Friday, August 30, 2013

Day 8: Tuesday August 13, 2013

Today was a nice, calm day. We left Münster late in the morning after having one more bread breakfast with the Althoffs. Our next destination was the tourist city of Bacharach, about a three-hour drive from Münster. Most of the drive was the famous speed limit-less Autobahn. We checked into our small hotel in Bacharach and went to take a cruise along the Rhine river. It really is a beautiful area of the country. Lots of green fields, vineyards, small mountains, and ancient castles. Just stunning. The cruise also included the famous Lorelei rock, the subject of a poem and of course, the Styx song. The cruise's destination was St. Goar, a town filled with tourist trap shops. We were only trapped into one. St. Goar is an old town with lots of old neighborhoods and a castle up on a hill. It's a cool little town, but there isn't that much to do there. We got a couple of gifts and headed back to Bacharach.
Bacharach is famous for their wine. At one restaurant in Bacharach, they offer a special wine tasting where they give you fifteen half-full glasses of wine on a lazy susan. You taste, and spin it on to the next person. It was pretty cool. At first, it doesn't seem like there's all that much wine. It was quite deceiving. Sara wasn't drinking, which meant it was just the four of us sharing all the wine. By the end of the tasting, we were all pretty loopy. It's not every night you get drunk with your grandparents. After the wine tasting, we got some dinner, another doner kabob. We were slowly realizing just how popular they are in Germany. The influx of Turkish immigrants into Germany make them so popular.

Day 7: Monday August 12, 2013

Today was one of the days I'd been looking forward to for a long time. The five of us, with the Althoffs as our tour guides, went to visit my grandfather's hometown of Rheine, about an hour's drive from Münster. Once we arrived in Rheine, the Althoffs took us to Rheine's Jewish cemetery. In 1920, the Jews of Rheine acquired a decent bit of land, on which they built this cemetery. The Jews obviously lost this land in the 1930's. Sometime between 1945 and 1950, all of the headstones in the cemetery were likely robbed. Today, they are all still gone. Gertrude Althoff has, for years, advocated for the restoration of the Jewish cemetery and other Jewish institutions around Rheine, but she hasn't found support from the town's legislature. She's in the fight alone.
Despite the lack of headstones, there is a plaque on the cemetery wall which has the names of Jews who are buried there. The plaque includes the names of three family members. We think we know the spot where they are still buried, but we can't be sure. After spending a few minutes at the cemetery, we went to get lunch at a Chinese-Mongolian buffet. Then we went to walk around the city of Rheine itself. We went through town hall and eventually made our way to the house my grandfather lived in during his first two years of life. The house has a bottom section and an upper section. When my grandfather lived there, the upper part was the living quarters, while the bottom part was my great-grandfather Max's fruit and vegetable shop. In 1937, the Nazis firebombed his shop. Today, the shop is empty. The upper part houses some apartments, but since it was a weekday afternoon, I don't think the tenants were home. We would have loved to go up there if we had the chance, though.

Up the street from the house is a pre-school. In front of the school, in the middle of a cobblestone street, is a small plaque on the ground. The plaque has the name of my great-great-great-grandfather, Bendix Buchdahl. Bendix, at age 92, died at the Theresienstadt concentration camp in 1942. In Germany, the names of Holocaust victims are put on what are called "stolpersteins," literally translating to a stumbling block. The stolpersteins are raised a bit higher than the cobblestones on the street. The purpose of the stolpersteins is for Germans to trip over them as part of remembering the Holocaust. It's an interesting reminder.
Then we moved on to our street. In some German towns, they named streets after families that were killed off or left. Gertrude is bitter because they didn't put the streets in the city, where the Jews lived. Our street, Buchdahlstrasse, is located in a suburban area of Rheine, outside the city limits. It was cool to see our name on a street, and it was a nice photo op. That was the day in Rheine. We made our way back to Münster, and had more bread for dinner at the Althoffs. 

