He met Mohammad as they are in the same program at the university.  After spending two years in a smaller west German town, he was clearly happy to be Berlin.  He was also excited to find that some of his credits from Damascus University will transfer. 

It was the same restaurant as two years ago, but we couldn’t sit inside due to the unbelievable heat.  Even sitting in the direct line of the setting sun was cooler than inside.  Finally, there was some cooling after the sun set.  After some hesitancy over the cleanliness of the napkins and utensils, they enjoyed the food. 

Now, we’re all back at the hostel.  I’ve told the students to bring their suitcases down to breakfast as we’re leaving at 8 am.  The fact is that we won’t need an hour to get to our train at Hauptbahnhof, but I’m assuming we will experience some delays in the morning and I wanted to leave myself some room for error.

Tuesday, June 04, 2019

It's Always "a Hard Day"

I feel like I could begin every one of these entries: “today was a hard day.”  Unfortunately, that’s generally the case in a Holocaust study tour; it’s only the reason that changes day to day.

Yesterday, the reason was the heat and humidity, and the noise at night experienced by the students.  The weather started off much better today.  It rained during the night leading to the people smoking and talking under the students’ windows to come inside.  The rain also meant today was cooler and dryer. 

So things started off well.  We headed off to Alexanderplatz to catch the bus to the Staatsoper.  This is where our walking tour began, first with the Neue Wache and the statue based on one by Käthe Kollwitz, followed by the memorial to the book burnings on Bebel Platz.  On our stroll down Unter den Linden we posed for pictures in front of the Ampelmann store and compared embassy styles with the contrast among the Russian, British, and American embassies.  Finally, we reached the Brandenburg Gate. 

The square in front of the Gate was more low key than usual: no actors posing as soldiers, no American celebrities.  It was starting to warm up, so we stuck to the shade on our way to the first of the four Holocaust memorials we were here to look at:  the memorial for the Roma and Sinti.  The students were moved with the simplicity of memorial. I also brought a text for us to read:  the account of one German Sinto (an ethnic subdivision among Roma) and his sufferings in various concentration camps to which he was sent (included the first one, Sachsenhausen, that we visited this afternoon). 

After a short visit to see the Reichstag, we headed up to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.  I asked the students to spend 10-15 minutes wandering through it.  Several of them asked which came first:  Libeskind’s Jewish Museum with its Garden of Exile or Eisenman’s Memorial (Libeskind came first).  We talked about the similarities and differences, whether the stelae should be read as graves or wheat or anything.  We also talked about their experiences being inside the memorial (I don’t go inside as it makes me motion sick).

Our third memorial was across the street: the Memorial to the Nazi Persecution of Homosexuals.  They’ve modified the film clip showing inside the memorial to include more than same-sex couples kissing, in particular, historic newspaper headlines.  We talked about the way the memorial references the Jewish memorial, yet also diverges.

Our last memorial involved walking a few blocks, which was becoming increasingly uncomfortable as the heat rose.  This is the Memorial to Victims of the T-4 program.  I brought a pair of letters for us to read, one written by a deaf man to his former principal in 1960, recounting how violated and betrayed he felt that this principal had stood by and failed to defend him when he was forcibly sterilized at the age of 13, the other written by the principal in his reply a year later.  What’s astonishing about the latter is when this former principal of a school for the deaf tells his former pupil that it was better that he be sterilized than have a deaf child.

I found a bakery near Potsdamer Platz that had sandwiches and tables and made a good lunch stop.  Then around 1 pm, we headed up to Sachsenhausen.  It wasn’t too hot on the train, and the bus we got in Oranienburg was air conditioned, but the camp itself is not.  The sun was intense and for all but one of the students, this was their first visit to a concentration camp. 

I decided to keep the visit relatively streamlined and focused.  We only had just under two hours before the bus back to Oranienburg (otherwise we would have to walk 30 minutes in the heat).  I focused on the main elements:  the gate to the camp where prisoners were inducted, the electric fence, the test track for shoes (the prisoners were used as slaves to test the soles of shoes manufactured by German shoe companies), the so-called “Jewish barracks” built after the November pogrom of 1938 (and partially burned by an anti-Semitic arsonist in 1992), the camp’s prison, the prisoner kitchen, the DDR-era memorial, and the place of execution.  All these are deeply emotional and intense places to visit and see.

As uncomfortable as it was to be in the barracks on this hot day, I told them, imagine when it was filled with men in bunks in the summer, when the days were even hotter. It was actually cooler in the blazing sun outside than in the empty barracks.  In the basement of the prisoners’ kitchen, were original wall art painted by the prisoners, showing animated vegetables preparing themselves to be eaten.  It’s more than a little creepy.

