Bicycle-Tour-2014-2: Oranienburg-to-Bratislava

Saturday, June 7th, Bratislava, Slovakia.  Edited, Monday 4th August 2014

Hot summer weather has finally arrived in Central Europe in the last two days, just about the time that I arrived at the River Danube/Donau/Dune, which is schoen indeed, but not blue by any means.

I realize (i.e. many of you have let me know) that my last missive was not readily readable: I apologize for that and will try to resend it as an e-mail, and will do the same with this, whose native format is Rich Text Document (.rtf) and so should be readable by all – let me know if you can’t read the version appended as an attachment.

After those gruelling first two days in Poland the trip has been delightful.  I spent two nights in Oranienburg and had a great time wandering around Berlin in the rain during the day.  It is a hugely monumental city – more so than Paris or London.- and largely dates from the nineteenth century, although much of that must have been rebuilt after the near-total destruction at the end of WWII.  A large island in the River Spree is entirely covered with massive museums and the catholic cathedral.  The Reichstag faces onto a vast empty space, part of which is occupied by the not-quite-monumental modern Chancellory (Mrs. Merkel’s office, as someone told me). Across the Spree is the multilevel Hauptbahnhof, and it is clear that this whole area has been designated for a “Monumental Ministry Park”.  There are more construction cranes dotting Berlin than there are even in Austin.  And the Brandenburg gate outshines Marble Arch and perhaps even the Arc de Triomphe, separating as it does the Whitehall-like Under den Linden from the Avenue in the massive park outside.  The National Opera is being rebuilt as it was before the war.  I visited the British Embassy (massive and modern), Humboldt U., Checkpoint Charlie (a tourist trap) and a long stretch of the Wall built over the cellars of Gestapo HQ.  This had a sombering exhibition of photographs and letters called “The Topography of Terror”.  As I was leaving I heard a man of about 40 at a sudden loss to answer his young female companion’s naive question: “But why is it still so important?” I took a photograph of them to illustrate the fact that it is all ancient history to youth.   On the way back to the station I spent some time in a collection of huge grey obelisks (about 2 acres of them) representing all the Jews who were killed by the Nazis.   A similar but just as poignant memorial – a reflecting pool in a quiet enclosure – paid homage to all the Roma and Sinti killed.

Picture of the modern entrance to Sachsenhausen
the modern entrance to Sachsenhausen

The next morning, before setting off, I wandered around the Sachsenhausen Konzentrationslager. The preserved part of this is a vast and absolutely flat equilateral triangle, replicating those that the Nazi’s victims had to wear on their clothes: not just yellow for Jews, but different colored ones for gypsies, Communists, mentally defective, gay, etc. This little detail I did not know.   The entire space is surrounded by a wall of low-grade concrete that appears identical with the Berlin Wall – I guess if you want to shut unarmed people up there is a certain most cost-effective height,width and quality of workmanship. Along the wall at intervals are the familiar machine-gun posts for the guards: the less-important of these look like nothing so much as the hunter’s hides that you see scattered in fields all over Germany and the Czech Republic (and Texas). Within the wall not a blade grows: outside it are tall and dark pines like those of East Texas.

Arbeit machts frei
the infamous gate

The infamous “Arbeit machts frei” gate, unnaturally small in relation to its symbolic power, is in the center of the triangle’s base: to reach it from the entrance you have to walk for half the triangle’s base length along the perimeter wall, death to your left, normal work life (it is in an industrial area of Oranienburg) to your right.  The museum personnel have taken the opportunity to use a large part of this distance for another poster display of history, people’s lives (pre- and post-, or not). This area was almost deserted when I first arrived, just after opening time. When I left there were several school groups gathered here, some being lectured in German, one in French, another in Spanish, and a Swedish group.

Inside the gate the barrack-huts were arranged in a series of semi-circles, one end of each hut pointing to the gate – in plan rather like the Compass Bank logo we see around Austin.

Picture of interior of Sachsenhausen
Interior of Sachsenhausen

Out of the dozens of huts, only four or five of the most distant are preserved, including the original wash-house.  Near the apex of the triangle, facing the gate, is a large monument commemorating, originally, only the communist dead.  To the left of the monument is a gate through the wall: this leads to the pit in which prisoners were shot, and to the area in which their ashes have been scattered: here there are plaques to the Polish, Luxembourgeois, and Dutch prisoners who were executed.