Beer of the day: Another Bitburger

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Day 6: Sunday, August 11, 2013

We slept in pretty late after the adventures of yesterday. Our friends in Münster, Gertrude and Werner Althoff, were set to meet us for lunch at 12:30, and we barely got out of our hotel in time. Gertrude Althoff is very involved in her local church, where she serves as a historian about the Jews in the area who were killed or left during the Nazi regime. She originally lived in Rheine, my grandfather's hometown, which we'd be visiting the next day. Gertrude is an expert about the history of Jews in Westphalia, the area which holds both Münster and Rheine.
So we met Gertrude and her husband Werner for lunch at a restaurant near their church. It was an authentic German restaurant; you could tell by the building it was in, and by the clothes the waiters were wearing. I ordered a Rolinck Pilsener, a Westphalian beer that was probably the best of the trip. For lunch, I got a "Strammer Max," and no, not just because of the name. The "Strammer Max" is a piece of bread with butter, cheese, Westphalian ham, and a fried egg on top. A Westphalian beer and Westphalian ham, I almost felt like my Westphalian ancestors did.
When we finished up with lunch, the Althoffs took us on a short tour of the city of Münster. The tour included a nearby church, where the treaty was signed to end the Thirty Years' War back in 1648. We walked around a few more of the many churches in Münster, all with incredible architecture. It was especially cool because we were doing it on a Sunday. We continued walking, eventually leaving Opa and Gertrude behind to look around on their own, and went to visit other places around Münster. There was a botanical garden that was in use for the nearby university's biology students.
Eventually, we met back up with Opa and Gertrude at a cafe that overlooked a river. The area around the river reminded me a lot of the Inner Harbor in the way it was set up. Anyway, we all got coffee and cake. I got a pretty good slice of apple pie. We talked for a while as we ate, and then began making our way to the Althoffs house as rain began coming down from the sky.
We got to their house virtually unscathed by the rain and had some dinner later on with a beer. Werner downs beer like it's water, pretty incredible actually. The thing we started to figure out as we had meals with the Althoffs is that Germans eat a lot of bread. Like, a lot. We left to go back to the hotel after dinner. The only channel in English is CNN, so we ended up watching the German version of America's Funniest Home Videos. That stuff is funny in any language.

Beers of the day: Rolinck Pilsener-the best of the trip
                           Bitburger-just okay, but extremely popular in Germany

Day 5: Saturday August 10, 2013

Today provided what was surely the craziest day of the trip. And we knew it once the day ended. But the day started off fairly calm. We found a nice place for brunch late in the morning at a local German restaurant. It's the fifth day of the trip, and we've finally had our first real German meal. After eating, we picked our luggage up, having left it back at the hotel, and set off for the train station to leave Berlin. Once we got to the train station, things seemed pretty off. Our scheduled train, which had three layovers before arriving in Münster, was nowhere to be found. On the boards which have every train scheduled for the day, there was no record of our train anywhere. At first, we attributed it to our early arrival at the train station, and went to get drinks at Dunkin Donuts.
The train station in Berlin.
As our departure time crept closer, still with no record of our train, Oma and I went to investigate. After racing around the train station, we finally found someone at the information booth who spoke English. She told us that our train had been cancelled, but there was one leaving in just a half hour that was headed for the same destination. We naively thought all was settled, and boarded our train to the first layover, Hamburg.
Germany is full of fields of wind turbines.
We were pretty excited to be going to Hamburg, despite the short layover. It's one of the bigger cities in the country, and my grandfather had never been. As we got something to eat in the food court in the Hamburg train station, we heard chanting in the distance. A few seconds later, a group of about 15 people dressed in all black with bottles of vodka in their hands walked by screaming. One screamed "Heil Hitler." It was a pretty harrowing experience, a reminder that there really is antisemitism everywhere, even in the land that persecuted us worse than any other.
Boarding the train in Hamburg was pure chaos. Minutes before the train was scheduled to leave, they changed the track it was to leave from. We had to run to the train and in the mess that was the next few minutes, ended up sitting in first class, despite our tickets having us in second-class. And it's a good thing that we did.
Boy was this good to see. 
On the ride to our next layover, Uelzen, a man sitting near my grandparents figured out that we were headed for the wrong city. There is a big big difference between the Münster with the umlaut (two dots) and the Munster, without the dots. We wanted to be going to Münster in Westphalia, but made the wrong reservation and were on our way to Munster, which is nowhere near where we wanted to be going. Once we got to Uelzen, we bought tickets to head all the way back to Hamburg, and then make our way to the right Münster. Despite the craziness, we were in pretty high spirits, joking the whole way to the correct city. Originally, we were supposed to arrive in Münster at 7 PM. Instead, we got there a little after 1 AM on Sunday morning. When we finally got there, we were picked up by our friends in the city and went immediately to our hotel. For one in the morning, the city was pretty alive. The five of us, however, were not. What a day.