Finally, we saw the trench used by firing squads, the remnants of the small gas chamber, the foundations of the “neck-shooting” facility, and the ruins of the crematorium.  Not much conversation in that room. Finally, we left and headed back to Oranienburg.

It was warm on the train and everyone was more than a little sleepy and wiped.  As I said, it was a hard day.  Most of the students are struggling to cope with the heat and the walking.  Unfortunately, we won’t have any relief until Thursday when we’re in Dresden.  First, a cold front is expected to come through, dropping temperatures by nearly 20 degrees.  Second, all we need to do that day is tour the Green Vault and take a cruise on the Elbe.  My only fear about the latter is that thunderstorms are forecast for the afternoon, and I fear we may be blocked by the weather (I’m hoping for the best).

Tomorrow, though, we are underground (at least in the morning) or in the Pergamon (in the early afternoon).  We still have a two-hour Syrian refugee-led walking tour in the afternoon, when it will be even hotter than today, but as I said, every day is a hard day in some way.

Monday, June 03, 2019

Thunder and Lightning

The humidity woke me up this morning at 6:45. I just needed a cold shower to cool down.  It turns out that I should count my blessings that my room faces the morning sun; the west side of the hotel is above the courtyard where people smoke and drink and party until 4:30 in the morning.  Many of my students were unhappy about how long the noise lasted. 

This was the second day we had a relatively late start, as I’m trying to help the students adjust to the new time zone.  If yesterday took us through Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg, today was going to be Kreuzberg.  Even though the temperature was hotter than yesterday, we spent most of that time inside where it was either cool or air conditioned (miracle of miracles!).

Our first stop was the Topography of Terror, the former site of the headquarters of the SS and the Reich Security Main Office, which oversaw the concentration camps, the extermination camps, and the mass murder of the Jews of Europe.  We spent about two hours there, including some time to talk about it at the end.

Around 1 pm, we headed down to Check Point Charlie, so they could photograph the actors pretending to be American and Soviet soldiers.  Then, we hopped back on the U-Bahn for Mehringdamm and Mustafa’s Gemüse Kebap.  Two students had sandwiches, but three students tried Mustafa’s, which has, in my opinion, the best street food in Berlin. Thank God!  They liked it.  German, and central European food in general, tends to be meat and potatoes.  I miss vegetables and Mustafa’s has a ton.  For vegetarians, it’s the closest they get to tasting what a Berlin kebap tastes like, since Mustafa’s also has vegetarian versions (it’s everything but the chicken). I was worried about eating on the street given how hot it was, but it wasn’t too bad.

Our next stop was Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum.  I usually spend most of my time in the part of the museum that he designed, but I had no choice today since the permanent collection is closed until 2020.  We talked about the museum’s “process architecture” and how parts of it were designed to discomfort the visitor. 

We had some extra time, so I took the students to visit the two chocolate stores near Gendarmenmarkt.  First, we visited the flagship store for Ritter, where I bought them a 100g chocolate bar of their choice.  Then we visited Rausch, three blocks away, and they were blown away, but the various bonbons, the chocolate bears, and the Berlin landmarks rendered in chocolate.  Then I took them up to see the chocolate café on the second floor above ground. 

From here the students went to the four winds (which is what I hoped would happen); it’s important that they feel secure about going off on their own and have adventures.  Two went off to see the Olympic Stadium Hitler built; one had errands to run; and two followed me back to the hostel to nap or shop.  As we came out of Rausch, one of the students said “it smells like a brush fire.”  It was even stronger when we got to the hostel.  Turns out she was right.  Here’s the headline I saw displayed later:

A fire had broken out in Berlin's Grunewald. The fire department announced on Monday, 50 emergency services and the volunteer fire department had extinguished 40,000 square meters [9 and a half acres] at the Havelchaussee. The operation continues: the flames still smolder one meter deep in the ground.

I decided to use my time wisely to buy the extension tickets for the metro that we will need tomorrow.  I bought us all one-week cards good for Zones A and B, but tomorrow, we will visit Zone C.  That meant I needed extension tickets to and from Zone C, but I couldn’t use the machines, because I wanted to pay with my card and I needed a receipt, neither of which the machine could do. The only problem was that since was the first business day of the month, everyone who needed to renew their monthly pass was there, filling out the forms and bringing their documentation to prove their eligibility.  I ended up waiting 45 minutes, but it was worth it.