One leaves feeling over-awed by the evil of it, and saddened for the loss to the world that it represents.  It is so impersonal, so banal (the low-grade concrete) as so many have said, that it remains hard to put a face on it – to think of your jolly old pipe-smoking Uncle Fred being starved, beaten and shot along with all his friends and family. Perhaps this is the point of the displays of individuals and their stories that line the entrance road.

So, my visit to Berlin ended up heavy on guilt, but it didn’t stop there:   two nights later I camped in the municipal campground at Prettin, SE of Luther’s Wittenberg, on the Elbe.  The young people I talked to there demanded to know why I had chosen to go through, much less stop in, their hometown.  You see, it was the home of another famous concentration camp, a fact of which they were slightly proud (Prettin’s only claim to fame!) but much more embarassed.  Five days later I passed Teresin (Theresienstadt), where all the Jews of Prague and Vienna were gathered before being sent to the extermination camps.  Two days after that I spent the night in Polna, a small town in southern Bohemia.  Here there is a ghetto preserved as a world heritage site:  it is very pretty, but there are no

Ghetto at Polna
Ghetto at Polna
The Synagogue at Polna, Czech Republic
The Synagogue at Polna, Czech Republic

Jews there – just urban homesteaders fixing up the houses.  The Restaurant across the road, where I ate and stayed, is run by two vivacious young people. They even have painted on two outside walls the name in Yiddish, but in the corridor outside my room there hung two lurid newspaper reports from 1899, each recounting the supposed ritual murder of a young girl by Jews, in order to use her blood in their ceremonies. This is an incident of which I was already aware (though not that it had occurred in Polna – perhaps it was reported from more than one place), and is totally fictitious. The murder (or murders) suspiciously occurred four years before the publication

The Synagogue at Polna, Czech Republic
The Synagogue at Polna, Czech Republic

of the infamous “Protocols of the Elders of Zion”, a dreadfully and totally fictitious tract circulated by the tsar’s secret service in order to whip up enthusiasm for Pogroms in Russia. It became widely distributed across Europe, and had not a little to do with what happened in the 1930s.  When I asked the owner about it she said that it was just “some old history that happened here”.  Frightening because it means that the whole Hitler thing is now so long ago that it is not of interest to the young people of Europe;  also frightening because the campaign leading to extermination of the Jews now has no emotional content for the young – too long ago, and what is a Jew anyway?  Hey, who really now cares that we in America exterminated the Indians like cattle at about the same time as the pogroms were happening in Russia?

Picruite of Bicycle at Trebic, Czech Republic
The ghetto at Trebic, Czech republic

Later on that same day I visited another World-Heritage ghetto at Trebic. Larger, less fixed up, nearly empty except for a few rather dark-skinned kids playing in the street near the entrance, Roma?  When I visited the Synagogue, which has been fixed up as a beautiful museum, the young people at the desk insisted that I bring my bike inside the building, because”it is a high-crime area”.  Well, there was no-one around except for a couple of elderly ladies and another tourist. Those dark-skinned kids three blocks away?  Perhaps another ethnic demonisation is on its way.  Again, “Any Jews living here today?”  “No, a couple came back after the war and tried to make a go of it, but they couldn’t get a community going, and eventually left.”  Here, I definitely had the feeling that “the mute stones spoke” to me.

I’ve spent my whole post on this topic because it is unavoidable through eastern Germany and Czechia, and because it is fading away: almost everywhere, from France to Iran, there are Holocaust deniers in or circling around the seats of power.  I would like to drag them along the route  I have traveled so far and rub their noses in it, as my mother used to say.  But also because I had a strange dream during a night of aching muscles and elusive sleep.  It occurred to me that, in a strange way, the Jewish Holocaust was a case of cultural patricide.  In some convoluted way perhaps the Germans, the most vigorous of the so-called “Christian” European nations, were acknowledging that their entire culture was fathered by Judaism and the Jews (one could in that case say that it was mothered by Classical Greece).  And now they felt that the old man (remember all the pictures of Shylock you have ever seen) still had too much power over their soul (through the Bible), controlled too much of the family’s wealth, and followed these weird old customs that had become incomprehensible to the wider culture.  The only way to free oneself from this old restrictive father was to kill him, take the money, and run.  Many an aspiring monarch or dictator has done the same thing to his father or brothers, as was abundantly clear in Turkey.   The Romans perhaps did it to the Etruscans, in a way.  Don’t take these thoughts too seriously, they’re just the fevered thoughts of an exhausted and sleepless mind.

I promise the next instalment will be all about the happy things in life on the road.





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