Beer of the day: A much-needed Hefeweizen at 2 in the morning

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Day 4: Friday August 9, 2013

For our final full day in Berlin, we started out at the Berlin Wall memorial to those who were killed trying to escape to the former West Germany. A picture was up on a wall inside the museum of JFK riding in a open car during his famous visit to Berlin in June 1963. It's funny that our President was safe in an open car in a foreign country, but not here in our own. There is a short movie which shows not only the background and history of the wall, but also a design of just how hard it was for people to escape. The barriers they faced stretched far beyond a single wall. After finishing the movie we went outside, where a portion of the wall remains. There are also signs around the area of the memorial which point out the different layers of the so-called "death strip."
When we left the museum, we went to meet up with an old rabbi friend of my grandfather, whom he hadn't seen in fifty years. We met for lunch at an Indian restaurant, where I had another unimpressive Alster.
At night, we went to services at a synagogue a few blocks away from our hotel. In order to get into the synagogue, you have to go through security. The entire building is guarded by German policemen. It's pretty ironic that the German police is guarded a Jewish institution, when 75 years ago, they'd be standing outside as it burned to the ground. The services were held in a small room on the top floor of the large synagogue, where about fifty people attended. There was a group of college kids from Pittsburgh at the service who we talked to afterwards.

Beer of the day: Neumarkter Lammsbräu Pilsner-really good

Day 3: Thursday August 8, 2013

It was another exciting day for us in Berlin. We had scheduled a morning visit to the Reichstag, which holds German's national parliament, the Bundestag. Our reservation said that we wouldn't be allowed to visit the dome, which rests on the roof of the Reichstag, if there was inclement weather. It started to rain before we left, but stopped in time for us not to be late for our appointment to visit the dome.
Inside the Reichstag dome is a spiral ramp, which we walked up in order to look over Berlin. All visitors receive an audio guide upon entrance to the dome. The guides are coordinated to talk based on where you are standing. The panels on the ground let the guide know what to say, and what we looked for out of the dome's window. Aside from what you see out of the window, the guide also gives historical information about the Reichstag itself, and the other buildings you are looking at. It's a pretty cool experience and a great way to see the entire city of Berlin.
Once finished at the Reichstag dome, we headed for the Brandenburg gate, which we had seen briefly on the first day. Now that it was closer to the afternoon, the area around the gate was pretty crowded. Mickey Mouse even made an appearance at the gate.  The gate is surrounded by an art museum, the US Embassy, and most importantly, a Starbucks. The Brandenburg gate is the former gate to the city of Berlin, and a lasting symbol of the Prussian era. The gate is located in a central area of the city, near the famous Hotel Adlon and Unter den Linden, the Fifth Avenue of Berlin.
From Unter den Linden, we went to see Berlin's Holocaust Memorial. The memorial consists of a maze of large stone structures, which get larger as you walk further into the maze. When you first approach the memorial, it looks fairly small. Only when you walk into the maze do you realize its true size. Along with my dad and Sara, I walked into the maze and down into the museum portion of the memorial, which is in an underground bunker. The museum has one feature that was especially memorable. The "Wall of Names" is a dark room with projection screens on every wall. The screen shows the name of a Holocaust victim and the years in which they lived. As the person's name is shown on the screen, a voice reads the name and a short biography. It takes seven years to complete reading all Holocaust victims.
After finishing there (I'd had enough with the Holocaust for a few days), the five of us went to visit KaDeWe, one of the biggest department stores in the world. Other than all the prices being much much higher than our local WalMart, I didn't find KaDeWe all that fascinating, but my sister may have a different take on that. But there was an old sign outside the train station near KaDeWe which had the names of a number of concentration camps. Those types of things are everywhere to make sure the Germans don't forget.
After napping in the late afternoon, we found a nice Asian fusion restaurant near our hotel for dinner. No beer this time. There's always tomorrow.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Day 2: Wednesday August 7th, 2013