One of the t-shirts I brought should have stayed in California.  I just noticed a small wear hole in the front of the shirt.  I saw a C & A store on Alexanderplatz and decided to check out their prices.  I ended up buying one t-shirt for 1.8 euros and another for 4.5 euros.  Even if they are so flimsy that they only last until the end of the trip, it’ll be worth it.

I tried several of the shirts on first to make sure they fit, but every shirt made me look fat. Then I realized that the problem wasn’t the shirt.

For dinner, I went back to Zum Schusterjungen, and “old Berlin” style restaurant I usually visit once a trip.  I sat outside and ordered the asparagus soup, beef goulasch, and red cabbage, along with ½ liter of beer.  As I was sitting I could feel the humidity rising again.  Suddenly, I heard thunder.  The waitress who brought me the soup commented how it was surely coming.  A few minutes later, I saw several bolts of lightning.  When she took away the soup, I asked if I could move inside the restaurant.  “Certainly,” she told me.  Two minutes later, it started to pour.

The rain didn’t last long, but the humidity became almost unbearable.  It has cooled off, and there’s a breeze, but the humidity is now at 61%,

Back at the hostel, we saw a very large student group arrive.  They’re staying on the first and second floors; we’re on the third.  I’m hoping they don’t stay up partying too late on the west side of the hotel. I’m on the patio on the east and the hotel staff just told us that they close the east patio at 10 pm because the neighbors complain about the noise. 

Sunday, June 02, 2019

Summer Has Arrived in Berlin

Summer has arrived in Berlin

Last week I was wearing long pants, a long-sleeved shirt, and a jacket.  Today, it was shorts and a t-shirt and I was still broiling.  Today’s high was 88; even with the sun nearly set, it’s still 83.  Temperatures are predicted to still climb higher tomorrow with no relief predicted until we head to Dresden on Thursday.  Then, a cold front will pass through with thunderstorms.

Slept ok last night despite the heat and humidity. Breakfast was fine, though there was a little hitch when they said the students didn’t have breakfast rights.  I insisted and made sure they all got plates for food.

My plan was twofold:  give the students an overview on the history of Berlin in the twentieth century by exploring the two neighborhoods adjacent to our hostel; and keep the students out in the sunlight as much as possible to help them adjust to the new time zone.   We started out at Rosa-Luxemburg Platz and I told them about who she was and who Karl Liebknecht was.  Then we walked through what used to be the Schuenenviertel, the immigrant Jewish neighborhood neighborhood, guided by the memorial project created by Shimon Attie and Stolpersteiner.  Attie, an American-Jewish artist, came to Berlin in 1991, and projected images of Scheunenviertel on the original site of the photographs at night.  You can see images of the project here: 

Several years ago, I ran across a Stolpersteine for Manfred Lewin.  I knew his story from Gad Beck’s autobiography, so I brought the section where Beck describes how he disguised himself in a Hitler Junge uniform to smuggle Manfred out of the deportation center where he and his family had been brought prior to their transport to Auschwitz.  After successfully getting Manfred out, he thanked Beck, but then turned around and went back to stay his with family.  The USC Survivors of the Shoah Project has posted the interview with Beck.  It’s in German with English subtitles:  We read the story together while standing around his Stolperstein, and brought a photo of Manfred taken a year before he was murdered in 1942. 

By the time we got to the memorial in Koppenplatz, though, it was really getting warm.  We didn’t spend as much time as usual at The Deserted Room memorial to the Jews who went through Kristallnacht.  We ended at the magnificent Oranienburgerstrasse Synagogue and I told them about Regina Jonas, the first woman to be ordained a rabbi in 1935.  While the only service she was allowed to lead in this synagogue was Havdalah, she and Rabbi Leo Baeck rode circuit, visiting small Jewish communities without a rabbi after 1939.  In November 1942, she was deported to Theresienstadt where for two years she did pastoral counseling, trying to keep people from committing suicide.  In October 1944, she was deported to Auschwitz where she was murdered.

After lunch in Häckische Markt, we headed up to Nordbahnhof to learn about post-war Berlin history.  If the morning took us through the Scheunenviertel, the afternoon focused on Bernauer Straße and Berlin during the Cold War.  Nordbahnhof was a “ghost station;” trains from West Berlin passed through but never stopped.  From there we learned about those who died trying to get over or under the wall.  Finally, we stopped at the information center to watch the struggle to bring down the wall.  Here’s the short version of the film: 

Downstairs, I met some Israeli women in Berlin for the Eric Clapton concert.  We talked for a bit and then I took the students to see contemporary Berlin: the weekly flea market and arts festival in Mauerpark, built on top of where the wall ran.  We watched some girls from Spain singing “Despacito” at Bear Pit karaoke, and then headed back to the hostel.  We all got a little sunburned, I think, and few students were feeling the effects of the heat and humidity.  It’s really hard when there’s no place you can go to cool off (not a lot of AC in Europe). 

For dinner, I headed up to the Prater Biergarten, one of the oldest in Berlin (founded 1837).  I just had a bratwurst and potato salad and a beer, and read the paper.  Then I walked home to burn off some of the calories.  With the students, we walked nearly 15,000 steps today (about 6 miles).  I told them that at least tomorrow we will be indoors more and somewhat sheltered from the heat.  In the time that I typed this whole entry, the temperature dropped to 79.  It doesn’t really feel it, though.  The only good part of it is that the laundry I did yesterday and today has almost entirely dried.

Saturday, June 01, 2019

Roxy und ihr Wunderteam

Last night’s show turned out to be the Berlin premier of this new production of Paul Abraham’s Roxy and her Wonder Team.  My seat was excellent.  While it was on the far right of the theater, I was in the 8th row of the Parquet.  In other words, I sat close enough to appreciate all the facial expressions of the actors, with no need for any opera glasses.  Several of the people around me were friends of performers or the production team. 

The operetta was simply a delight.  The plot is eminently silly:  the Hungarian soccer team defeats the English while playing in London.  As they celebrate in the locker room, the team owner, the Baron arrives to tell them the English have challenged them to a counter match in Budapest.  In order to guarantee their victory before the home crowd, he wants them to spend the next three weeks training at his villa on Lake Balaton, with no women, no booze, and no sex. 

Shortly thereafter, Roxy, a young bride (played, in this case by a 53-year old man in drag – though the role was written for a woman and is played that way), burst through their hotel room door asking to be hidden from skin-flint uncle who wants her to marry a man to further his business interest.  She overwhelms the players and they agree to hide her and sneak her into Hungary.

Pursued by her angry uncle and abandoned groom, she urges the soccer players to embrace sex and partying.  This is made easier by the fact that the villa has been leased out in secret to members of a girls’ finishing school, whose headmistress is trying to impress on them the value of gymnastics.  “Unless you learn how to straddle,” she berates them, “you’ll never get far in this world.”

Both the girls and boys are delighted to discover that the villa is now co-ed, and lots of partying and carousing ensues. 

In the final act, the girls and Roxy are confined under quasi arrest in the girls school, while the soccer players are behind after the first half as they have lost their reason to play.  Roxy sings to the girls that while in the past women could go to bars and cinemas, now men prefer domestic women with “feine Handarbeit,” a line that far eclipses any double entendre Mae West ever made.  The girls escape and make it to the stadium to inspire the men to victorious finish over the English.

A remarkably funny play with astonishingly provocative lyrics for the 1930s and with great music, the musical was very well received, with nearly 15 minutes of applause and numerous curtain calls.

Since I had to wake up early this morning, I woke up even earlier than I wanted.  Fine, the sooner I got out that hostel the better.  They were out of milk at breakfast, and at no time today or yesterday did I ever see any napkins to keep myself clean.  Well, the sooner I left the better.  Yet, when I went upstairs to get my luggage, my key wouldn’t work.

“Das Schlüssel ist kaputt!” I told the front desk clerk.  He issued me a new card and went back upstairs.  Yet, this didn’t work either.

“Dieses Schlüssel ist auch kaputt!!”  He authorized yet another card, I climbed the four flights to my room and hoped that the third time was the charm.  It wasn’t.

Walking back down to the lobby I was seething.  The clerk was still arguing with the same person he had for the last 15 minutes who apparently didn’t have a proper reservation.  I demanded that he open my door, and he agreed.  Of course, he had to check for himself that the key wouldn’t work.  He tried three times.  Then he took out the pass key, and, with some difficulty, got the door open.  I did one last search, grabbed my suitcase and bag, and left.

I saw the clerk waiting for the elevator, but I took the stairs.  We arrived at the same time in the lobby, but now the number of people waiting for him was a line that stretched across the entire lobby and up the stairs.  I have no intention of ever staying there again.

I went to the new hostel and dropped of my stuff and then headed to Tegel airport to meet my students.  My first student arrived at 8:20, so we chatted for an hour until the second wave arrived at 11.  Then, I escorted them all back to the hostel where, miracle of miracles, our rooms were ready. 

Lunch was at a small café a few doors down.  They had bagel sandwiches that went over well (though the students agreed that for a “California” bagel to earn the name, it better have avocado (it didn’t).  Then it was off to get them ATMs, drug store purchase, money exchange, and cell phone covers.  I got them back to the hostel by 3 pm, and then I headed back to Tegel for the final wave.