It was a busy first full day in Berlin. After sleeping in, we had a small breakfast and began making our way to the Jewish Museum. The museum is housed in two separate buildings. One building is visibly older, the other more modern. First, we entered the modern-looking building and began looking around. This building was designed and constructed by American architect Daniel Libeskind, and deals primarily with events surrounding the Holocaust. There are three different axis' within the building--Axis of Exile, Axis of Holocaust, and Axis of Continuity-- all running in different directions. On the walls of the Axis of Exile are names of cities from all around the world where Jews were exiled to as a result of Nazi rule. The walls of the Axis of Holocaust show names of different concentration camps. Throughout the building itself, there are exhibitions with stories of different families destroyed during the Holocaust. Also part of this building is the Garden of Exile, an outdoor section full of large stone structures. Given that my grandfather is one of the millions exiled, and our family therefore exiled as well, we took a picture of the five of us in the garden.
After finishing up that part of the museum, we moved on to the other building, which was your pretty standard museum detailing the history of Jews in Germany. It eventually comes to the Holocaust, where there is a lot of attention devoted to the trials of Nazi criminals which were held in Germany in the 1960's. There was a long movie being shown about the feelings of the German people as the trials were going on. and clips from the trials themselves. The movie featured a lot of Hannah Arendt, the German philosopher who famously covered the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem. Interestingly enough, there was no mention at the museum of the 1972 Munich massacre.
We finished up at the museum and began walking back to the U-bahn when we found a Turkish place for lunch. At first, we thought such a restaurant would be a novelty on the trip, and therefore decided to have some Middle Eastern food while we had the chance. As you'll see during the course of this blog, we were sorely mistaken. Anyway, I got a "doner kebob," like the Israeli schwarma, a sandwich on pita bread with lettuce and vegetables in it.
Once lunch was done, we went to the East Side Gallery, where a kilometer-long portion of the Berlin Wall remains. There are some really interesting graffiti designs on the wall, like the one you see on the right, which is near the beautiful view on the Spree River.
It was also a great pleasure for us, later that evening, to get together with our Israeli cousin, Roee, who was spending the summer in Berlin. Along with my father and sister, we went out with Roee to get a beer and something to eat at a nearby beer garden.
Beer of the day: Alster-a German mix of beer and Sprite. Nothing to write home about. Oh wait, I am writing about it.

Day 1: Tuesday August 6th, 2013

After a short layover in Zurich, our plane landed, albeit with some turbulence during the landing, at the Berlin Tegel Airport. We went to get our bags and got daily tickets for the Berlin public transportation service. Then, bus 128 took the five of us to the main station of the U-bahn, one of the two major forms of public transportation in Berlin. The U-bahn took us to the Naturkundemuseum (Museum of Natural History) stop, which was followed by a short walk to our hotel.
Our hotel was in the style of a loft; it was one large room which was to house the five of us for our four-night stay in Berlin. One of the downsides to the loft was its lack of air conditioning. Berlin just isn't built for warm weather. There are, as we learned, about four or five really hot days in Berlin each summer, and that's it. Well, we were there for two of them. And given Berlin's especially cold winters, the city's buildings are built for warmth, not cooling. By the time we got to our hotel, we were drenched in sweat from walking around the city, where it was at least 90 degrees that day. With the absence of AC, it was probably hotter inside than outside, so we decided to explore the city a little bit on our first day there.
We took the U-bahn towards the center of the city and the famous Brandenburg gate. Then, we waited and took a tour bus which took us through a part of the Tiergarten (Berlin's central park) and the Reichstag, which houses Germany's parliamentary body.
The flights started to get to us all, so we went back to the hotel to crash for a little while before dinner. We went to a nearby Italian restaurant to get food a little bit later, and got our first beers of the trip. After dinner, we made our way back to the hotel to get some energy for tomorrow, our first full day in the German capital.

Beer of the day: Berliner Pilsener-a good start