We made it back to the hostel by 7:30 pm, and then around 8, we went across the street to the anarchist pizzeria.  It was a very warm evening, so we sat outside.  I warned the students that the restaurant was run by anarchists, but I think they were still surprised when the waiter snatched a knife and fork set away from one of the students to give it to someone at another table.  The pizzas were good, as was the elderflower lemonade.  Still, I think all of us could have done without the baby rat that was running around on the patio including, at one point, under our table (we all lifted our feet).  People at all the tables were pointing and photographing it as it ran from table to table. 

Now, we’re all back at the hostel.  Breakfast is at 7 and the students need to be ready to go tomorrow at 10 am.  That gives them 10 hours to sleep.

No Sleep

I wish I could say I had a good night’s sleep, but I would be lying.

I had hoped that if I closed my windows, I wouldn’t hear any noise from the courtyard in front of the hostel where everyone smokes.  The good news is that I heard no noise from there; the bad news is that the real problem was in the hallway.

As far as I can tell, the hostel invested absolutely nothing in sound proofing their rooms. It wasn’t just that I could hear the people yelling in the hallway or even talking in the hallway; I could hear them walking in the hallway.  With my ear plugs in.  I didn’t even think it was possible, but the hallway seems to have been constructed out of a material that amplifies, not muffles, sound. 

In the end, I took half an Ambien, not so much to fall asleep, but as not to get so anxious or upset when I was repeatedly woken up after midnight by all the noise from the hall.

There was some good news this morning, however: no one charged me six euros for the breakfast of Kaiser rolls, cereal, juice, and lukewarm tea.

At the Staatsbibliothek, I asked if I needed a new library card, showing the clerk the one I had from 2015.  She laughed and sent me to registration.  There, they too seemed amazed to see a card that old.  “We phased them out years ago,” she told me. “We even got rid of any photos or identifying information from the computer system under the new privacy law.”  When I mentioned that the archives remembered that I had been there 21 years ago, she laughed and said, “yes, but they’re archives.”  They issued me a new short-term card that allowed me to call up books from the stacks, which is all I needed.

When my article was rejected a few months ago, one of the readers suggested that I look at some research done by Alexander Zinn, though he added that he couldn’t fault me for not having looked at it earlier since the book was only published while my article was under review.  The Staatsbibliothek didn’t have that book, but his earlier one, so I called it up.

“How long will it take?” I asked at information.  “2-3 hours,” she replied.  It was 11:30, so I decided to take care of other business in the meantime.  That meant buying the metro cards for all the students, getting lunch, and finding out if there were any tickets still available at the Komische Oper for a revival of Paul Abrahams’ “Roxy und ihr Wunderteam.”

Not familiar with it?  I’m not surprised, neither was I.  A soccer-operetta in three acts, it premiered in Budapest in December 1936, before moving on to Vienna in March 1937.  It’s been described as a “sexually charged sports farce of 11 football players who meet 11 gymnastic women while all of them are at a training camp.  It was actually filmed, and it had the misfortune to premier in March 1938, just before the Anschluß (the Nazi merger of Austria and Germany). Only one print of the film survived.

Abraham had been a successful composer of operettas in Germany, but the rise of the Nazis forced him to emigrate, first to Budapest and then Vienna.  After the Anschluß, he moved first to Paris, then Cuba, and finally the United States, where he suffered a mental breakdown.

According to the website, all the tickets for tonight’s show were sold out, but at the box office, they told me there were three left. I’m going to the 19:30 show tonight.

Back at the Staatsbibliothek, I picked up the book I ordered and looked through it.  The author had befriended a gay male survivor of Buchenwald, and this basically told his story.  Not too much relevant to my research, but I found online that a copy of the new dissertation was at the Topographie of Terror library.  Sure enough, they had a copy and I looked through.  It became clear pretty fast that this was really an updating and expansion of his earlier book.  I noted the areas that would be relevant for my research, and headed out for some afternoon Kaffee und Kuchen.

This time I went to the Café Einstein on Unter den Linden.  I wavered over what to get, but in the end I went with the café au lait (since that’s basically three cups to drink), and the German Käsekuchen, or cheesecake.  European cheesecake is different from American cheesecake as it’s not based on cream cheese but farmer’s cheese.  This gives it a milder, lighter, and slightly grittier taste and texture. American cream cheese tends to be both more lemony and creamier. 

Nothing relaxes me more than sitting in a café for an hour so with something warm to drink, sweet to eat, and good to read.

Now I need to change for the theater and then head off to the Komische Oper.  Even as I write this, my students are boarding planes at LAX to fly here to meet me tomorrow.